Shrewd and Intelligent
1Now 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.” 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.” 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.” 28 But the king of the Ammonites did not listen to the words of Jephthah that he sent to him.
This is another one of those characters that causes me to say, “God, why did you put this guy in Your Book?” His story is one of ruthlessness and at least one bad decision. But, here he is and so we shall deal with it. Instead of trying to clarify this rather complicated story myself I’ve included an explanation from Dr. Lawrenz’s commentary on Judges.
Jephthah was a mighty warrior like Gideon. The two words in Hebrew for “mighty warrior” are used to describe men who possessed the character and military means (weapons, support, and training) to accomplish mighty things. Jephthah was one who earned his reputation the hard way. The opening offer of the men of Gilead was not overly generous. They had been looking for a “head,” but offered Jephthah less. They wanted him to command the troops and then hopefully go away when the victory was theirs. Jephthah was no fool. He was a shrewd diplomat. He forced the men of Gilead to up the ante by reminding them of the shabby treatment he had received from their hands. “War is diplomacy carried on by another means” (Winston Churchill). Jephthah knew this. He would shed blood only after negotiations failed, so he dispatched emissaries to the Ammonite king. Jephthah sent a second group of emissaries, who carried a legal brief from Jephthah that reveals a remarkable knowledge of history and Scripture on Jephthah’s part. In his legal argument Jephthah mentions the god Chemosh, which was the name of Moab’s god. Some have found it strange that Jephthah credits Chemosh as one who gives territory. Was Israel’s judge acknowledging the existence of foreign gods? Not necessarily. Remember that Jephthah was making a legal argument. He was not about to raise a religious point in the context of settling a dispute. Of greater interest is why Molech, the usual god of the Ammonites, is not the one mentioned here. Several suggestions have been made. One suggestion is that Jephthah deliberately used the god of Moab to underscore that Moab had a better claim than Ammon to the territory in question, if any claim at all was to be considered. Another suggestion is that Molech and Chemosh were interchangeable at this time in Moab and Ammon’s history. Both gods were connected with child sacrifice, as was Baal.
Lawrenz, J. C. ©1997. Judges, Ruth (p. 126-134). Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House.
As I ponder this text, I must recognize that shrewdness is not ungodly. Jephthah was clearly an intelligent person and he knew his history. He was also a clever tactical thinker. While Jephthah was driven from his family for his less than stellar heritage, he was an able commander and leader. As we see throughout the Scriptures, God doesn’t always pick the person with the most impressive pedigree. Jephthah is yet another example of that. We will find, later in his story, that he was also somewhat rash and made an extremely bad vow. (That’s Monday’s story.) For now, we see someone who is trying to win through diplomacy rather than violence although one gets the impression that violence is okay way Jephthah as well. His story will play out in an interesting albeit tragic fashion.