Jephthah the Ninth Judge

Date: Thursday, December 16, 1999 3:29 AM

                    JEPHTHAH, THE NINTH JUDGE
                           M.J. Spence

     The victories of Gideon, the most significant experienced by
the Israelites since the time of Joshua, had obtained for them a
long period of quiet, which lasted from the death of Gideon until
the end of the regime of Jair, the eighth Judge. So peaceful had
the tenor of life become to the people that Jair was enabled to
maintain his family in a most dignified and even luxurious manner,
his 30 sons having white asses to ride upon and having dominion
each over a city of Gilead, cities which long retained the name of
"the villages of Jair."

     As had previously happened in the history of Israel, a period
of quiet and freedom from attack meant, so far as the lives of the
people were concerned, a serious falling off of their adherence to
Jehovah. Indeed, so marked was this that we find Israel serving all
the gods except Jehovah - "Baalim and Ashtraroth, and the gods of
Syria, of Zidon, of Moab, of the Beni-Ammi, and of the
Philistines." Jehovah, we read, they utterly forsook and served

     However, there came a time when Israel was sore distressed.
Two neighbouring nations, the Philistines and the men of Ammon, led
their forces against Israel on the west and on the east. The attack
of the Ammonites, which concerns us most in considering the life of
Jephthah, culminated in the oppression of the land of Gideon, on
the east of Jordan, an oppression that lasted for 18 years. Nor
were the other parts of Israel left unmolested, for the Ammonites
passed the Jordan and fought also against the tribes of Judah,
Benjamin and Ephraim.

     To deal with the situation that had now arisen, it was deemed
necessary that there should be a decisive encounter with the enemy.
Accordingly, the Israelites gathered their forces together at
Mizpeh, while the Ammonites assembled in Gilead. Only a captain to
lead the men of Israel was wanting, and the elders of Gilead
proclaimed their need for one, offering to make the man who would
lead them to victory against the Ammonites supreme in all the land
of Gilead.

     Now, Jephthah, the son of Gilead by a concubine of the lowest
class, had at this time made for himself a reputation as a man of
valour. Upon the death of his father he had been forced to leave
his home, and he had taken up his dwelling in the land of Tob.
Here, at the head of a band of freebooters, he lived the rough life
of one who gained his livelihood by preying upon the neighbouring
peoples. It so happened, too, that his valour as a warrior was not
unknown to the Ammonites, for these people had often suffered from
his predatory raids.

     When, therefore, it was necessary to find a suitable man to
lead the armies of Israel against the Ammonites, it is not
altogether surprising that the elders of Gilead should have called
upon Jephthah. He did not at first acquiesce, and it was not until
the men of Gilead had consented to put it on oath that he would be
made their chief in case of victory, that he finally agreed to be
made their leader.

     On assuming command, Jephthah's first action was to send
messengers to the king of Ammon demanding to know by what right he
made war on Israel. The Ammonite monarch replied that he desired
the recapture of his land along the Jordan wrongfully taken from
him, he averred, by the Israelites. Jephthah declared the land in
dispute had been given to Israel by Jehovah, and that was it was
the intention of his armies to retain it.

     It was at this time that Jephthah made that rash vow, by which
he engaged himself to sacrifice as a burnt-offering to Jehovah
whoever should first come forth out of the door of his house to
meet him if he returned victorious over the enemy.

     Jephthah's victory over the Ammonites was complete. As many as
20 cities came under the subjection of Israel, and so remained from
that time until the rein of Saul. Jephthah now returned home to
claim fulfillment of the oath to make him head over all the people
of Gilead, and also to pay his vow to Jehovah - a vow the payment
of which was to cause him so much anguish. How little had he
imagined that the first welcoming one to come to meet him from his
house should be his only child, his daughter. But so it was. His
daughter, like Miriam of old, gathered all her maidens together,
and, with timbrels and dances, came out to meet her victorious
father. No sooner did Jephthah recognise the significance of this
encounter that he cried out in anguish, "Alas, my daughter! Thou
has brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me;
for I have opened my mouth unto Jehovah and I cannot go back." In
words of sublime resignation, which have made of Jephthah's
daughter one of the heroines of history, the maiden replied that
she was willing that her father should do unto her as he had vowed
unto Jehovah. She did not even seem to begrudge the sacrifice even
of herself in celebration of the victories gained over the enemies
of her people, begging only that she be granted a respite of two
months that she might roam through her beloved mountains of Gilead
with her companions. There she bewailed, not the life she was going
to lose, but the loss of all hope of offspring, and so of all hope
of being the mother of the Messiah. At the end of the two months
she returned, and Jephthah "did with her according to his vow which
he had vowed." Out of this tragedy arose the custom with women of
Israel of going out for four days every year to lament the daughter
of Jephthah, the Gileadite.

     The victory of Jephthah over the Ammonites, just as in the
case of Gideon's over the Midionites, was the case of much ill-
feeling on the part of the men of Ephraim, who were jealous because
they had not been called upon to share in the enterprise. And the
rough warrior, not having Gideon's diplomatic skill in turning
aside their wrath, was threatened by them with the burning down of
his house, and the men of Gilead were taunted as being outcasts
from the tribe of Joseph, in allusion, apparently, to the past life
of Jephthah and his followers. The Ephramites seem to have had
great pride in themselves as the representatives of Joseph, and
while often withholding themselves from participation in
enterprises, were yet bitterly jealous of the success of those of
their brethren who took part.

     In an engagement with the men of Gilead, the Ephramites
suffered complete defeat. The men of Gilead got possession of the
fords of the Jordan, and as a means of discovering the identity of
those attempting to cross the fords, set that curious test by means
of which the fugitive Ephramite was forced through difference in
dialect to betray himself. Each man who demanded to be allowed to
go to the west over Jordan was asked, "Are you an Ephramite?" If he
said, "No", he was required to pronounce Shibboleth (a stream or
flood), and on his betraying himself by saying "Sibboleth" he was
put to death. In this quarrel there were slain of the men of
Ephraim "forty and two thousand."

     The rule of Jephthah, the ninth Judge of Israel, came to an
end after six years, and he was buried in Mount Gilead.

-reprinted from The Square, Feb. 1924