Jephthah's Horrific Vow • Judges 12:1-13:2
Israel is used in many ways as a picture of the believer's soul, so by looking at what happens to Israel in terms of their trends toward spirituality as well as their trends towards apostasy we discover principles that illuminate what takes place in our own individual lives. What we see coming to the forefront in the twelfth chapter of Judges is what results from sin nature control in the life of Israel. The same thing happens when the sin nature controls the life of the individual. Even though there may be a time of a measure of happiness, stability, and success, eventually it will collapse. Sin nature control is going to result eventually in personal, cultural, and national fragmentation. It always ends up in destruction.
Whenever you merge paganism with the truth it always destroys the truth. What happens is that there is a façade of Christianity, the nomenclature of being Christian, but at the core of the thinking and application there is no biblical understanding of truth, no operation of truth, no evidence of real biblical Christianity. What happens in those instances is religion in the guise of Christianity. What needs to be emphasized is that no matter how good, noble, idealistic or beneficial the end results might be, no matter how wonderful some procedure may appear, if if flows from the sin nature and human good it guarantees eventual failure, fragmentation and destruction. This is what we see written across the history of Israel during the time of the judges. They kept rejecting the truth of God as revealed in the Mosaic law and replaced it with the religion of the nations that surrounded them. They weren't rejecting religion, they were rejecting God.
Jepthah's soul was fragmented because he had some truth but he had a lot of paganism, there was no sense of spiritual maturity there, and at the pinnacle of his success when he trusted God and had victory over the Ammonites at the same time he then turned around and came back to his home and he made this terrible vow because that is what he was taught. That was due to the elements of pagan thought that had come into his soul. People today are the same way. So often we find people who have grown up in churches but if we sit and talk to them about what they really believe Christianity teaches it is a combination of truth and error. They have picked up "cultural Christianity," a lot of mythology about what Christianity teaches, what the Bible teaches, but isn't biblical. It ends up in this merger of human viewpoint and divine viewpoint, and ultimately human viewpoint is going to eat up and destroy the divine viewpoint and result in fragmentation.
We also see fragmentation of marriage. The more pagan the nation becomes the more marriage is fragmented. Judges started off with the ideal marriage of Othniel and Achsah at the beginning of Judges, and then by the time we get to Gideon we see that Gideon is multiplying wives. He is committing polygamy so that he can demonstrate his own power and position, acting like a despotic oriental king of the time. We see prostitution. Jephthah's father Gilead goes to a prostitute and the result is the birth of Jephthah. We see Gideon's concubine, and the result of that is Abimelech. And the consequences of the liaisons with concubines and prostitutes and the polygamy further deteriorates the whole culture of Israel.
We see the fragmentation of the third divine institution, the family. There is abuse and destruction. By the time we get to Gideon we see that Abimelech, his son, reject his family obligation and he convinces the leaders of Shechem to give him enough money to hire killers so that they can go out and assassinate his seventy brothers. When we come to Jephthah we see that he is more concerned with his own personal power and prestige and is willing to sacrifice his daughter in order accumulate and accrue power to himself, and so he commits one of the most grievous forms of destruction and abuse by sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering.
Furthermore, we see the fragmentation of the nation, and that is what happens in Judges chapter twelve. We see how the nation is divided now. So let's look at chapter twelve and see what happens in terms of the breakup of the nation into a civil war.
Judges 12:1, "And the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together, and went northward, and said unto Jephthah, Wherefore did you pass over to fight against the children of Ammon, and did not call us to go with you? we will burn your house upon you with fire." This is after Jephthah's victory over the Ammonites. Then the Ephraimites come to Jephthah, and the last time we saw the Ephraimites they were doing the same kind of thing towards Gideon. Gideon had victory over the Midianites, and after the victory the Ephraimites came and said, "Why didn't you call us to battle?" Notice that when Gideon handled that he used diplomacy. He was not as self-absorbed apparently as Jephthah was. But when it comes to the Ephraimites he becomes hardened and hostile and it hardens them in their position. In contrast, Gideon was able to say, "Well, your strength would have been better than my strength," and he appeals to their ego and he is able to defuse the situation. But Jephthah doesn't have that ability. Arrogance always results in fragmentation and disharmony.
There is no indication that Jephthah ever put out a call for troops among the general population of the tribes on the other side of the Jordan. Remember, he is on the eastern side of the Jordan with the Trans-Jordan tribes. The Ammonites now threaten him and said, "We will burn your house upon you with fire." Well there is not much left of his house. There is an irony here, he has already sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering and now they are threatening to burn his house down with fire, but there is nothing left, his only child is gone, there is no dynasty; there is no house.
Judges 12:2, "And Jephthah said to them, I and my people were at great struggle with the children of Ammon; and when I called you, you delivered me not out of their hands." He is going to lie. He is going to say he called them when in fact he did not—at least there is no record of it. Verse 3, "And when I saw that you delivered me not, I put my life in my hands, and passed over against the children of Ammon, and the LORD delivered them into my hand: wherefore then are you come up unto me this day, to fight against me?" This is one of the few mentions of the name of the Lord. We don't know if this is just lip service or whether he is definitely trusting God. But he is in the midst of carnality. He is lying, being deceptive, and he is creating a reaction among the Ephraimites. He has created a hostile situation and he is reacting to their reaction. This is always the dynamics of personal fights and disruptions.
Judges 12:4, "Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim: and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim, because they said, You Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites." Rather than negotiating the situation and defusing it he just got angry with them and called his troops together and attacked. "You Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites" is a racial insult. The Ephraimites are basically saying, You are just the scum from Ephraim, you are not really as worthy as we are, we are superior to you. So they are belittling the Gileadites.
Judges 12:5, "And the Gileadites siezed the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said to him, Are you an Ephraimite? If he said, No." Ephraim had crossed over from west to east, and now the Gileadites sent a major contingent to block the force, to cut off the retreat of the Ephraimite army. If they said No to the question, then the Gileadites would give them a little test. The Ephraimites had a bit of a speech impediment or it was standard of their dialect that they did not pronounce the sh sound.
Judges 12:6, "Then said they to him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand." This just about decimates Ephraim and it shows the hostility, the fragmentation. This is just tribe against tribe, the eastern tribes against the western tribes, the Gileadites against the Ephraimites. So now this nation, the sons of Jacob who are called out in unity to be a testimony to God and His grace in the world, and to be a bastion of peace and stability, because of the fact that they have assimilated the foreign gods and are thinking like the world instead of believers on the basis of doctrine, has become divided. The result is division, civil war, one fighting against another.
Then the concluding comment in verse 7, "And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead."
Looking back over the overall structure of Judges, we started off saying there is a cycle. A cycle of disobedience when Israel goes after the other gods and they are enslaved to the other gods, the Scripture says, and they begin to lose their freedom, their capacity for freedom which is always based on doctrine. The issue is always doctrine and spiritual relationship with God based on the truth of His revelation, it is never the secondary causes which have to do with military factors, industrial-technological factors, leadership factors, economic factors. All of those are simply manifestations of the basic problem of spiritual rebellion. So the cycle would begin with disobedience and God would discipline them with the invasion of a foreign nation who would oppress them for any number of years. Then the people would get tired of it and would cry out to the Lord. They would admit their sin of idolatry and then God would deliver them. With the first judges God always delivered them and there was always the sentence, "And God delivered them and the land was undisturbed." That is a crucial statement—the land was undisturbed. Every time the land is mentioned it ought to take us right back to the Deuteronomic promises that God gave Moses, that they would inhabit the land. That goes back to the Abrahamic covenant. God gave the land to the people. It says that God gave the land rest, for twenty years, for thirty years, and for forty years. And at the end of the Jephthah cycle what do we not read? Even at the end of the Gideon cycle we read that God gave the land rest for forty years, and in the midst of that there is civil war and turmoil with Abimelech. God gave the land rest but there is no rest for the land at this particular time. It is a partial deliverance. We start to see the breakdown now. It takes years. We have seen the judgeship of Othniel, Ahud, Deborah and Gideon. It the end of each God gave the land rest.
Now we come to the last two: Jephthah dealing with the Ammonites and their pressure from the east, and Samson dealing with the Philistines in the south. And when the book concludes they are still under the oppression of the Philistines. There is no deliverance under Samson. In fact Samson dies as a prisoner of the Philistines. So the book of Judges overall is an extremely pessimistic book. That is why it must always be taught in conjunction with Ruth, and ultimately in conjunction with 1 Samuel because in 1 Samuel we see the deliverer come on the scene. A the same time that these events are going on with Jephthah and Samson we have to understand that God is in the process of providing the deliverance. That emphasizes the grace of God in this whole procedure, that even though Israel is turning its back on God, God has not turned His back on Israel. God continues to be faithful. Samuel is the picture of the deliverer, and in some sense he is the foreshadow of John the Baptist because he will anoint the king. The anointing is a picture of the coming one, the Messiah. Starting with the beginning of 1 Samuel the nation is at the bottom, it is fragmented and in the condition it is in in this latter part of Judges, 11-14, and God in His grace provides Samuel. At the beginning of Samuel the nation is spiritually barren, it is divided and in civil war. But at the end of 2 Samuel the nation is under the Davidic kingship, God has promised a greater son to David in the Messiah, the Davidic kingdom is a picture of the eventual messianic kingdom, and what we see is a picture of the grace of God, the deliverance of a spiritually bankrupt nation at the beginning of that period—the solution is grace—and the solution is going to be the divine deliverance. And it is a picture of the gospel, the divine deliverance under the Davidic Messiah, because at the beginning of Samuel at their worst is the most fragmented part in their history, and at the end of Samuel is the expansion of the Davidic kingdom and the great glories that came with that.
Those are the major figures that are on the scene at this time. Starting in Judges 11:24 two oppressions begin, one from the east and one from the west. The Ammonite oppression is basically put down by 1106. We don't hear anything more about the Ammonites for some time. The Philistine oppression continues. Samson is ineffective and it is not until the battle of Mizpeh in 1084 BC under Saul that the Philistines are eventually defeated and Israel begins to push back the Philistines in the process.
Conclusions from what we learn about Jephthah
Jephthah begins with many strikes against him. He began from a human perspective with many problems, many flaws. He was the bastard son of a prostitute, he had no position in society, he was rejected by his family. He fled from them and took up a lifestyle in the wilderness where he associated with outlaws and the dregs of society, and operated outside of the law. So in terms of human viewpoint status he has none, yet God used him. So there is the picture of grace. Yet this is not a man that is fully devoted to God or who understands the Scripture. Those are the positive things about Jephthah. He trusts God in the midst of the battle to give him victory. But he is so caught up with his failures that eventually his arrogance brings failure and destruction and proves his own undoing. He held to a mixed form if religion: some truth but a lot of error that he incorporated from the paganism around him. The result is that he destroys everything he set out to gain.
When you operate on human viewpoint, when you do not sell yourself completely to the Word of God and to doctrine as your priority, eventually your arrogance will catch up with you and destroy you.
Jephthah is a picture of the theme of the book: "Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." He is a manipulator, trying to manipulate God with the seriousness of his vow. He is willing to sacrifice anything for his own ambition, for his own power, for his own prestige and career. He illustrates that self-absorption and arrogance are the core of pagan thought and it ultimately results in our self-destruction. Though there is room in paganism for altruism, for good deeds, for charity, ultimately it is human good and it will produce sin and evil and lead to tragedy. One commentator on Judges writes: "This arrogant man proves himself the consummate manipulator who opportunistically seizes power over his tribesmen, bargains with God, victimizes his daughter, and brutalizes fellow Israelites." Paganism always results in the brutalization of mankind.
Jepthah is the son of a prostitute and embodies all that is wrong in spiritually unfaithful Israel. For Israel man does not exist to serve God, but God exists to serve man. Sacrifice for Jepthah is no an expression of sacrifice and devotion to God but is a means to manipulate God. The result is failure on his part, the loss of everything he hoped to gain, and once again it symbolizes how barren the nation has become spiritually.
Furthermore, when we look at the Ephraimite civil war ot portrays one problem with arrogant self-absorption, and that is that people become hypersensitive. When you are focused on yourself then all of a sudden you become very sensitive to anything which is a real or perceived slight or insult. The reaction is that you then seek to build yourself up and to promote yourself and defend yourself.
Finally, in his extremes and abuse Jephthah demonstrates the problem with non-biblical patriarchal authority. What happens with the feminist vrowd today when they come and look at Jephthah and the period of the judges, they say that it just demonstrates the problem with patriarchy. No it doesn't. Patriarchy is the position that the man is the head of the home, the man is the head of the state, a man is the head of the church—the pastor is to be a man, a male, and not a woman. The Bible does not ever authorize women to be pastors or to teach or have authority over men. That is a patriarchal system. But it is a patriarchal system based on the truth, based on the concept of love. Jesus summarized the law as Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. When that energizes the biblical concept of patriarchy it is a vastly different system than when you have the pagan version of patriarchy. The pagan version of patriarchy is as much a failure as any version of matriarchy, because any and all versions of matriarchy are false and they always end up as failures. No society in the history of man that is based on matriarchy has ever been successful or has ever produced anything of significance or value. What we see in Judges is what happens when you take authority and divorce it from the absolute authority of God. The result is always going to be tyranny, and tyranny in every dimension of life. While happens with Jephthah is his male power becomes exercised for his own personal ends. He exploits everyone, male and female, just to further his own agenda. That always happens when people are divorced from God and divorced from grace and divorced from humility.
In conclusion, we see that God is in the background of this. He is not mentioned, but He is the one who delivers them. We see His grace working despite Israel's apostasy and their carnality. The point we learn from that is that we are still alive, so God still has a plan for our lives. It doesn't matter how much we fail or how heinous our crimes are, how horrible our sins are, how many people we have offended, stepped on, or destroyed in the process, we are still alive and God still has a plan for our life. No matter how badly we self-destruct in life there is a way to recovery It starts with confession of sin.