OT History Part 1 – Judges 11-12

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.
Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”
Jephthah said to them, “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?”
The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.”
Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me—will I really be your head?”
The elders of Gilead replied, “The Lord is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.
Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: “What do you have against me that you have attacked my country?”
The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably.”
Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, saying:
“This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh. Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh.
“Next they traveled through the wilderness, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.
“Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’ Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his troops and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.
“Then the Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and his whole army into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.
“Now since the Lord, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess. Are you any better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them? For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn’t you retake them during that time? I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the Lord, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.”
The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him.
Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah 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.”
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”
“My father,” she replied, “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.”
“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.
From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

  • Judges 11:1-40

The Ephraimite forces were called out, and they crossed over to Zaphon. They said to 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.”
Jephthah answered, “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?”
Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.” The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “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.
Jephthah led Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in a town in Gilead.
After him, Ibzan of Bethlehem led Israel. He had thirty sons and thirty daughters. He gave his daughters away in marriage to those outside his clan, and for his sons he brought in thirty young women as wives from outside his clan. Ibzan led Israel seven years. Then Ibzan died and was buried in Bethlehem.
After him, Elon the Zebulunite led Israel ten years. Then Elon died and was buried in Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.
After him, Abdon son of Hillel, from Pirathon, led Israel. He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys. He led Israel eight years. Then Abdon son of Hillel died and was buried at Pirathon in Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.”

  • Judges 12:1-15

Noted Biblical Scholars, Teachers, and Preachers Comments

Judges 11:1 ‘mighty man of valor’: “In a military situation, this means a strong, adept warrior, such as Gideon (6:12). In response to their repentance, God raised up Jephthah to lead the Israelites to freedom from the eighteen years of oppression (v. 8).”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Judges 11:3 ‘raiding’: “Such attacks would be against the Ammonites and other pagan peoples and brought fame to Jephthah.”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Judges 11:11 ‘spoke … before the Lord’: “This refers to confirming the agreement in a solemn public meeting with prayer invoking God as witness (v. 10).”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Judges 11:12-28 ‘contradicting the Ammonites claim to the land’: “The negotiations between the leaders (11:12-28) illustrate the general desire of ancient rulers to demonstrate the rightness of their causes in war. For us today, it also gives a fine example of the Israelites’ sense of their own history. They view the legitimacy of their case as rooted in God’s historical works on their behalf. Jephthah’s words also reveal popular religious attitudes of that day. There are three general arguments for Israel’s legitimate claim to the region: (1) the land was taken from the Amorites; (2) God had given the land to them; and (3) three hundred years of control had removed any doubt.
“Jephthah begins the negotiations with a formal request for the reason for hostilities. The Ammonites reply, probably with all the sincerity generally found in such negotiations, that the land, historically, had been theirs and that they are merely reclaiming what by right is theirs. Jephthah replies that Israel had not taken the land of the Ammonites nor of the Moabites.
“In fact, God had commanded Israel not to seize the lands of the Edomites, the Moabites, or the Ammonites (Deut. 2:5, 9, 37). In obedience to God’s commands, the Israelites carefully avoided entering either Edom or Moab and though not mentioned here, Ammon as well. Then, when the Israelites encountered the Amorites, people who were not descended from Lot or Abraham, they were free to seize their lands. Therefore, Amorites, not Ammonites, had been displaced when the Israelites occupied Gilead. This contradicts the Ammonites’ basis for claiming Gilead.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Judges 11:29 ‘mobilizing the army’: “The reason for Jephthah’s ‘crossing’ Gilead and Manasseh (11:29) is not clear. Commentators have indicated that, since the armies had already been mobilized (10:17), Jephthah did not have to cross these territories to mobilize the Gileadites. However, it does not contradict the evidence to see the first mobilization as the half-hearted, incomplete mobilization of a spiritually flabby, irresolute people. But now, with a determined, competent leader, the Israelites are ready to carry out a complete, effective mobilization. Jephthah crosses Manasseh and Gilead, thoroughly mobilizing their militias. Apparently Ephraim is invited to participate but ignores the offer (cf. 12:2). The forces then proceed to Mizpah of Gilead, the holy city, which is the starting point for the campaign.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Judges 11:30-31 ‘Jephthah’s vow’: “Jephthah also makes a pagan vow to God (11:30-31). As foolish and pagan as this vow is, it may still have had some effect since God can observe a right attitude of heart even if the expression of that attitude is outrageous. Some scholars have asserted that the wording Jephthah uses could not have anticipated anything other than a human sacrifice. All the nonhuman creatures that might have met him would have been insulting sacrifices.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Judges 11:31 ‘I will offer’: “Some interpreters reason that Jephthah offered his daughter as a living sacrifice in perpetual virginity. With this idea, verse 31 would mean ‘shall surely be the LORD’s’ or ‘I will offer it up as a burnt offering.’ The view sees only perpetual virginity in verses 37-40, and rejects his offering a human sacrifice as being against God’s revealed will (Deut. 12:31). On the other hand, since he was (1) beyond the Jordan River, (2) far from the tabernacle, (3) a hypocrite in religious devotion, (4) familiar with human sacrifice among other nations, (5) influenced by such superstition, and (6) wanting victory badly, he most likely meant a literal, human burnt offering. The translation in verse 31 is ‘and,’ not ‘or.’ His act came in an era of bizarre things, even inconsistency by leaders whom God otherwise empowered (cf. Gideon in 8:27).”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Judges 11: 34-35 ‘his daughter, coming out to meet him … Alas’: “She was thus to be the sacrificed pledge.
Jephthah indicated the pain felt by her father in having to take the life of his only daughter to satisfy his pious but unwise pledge.”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Judges 11:35 ‘Was Jephthah’s oath binding?’: “In Jephthah‘s case there were good reasons for taking it back. He had made a rash vow, and such things are much better broken than kept. If someone makes a vow to commit a crime, the vow to do so is, in itself, a sin. The carrying out of the vow will be doubly sinful. If someone’s vowing to do a thing made it necessary and right to do it, then the whole moral law might be suspended by the mere act of vowing, for someone might vow to steal, to commit adultery, or to murder, and then say, ‘l was right in all those acts because I vowed to do them.’ This is self-evidently absurd, and to admit such a principle would be to destroy all morality. We have no right to promise to do what is wrong. And then our promise, which is wrong in itself, cannot make a criminal act to be right. We ought to go before God and repent that we have made a vow that involves sin. To keep our evil vows would certainly be sin, and we must not commit the greater sin to avoid the lesser. It would have been well if Jephthah, though he had opened his mouth before God, had gone back when it involved so dreadful a necessity as that of sacrificing his own innocent, only child. If he really did slay her, it was a horrible action. He had no right to make the dangerous promise. He had still less right to carry it out after he had made it, if it led to such terrible consequences.”

  • Charles H. Spurgeon, from sermon notes

Judges 12:1 ‘Why did you … not call us?’: “Ephraim’s newest threat (cf. 8:1) was their jealousy of Jephthah’s success and, possibly, a lust to share in his spoils. The threat was not only to burn the house, but to burn him.”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Judges 12:4 ‘fugitives’: “This involved a mockery, referring to the Gileadites as low lifes, the outcasts of Ephraim. They retaliated with battle.”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Judges 12:6 ‘Shibboleth!’: “The method used for discovering an Ephraimite was the way in which they pronounced this word. If they mispronounced it with an “s” rather than an “sh” sound, it gave them away, being a unique indicator of their dialect.”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)

Judges 12:8-15 ‘three minor judges’: “Three more minor judges now come to attention (12:8-15). In the popular mind of that time, Ibzan’s many children and, by implication, numerous wives and concubines, reflect his greatness and prestige. Marrying his children ‘outside his clan’ (v. 9) builds alliances that could circumvent intertribal strife like that of the Ephraimite civil war. Most dating schemes, early and late, place Ibzan in the time of the Philistines and Samson. This makes it easier to locate Ibzan in the north at the Zebulunite Bethlehem. Nothing is known about Elon (vv. 11-12) beyond the sparse data in these verses. Abdon of Ephraim again has the prestige of a large family and many consorts. The reference to the hill country of the Amalekites (v. 15) is puzzling. It would seem to refer to a region settled by Amalekite Bedouin. They may have been a part of the horde of Gideon’s time which settled in Ephraim and lived peaceably with their neighbors, since there is no hint of hostility in this reference.”

  • Walter A. Elwell, editor, Baker Commentary on the Bible

Judges 12:9 ‘thirty sons … grandsons’: “Very large families suggest the fathers’ marriage to several wives, a part of life tolerated but never matching God’s blueprint of one wife at a time (Gen. 2:24). To have many children had the lure of extending a person’s human power and influence.”

  • John MacArthur, John MacArthur Commentary (quoted Scripture without bold/italics)


My Thoughts

To recap the end of Judges 10, the people were being oppressed by the Ammonites.  The people repented of their sin and God finally relented.  Judges 11 starts with Jephthah, the next judge.

Jephthah’s parentage is questionable.  Was his father really a man of the Gilead area, known as Gilead?  Was he simply a man of Gilead?  If Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute, did she know who the father was?  Thus, the father’s name then became Gilead, meaning any number of men in the area of Gilead.

But the text makes it sound like a specific person as the sons of Gilead drove Jephthah away.  But that could be the other children in the playground, some who may have indeed been half-brothers of Jephthah.

But what we do know is that Jephthah went to Tob.  No one really knows where Tob is, but it might be near the southeast corner of the Sea of Galilee.  What is known is that Jephthah hung out with a rough crowd and quickly became their leader.  He did not have an army.  He had a gang of thugs.

This introduction of Jephthah in the opening verses of Judges 11 does not picture someone who God would choose as a leader.  He had questionable parentage.  He lived on the wrong side of town.  He did bad things.  What he had going for him was some type of charisma or bullying skill, something that made him the leader of the gang.

Now, the people of Gilead come to Jephthah to save them from the Ammonites.  It took some convincing.

The Gileadites may have thought that Jephthah was a thug, but he is our thug.  But what does God say?  God seems to constantly take people who are unlikely heroes and turns them into heroes through His Holy Spirit.  They go from duds to studs.  David was the runt of his family.  Gideon was the runt of his family in the smallest family of the smallest grouping of the smallest…  The saying goes that no one can make a silk purse out of a sows ear, but God could pull that off too.  (The silk purse out of a sow’s ear comes from the old Scots, possibly Alexander Barclay or in B. E. Gent’s dictionary a hundred years later.)

Let’s identify a couple of the groups of people.  Gilead was a grandson of Manasseh.  If it was predominantly Gilead’s clan that settled in the land of Gilead (meaning pile of rocks or a tall stone mountain – and the land is mountainous) then having the people east of the Jordan known as Gileadites makes sense.  And the Ammonites are the descendants of Lot through his second daughter.  The older daughter of Lot giving birth to Moab.

It seems that either Jephthah learned well from his mother, or he was taught what to say.  He corresponds with the king of the Ammonites, giving a history from the book of Numbers, in that Ammon and Moab were not conquered.  The territory that the Gileadites possessed had been Amorite territory and the Gileadites had been there 300 years.

Here Jephthah turns from thug to historian.  Moses and Joshua taught the people and admonished the people to teach their children.  Even the son of a prostitute was taught the history, but it seemed throughout Israel, few taught their children to worship their God only.

When the Ammonite king refused to acknowledge Jephthah’s arguments, the Spirit came upon Jephthah, and he destroyed the Ammonite who had invaded the land.  Before he did so, he swore an oath to sacrifice the thing that came out to greet him upon his return home.

Of the different scholarly quotes above on this passage, I disagree with them all to an extent.  Even though Spurgeon lived over one hundred years ago, the moral ideas about sacrificing children has not changed (sort of).  Rev. Spurgeon argues that reneging on an oath would have been a sin, but not half as bad of a sin as killing one’s daughter, but in Biblical times, reneging on an oath was worthy of death in some cases, death of many people as God might punish all the people for the sin of the leader who reneged on the oath.  In this case, we need context with the value given to an oath at that time.  Today, as the saying goes, a verbal contract is not worth the paper it is not written on (loosely quoted from Samuel Goldwyn).  “You said I violated an oath?  Do you have that in writing or was that recorded?  NO?! Then it never happened.”

Rev. MacArthur makes it sound like Jephthah intended to give a human sacrifice from the start.  Since Jephthah’s wife had only produced a daughter, could Jephthah have thought of ridding himself of his wife to start a new family?  That is even done today, but I do not think this the case.

I have experience in Germany with people living on the second floor and their cattle living on the first floor.  Homes during the time of Jesus were split level homes with the cattle slightly lower than the living space and if you were somewhat well to do, you had a third level, an upper room used for guests.  With possibly the only outside door on the lower level, Jephthah could have thought that a sheep, goat, or dog might run out of the house as he approached.  I have known many dogs to try to be the first thing out of an open door.  Thus, the vow was foolish.  There might have been reason to avoid fulfilling the vow, making a different sacrifice or clarifying – “Hey, God, I meant a member of the livestock, right?”

But this former thug, turned historian, turned military leader, was true to his vow.  People seem to forget the final verse of Judges 11, a remembrance by Israelite girls of Jephthah’s daughter.

And the comment above about sacrificing children not being done, sort of, has abortion in mind.  We sin against God by committing various forms of adultery.  And then when there is an inconvenient outcome, we sin again by murdering the children, possibly the firstborn as was done in ancient pagan customs.  Am I against women having a “choice?”  In most cases they had a choice with the first sin which does not excuse the second sin.  Yet, even then, God can forgive if you truly repent.

Then, as Judges 12 begins, we see Ephraim whining again.  Remember that Gideon had to use diplomacy to sooth their ruffled feathers when Gideon sent the Midianites on the run with only 300 men.  Now Ephraim is whining that Jephthah did not call them.  Jephthah called the Gileadites (the half tribe of Manasseh, Gad, and Reuben).  Here in Judges 12, after the battle was won, he states that he sent word to the other tribes, specifically Ephraim, but he got no answer.  Rev. MacArthur may be correct, and it might apply to both cases, that Ephraim was greedy and wanted a share in the spoils of war.  With these two instances, we see Ephraim asserting themselves as the verbal leader of Israel.  Ephraim was the younger of Joseph’s sons, but Israel gave him the greater blessing.  Ephraim seems to have taken that blessing to mean they could do nothing and then share in the spoils afterwards due to their greater blessing, only greater than their brother’s blessing, not their uncles’ blessings.

This started a civil war where 42,000 Ephraimites were killed.

Note the means of determining whether someone was an Ephraimite or a Gileadite.  The word “Shibboleth” was spoken in two different dialects.  Some think that Ephraimites had a speech impediment, but it may have simply been a different way of saying the word.  A shibboleth stood for any ancient group or class of people that may or may not have carried gravitas back then, but not necessarily today, or the present.

This brings back memories of World War II, and other wars.  The Germans pronounce “W” with a “V” sound.  Thus, in the European theater of operations, a password challenge might be “Winter” and the password would be “Wonderland.”  If they slipped and replied “Vonderland,” you would either shoot them or imprison them.

I still remember being greeted at our hotel in Pattaya, Thailand at about 2:00am.  The desk clerk knew my boss.  They were old friends, but then he turned to me and said, “You must be Mr. Lackrey.”  I smiled and said “Yes,” but the desk clerk turned red as a beet.  From that moment on, anyone in Thailand who attempted my family name would pause, think, and then get it right.  Mostly they used my first name, with most not pronouncing the “R.”  The only “R” sound in the Thai language, from what they told me, was a rolled “R” as you often have in Spanish.  Knowing the intricacies of the enemy’s language has been done since Jephthah’s time, and probably much before then.

Jephthah was judge for only six years until he died.

The three minor judges each held the title of judge longer than Jephthah.  Ibzan was judge seven years, Elon ten years, and Abdon eight years.  We know that Ibzan and Abdon were wealthy, at least they had many wives to produce the numbers of children that they had.  The ownership of many donkeys, as in the case of Abdon, showed influence, power, and wealth. Yet, we know nothing else.  I have read articles on Shamgar, that one verse sandwiched between Ehud and Deborah as judges.  They claim Shamgar as the one we know the least about, but he killed 600 Philistines with an ox goad.  What we do not know is how long he was a judge, if he even was a judge, holding the office, that is.  With these three judges, we know only the length of service, and the number of children for two of them and donkeys for one of them.

For Shamgar, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon, these seem to be bookmarks between the judges with greater exploits.  It begs the question as to whether you wish the excitement and danger during the times of Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson?  Or do you prefer the uneventful times of Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon?

Some Serendipitous Reflections

Jephthah, Judges 11: 1. Jephthah’s story can be summed up in four words—rejection, vindication, victory, and heartache. Which of the four words reflect your life right now? When have you won a hard-fought battle, only to lose a heart-felt love?
“2. What did God see in Jephthah that others found hard to see? What does God see in you that others might miss on first meeting you? If you have trouble answering, ask your small group members what God sees in you!
“3. When have you attempted to argue your case pro se (by yourself, without legal counsel)? What arguments did you put in your defense, petition, or complaint? What happened?
“4. What is the status of vows in your society? What are some unpopular vows you have made and kept? Which has caused you more heartache—the ones you‘ve kept, or the ones you’ve broken? Confidentially, share your heartache with your group.
“5. If keeping a vow meant you would have to sin, would you keep it? Why or why not? How can this passage help you to keep your vows in perspective?
Jephthah and Ephraim, Judges 12: 1. Who is a thorn in your side? How does Christ want you to deal with this person?
“2. By what ‘accent’ can others tell you are a believer?
Jephthah and Ephraim, Judges 12: 1. If you could choose three things about which you would like to be remembered, what would they be? How would those distinguish you from your brothers or sisters?”

  • Lyman Coleman, et al, The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups

There is one set of questions for Judges 11.  In Judges 12, there is one set of questions for Jephthah versus Ephraim and another set of questions for the three minor judges.

Substitute whatever group for any reference to a small group or ask who could come to your aid.

Question 4 for Judges 11 has the last part starting with confidentially.  Can you either trust your small group or can you rephrase the story to take out any details that point to those involved?  You could make it a fable with pigs and horses if need be.  Doing a group discussion on this topic requires airtight confidentiality or careful preparation beforehand.  I would not trust myself in inventing a fable (or any style of fiction) on the spot to illustrate my heartache.

If you like these Thursday morning Bible studies, but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Thursday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

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