A. THE BOOK OF JUDGES
a). A Modern Day Judge
If I were to ask you what a judge did, you might tell me that a judge was someone who presided over some sort of court proceedings—hopefully with the intention of conducting a trial in an impartial way. You might tell me that a judge hears witnesses, and looks at the evidence presented. A judge then assesses the creditability and the arguments of the cases, and then issues a ruling based on their interpretation of the law. And that’s one definition.
Another might be someone on a television programme, whose role it is to encourage participants in the way that they can improve their act, as well as to decide who is the most talented in a particular competition.
b). An Israelite Judge
Today, however, I would like to look at a third definition—the one that comes from the pages of the Old Testament. Because to be considered a “Judge” in Old Testament terms, a person needed to meet certain criteria.
And the first is that the Judges were primarily “Saviours” or “Deliverers” of their people from their enemies. In other words, military prowess was identified as an important part of their lives. As a consequence, it was expected that if someone was a “Saviour”, he or she would lead the people in battle against their enemies.
Secondly, to be a “Judge” administering justice was very important. Indeed a “Judge” would be required to hear the people’s legal complaints, and make the appropriate decisions. (And genuine “Judges” or “Saviours” would have one or both of the skills to some degree.)
And thirdly, to be a “Judge” they would need to be endowed with some sort of peculiar quality by God. And different people would have different gifts.
Now those are the three basic criteria. And in the Book of Judges we have a number of people who meet all three of those criteria. Of course not all “Judges” are in the Book of Judges—Eli and Samuel being two examples. And not every leader in the Book of Judges is a genuine “Judge” either. To be a genuine “Judge”, a person needs to meet all three criteria—military prowess, administrative skills, and being endowed with a special gift by God.
So with that in mind I’d like to introduce you to someone that you may have never heard mentioned in church before.
c). Introducing Jephthah
Because some of the most commonly known “Judges” or “Saviours” in the Book of Judges are Deborah, Gideon and Samson. But there are many lesser known “Judges” as well. So who here has ever heard of Jephthah before?
Now the story of Jephthah is a story of prejudice, a story of mistrust, a story of rash vows, and a story of jealousy or pride. Indeed all the ingredients which are evident in our society today. As a consequence the story, which takes up a little over two chapters of the Book of Judges, has much to teach us.
B. THE STORY OF JEPHTHAH
1. A Story of Prejudice
The story begins (you could say, as usual) with the Israelites doing what they did best—straying from God. Indeed throughout the book of Judges we come up with the same cycle: The Israelites turn away from God, God punishes them, they plead to God for help, and God provides them with a “Saviour” or “Judge.”
The problem with Jephthah—the man chosen by God to lead them—was that he didn’t fit in. His father, Gilead, had had many sons, but Jephthah was not the son of his wife. Rather he was the son of a prostitute. As a consequence his half-brothers wanted nothing to do with him. Indeed they disinherited him from his father’s property and drove him away from the family home (11:2). Furthermore, the town elders, no doubt with the influence of his brothers, were complicit in rejecting and expelling him too (11:7).
Now that, I think, is a very sad start to the story. Yes, the people had rejected God, but in this instance they had rejected Jephthah too. But why? Simply on the grounds that they didn’t like the fact that he was the son of a prostitute.
Now how often are our eyes coloured by our prejudices? How often do we treat people based on the fact that they are different, that they come from different backgrounds, or that they don’t conform to our particular standards?
So the story of Jephthah is quite a challenge to us. But so too is the realisation, that in that story God challenges us to see things through his eyes. Indeed this isn’t the only place in the bible he challenges us to do that.
So in this instance we see Jephthah (the son of a prostitute) as God’s choice of Judge. But, then later in the bible we can see a shepherd boy, the youngest son of an insignificant family, as God’s choice of king of Israel (in other words David). And, later still, we can see a young girl, probably no more than 12 or 13 years old, a nobody from Nazareth, as God’s choice to give birth to the Saviour of the world.
The story of Jephthah then, from the very start, is yet another story of the stupidity of prejudice, and the need for us to look at the world through God’s eyes. God often sees things very differently to us. And he certainly doesn’t always pick the people that we would, if we were left to choose on our own.
2. A Story of Mistrust
Now having been rejected, Jephthah ran off looking for somewhere to go. And it may say something about how others treated him too, because he ended up ninety-five kilometres south of Damascus, in the land of Tob. And there he gathered a band of undesirables around him—and went on raiding parties.
Now remember I said at the outset that one of the features of being a “Judge” or “Saviour” was military prowess. Well, he surely demonstrated that in the band to which he belonged. So when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the Israelites were so desperate for help, and for the need of a “Saviour”, that they sought his help. Indeed the elders of Gilead not only went to him in person, but promised to make him their leader if he was successful.
Now if you’re anything like me, and I’d been treated the way that Jephthah had, I wouldn’t have trusted the elders to keep their word. It’s not surprising then, that neither did he. He challenged them to the sincerity of their offer. And only after the elders had sworn the most formal of vows, did Jephthah go with them to the Tabernacle at Mizpah, to be commissioned in God’s presence.
Prejudice followed by mistrust—now there’s a destructive combination. One naturally follows another. Treat one person wrongly, and the whole situation spirals out of control. Sound familiar? Yet the story of Jephthah happened three thousand years ago, and we are still having trouble learning the lessons.
Now I don’t blame Jephthah, in the circumstances, making doubly-sure that the elders were genuine. And I don’t blame Jephthah for needing to be formally commissioned in the Tabernacle, in the presence of God. But wouldn’t it have been so much better if the prejudice and the grounds for distrust had never occurred in the first place?
And that’s a warning to us all. Because treating someone badly tends to have a snowball effect. So we need to be very careful about what we say and do to the others around us.
3. A Story of Rash Vows
But having been commissioned, Jephthah immediately got on with the task. His first step was to try to avoid war, and make peace with the king of Ammon. Very commendable. He wasn’t successful, but he did try.
Now remember at the outset, I said that to be a genuine “Judge” or “Saviour” that a person needed to meet certain criteria. Now we’ve already seen the first—military prowess. (Even though in Jephthah’s case it was seen in him being an outlaw or raider). But now we see the third—being endowed with some sort of peculiar quality by God.
Because when the king of the Ammonites refused Jephthah’s offer of peace, God sent his spirit upon Jephthah. God effectively confirmed that Jephthah was his choice of “Saviour” or “Judge”, by giving him his Spirit, to help him in his role.
Now here, for the first time in Jephthah’s story, we come across something positive—a high note. And it would be very tempting to say, “Let’s end the story there, while we’re on top.” But sadly the story continues … And Jephthah, clearly not totally convinced by everything that’s happened, makes the most stupid of vows to God. “O God if you would help me to win the battle, I will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of my house when I return home.”
Now what could Jephthah have been possibly thinking? What or who did he think would come out of his home? What or who would be so pleased to see him that they would rush out to greet him?
And of course the inevitable happened. After having the won the battle he returned home, only to find the love of his life, his only child, coming out of the house to greet him.
Now we can ponder where God was in all this. Couldn’t God have stopped the child, or provided a substitute? But we need to remember that this vow was not demanded by God, but was given freely by Jephthah. We also need to remember that the laws of the Old Testament required a person making a vow to take their vow seriously.
But even that aside, what was it that made Jephthah swear such a ridiculously stupid vow? What made him so desperate, that he could not rely on God’s spirit, but that he believed he needed to bargain with God?
Well the short answer is that we don’t know. But we do know that there was a certain mistrust with the elders who had promised him the leadership—if he was successful in battle. And it may well be that his mistrust of others had spilled over into his relationship with God.
Now does that sound silly? Of course it does. But how many people do you know, or have heard about, who want nothing to do with God or his church because of something someone in the church has done.
It’s not a secret, that many people judge God based on what they see his people do. If someone in the church is nasty to another, then that can so easily mean that the victim leaves the church, and even blames God for what has happened. You hear it time and time again. So this interpretation of Jephthah is not out of the question.
And yet, in the context of rash promises themselves, isn’t this story a warning about making rash promises, full stop? In other words, a warning of those times when we are so desperate that we try to bargain with God too.
This story, then, is a great illustration of how our relationship with others affects our relationship with God. And that if we don’t treat each other right, then how easily our attitudes spill over into our relationship with God.
4. A Story of Jealousy or Pride
Now having faced an enemy from without—the Ammonites—the last part of Jephthah’s story relates to a problem within.
And it appears that the tribe of Ephraim had felt left out of the battle with the Ammonites. Indeed they were conspicuous by their absence. But they weren’t happy.
So Ephraim accused Jephthah of not inviting them to join in the fight with the Ammonites. But Jephthah said that they had been, they just hadn’t turned up. Then Ephraim accused the Gileadites of being fugitives from Ephraim. But whatever the truth, the Ephraimites were itching for a fight.
So the precise cause? We don’t know. The Ephraimites may have felt insulted about being left out. They may have been jealous; their pride could have been on the line. Equally they may not have been totally happy about now being led by the son of a prostitute. What we do know is that an internal, civil war resulted, and forty two thousand Ephraimites lost their lives as a result.
So much then for prejudice, mistrust, and whatever other negative things people do to each other. They’re all wrapped up here in this story. Jephthah’s story is warning about what happens when we mistreat one another. It’s about how one thing leads to another—a kind of snowball effect.
Now of course, some people look at the Old Testament and say, “Didn’t they do anything in the Old Testament but fight?” And, you know, there’s an element of truth in that. Yet, none of the events in this story needed to have happened. Indeed the whole chain of events the Israelites brought upon themselves, by firstly abandoning God, and secondly by mistreating one another.
And, when we look at the news, and what’s going on in our society, isn’t that exactly what we see going on today. Both the cause … The abandonment of God and mistreating one another. And the consequent effect … The mess this world is in. And we have it all neatly wrapped up in this one story.
So for us, as Christians, there are many lessons to be gained from the story of Jephthah. Not least of which is the challenges to our behaviour.
After all, how do we treat one another? Do we treat each other well, or are their certain improvements we need to make? And if there are improvements, how do our current attitudes affect our relationship with God?
Now, I’ve covered four basic parts of Jephthah’s life this morning. But there’s one aspect of Jephthah’s life I’ve missed out. Because as I said at the outset there were three aspects that we need to consider in order for someone to be considered a genuine “Judge” or “Saviour.” And in Jephthah’s case we have seen his military prowess, and his anointing by God with his Spirit. And on those two criteria alone, that makes him a genuine “Judge” or “Saviour.” But what about the legal side?
Well, happily, at the very end of the story we’re told that Jephthah met this criterion too. Indeed there’s a note to say that Jephthah served as a judge for six years, then he died. And despite the events of his early years, he was buried in his home town of Gilead (old prejudices seemingly forgotten).
So, at the end of Jephthah’s story, is his worth telling? Yes. Should it be included in our readings in church? Probably. (But then there are so many other stories that are missing from our readings too.) Is his story something we can learn from? Most definitely.
And the things that we can learn about revolve around our behaviour to others and our subsequent behaviour to God. After all, how often are our judgements coloured by prejudice? How deep is our mistrust of others? How much do we allow our mistreatment of one another to affect our relationship with God? And how much does jealousy or pride affect the things that we do?
Now these are the challenges of this three thousand year old story. But are they challenges we are prepared to face up to today?
Posted: 4th January 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis