NOTES on Hebrews 11:32-34 D (click here for study)



The fourth judge listed in Hebrews 11:32 is Jephthah. His story is tragic. A social outcast, the men of Gilead begged him to help them overcome the crushing oppression of the Ammonites. Jephthah responded, and God's Spirit came on him, enabling him to devastate the enemy. He made a vow, however, that cost him his daughter. He also established a trap at the fords of the Jordan for the Ephraimites with whom the Gileadites had an ongoing grudge. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites died as a result of Jephthah's tyranny over the Jordan crossings.

Because of Israel's repeated apostasy, God allowed the Ammonites to crush Israel. "For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead, the land of the Amorites. The Ammonites also crossed the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin and the house of Ephraim; and Israel was in great distress." (Judges 10:8-9)

At last Israel got rid of its foreign gods and returned to worshiping God, and God "could bear Israel's misery no longer." (Judges 10:16)

The Ammonites gathered in Gilead, and the Israelites wanted to launch an attack on them, but Israel had no warrior with the courage to lead them against the enemy. They finally issued a bribe, "Whoever will launch the attack against the Ammonites will be the head of all those living in Gilead." (Judges 10:18)


Meet Jephthah

Gilead was the grandson of Manasseh (see Numbers 26:29). His name identified one of the clans in the tribe of Manesseh. Gilead produced a son, Jepththah, from a relationship with a prostitute. Jephthah grew up with his half brothers who were the sons of Gilead's wife, and when they became adults, the sons of Gilead's wife drove Jephthah away saying, "You are not going to get any inheritance in our family because you are the son of another woman." (Judges 11:2)

Jephthah, who felt he had illegally been disinherited, fled to the land of Tob whose men, later in Israel's history, allied themselves with the Ammonites against David. Jephthah, however, had a talent that none of the other men of Israel had: he was a mighty warrior. While he was exiled in Tob, a group of adventurers allied themselves with him and raided settlements and caravans. (see New Bible Dictionary published by Inter Varsity Press)

When the Ammonite oppression became intolerable, the men of Gilead went looking for Jephthah, begging him to come back and lead an attack on the Ammonites.

"Didn't you hate me and drive me from my father's house? Why do you come to me now, when you're in trouble?" Jephthah shot back at them. (Judges 11:7)

The Gileadites, however, were desperate. "Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead." (Judges 11:8)

Jephthah doubted their sincerity, but the elders swore their intentions before the Lord, and the people of Gilead ratified the agreement at Mizpah. Jephthah's fortune had reversed.


Jephthah Takes Charge

As Gilead's new commander, Jephthah first attempted diplomacy with the Ammonite king using the diplomatic protocol of the day. The king claimed the Israelites had taken his land, and he wanted it back. Jephthah pointed out that Israel did not take Ammonite land when they entered Canaan. He recounted that Israel had bypassed Edom, Moab, and Ammon and had finally taken the land from the Amorites, not the Ammonites.

He further emphasized that God had given the land to Israel. This argument was important because all nations of that time period believed that their gods won territory for them. He completed his argument by pointing out that Israel had inhabited the land for three hundred years and asked why the Ammonites were trying to capture it now.

The Ammonite king ignored Jephthah's message. "Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthahand he advanced against the Ammonites." (Judges 11:29)

Here enters the story's strangest element. Jephthah, facing battle, made a vow to the Lord: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." (Judges 11:30-31)


The Sacrifice

Such vows were common among ancient peoples. Jephthah's promise clearly indicated that he consciously intended to offer a human sacrifice. The proper interpretation of verse 31, according to the New Bible Dictionary, is, "Then whoever comes forth shall be the Lord's, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering." According to the customs of the day, an animal sacrifice would have been considered inadequate for a leader of the people. Jephthah probably had in mind the offering of a slave.

After a miraculous victory in which the Lord gave the Ammonites into Jephthah's hands and he devastated 20 of their cities, he returned home. The news of his victory went before him, and as he approached his home, his only child-a daughter-came dancing out of the house to meet him.

Grief-stricken, Jephthah tore his clothes and wept. He explained to his daughter about the vow he had made. She responded, "My father, you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry." (Judges 11:36-37)

Jephthah granted her request. "After two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin." (Judges 11:39)

The Hebrew word 'ola which described the offering Jephthah promised always meant "burnt". There is no suggestion that the offering could have been anything else. The idea that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter on an altar but rather dedicated her to the Lord to serve him as a virgin is nowhere implied in the text. This idea came centuries later from a Rabbi Kimchi.

Even though he had been raised as an Israelite and served God as Gilead's deliverer by the power of God's Spirit, Jephthah was still tainted with the paganism that had infected Israel. God's people had not followed his law for decades, and God's requirements were muddled in the minds of the people with the pagan rituals they had been practicing. Further, Jephthah had been sent from the Israelite camp and had been living with pagan vagabonds. He probably did not clearly understand that God abhorred human sacrifice. In the nations around Israel, human sacrifice was common, and a leader was expected to offer sacrifices of greater worth than were common people. As the newly appointed judge of his people, Jephthah probably sincerely but wrongly believed that he was doing something God would value.

God did not remove all wrong ideas and theology from Jephthah before he blessed him to deliver Israel. Even with his pagan understanding of homage to God, Jephthah still was the only man in Gilead who had the courage and the faith to believe that God could give the Ammonites into his hand. Even though God never demanded human sacrifice, he did not stop Jephthah from offering his daughter to him.

God does not always stop his people from acting on their good intentions even when they are misguided. Even though God blesses those who follow him in faith and redeems them from their sins when they repent, he still allows them to live out the consequences of their actions born of the sin in them.


Oaths: To Take or Not To Take?

During Old Testament times, oaths were a means of making a promise legally binding. Moses instructed the Israelites to take their oaths in God's name. "Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is your praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes." (Deuteronomy 10:20-21)

By calling on the ultimate power in the universe, God, the Israelites were accountable to Him for their oaths. In the days of old Israel, oaths took the place of jurisprudence. It was oaths taken in the name of God-oaths which held the participants accountable to God-which made decisions binding when people met with the elders at the city gates for advice and mediation.

In the New Covenant, however, there is a new reality. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.' But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." (Matthew 5:33-37)

James echoes this instruction when he says, "Above all, my brothers, do not swear-not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Let your 'Yes' by yes, and your 'No,' no, or you will be condemned." (James 5:12)

The change in reality that supercedes oaths is that in the New Covenant, the God of the universe indwells believers by means of the Holy Spirit. The word of a Christ-follower automatically implies accountability to God. To swear by an object or even by God would be to discount the reality that all we are is already God's, even our word.

"We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding," says the apostle John, "so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true-even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life." (1 John 5:20)

Paul explains this new covenant reality this way, "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man's judgment: 'For who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him.' But we have the mind of Christ." (1 Corinthians 2:14-16)

When we are in Christ, our word is true, because we are the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Our simple "Yes" and "No" are products of the Living God in us, and we dishonor his presence when we swear by things or by God to prove our honesty.


Jephthah and Ephraim

When Jephthah had mustered the troops to attack the Ammonites, the men of Ephraim had not responded. The Ammonites were actively oppressing the houses of Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim as well as Gilead in Manasseh, and it was expected that everyone would respond to the resistance movement. When the battle was over and Jephthah, by the power of God, had led Israel to victory, the Ephraimites sent a delegation to confront Jephthah.

"Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We're going to burn down your house over your head," they threatened. (Judges 12:1)

Jephthah replied, "I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn't save me out of their hands. When I saw that you wouldn't help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?" (Judges 12:2-3)

The Ephraimites, apparently, were jealous of Gilead's success under Jephthah's leadership. Ephraim and Manasseh, the tribe to which the Gileadites belonged, were related in a special way; Ephraim and Manasseh had been Joseph's two sons. When Jacob blessed his twelve sons, he gave Joseph the birthright by granting each of his sons an inheritance instead of granting an inheritance only to Joseph. When the nation of Israel divided into tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh were considered half-tribes until the tribe of Dan apostatized and was cut off form Israel's inheritance.

When the Ephraimites accused Jephthah of leaving them out, Jephthah called the men of Gilead, and they attacked the men of Ephraim. "The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, 'You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.' " (Judges 12:4)

Jephthah and his Gileadites were not content merely to win the war. They decided to make the Ephraimites really pay.

Ephraim was across the Jordan River from Manasseh, and as part of the battle, the Gileadites captured all the areas of the Jordan where Ephraim could ford the river. Following the battle, whenever an Ephraimite came to the Jordan and asked permission to cross, the Gileadite at the ford would ask, " 'Are you an Ephraimite?' If he replied , 'No,' they said, 'All right, say "Shibboleth." ' If he said, 'Sibboleth, because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time." (Judges 12:5-6)

The great irony of Jephthah's six years as judge in Israel was that after crushing the Ammonite oppression, he perpetrated the slaughter of his own kin.


Jephthah and Deborah/Barak

The book of Judges is structured so the story of Gideon is the center of the book. Gideon was a Moses figure; he was called to lead his people but he demurred, saying he was too weak and insignificant. God told him, "I will be with you," just as he told Moses. Like Moses, Gideon also asked for multiple signs, which God gave.

The story of Gideon is bracketed by the stories of Jephthah and of Deborah/Barak. In these two stories, the judges, Jephthah and Deborah, both bore social stigmas. Deborah was a woman, mere property in the ancient world. Leadership and authority always resided in the hands of men-except in extreme instances such as this period of time in Israel's history. No men in Israel had the moral courage to take charge, to lead the people back to God, or to lead the people against the enemy. God used a woman to lead Israel even though it defied social custom. God even used this woman to call Barak the "thunderbolt" to assume leadership of the army and to accept the power of God's Spirit to lead Israel to victory against the Canaanites.

Jephthah's stigma was no less damaging; he was the illegitimate son of Gilead and a prostitute. He had been banished by his half brothers who hoped to be forever rid of his competition for part of their father's inheritance to them. Jephthah, however, had by God's design a skill and the moral courage which no full-blooded Israelite man had at that time. He was a mighty warrior, and he was not afraid to challenge the oppressing Ammonites. When his Gileadite kinsmen swallowed their pride and asked him to return and lead an attack, even promising that he would rule over them if he won the battle, Jephthah said yes.

God honored Jephthah's willingness to defy the enemy of God's people. He put his Spirit upon Jephthah and through him won a decisive victory over the Ammonites. God redeemed Jephthah's curse of illegitimacy and banishment, even using his experience as the leader of a militia gang to bring safety to Israel.

Because Jephthah trusted God for his victory, God honored him. God didn't insist that Jephthah have his theology or his motives in order before he used him. What mattered was that Jephthah trusted God. As long as his heart was open and he acknowledged God as the source of victory, God could work through him and count him a man of faith.

God's sovereign power does not depend upon our willingness or righteousness. When God chooses to act, he accomplishes his will no matter who or what stands in his way. When God chose to deliver his weak, spiritually compromised people from their enemies over and over again, he didn't wait to find men who remained loyal to him. He chose men and women who were flawed and weak and socially compromised, and God used his Spirit to deliver the enemies into these flawed people's hands.

God's choice of weak, marginalized people changed their lives. When God called these people and they said "yes", they were never the same again. They discovered the power and love of God, and they became people of faith where before they had been people of weakness.


God's Call

God is calling you just as he called Jephthah. He's asking you to say "yes" to him, to serve him wherever or however he asks you to serve. He's not waiting for you to get your life in order, your relationships straightened out, or your theology completely correct. He's calling you just as you are, with brokenness and shame and secrets and the consequences of sin marking your life. He's asking you to follow him, to make him the center of your attention and the life of your heart. He's asking you to let him take all your secrets and unresolved situations so he can heal them. He's asking you to open your heart to his power and his love and his truth. He's asking you to wake up to reality instead of living in the dream where you've hidden from regret and anger and pain and shame.

God is merely waiting for you to say "yes" to him. He wants to make you a person of faith and courage and strength and authority. He wants to strengthen your heart and become your reason for living. He wants to fill your life with love; he wants to redeem your past as well as your present. He wants to glorify himself through you.

Say "Yes" to God right now. Ask him to replace your fear and regret and anxiety and passivity with the power of His Spirit. Accept Jesus' death for you, and allow him to cleanse you with his healing righteousness. Open your heart to your Father and let him transform your life with his love. Let your hard, frightened heart melt as he assures you that he loves you, and you are saved.

Praise God for being your Father, for loving you with unending, infinite tenderness and strength. Praise Jesus for being your Savior, God and Man, who sought you and brought you into his family. Praise the Holy Spirit for replacing the darkness in your heart with light, for revealing to you the reality of Jesus and eternity.

Praise Him for giving you new life!

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