By Dr. Mark Scott
In the book of Judges, the judges get progressively worse as we go along. We’ve gone from Deborah and Barak (good) to Gideon (all right) to Jephthah (not stunning) and next week to Samson (terrible). The enemies of Israel in our lessons also get progressively worse, from the Canaanites to the Midianites to the Ammonites.
Gideon started out fairly good but ended up pretty arrogant (his son’s name means, “My father is king”). Jephthah started out in less than desirable circumstances (his mother was a prostitute) and ended up quite compromised. Jephthah became the ninth judge of Israel after the short reigns of Tola and Jair (Judges 10:1-5). What we associate with Jephthah is his famous vow, and it raises issues of vows and integrity in our speech.
Vow for Leadership
Desperate times called for desperate measures. The Ammonites were fighting against Israel. The people of God once again faced the reality of their sins (10:6-16). They repented to God, but they were faced with a leadership vacuum. The Ammonites were raiding to the south in the land of Gilead. So the elders of Gilead decided that they needed a strong leader.
Jephthah lived north in the land of Tob. He had been exiled by his brothers because his mother was a prostitute (11:1). But he assembled a strong fighting force of “scoundrels” (v. 3). As a result he became well-known. The elders were desperate enough to offer their invitation. They wanted to throw off the Ammonite oppression so they offered Jephthah the job as commander (leader, prince, captain).
Jephthah teased out their request. His basic response was, “How did I, all of the sudden, become so valuable to you?” He asked, Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble? (in a tight place). The elders swallowed their pride and indicated that things had changed. They not only offered him the opportunity to be commander, they offered him to be head (the root of this word means to shake, and came to mean the top of the order, upper part, or beginning).
Jephthah questioned whether they were serious. The elders essentially vowed that Jephthah would not only be their commander but also their head. They sealed their words with the oath, The Lord is our witness. That would be like us swearing on a stack of Bibles or swearing to tell the whole truth so help us God. They promised to do what he commanded and evidently kept their word. Jephthah was made head and commander by not just the elders but also the people. But then, to underline the whole situation, he repeated their vows to the Lord at a place called Mizpah. This might not be a magic formula, but it did put the elders and the people on notice that words matter to God.
Vow for Victory
To Jephthah’s credit he attempted to pursue peace at first. He sent messengers to try to find out what the Ammonites’ beef was with Israel. Some grudges are held for a long time. The king of the Ammonites dredged up old untrue stories about when Israel came out of Egypt. Even though Jephthah tried to set the record straight, the king would have none of it (Judges 11:12-28).
War was inevitable. Jephthah was empowered by the Holy Spirit and proceeded to take the battle to the enemy. The mention of the Holy Spirit could indicate that God was leading Jephthah into battle. Typical to other Old Testament references to the Holy Spirit, he comes and goes as needed. The Old Testament says very little about an ongoing indwelling presence.
Now it was time for Jephthah’s famous vow. To accomplish the Lord’s victory he vowed (pledged or promised to give a votive offering), Whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return . . . I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering. Was this rash, risky, or reckless? Scholars wonder what Jephthah was really promising. But the war was won. Tragically the first thing that came out of his house upon his return was his daughter (Judges 11:35). Later we read that he “did to her as he had vowed” (v. 39).
Many questions remain about this famous judge. But at its base (what Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart call the “first level” in examining Old Testament narratives—How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth), the story at least addresses the need for integrity in our speech (Matthew 12:36, 37).
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.