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Judges 10:6-12:7 – Jephthah against the Ammonites

Summary

The tragic story of Jephthah revolves around his rash vow resulting in the sacrifice of his daughter.

Analysis

The story of Jephthah begins with a theological introduction to the second half of the book that reiterates themes from 2:11-23 in order to highlight the worsening conditions that will ultimately result in the utter chaos of chapters 17-21 (10:6-16). Here the familiar cyclical framework begins with Israel's apostasy, God's response in the form of Canaanite oppression, and Israel's cry for help (vv. 6-10). This time, however, God refuses to provide a deliverer (v. 13), despite the new wrinkle of Israel's actual repentance, and even sarcastically invites them to seek help from their chosen deities (v. 14). God's decision to deliver them (v. 16b), following yet another confession of sin and amendment of life, says more about God's compassion than the genuineness of Israel's repentance.

In the next round of Israel's apostasy, the Ammonites and the Philistines become the oppressors du jour. Jephthah will engage the Ammonites and Samson will do battle with the Philistines. Despite Jephthah's unfortunate lineage as the son of a prostitute, resulting in his disinheritance (11:2-3), Jephthah's superior skill as a warrior and commander, forged as the head of a band of outlaws, led the Israelites to choose him as commander of the army (qatsin) in the face of Ammonite incursion. Jephthah reminds them of their earlier rejection and offers to lead the troops if they will make him "head" (rosh) of Gilead, a concession the leaders of Gilead are only too glad to make (11:4-11). Again, this "deliverer" of Israel is not raised up by God as a charismatic leader. He attains his office through devices of self-interest. It should be said, however, that Jephthah's skill in negotiation will figure prominently in the following material, though with less than successful results.

The actual story of Jephthah is told in three scenes. In the first (11:12-28), Jephthah seeks a diplomatic solution to the problem of Ammonite incursion. His negotiations, offered in rebuttal of the Ammonites' demand that the land east of the Jordan be returned to them, take the form of an historical review, summarizing Numbers 20-24 and trying to make the theological point that, since God had defeated Ammon's god Chemosh, the land was theirs. The Ammonite rejection of Jephthah's argument made war unavoidable.

The second scene relates the heart-wrenching story of Jephthah's vow (11:29-40). Though Jephthah was not appointed by God as deliverer, nevertheless when faced with the actual battle God endows him with his spirit (v. 29). The actual war with Ammon fades into the background as the story focuses upon Jephthah's hasty, unnecessary, and carelessly worded vow and its tragic consequences. In exchange for victory, Jephthah promises to sacrifice as a burnt offering to God whomever comes out to meet him upon his return (vv. 30-31). Tragically, upon his return, Jephthah is met by his only child as she comes out to greet him. Following a two-month period in which his daughter mourns her virginity, Jephthah sacrifices her (vv. 34-39). The horror of this story is palpable. True, father and daughter are depicted as complying with the provisions of an unnecessary and foolish oath. True, the women commemorate Jephthah's unnamed daughter's integrity. But these wisps of decency are overshadowed by the divine silence regarding the pointless sacrifice of a child.

The third scene is somewhat of an appendix (12:1-7). Fellow tribe Ephraim is enraged at not being asked to participate in Jephthah's earlier defeat of the Ammonites (and the spoil?). Again, Jephthah seeks to negotiate, claiming that he did summon them. When these negotiations break down, war ensues and Jephthah rather handily defeats the Ephraimites, killing 42,000 of their numbers. The story is best remembered for a sidebar regarding the word "shibboleth," which means "ear of grain." Ephraimites trying to return to their own territory were required to correctly pronounce this "password." In their dialect this was impossible for them to do, and all they could manage would be "sibboleth," a dead giveaway that they were the enemy.

The story of Japheth closes without the usual mention of peace/rest. This alteration in the recurrent pattern is a silent witness to the spiraling decline since the tragic rule of Gideon.

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