Judges 11: Jephthah and the Blessed Fault in the Holy Vow
Jdg 11:1-40 Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. (2) And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” (3) Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him. (4) After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. (5) And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. (6) And they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites.” (7) But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” (8) And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned to you now, that you may go with us and fight against the Ammonites and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” (9) Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the LORD gives them over to me, I will be your head.” (10) And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The LORD will be witness between us, if we do not do as you say.”
Jephthah and Christ – the Outsiders
Following on from Judges 10, we now see ‘the man’ to be Jephthah, another type of Christ. The distinctive marks of this man are two-fold – that he is exalted as a “mighty warrior”, but also humiliated because he was “the son of a prostitute”. Our Christ is not so different for He is the greatest warrior of all, he who is the King on Zion (Psalm 2:6), the One who shall break the nations with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psalm 2:9). Yet, He is also the One who bore the weight of the government (Isaiah 9:6), and is seen as an outsider (Hebrews 13:13) – the one who is identified not by His Heavenly Father, but by His earthly family (Matthew 13:55) and is despised for it. Judges 11:2 might as well be directly applied in the synoptic gospels – “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman”. Is that not the accusation made against Christ? That He shall not have an inheritance in the house of the Father in heaven, because He is born into the family of Mary and Joseph?
Furthermore, v.3 is also prophetic of Christ and his disciples – mere fishermen, perhaps even from ancient times to this day and age seen as “worthless fellows”. He finds these people in the land of Tob, a presumably good land, and here the comparisons between Jephthah and Abimelech are immediately noticeable. These worthless fellows attracted to Jephthah like moths – they “collected around” Jephthah and went out with him, just like we are called to go out to Christ (Hebrews 13:13). Instead, Abimelech had had to hire worthless and reckless fellows (Judges 9:4) who, if not for money, would not have even considered aiding Abimelech in his delusional conspiracy. Jephthah is the outsider not because of his ability to lead as a judge, but because of his familial status as the son of the prostitute, a social outcast; Abimelech is the insider not because of his ability to lead as a judge, but because of his familial status as the son of Jerubbaal, a judge of awesome repute. Jephthah had not asked to be a leader, though he is of that caliber; Abimelech desired leadership, much like that of Satan (Ezekiel 28) who was guardian cherub.
And so, when Christ was labeled as the King of the Jews at His crucifixion (Mark 15:18), it is ironic that it is exactly at the cross that we see His identity as the true King of men, though He was an outcast of a mere carpenter who fellowshipped with worthless men. He was hated, even rejected by his own apostles (c.f. Peter’s three denials), but upon recognizing that He is indeed the King of the Jews, we have died with Him on the cross and are born again into the kingdom of heaven (John 3). So also, Jephthah asked the Israelites to respect that prophetic truth, that if they require him to fight on their behalf and Yahweh gives him victory, then he must become their head just as Christ is our head when we acknowledge his victory over sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21). Indeed, Christ is neither mere teacher, nor miracle-worker from whom we reap benefits and use Him like a tool; but He is to be loved and worshipped as a Person of the Trinity, just as Jephthah is no mercenary but is protector of Israel because of his self-acknowledgment as head over her.
(11) So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them. And Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah. (12) Then Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites and said, “What do you have against me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” (13) And the king of the Ammonites answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel on coming up from Egypt took away my land, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and to the Jordan; now therefore restore it peaceably.”
Therefore, where at the end of chapter 10 they had hoped for this ‘one man’ at the watchtower Mizpah, he is now gathered at that same place to symbolically show that he is the one man though initially rejected by his own brethren. Christ is our One Man, though initially rejected by his own townsmen, and by his own race the Jews.
Beginning with v.13 we learn about the accusations of the Ammonites – the Israelites taking away much land (Arnon/Jabbok/Jordan). However, listen to Jephthah’s response:
(14) Jephthah again sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites (15) and said to him, “Thus says Jephthah: Israel did not take away the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites, (16) but when they came up from Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh. (17) Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. And they sent also to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. (18) “Then they journeyed through the wilderness and went around the land of Edom and the land of Moab and arrived on the east side of the land of Moab and camped on the other side of the Arnon. But they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the boundary of Moab. (19) Israel then sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land to our country,’ (20) but Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory, so Sihon gathered all his people together and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel. (21) And the LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. So Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. (22) And they took possession of all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. (23) So then the LORD, the God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel; and are you to take possession of them? (24) Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that the LORD our God has dispossessed before us, we will possess. (25) Now are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever contend against Israel, or did he ever go to war with them? (26) While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, 300 years, why did you not deliver them within that time? (27) I therefore have not sinned against you, and you do me wrong by making war on me. The LORD, the Judge, decide this day between the people of Israel and the people of Ammon.”
It is of great importance, after reading these verses (v.14-27) to remember the history of the Israelites. It is also of importance not to them, but also to us as Christians to acknowledge the sins and the justifications of the history of bearing the name of Christ – be that the wars of the Crusades or even our awareness of how many people have abused His Name for their purposes.
Yet, Jephthah is a great apologist – he time and time again appeals to two things between v.14-27: the passive and diplomatic nature of Israel, and the LORD’s direct intervention and aid when Israel is bullied into war by the neighbouring nations. This diplomatic nature came in the form of sending messengers (v.17, 19), and whereupon they were rejected from going through a land they would remain calmly for the LORD’s direction (end of v.17); finally, upon being attacked, the LORD took the initiative (rather than the Israelites) and protected His people (v.21, 23). This last point is important; if not for the LORD, Israel would have quickly become a devoured nation – and so Jephthah appeals to Balak the son of Zippor (c.f. Numbers 22) as testimony of his own acknowledgment that Israel is nothing without Yahweh. Indeed, Israel is a weak nation, but their Yahweh is mighty. Even with all their enemies like Sihon (the tempestuous warrior), Heshbon (a stronghold), and Balak himself (the ‘devastator’), Israel had repeatedly exercised compassion and wrought victory in Yahweh’s name. This is something which Chemosh, the subduing god of the Ammonites, cannot do.
It would seem, as in v.27, that the Ammonites of Jephthah’s day had thus made two mistakes: one, for failing to remember the acts of Israel and making empty accusations; and two, for failing to acknowledge the true living Yahweh as opposed to appeal to their dead god Chemosh which clearly cannot aid them. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly the same line of argument made by Peter in Acts 2:22-2:36 where he interprets the history of Israel as it should always have been interpreted.
Note how Peter, like Jephthah, is merely employing the only one type of exegesis and hermeneutics used by Christ Himself (John 5:39; Luke 24:27) – which is to understand the Old Testament Christocentrically. Jephthah is no different; though he does not mention Christ specifically, it is clear that Yahweh’s character is seen through the history of Israel in the face of the accusers. How many times the Sanhedrin disagreed with Christ’s interpretation of the Old Testament and claimed the self-righteousness of their patriarchs? And so we also see the same thing with the Ammonites twisting the truth of Israel’s conquers into something worthy of condemnation. Furthermore, the Ammonites lacked the historical accuracy let alone acknowledging God’s involvement in the Israelites’ victories:
“Jephthah shows that the Israelites did not take the land of the Moabites or Ammonites, but that of the Amorites, which they had conquered from Sihon their king, who had, without cause or provocation, attacked them; and although the Amorites had taken the lands in question from the Ammonites, yet the title by which Israel held them was good, because they took them not from the Ammonites, but conquered them from the Amorites. So now the Lord – hath dispossessed the Amorites. – The circumstances in which the Israelites were when they were attacked by the Amorites, plainly proved, that, unless Jehovah had helped them, they must have been overcome. God defeated the Amorites, and made a grant of their lands to the Israelites; and they had, in consequence, possessed them for three hundred years.” – Adam Clarke
Thus, the condemnation against the Ammonites is increased – for failing to tremble before Yahweh like Balak; for failing to remember the history of Israel’s diplomatic nature; and for failing to understand the legitimacy of Israel’s holding over the Amorites and in turn leading to a rightful ownership of the lands in question.
The result of Peter’s exegesis in Acts 2 led to the immediate response of both the Gentiles and Jews in his presence: 37Now when(BH) they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers,(BI) what shall we do?
Unfortunately, the Ammonites did not meet Jephthah’s explanations with such humbleness:
(28) But the king of the Ammonites did not listen to the words of Jephthah that he sent to him. (29) Then the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. (30) And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, (31) then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (32) So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand. (33) And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
The Vow between the Father and the Son
The irony of v.28-33 lies in v.33 – where Chemosh, the one who subdues, is the god of the Ammonites, we see here Jephthah to in turn subdued the Ammonites before the people of Israel, all by filling of the Holy Spirit (v.29). However, as from the end of the previous chapter to the present verse, the focus has never been on the Ammonites. It has been on the rejection, acceptance and the quality of the “one man” Jephthah – the one man whom the LORD gave to the Israelites upon their desperate call. And this one man made a vow of a burnt offering upon the giving of the Ammonites into his hand, we are to assume that this vow is directly related to the overwhelming Spirit-led victory over the Ammonites where he single-handedly overcame twenty cities “with a great blow”. A victory of such scale, by himself, may even rival that of Samson (in the latter chapters of Judges) even though Samson is often celebrated as the powerful judge.
Rather, this vow has taken the spotlight because of its controversy leading to several theologians questioning its translation. Bullinger in “Great Cloud of Witnesses in Hebrews 11” had said that the “and” of v.31 should be changed to “or” – that “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, or I will offer it up as a burnt offering”. In such a case, Bullinger is implying dedication to the LORD rather than a human sacrifice like an actual burnt offering. Adam Clarke is similarly disturbed with the translations, and his in depth study of the Hebrew is quite enlightening:
“The text is והיה ליהוה והעליתיהו עולה vehayah layhovah, vehaalithihu olah; the translation of which, according to the most accurate Hebrew scholars, is this: I will consecrate it to the Lord, or I will offer it for a burnt-offering; that is, “If it be a thing fit for a burnt-offering, it shall be made one; if fit for the service of God, it shall be consecrated to him.” That conditions of this kind must have been implied in the vow, is evident enough; to have been made without them, it must have been the vow of a heathen, or a madman. If a dog had met him, this could not have been made a burnt-offering; and if his neighbor or friend’s wife, son, or daughter, etc., had been returning from a visit to his family, his vow gave him no right over them. Besides, human sacrifices were ever an abomination to the Lord; and this was one of the grand reasons why God drove out the Canaanites, etc., because they offered their sons and daughters to Molech in the fire, i.e., made burnt-offerings of them, as is generally supposed…
It has been supposed that “the text itself might have been read differently in former times; if instead of the words והעליתיהו עולה, I will offer It a burnt-offering, we read והעליתי הוא עולה, I will offer Him (i.e., the Lord) a burnt-offering: this will make a widely different sense, more consistent with everything that is sacred; and it is formed by the addition of only a single letter, (א aleph), and the separation of the pronoun from the verb. Now the letter א aleph is so like the letter ע ain, which immediately follows it in the word עולה olah, that the one might easily have been lost in the other, and thus the pronoun be joined to the verb as at present, where it expresses the thing to be sacrificed instead of the person to whom the sacrifice was to be made. With this emendation the passage will read thus: Whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me – shall be the Lord’s; and I will offer Him a burnt-offering.” For this criticism there is no absolute need, because the pronoun הו hu, in the above verse, may with as much propriety be translated him as it. The latter part of the verse is, literally, And I will offer him a burnt-offering, עולה olah, not לעולה leolah, For a burnt-offering, which is the common Hebrew form when for is intended to be expressed. This is strong presumption that the text should be thus understood: and this avoids the very disputable construction which is put on the ו vau, in והעליתיהו vehaalithihu, Or I will offer It up, instead of And I will offer Him a burnt-offering.”
Although Bullinger’s translation is not as rigorous or detailed as Clarke’s, their theological disposition come to the same conclusion: that there is a separate burnt offering (which is given as such only if the “it” which came out of Jephthah’s house is a clean offering which Moses took great pains to explain in the book of Leviticus; it is thus clear that not every animal made in the context of a vow is a suitable offering); and if not a suitable offering, then Jephthah’s daughter in this particular instance is wholly dedicated, consecrated to the LORD. There seems, in both of these theologians’ minds, to be no merging of the two. They do not consider the giving of Jephthah’s daughter as a suitable sacrifice, especially not under the mandate of Leviticus 27 – not unless his daughter is redeemed. However, whether the daughter is sacrificed will be further scrutinized by the end of the chapter.
(34) Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. (35) And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” (36) And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” (37) So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” (38) So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. (39) And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel (40) that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.
It would appear, as aforementioned in Leviticus 27, that vows are greatly important to God. The reason for this is because God Himself makes several vows – to Adam, to Noah, to Abraham and so forth, in the continual encouragement that the Seed will soon come through the seeds. The very first vow made to created man was in the garden (Genesis 3:15), though this vow was an intra-Trinitarian promise made between the Father and the Son before creation (Isaiah 42:1; John 17; Revelation 13:8) making the first vow in the garden technically the ‘second’ vow, or the first expression to Adam of the true first vow made pre-creation. With this in mind, v.36 should be understood in the context where vows are taken with utmost seriousness – and given the caliber of Jephthah as both type of Christ and captain of Israel, seen as a saint having faith in Christ (Hebrews 11:32) it is important that this great vow which granted him typological victory over Yahweh’s enemies is ultimately correlated to the great vow between the Father and the Son leading to the victory over Satan and the redemption and renewal of the corrupted creation.
It is here that Clarke continues with his Hebrew exposition:
“From Jdg_11:39 it appears evident that Jephthah’s daughter was not Sacrificed to God, but consecrated to him in a state of perpetual virginity; for the text says, She knew no man, for this was a statute in Israel. ותהי חק בישראל vattehi chok beyishrael; viz., that persons thus dedicated or consecrated to God, should live in a state of unchangeable celibacy. Thus this celebrated place is, without violence to any part of the text, or to any proper rule of construction, cleared of all difficulty, and caused to speak a language consistent with itself, and with the nature of God… [With regards to v.40] I am satisfied that this is not a correct translation of the original לתנות לבת יפתח lethannoth lebath yiphtach. Houbigant translates the whole verse thus: Sed iste mos apud Israel invaluit, ut virgines Israel, temporibus diversis, irent ad filiam Jepthe-ut eam quotannis dies quatuor consolarentur; “But this custom prevailed in Israel that the virgins of Israel went at different times, four days in the year, to the daughter of Jephthah, that they might comfort her.” This verse also gives evidence that the daughter of Jephthah was not sacrificed: nor does it appear that the custom or statute referred to here lasted after the death of Jephthah’s daughter.”
Thus, Clarke’s comprehensive theology of not accepting Jephthah’s daughter as human sacrifice has led him to retranslate much of the latter parts of chapter 11, including the true manner in which the people had sympathized – indeed comforted rather than wept – with and for Jephthah’s daughter. However, for the sake of Hebrew interpretation he seemed not to be informed as thoroughly of the context as Matthew Henry who pointed out that there is no reason for her to weep of her virginity and holy dedication to the LORD for two months, for she had the whole life as a nun to do that.
However, it seemed that for Jephthah’s daughter there is a ‘time limit’ before which she could no longer weep. There is of course the possibility that she wished to worship God in complete dedication, and would rather weep before being anointed for holy consecration (as according to Clarke and Bullinger’s translations of the verse) and thus commit to the ministry of God as a single woman in much rejoicing. Yet, this is mere speculation: instead, what we do know is that she had wept profusely, going up and down the mountains to weep for her virginity (v.37). In addition to these points, it is also possible for the daughter to have been redeemed for a price before a priest if she was actually devoted as in Leviticus 27:4 or 27:8 if Jephthah is a poor man. Let us look at Matthew Henry’s investigation of the event which adds more insight than Clarke and Bullinger in terms of the context:
“…If he [Jephthah] sacrificed her, it was proper enough for her to bewail, not her death, because that was intended to be for the honour of God, and she would undergo it cheerfully, but that unhappy circumstance of it which made it more grievous to her than any other, because she was her father’s only child, in whom he hoped his name and family would be built up, that she was unmarried, and so left no issue to inherit her father’s honour and estate; therefore it is particularly taken notice of (Jdg_11:34) that besides her he had neither son nor daughter. But that which makes me think Jephthah did not go about thus to satisfy his vow, or evade it rather, is that we do not find any law, usage, or custom, in all the Old Testament, which does in the least intimate that a single life was any branch or article of religion, or that any person, man or woman, was looked upon as the more holy, more the Lord’s, or devoted to him, for living unmarried: it was no part of the law either of the priests or of the Nazarites. Deborah and Huldah, both prophetesses, are both of them particularly recorded to have been married women. Besides, had she only been confined to a single life, she needed not to have desired these two months to bewail it in: she had her whole life before her to do that, if she saw cause. Nor needed she to take such a sad leave of her companions; for those that are of that opinion understand what is said in Jdg_11:40 of their coming to talk with her, as our margin reads it, four days in a year. ”
Yet, one thing which the mentioned theologians have not investigated in detail is that she is Jephthah’s firstborn daughter; that she is a virgin; that it is an entirely difficult ordeal to have been devoted. Given Matthew Henry’s weighing of context, which should similarly inform men of their translation of Hebrew, it would seem more likely that Jephthah’s daughter was duly sacrificed but at the cost of Jephthah’s own hasty vow. Jephthah had made mistakes, but many saintly men have also done so – be that Gideon, Lot, Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Adam. Yet, they are still considered saints because of Christ, and not by their own caliber of works. So Jephthah’s honouring of the vow is an honouring of the greater vow between the Father and the Son – the Son who was also a weeping virgin in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood. The Son who was ordained to go up and down the holy hill (Psalm 24), ordained to be incarnate and ordained to ascend, just as Jephthah’s daughter had done so in contemplation of her impending death as symbolic of the Son’s impending death on the cross. Matthew Henry makes this passing comment:
“Many circumstances, now unknown to us, might make this altogether extraordinary, and justify it, yet not so as that it might justify the like. Some learned men have made this sacrifice a figure of Christ the great sacrifice: he was of unspotted purity and innocency, as she a chaste virgin; he was devoted to death by his Father, and so made a curse, or an anathema, for us; he submitted himself, as she did, to his Father’s will: Not as I will, but as thou wilt.“
And like every tragic event, it is marked with a memorial (e.g. the Passover and the Festival of the Unleavened Bread and the tragic deaths of the firstborn from unbelieving families) – thus making more sense of the people weeping for the death of Jephthah’s daughter like the Mary’s have done prior to Jesus’ resurrection, rather than mere comforting which seems to be a slight violation purely because of pre-informed theological presuppositions concerning God’s character.
Unlike the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 which is by the volition of Yahweh, this is an oath, a vow, made by Jephthah knowing that all vows are taken with utmost seriousness. He did not match his care of words with the seriousness of taking the vow itself, but his honouring of the vow is perhaps the reason why the writer of Hebrews stated that he was also a man of faith, honouring that higher vow of the Son’s eventual sacrifice. Would theologians then say that the Father is a cosmic child-abuser, or that He is an advocate of child-sacrifice akin to the religion of Molech? Rather, the religion of Molech sacrificed children against their will; the religion of Molech sacrificed children hoping to appease that holy wrath of Yahweh. Yet, the relationship with Christ honours the eventual redemption of the Son, just as Jephthah is honouring that same truth in hope of the eventual resurrection of his daughter (on the Day of Resurrection) despite his grievous mistake used by God to display a greater glory. Like Isaac, she is willingly serving Yahweh (v.36-37 indicates her willingness to be a sacrifice) – and the picture of Genesis is heavily laden with the third-day imagery held at Moriah, the place of Christ’s eventual self-sacrifice.
Make no mistake – the death of Jephthah’s daughter is a grievous mistake. It is not pleasing in God’s eyes that man should die instead of the God-man taking his/her place. However, this is a vow made by Jephthah, not the Father. It is a vow which the Father used for his glory, just as the Father had used the fallen creation for his glory of recapitulation in Irenaeus’ definition, that we may be glorified from dust to being ‘deified’ beyond dust – just as the fallen creation itself is not good in God’s eyes. Instead, this is a type of felix culpa, a “blessed fault”: we see that same image of the Father sacrificing His only and firstborn Son, just as Jephthah is doing so with his daughter, held at the Mizpeh the watchtower – watching for the true sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Judges 12: The Word of God
Jdg 12:1-15 The men of Ephraim were called to arms, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house over you with fire.” (2) And Jephthah said to them, “I and my people had a great dispute with the Ammonites, and when I called you, you did not save me from their hand. (3) And when I saw that you would not save me, I took my life in my hand and crossed over against the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day to fight against me?” (4) Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and Manasseh.” (5) And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” (6) they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell.
War of Words
It would seem that this episode concerning Jephthah is a reflection of the same conflict between Gideon and Ephraim. Why is it that Ephraim is so incredibly insecure? Is it because of their imminent inheritance in comparison to Manasseh according to the blessing of Jacob? Like the time with Gideon, Jephthah is equally non-blameworthy. V.3 explains that Ephraim did not even go to save Gideon and Jephthah, the underdog and the outcast, even though (as Gideon implied) that the men of Ephraim are of greater stature and privilege. As such, Ephraim is seen as a bully within Israel; browbeating and patronizing those who pass by his land, like a Middle-Eastern mafia, ensuring their own prophesied blessings not through faith and not through the corporate church, but through putting other tribes and people down. This elitist, caste-like attitude is exactly the subject of the feud between Jephthah and Ephraim. Indeed, the phrase “I took my life in my hand” is repeated in 1 Samuel 19:5 and 1 Samuel 28:21, both seen as positive instances as a result of faith in Christ, rather than an endorsement for works-salvation. Without this faith, they would not have succeeded (Hebrews 11), as the men of Ephraim clearly show by their exploitation of cheap grace as in Bonhoeffer’s definition. With this faith, they can even move mountains, hence the aforementioned victory of Jephthah against the numerous Ammonites.
As if Ephraim did not push their social-status weight around, v.4-5 certainly cemented their views against the outsiders and underdogs by calling the Gileadites fugitives. It would seem that through this event, the deaths of the Ephraimites – all 42,000 of them – is one of the greatest civil wars that Israel has seen since the beginning of Scripture. Yet, it is certainly telling of how Yahweh favours the underdog and the outsider than the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Sanhedrin. Indeed, as in Isaiah 63:5, Christ has to work out salvation by himself, for Gideon and Jephthah are merely imitating the work of their Saviour who is rejected by all and accepted by rejected, ‘worthless’ men. Hence, the end of this feud comprises of two things: the Ephraimites themselves becoming a victim of their curse as they are now truly fugitives instead of their accused Gileadite brothers; and secondly, that they are identified by their inability to speak the word “Shibboleth” properly, even though it be seemingly an extremely minor difference:
With regards to the term “Shibboleth” and “Sibboleth” I turn to Adam Clarke:
“The original differs only in the first letter ס samech, instead of ש sheen; אמר נא שבלת ויאמר סבלת emar na Shibboleth, vaiyomer Sibboleth. The difference between ש seen, without a point, which when pointed is pronounced sheen, and ס samech, is supposed by many to be imperceptible. But there can be no doubt there was, to the ears of a Hebrew, a most sensible distinction… Had there been no distinction between the seen and samech but what the Masoretic point gives now, then ס samech would not have been used in the word סבלת sibboleth, but ש seen, thus שבלת: but there must have been a very remarkable difference in the pronunciation of the Ephraimites, when instead of שבלת shibboleth, an ear of corn, (see Job_24:24), they said סבלת sibboleth, which signifies a burden, Exo_6:6; and a heavy burden were they obliged to bear who could not pronounce this test letter.”
It would seem that this choice of word may be related to the fords which the Gileadites have captured, for Shibboleth does not only mean ‘ear of grain’, but it could also mean ‘flowing stream and head’; contrary to Sibboleth which means ‘burden’ as well as ‘ear of grain or wheat’. However, I think the focus of the word is in the first letter as Clarke has noted, the seeming gross negligence for the Ephraimites to be subject to such a minor detail. Yet, this seemingly minor quibble is merely the peak of a mountain of discontent between Jephthah and Ephraim for Ephraim’s detestation of Gilead. There is much parallel here between that of the man who attended the wedding ceremony without proper attire in Jesus’ parables (Matthew 22:11-14). The response was not merely throwing the man back where he came from, but ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ – a very similar response to Jephthah’s treatment of the Ephraimites.
So we should see how the Ephramites’ failure to speak the word properly, in crossing the river symbolic of the crossing of the river Jordan and the Red Sea as typological of salvation, is a direct correlation to a failure on their behalf to enter into the true Promised Land over what seems to be a minor quibble. Yet, in God’s eyes, this minor quibble is what will cost us our salvation – and that is why the path is wide but the gate is narrow (Matthew 7:13-14). Yet, this narrow gate can be entered through Jesus Christ, the one way, and by Him we can speak the right Word and wear the right dress to be accepted onto the other side of the river, through the waters of judgment; from bearing the burden of condemnation (Sibboleth) to reaching that flowing stream and head (Shibboleth), the river of life from the Head of the Church.
(7) Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in his city in Gilead. (8) After him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel. (9) He had thirty sons, and thirty daughters he gave in marriage outside his clan, and thirty daughters he brought in from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. (10) Then Ibzan died and was buried at Bethlehem. (11) After him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel, and he judged Israel ten years. (12) Then Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun. (13) After him Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel. (14) He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys, and he judged Israel eight years. (15) Then Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died and was buried at Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.
It is then after the death of Jephthah that we come to the quick mentioning of other judges, through whom God had provided approximately thirty-one years of peace in several areas over Israel. Yet, this time of rest is unsurprisingly followed by corruption, spiritual adultery and idolatry as the refrain of Judges goes. The fall from Ibzan and Abdon who both had a large number of beasts and children displaying their wealth and honour.
Yet, what I have attempted to show is that through the lengthened expositions of the chosen judges according to the narrator of this book, it would seem that the shadows, prophecies and typologies of Christ and His incarnate work are permeated throughout these great men and women endowed with the Spirit. History does not seem to be the main focus, for not all men had lives equally recorded. Contrarily, Christology, pneumatology, soteriology and eschatology are, unsurprisingly, the main foci of the book of Judges as we learn that The Great Judge must have His share of the Spirit, the fullness of the Spirit which these judges do not have; the One Man is the saviour of Israel who must first be humiliated before he can be exalted; the King-like leader’s victory over the non-Christian enemies is an initiation of Yahweh’s will to portray that final judgment on all nations on the Day of Resurrection, as opposed to his own effort like that of Abimelech – for even the Son knows not when He returns (Mark 13:32) except by depending on the Father and the Spirit.
All these points take us firmly into that vow between the Father and the Son, that they would use a type of felix culpa to ensure that His gospel is indeed preached to the neighbouring nations then, be that in the form of Jephthah’s grievous sacrifice of his only virgin daughter to the killing of the Ephraimites as a direct comparison between two types of ‘leaders’ in Israel – the true leader and the self-proclaimed ones.
We are thus moving closer and closer from the Mosaic administration of the law to the embodiment of the law in person like that of the king (Deuteronomy 17) as we begin to see stronger typologies of the God-man Christ beyond that of Christophanies which were also rife throughout Genesis to Joshua, until the time of the Kings as we are getting closer and closer to the time of Saul and David.