The Rise of a Judge (11:1-11)
The story of the Judges continues with the degradation of morality. The first verse of Judges 11 sets up our main character for this historical narrative. Jephthah was a mighty warrior but he is the son of a prostitute. So his dad sleeps with prostitutes and that is how Jephthah was born. His father also had a wife with many sons. When those sons got older they drove him out of his father’s house so that he would have no share of the inheritance. Jephthah has to leave and is surrounded by worthless fellows in Tob (11:3). So Jephthah is completely rejected and driven out from the people.
Some time goes by and the Ammonites attack Israel. Remember that Jephthah was a mighty warrior and the elders of Gilead go to Jephthah to bring him back to fight against the Ammonites. In verse 7 Jephthah calls them out for this. He says that they hate him and yet you ask for him to help in your distress. The elders of Gilead say yes. They are only calling him because they need his help (11:8). Jephthah says that he will come back and fight for them if he is able to be home again and be their leader. The elders of Gilead agree to the terms.
Attempts at Diplomacy (11:12-28)
Jephthah does not go to war immediately. Rather, he sends messengers to the king of Ammon to learn why the Ammonites have invaded. The king responds that he is attacking because when Israel came out of Egypt, they took away Ammonite land (11:13). So he wants the land back. Jephthah constructs a history lesson to teach the king of Ammon that this was not the case at all.
In verses 15-22 Jephthah gives a history lesson that Israel did not take their land. They went around Edom and around Moab because those nations would not allow them to pass through. When Israel came to the land in question, Israel asked to pass through the land. The king of Sihon refused and went to war against Israel. Israel won the battle and the land thus became rightfully theirs.
The second argument is theological in verses 23-24. If your god gives you the victory then you take possession of the land. The Ammonites understood this thinking. The Lord God gave Israel victory and the land became theirs for God gave it to them in battle.
The final argument is one of history again. If Moab did not attack Israel over the land and none of Ammon’s ancestors attacked over the land, then the land is rightfully belongs to Israel. Unfortunately, the king of Ammon does not listen to these arguments.
Victory Over Ammon (29-40)
Before going into battle, Jephthah makes an oath to the Lord. If the Lord will give the Ammonites into his hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of his house to meet him when he returns will be offered as a burnt offering (11:30-31). It is important to recognize that making a vow before the Lord was not a sin. The Law of Moses gave regulations for vow making with the expectation that people would make vows to the Lord (cf. Leviticus 27; Numbers 21:2). You are probably aware of a vow that God gave to the people called the Nazarite vow. The point is that making vows to God is not a sin or mistake. It is what Jephthah vows that is what makes this vow foolish.
I am going to submit to you that Jephthah does not have an animal in mind when he utters this vow. What he says seems to indicate that he was not thinking about offering an animal to the Lord if the Lord gave him victory. Here are some reasons why. First, notice that Jephthah will offer whatever comes out of the doors of his house. He is speaking about something that is in his house. Livestock would not be living in the house. The goat is not inside the living quarters of the house that will come out the doors. The sheep is not inside the living quarters of the house that will come out the doors. Animals intended for sacrifice did not come out of houses.
Second, if Jephthah had an animal in mind when he made the vow, then when his daughter comes out of the house to meet him would not have been a problem. If you vowed an animal, then when the daughter comes there would be no issue. He would wait until the first animal came out.
Third, if an animal was intended as the vow, then the Hebrew word would be in the neuter which would be appropriate for an object. Instead the Hebrew uses an infinitive that is used of persons, not animals (Chisholm, 353).
Fourth, Jephthah does not say that he will offer whatever comes out of his house. We are misquoting the vow if we say it this way. Rather, he says the he will offer whatever comes out of his house “to meet him.” A goat is not going to come out his house to meet him. A person would come out to meet him after coming home from battle. There is serious evidence to suggest that Jephthah was not vowing an animal in sacrifice but a person.
Finally, if Jephthah intended an animal sacrifice but realizes his words have caused him to offer a human instead, which is in direct violation of God’s law, God made a way to be released from foolish vows. Leviticus 5:4-6 reveals that a person could make a guilt offering for a foolish vow. But Jephthah does not do this.
What Jephthah is reflecting is a very pagan view of God. After confidently resting on the Lord as judge in verse 27, Jephthah does not feel full of faith and bargains with God. This shows a sense of desperation and lack of confidence in God. Jephthah seems to expect a servant or slave to come out of his house to greet him after his victory, not his daughter. Now we might be troubled by this idea. But after reading the rapid decline of the generations, we should not be surprised by this. Judges 10:6 tells us that the people are further into idolatry than ever before. They are committing all the same practices as the pagan nations that surround them. We were told at the beginning of the book that these generations did not know the Lord (2:10). If you have read the rest of the book of Judges then you will know that this is not remotely as bad as what we are going to see the people doing in the upcoming chapters. The immorality and depravity is exponentially growing with each generation. By reading through the book of Judges as we have, we are seeing the disgusting growth of evil in Israel. We must recognize that when we are reading about people in the scriptures, we are more often reading about what we ought not do, not as some sort of praise by God.
With this in mind, the result of the vow concerning his daughter becomes clear. Since Jephthah intended a human sacrifice, Jephthah is going to carry this vow out. This vow has made it so that the family line of Jephthah will be cut off. Jephthah has only one child, this daughter, and now she will be given in a vow. Notice that what should have been remembered as a great victory for Israel now turns into an annual memorial of lament and sadness for the foolish vow Jephthah gave. Obviously God is not happy with this. I believe this is why the scriptures are silent. There is no praise for Jephthah here. The text ends in sorrow and grief, not in joy because Jephthah’s words have tainted the glorious work of God.
Chapter 12 continues to reveal the sinfulness of the nation during this time. When Ephraim hears about the victory, they complain again about not being asked to go to battle with them (see the days of Gideon, Judges 8:1). So they are going to kill Jephthah by locking him in his house and burning his house down. So war between Ephraim and the men of Gilead breaks out, and 42,000 Ephraimites fell. Jephthah only judged for 6 years. After him was Ibzan. He acts like a king by having 60 children with many wives. Elon is the next judge and we are told nothing about any of his acts. Then Abdon is the judge and he also acts like a king, having 40 sons and 30 grandsons who rode on 70 donkeys. None of these judges are said to have saved Israel or to have brought the people peace.
We must first consider a warning for ourselves. We are affected by our culture far more than we think. What we are reading about concerning God’s people during these days is absolutely frightening. Israel has not only adopted the same practices as the pagan nations, but they also adopted the same thinking about the pagan nations. The thinking of Jephthah is to treat God like a pagan deity, making promises to get God to act on his behalf. The thinking of the men of Ephraim is that they will kill a person who has insulted them. The thinking of the next three judges is to set themselves up like kings. We are affected by our culture far more than we think.
We must be very careful to consider what is influencing our thinking. It changes our thinking about how to think and act. We have seen it influence Christians regarding marriage. Wives no longer respect their husbands and love their husbands. Husbands no longer support and sacrifice for their wives. Sexual immorality is consider normal and acceptable. Homosexuality is consider a lifestyle choice. Divorce is shown as a viable option for unhappiness. Women are no longer seen as one who manage the household for the family. Mothers forsaking their motherly duty. Fathers forsaking their fatherly duty. Men are turned into paychecks and women are turned into sex toys. It is very difficult to obey God’s commands to renew our minds when we are allowing these false ideas and images to constantly penetrate our mind. We need to stop watching tv shows that promote homosexuality. We need to stop watching shows that promote sexual immorality. No Christian should be reading books or watching movies with sexual escapades like 50 Shades of Grey. Not only are we supporting this trash, but this trash is influencing our minds. Our culture changes our thinking more than we realize. We need to detox ourselves off of these things on tv, movies, and books that keep us from having a mind that God wants. Listen to what God commands us:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8 ESV)
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:2 ESV)
The second lesson is what we learn about God’s deliverers. Yet again we see in Jephthah another foreshadowing of God’s coming deliverance for the world. Jephthah was rejected because of his beginnings, rejected by the community, worthless fellows spent their time with him, and then he comes back and saves them from oppression. Jesus was rejected by his family and his kinsmen, declaring he was born through sexual immorality. He was numbered with the transgressors but then returns to save the people from their sins. God is showing us the amazing way that he will save the world. Humans like Jephthah are unable to do what God will do through Jesus.