Thursday, February 18, 2010

Judges 10-12: Jephthah

I know what you're thinking.  Jephthah?  Why does he get his own blog post?  Isn't he a little blurb like Othniel and Shagmar?  Acutally no, his story actually does have three whole chapters.

Well, the first chapter of Jephthah's story isn't about Jephthah, it's about the Philistines and Amorites oppressing Israel.  The Philistines and Amorites keep popping up all over the place - we're going to be seeing them for a while, and the Philistines will actually become more and more prominent the further on we go.  Isn't that great.

So what we learn in chapter 10 is that there are a couple judges after Abimelech's death and before Jephthah comes into play: Tola the son of Dodo (I know! it's even better than Joshua son of Nun) and Jair the Gileadite.  So after they're both gone, Israel again does evil, and then the Amorites and Philistines kind of take over.  Israel cries out to God, and God says, I delivered you from everybody else, but you still left me to serve other gods, so I'm not going to save you this time (how about I'll leave the quotes off unless I'm directly quoting the Bible - that way there's no confusion).  But the people of Israel say something very interesting: "We have sinned, do to us whatever seems good to You; only please deliver us this day."  I think that when you can surrender yourself to God and say "do whatever you want," you've reached a good place to be.  But Israel is pretty desperate here, apparently.

I love what the next verse says: the Israelites got rid of all their foreign gods and served the LORD - and remember, this is before God delivers them or even raises up a judge.  And then it says, "and He [God] could bear the misery of Israel no longer."  Doesn't that statement amaze you?  When we are suffering, God's not up there rubbing His hands together saying "aha, finally they are good and miserable!"  It grieves God - I think He hurts when we hurt, because He loves us.  He would really not have any of this bad stuff happen to people, but remember, God is on a mission here.  He is on a mission to save the whole world, and He's going to do whatever it takes to accomplish it.  What does that have to do with anything?  Well, if Israel stops following Him and does its own thing for the rest of history, how do you suppose He's going to bring the Messiah into the world in the first place?  It seems clear to me that God wanted Jesus to be born and grow up in a place where the LORD was known and served.

So anyway, enter Jephthah, hereafter Jeph because Jephthah is too long to type..  Jeph is an interesting person right off the bat because he's the son of a prostitute.  But interestingly enough, we know who his father was, a guy named Gilead - in fact, it appears that Jeph was raised in his father's house.  Gilead has a wife, and he and his wife have sons, and when they grow up they drive Jephthah out of the house because he's an illegitimate son.  Now, if I remember my Torah right, people who had illicit sex were supposed to be killed or else made to marry if they were both single consenting adults, so technically this situation shouldn't exist.  But sometimes God takes things that shouldn't be, and does something really cool with them.  Bad stuff happens, and we can't always just get rid of it, but God can do something even better than erasing it - He can redeem it.

So Jeph is an outcast living in a place called Tob, and some guys who are apparently real losers hang out with them (seriously, my Bible calls themn "worthless fellows").  But Jeph must've been one heck of a fighter or something, because when the Ammonites start going to war with Israel, the elders from Jeph's hometown go out and find him and say, hey, we want you to be our chief so you can fight these Ammonites.  Jeph says, Um, didn't you guys kick me out?  Name one good reason why I should listen to you just because you're in trouble.  The elders say, because you'll become our chief.  So Jeph goes with them.

Jeph has an interesting battle tactic.  He sends a message to the king of Ammon saying, why the heck are you guys fighting us anyway?  The king replies, because you guys took our land away and we want it back.  Jeph says, No way dude, that's not how it happened.  And he tells them the story that we already know from Numbers: how Israel asked very nicely to pass through Moab, and Moab wouldn't let them, so they had to go around, and they had to go by Ammon, and they asked very nicely to pass through Ammon, and Ammon not only wouldn't let them, but went out to war against them.  Is this all coming back?

Anyway, Jeph's point is that after all this, God gave the land of Ammon to the Israelites, so the Ammonites lost their right to live there; they can live in whatever land their own god gives them (nice touch).  But he might as well not have said anything, because the king doesn't listen.

So of course, Ammon and Israel go to war, and Jeph does something really stupid.  He makes a vow that if they win, he'll give whatever walks out of his door first as an offering to God.  So of course Israel wins because God is with them, and Jeph goes home, and what - or should I say, who - walks out his door first? His daughter.

Okay, so I think scholars are probably divided on what actually happens to Jeph's daughter, because the Law forbids human sacrifice of any kind.  In fact, we learned all about the redeeming of the firstborn sons, since firstborn animals were offered as sacrifices, but instead of doing that with their children they would offer an animal in the son's place.  Now, the text says that Jeph's daughter goes into the mountains to mourn being a virgin her whole life, not that she goes to mourn being about to die, and when she comes back the text says that she had no relations with a man, so I think that what actually happened is that she just lived a celibate life, and maybe she spent the rest of her life in the Lord's service or something, kind of like what Hannah did with Samuel.  Here, I found a little article that explains it in further detail:

Anyway, so those Ephraimites once again are really miffed that they weren't invited to join the battle.  What is up with Ephraim?  Every time the people on the other side of the Jordan get in a fight, they want a piece of it.  Only this time the Ephraimtes tell Jeph they're going to burn his house down because he didn'task them to fight.  Jeph tells them that he did call Ephraim and ask for their help and they just didn't give it.  That part wasn't in the story already, so we didn't know about it.  Then Ephraim and the people of Gilead fight each other, and Jeph's team wins.  It kind of looks to me that what has happened is exactly what these people's ancestors were worried about when they made their memorial altar - that there would be a rift between the Israelites to the west of the Jordan and those living in Gilead, and that the people in the main part of Israel would say that the other guys weren't really part of them.  Ephraim says to the people in Gilead, "You are fugitives of Ephraim, O Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and in the midst of Manasseh."  I don't know what that means, but it sounds like it means "You're not real Israelites."  Their ancestors tried to prevent that from happening, but it happened anyway.

Oh, but this is really funny.  After this battle, there's a kind of lingering feud between Ephraim Gilead, and when crossing the Jordan the people all have to say the password: Shibboleth.  See, Ephraimites apparently couldn't make a "sh" sound, and they would say "Sibboleth," and then the Gileadites would know the person was an Ephraimite.  I think that's funny.

The end of this chapter just mentions all the people who judge Israel after Jeph, but the most significant ting about any of them is that the judge named Isban has thirty sons and thirty daughters, and another judge named Abdon has forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkeys.

Jeph's story is kind of a weird one, but I think he was a cool guy overall.  I really don't think he killed his daughter.  I like that he attempted diplomacy.  And I love that we see the heart of God in this story.


Michelle said...

You are so funny! Everytime I read one of your blogs, I feel like you are sitting and talking with me. I too love the verse about God grieving for Israel. I have yet to read a chapter that does not show some level of God's love, not to mention patience.

Zoe said...

Haha, thanks. I pretty much write like I talk, and one of my goals in reading the Bible has been to read it the way I would read a novel or something. I'm finding that there -is- comedy in the Bible, along with tragedy, romance, action, and drama.