Manipulating God • Judges 11:1-40
We now come upon one of the oddest episodes in the Old Testament. There is no other episode quite like this and it is one that is badly understood and unfortunately misinterpreted by many people due to the fact that most evangelicals operate on the assumption that the leaders during the period of the judges were a lot more spiritually advanced than they were, and just because they are mentioned in Hebrews chapter eleven that they were much more astute spiritually, relied upon God more strongly, than they actually did. We have to understand these events in the light of the context of Judges and the deterioration of the nation. What we have seen again and again and again in our study of Judges is that the nation loses its freedom not because they are simply weak militarily, not because they are behind the other nations technologically, not because they have a poor economy or lack good leadership, though all of those aspects are true. The issue at stake in the book of Judges is to show the real problem was a spiritual problem. If they had been right with the Lord spiritually and positive to doctrine they would not have come under the oppression by the foreign powers and they would not have undergone the military defeats that they did, and they would not have become the servants of the foreign nations. But because they rejected God and rejected doctrine God punished the nation again and again and again. As the nation continued through the cycles of spiritual deterioration what happened was that the culture as a whole took on more and more of the trappings of the surrounding culture of the Canaanites.
This is always the problem with Christianity throughout the ages: the church has always mirrored or reflected the trend of the world around us. After all, the church is always going to be made up of people who grew up and were trained and thought to think by the world system around them until they came to the point of salvation, and then unless there is a dedication to the Word of God and a dedication to doctrine to transform the thinking by a large majority of people within any culture, nation or society, then that culture is not going to be impacted by Christianity to a very large degree. This is what made western European history so fantastic. This is not to gloss over the many flaws in western European history. Today what is happening in multiculturalism and in the name of cultural diversity under the whole umbrella of postmodernism is a system of thinking that wants to attack western European culture as being the source of all evils in society, and if we could just rid ourselves of that cultural influence then we would be able to really advance and have true freedom for all peoples and all cultures. That is one of the major themes in education today in most college classrooms.
But what made European culture great was not that it was European, not that it was male-dominated, but what made western European culture what it was, was the influence of the Judeo-Christian thought forms—Judeo-Christian ethics, the revelation of God, and ultimately the influence of Christianity and men who (especially coming out of the Reformation) thought seriously and profoundly about the implications of doctrine for economic theory, political theory, and social theory. It doesn't mean that these men were right in every case, and it doesn't mean that we can give a total approach to the entire philosophical system, but the point ids that they were men who took the Scriptures seriously and believed that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God, and tried to use that as much as possible as a starting point for their thinking about man, about man's relationship to man, politics, government, society, and as a result of that they wrote many profound things in the 17th and 18th century that influenced the founding fathers of the USA. So what made western European civilization great was the influence of Christianity. Before Christianity there was very little difference between the thinking in the Roman empire, the thinking of the Greeks, from that of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Asians, or any other empire based on paganism throughout the world. They had certain commonalities and usually there was some sort of totalitarian strong-arm government that ruled for its own benefit and overlooked the liberties and values of the individual citizens in that nation.
It is only those nations that have been impacted by the thinking of Scripture—and not just in terms of something like salvation, but really working deeply to understand that the Scripture addresses every arena of life, every category of thinking, not just so-called theology or spirituality but that the Bible is inerrant in everything it addresses and gives us a coherent world view that has implications for every field of study and every category of human thought and human endeavor. And when that influence is removed then what happens is that those societies that had been influenced by Christianity begin to fragment and break down, and begin to take on the appearance of just every other culture and society around. That is what happened in the time of the judges because Israel refused to completely annihilate the Canaanites that God had commended them to do. They compromised with them and co-existed with them, then intermarried with them, and it wasn't long before they were worshipping the same gods and their culture was no different from those around them.
With the spiritual leaders from Othniel to Samson, the more the culture that they came out of reflected the culture of the Canaanites, the more the thinking of those individual leaders was influenced by the thinking of the culture around them. To understand what happened with Jephthah and then again with Samson in the following episode we must understand that they are men who are thinking more like a pagan than like men who are truly influenced by the Scriptures. With Jephthah we have something very similar to what happens today, and that is a superficial closet kind of Christianity. He talks about God a few times, just like in our society we have an invitation and a benediction and yet it is just like we are giving a nod to God and there is no real profound influence of biblical thinking on our thinking.
To briefly review what has happened, the Israelites have once again disobeyed God. There is a list at the beginning of chapter 10 in verse 6 of the fact that they not only got involved with the fertility religions of the Canaanites, serving the Baals and Ashteroths, but they got involved with gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Maob, and the gods of the people of Ammon. Those last two are very important because that is going to specifically going to impact what happens in this episode and the next chapter. They are influenced by the religious thinking of the Moabites and the Ammonites specifically, along with the other groups. What has happened now, instead of seeing what we have in the past, that they are just influenced by the Canaanite religions, now they are dominated by all the false religions of the nations that surround Israel. So the degree of apostasy in much greater than it has ever been before. But specific note paid to the religions of the Moabites and the Ammonites, and the reason for that is because in both of those systems they practiced human sacrifice and infant sacrifice. That plays a part as background understanding of what takes place in the episode with Jephthah and his vow.
Last time we looked at Israel's turning back to God, their confession of sin in verses 10-14 and God's response, that He wanted a little more than just a superficial confession if He was going to remove the consequences for their discipline. It doesn't have anything to do with fellowship, it has to do with delivering them from their divine discipline. Finally they admit their sin in verse 15, and it is more than just an admission of sin, they go so far as to remove the foreign gods from them. They stop doing what they have been doing that has caused them to break fellowship and go into apostasy. That is the last time we are going to see a significant mention of God until we get further on into the chapter.
We are told then that after that took place they were invaded again by the Ammonites in verse 17, "…the children of Israel assembled themselves together, and encamped in Mizpeh." We are not sure exactly where this Mizpeh is, it is not the Mizpeh that is located in the central area of Israel. This was a second Mizpeh that was located in the Trans-Jordan area, the land that God gave the nation across the Jordan. It was inhabited by the tribes of Manasseh and Gad. Ammon is located off to the east and they will invade from the east into this Trans-Jordan area. Israel is just a mob of warriors at this point but they have no one to lead them.
Judges 10:18, "And the people and princes of Gilead said one to another, What man is he that will begin to fight against the children of Ammon? he shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead." The Trans-Jordan area became known as Gilead. They are looking for someone to take control, to take charge, there is no one there who has the ability to do this. This leads us in verse 1 of the next chapter to an introduction of this warrior they are going to hire.
Judges 11:1, "Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah." We are told the Jephthah is a Gileadite, one of their own, but he is not looked up to by them, he has a somewhat checkered past and a besmirched family history, so he is an outcast from his own people. He was a "mighty man of valour." This phrase in the Hebrew indicates that he was a warrior. He was also the son of a whore, which tells us right away that he was not one of the most popular people. God is going to bring somebody up from the background to be a leader, but we are never told that God raises him. And that is an important thing to notice here. God is not mentioned in verses 17-18 of the previous chapter. His name is conspicuously absent from all of this. The people just get together and say Jepthah is going to lead them. They are not really dependent upon God at this point and God is conspicuously absent from this entire event. The Holy Spirit makes it clear through the author that we pay note to his family heritage, that he is the son of a whore and his father Gilead.
That raises some interesting observations about the nature of society at that time. First of all we need to recognize that marriage is breaking down, and we have this emphasis on Gilead who is going outside the family to a prostitute in order to have sexual relations. This prostitute gives birth to Jephthah and there seems to be a sense of honor, at least on Gilead's part, that he brings this child into his own home in order to raise the child. We are not told who the woman was. Was she an Israelite woman? In which case, we know that from our study of Jewish family, that the nation must have been in serious deterioration because a prostitute was at the lowest rung of society and looked down upon so much that a woman had to be in serious straits in order to go into prostitution. If it wasn't an Israelite woman, then that would mean it had to be a Canaanite woman. Is so, was it just some common prostitute or was it a temple prostitute? In which case you would have Gilead going to a temple prostitute, to Baal worship, and that may have been the case and it would just indicate the further deterioration and spiritual decline of the nation and the fact that Jephthah is not growing up in a Godly home where doctrine is the number one priority and where he would be taught the Word. He obviously, from what we see later on, knows something about Scripture and understands the historical background of Israel and events in the conquest, and he understands a certain measure of doctrine, but like many people today he has never spent very much time in the Word so that he has a popular understanding of doctrine and of the truth as revealed through Moses, but he doesn't have an accurate view. That is the case today in most churches where people have never taken the time to read the Bible for themselves so they have all kinds of ill-informed notions about what the Bible teaches and what it says or doesn't say. Jepthah has some understanding but it is merged in with a lot of false thinking and it also has assimilated a lot of ideas that have come out of Baalism and other idolatrous religions surrounding Israel. So it is a mixture, a syncretism of religious beliefs and that is going to eventually get Jepthah into serious trouble.
Judges 11:2 tells us that there were other sons in the home. "And Gilead's wife bore him sons; and his wife's sons grew up, and they drove out Jephthah, and said to him, You shall not inherit in our father's house; for you are the son of a strange woman." So he is an outcast, rejected by his family, rejected by his brothers, they don't want him to have any part of the inheritance.
Judges 11:3, "Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, and went out with him." We are not sure where Tob is. It is mentioned other times in Scripture. There is a note of irony here because tob in the Hebrew means "good." Yet there is not anything really good taking place in this area. Worthless men gather around him, so he has a gang. From the protection of being out in the land of Tob they begin to raid. They become criminals. They have quite a reputation and nobody can do anything about them. Verses 1-3 is just a parenthesis in the narrative where we are introduced to Jephthah, his background, and the fact that he is an outcast. Then we are reminded in verse 4 that the Ammonites have invaded the land.
The Amorites had invaded from the north and taken this land from the Ammonites over 300 years earlier, and before the Exodus. So when Moses and the Israelites came in that territory was no longer Ammon's, it was Sihon's and the Amorite's, and they attacked and took the land from Sihon. By the time of our story the Ammonites are going to invade because they want top recover the territory that was theirs 300 years earlier.
Judges 11:3, 4, "And it came to pass in process of time, that the children of Ammon made war against Israel. And it was so, that when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob." They looked around and couldn't find anybody who was bad enough and mean enough in order to defeat the Ammonites so they finally had to go with the man they had ruin out of town, the rejected one.
Judges 11:5, "And they said unto Jephthah, Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon." And notice how Jephthah responds to their offer.
Judges 11:6, "And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, Did not you hate me, and expel me out of my father's house? and why are you come unto me now when you are in distress?" He pushes a hard bargain. He shows that he is wily, he understands the issue, he is a hard-nosed bargainer, and he enters into some tough negotiations with them. He understands the dynamics of what is going on, he doesn't want to get into a position where if he comes and fulfills their request that all of a sudden they forget about him and he is left out in the cold again. He is going to use this to get some leverage so that he can reinstate himself, not just in the position he was in before he was expelled but now is going to manipulate them into making him their leader and giving him the authority that goes along with it. When this is over he wants to come out of this as somewhat of a king, a leader over Gilead.
Judges 11:8-10, "And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, Therefore we turn again to thee now, that you may go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead. And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If you bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the LORD deliver them before me, shall I be your head? And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, The LORD be witness between us, if we do not so according to your words."
Judges 11:11, "Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and captain over them: and Jephthah uttered all his words before the LORD in Mizpeh." The impact of that statement is that they set up a covenant between them and call for God to witness that covenant. And that pretty much sets the contract in stone so that after the war is over the Gileadites are going to have to give him what they have promised.
Jephthah does a very interesting thing in verse 12 which indicates that he understands the situation and he is not some rough guy out of the back woods of the Trans-Jordan. He understands something about leadership and he understands something about diplomacy and relations between nations, because what he is going to do is make sure that a war is necessary, and he is going to make it clear what the military objectives are in the war. "And Jephthah sent messengers unto the king of the children of Ammon, saying, What have you to do with me, that you art come against me to fight in my land?" Why are you invading Israel? What are the issues? He is going to make the objectives clear.
Judges 11:13, "And the king of the children of Ammon answered the messengers of Jephthah, Because Israel took away my land, when they came up out of Egypt, from Arnon even to Jabbok, and to Jordan: now therefore restore those lands again peaceably." What we have here is another example of historical revisionism. This is common today and most people don't notice it because they are so ignorant of history they just accept whatever version they read. The Ammonites are going to make a territorial claim. What they are claiming is that Israel stole this land from them. To understand this we need to look back to Deuteronomy 2:18 to see if Israel actually stole this land from the Ammonites. The Ammonites are cousins of the Jews. They are the descendants of Ammon who was the younger son of Lot, Abraham's nephew. Lot was a believer but he was not ever a Jew. Jews are designated by being sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—all three must be there. By the time the Jews came out of Egypt Ammon no longer possessed the land, but that is not what the king of the Ammonites is telling Jephthah. He is saying it is their land. Deut. 2:18, 19: "You are to pass over through Ar, the coast of Moab, this day: And when you come over against the children of Ammon, distress them not, nor meddle with them: for I will not give you of the land of the children of Ammon any possession; because I have given it to the children of Lot for a possession." So God makes it clear that Israel is not to take land from the Ammonites or the Moabites, that is their land which He has given to them. What had happened by this time is that by virtue of their failures Ammon had lost part of the land that was theirs. So it was no longer theirs and it was never again to be part of their kingdom, and God gave that to the Jews when they came in in the conquest.
From Deuteronomy 2:26 and on into chapter three is a rehearsal of what took place in the beginning stages of the conquest. Sihon is defeated by the Israelites, and then Og up to the north is defeated by the Israelites, and so those two territories, Bashan and the Amorite kingdom come under the possession of the Jews. So never in history have the Jews stolen land from the Ammonites.
After the king of Ammon makes this false charge, Jephthah responds. Judges 11:14-21, "And Jephthah sent messengers again unto the king of the children of Ammon: and said to him, Thus said Jephthah, Israel took not away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon: but when Israel came up from Egypt, and walked through the wilderness unto the Red sea, and came to Kadesh; then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, Let me, I pray you, pass through your land: but the king of Edom would not listen. And in like manner they sent to the king of Moab: but he would not consent: and Israel abode in Kadesh. Then they went along through the wilderness, and compassed the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, but came not within the border of Moab: for Arnon was the border of Moab. And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, Let us pass, we pray you, through your land into my place. But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his coast: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and pitched in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. And the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them: so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country." The point he is making is a theological point: "God gave us this land. God gave you your land, God specifically gave us this land; we didn't take it from you, the Amorites had taken it from you, but because God gave it to us we have a divine right claim to the land."
Judges 11:22, "And they possessed all the borders of the Amorites, from Arnon even to Jabbok, and from the wilderness even to Jordan." But note that they never encroached on the territory of the Ammonites because God had forbidden it.
Judges 11:23, "So now the LORD God of Israel has dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and should you possess it?" He is going to get into an interesting dialogue here: Should you possess it? Since God took it away from the Amorites and gave it to Israel, what right do you have to possess it?
Judges 11:24, "Will you not possess that which Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whomsoever the LORD our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess." What he is saying is that God gave Israel this possession, and if the Ammonite god gave them a possession would they not claim a natural right to it? Of course they would. In the middle of this he refers to the god Chemosh. He makes an error here. Chemosh is not the god of the Amorites, he is the god of the Moabites. He is using Chemosh is a sarcastic way to in some way put them off balance because Moab was always the stronger power.
Judges 11:25, 26, "And now are you any thing better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them, while Israel dwelt in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that be along by the coasts of Arnon, three hundred years? why therefore did you not recover them within that time?" Now he uses the historical argument.
Jephthah concludes in verse 27, "Wherefore I have not sinned against you, but you do me wrong to war against me: the LORD the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon."
Judges 11:28, "Howbeit the king of the children of Ammon listened not unto the words of Jephthah which he sent him." This is the high point of Jephthah's career. It is at this point that he understands what the Word has said, he understands the territorial possessions that God has given him, and because of his understanding of that he makes a very cogent argument that it is ultimately a matter of what God has given Israel. From this point on, just like Gideon, he slips into arrogance and lets the pagan influence of the culture around him influence him.
Judges 11:29, "Then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon." Remember that the ministry of God the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament did not have anything to do with the spiritual life of the individual believer. This isn't an indwelling like the indwelling of God the Holy Spirit in the church age. The Spirit of the Lord coming upon Jephthah does not mean that Jephthah is a super spiritual believer or that he is somehow going to make right decisions after this. It indicates that the Holy Spirit is going to enable Jepthah to make wise decisions in the battle and secure military victory. Once again this emphasizes that victory for Israel and freedom for Israel was always secured through military victory and God is not a pacifist.
On his way, Jephthah is going to make a vow. There are three positions on this vow. The first is that he made the vow and afterwards modified it. The second is that it was a rash vow and he really didn't really understand what he was doing and he just let his mouth run away with him. Neither of those two are right. From what we have seen so far is that Jephthah is a knowledgeable person. He is thoughtful and has thought through the issues. When he negotiates with the Gileadites he presses to make sure he gets complete control. Everything we see of Jephthah up to this point demonstrates that he is a man who has thought through what he is doing. In the pagan religions there were also vows but it was a way of manipulating their god into doing something that they wanted him to do. In Israel the vows that are stipulated in the Mosaic covenant were not designed that way. They were expressions of devotion to God.
Judges 11:30, 31, "And Jephthah vowed a vow to the LORD, and said, If you shall without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever comes forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering." This is phrased rather oddly: "whatever comes forth of the doors of my house." He anticipated that it would be a human coming out of his house. Animals were not kept in a Jewish home. It shows how seriously he wants this victory. It is going to secure him a position of success and power if he wins the battle. So typical of pagan culture he wants to impress God with the seriousness of the situation and to make sure that God does what he wants Him to do and gives him the victory. He is going to give to God the most valuable thing he can think of and we will discover that that is his daughter. He says, "I will offer it up for a burnt offering," and there he uses the word olah, the technical term for a burnt offering. It comes from a word which means to ascend or to go up. This is what he has in mind. He is not doing this because he is filled with the Spirit, he is doing it because he is operating on his compromised religious belief and is showing that he is still thinking mostly like a pagan.
Judges 11:32, 33, "So Jephthah passed over to the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands. And he smote them from Aroer, even till you come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and to the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel." So God gives him the victory and it is specified that that is his victory.
Now we see the consequence of the vow. Human sacrifice was not unusual at the time. There is evidence of it throughout Israel as early as the Mosaic period. For example, Leviticus 18:21; 20:2. Molech was one of the gods of the Ammonites. So there was a recognition as far back as 1400 B.C. that human sacrifice was being practiced by the surrounding nations. It also influenced Solomon, 1 Kings 11:7. Cf. Jeremiah 32:35. Human sacrifice has characterized pagan religions all over the world.