As we have seen, after the death of Jair, the people of Israel again forsook Jehovah and served the gods of the surrounding nations. When the new tide of apostasy, that engulfed the land, was at its height, Jehovah again came with His judgment, and the distress was so great that the very existence of the nation was threatened. The people cried unto the Lord and a new spirit was manifest in Israel. There was confessions of sins. The strange gods were put away and the nation returned to the Lord. Discord and weakness, despondency and self-seeking, gave way to concord and confidence in God, that lead to victory. Thus when the children of Ammon made a new excursion into Gilead, the children of Israel likewise assembled themselves together, and encamped in Mizpah. But the host of the Lord was without a human leader to lead it into battle. The princes of the people, agreed among themselves that the man that would begin to fight against the Ammonites would be head over them. And their thoughts turned to Jephthah.
The narrator sets out with a statement that bears on Jephthah’s character. He was a mighty man of valor, a valiant hero. An identical language is used of Gideon (ch. 4:12). The reference is not to unsanctified natural courage and daring, but to spiritual power and invincibility that proceed on the one hand from the spiritual perception that man by himself is nothing, and on the other hand from implicit trust in Jehovah. Jephthah, as Gideon, was a hero of faith. It may well be, as some interpreters conjecture, that, previous to his being recalled from the land of Tob by the elders of Gilead, he had made successful expedition against the Ammonites, but if so, his victory was his faith. Always in the estimation of the sacred writers of the Scriptures, unsanctified physical and mental power is the arm of flesh in which the wicked place their confidence and on this account perish. All that Jephthah says and does bespeaks faith, a right attitude toward God. To the elders of Gilead he said, “If ye bring me home again, to fight against the children of Ammon, and the Lord deliver them before me, shall I be your head.” Mark the expression, “And the Lord deliver them before me. . . .” That Israel’s help cometh from the sanctuary was a principle of faith with this man. Then, after he had done transacting with the elders, he “uttered all his words before the Lord in Mizpah.” Plainly, Jephthah walked with God. The Lord was in all his thoughts. As can therefore be expected, he was thoroughly familiar with the glorious history of His people and thus also with the great principles of truth which this history so clearly demonstrated, the truth that Israel was the product of God’s wonder-working grace, and was therefore in duty bound to be consecrated unto Jehovah his redeemer God. That he knew the history of his people comes out so plainly in his negotiations with the king of Ammon. Then finally there is his vow, of which we shall speak in the sequence. This vow, which, in a sense, is the principal incident in the history of Jephthah, has from earliest times given rise to singular explanations—explanations that do violence to the faith of the man, militate against the assertion of his being a mighty hero. Besides, that the keeping of the vow consisted in his offering a sacrifice by blood with his daughter as the victim is a view contradicted by the statements occurring in the narrative that bear on her case. Such a sacrifice was condemned by Israel’s law as being an abomination in the sight of Jehovah. The practice was abhorrent to every right-minded Israelite. That Jephthah should have committed this outrage is inconceivable in the light of what we know of him from the sacred narrative. And that, had he done so, the sacred writer would have refrained from inserting in his narrative one word of condemnation is likewise inconceivable.
Among all the judges, Jephthah stands out as the tragic figure. The recorded events of his life, taken collectively, make a sad story. A Gileadite had begotten him by a woman who was a harlot. The original text here reads, “And Jephthah the Gileadite was a hero of power or might (a mighty hero): And he was the son of a woman (who was) a harlot. And begat Gilead Jephthah. As the Hebrew word translated by woman also has the meaning of wife, there are these possibilities. 1. The woman was married to Gilead; and, after giving birth to Jephthah, became unfaithful to her husband and is therefore called a harlot by the sacred writer. 2. The woman was a public prostitute by whom Gilead begat Jephthah without ever marrying the woman. 3. The woman was a prostitute and as such married Gilead and remained true to her lawful husband for the rest of her days. Undoubtedly, the interpretation under 2 is the one to be adopted. For the narrative goes on to say that the “wife of Gilead bore him sons . . . .” so that the antithesis seems to be between the woman who was a harlot and to whom Gilead was not married and the lawful wife of the man. Further, when the sons of the lawful wife grew up, they drove out Jephthah, and said to him, “Thou shalt not inherit in our father’s house; for the son of another woman art thou.” So reads the original text. The word another in this connection, has the meaning of strange and thus this assertion projects the woman not as an estranged lawful wife but as a harlot. Had she been a concubine these sons could have taken no such action against Jephthah as that indicated above. For his expulsion also had been the work of the elders in Gilead, as appears from verse 7 of the 11th chapter. The case was evidently tried before the public tribunal of elders, and these brethren had been set in the right. But the text does not allow us to speak with certainty here. Jephthah still may have been Gilead’s lawful son either by a woman who formerly was a harlot or who became one after her marriage to Gilead. One thing is certain. She was a defiled woman. This rests upon purely historical evidence contained in the narrative and is not a false charge advanced by Jephthah’s hateful brethren.
It is possible but again not certain that in the statement: “Gilead begat Jephthah;” and also when we read of the “wife of Gilead;” the term “Gilead,” as tribe name, takes the place of the unknown personal name of Jephthah’s father. If in this case, “Gilead” were a personal name Jephthah would have been designated as “son of Gilead,” and not as a “Gileadite,” without my paternal surname. It must be admitted that this conclusion has in its favor a comparison with the names of other heroes, for instance with that of Jephthah’s predecessor Gideon, who is constantly called the son of Joash.
Irrespective of what the status or the character of Jephthah’s mother might have been, his expulsion was a base act. The text leaves the impression that he was the oldest son, born to Gilead before the latter’s marriage to his lawful wife, and further that he was older than his brothers by several years. The order of events in the text is this. Gilead begat Jephthah by the strange woman. His wife bare him sons who, when grown up, thrust out Jephthah. A base act it was. For Gilead had owned and loved his firstborn child, who had grown up to be a worthy son, fearing God; and Gilead, it must be assumed, had therefore the more intended that he should inherit with his other sons in his house. But Gilead died. And these sons, contrary to the expressed determination of their deceased father and as driven by lust of gain, collectively turned against Jephthah and, with the approval and cooperation of the elders, violently expelled him from their community. That, after serving him notice that he would not be allowed to inherit with them, they even threatened to kill him, should he delay for a moment in betaking himself out of their midst, is evident from the notice that “Jephthah fled from before the face of his brethren.” The land in which he took up residence was the land of Tob, meaning “good land”. Where it lied cannot be determined, but it must have been an excellent place of refuge, perhaps outside of Canaan’s borders. Here the man dwelt—this man, a true Israelite, one of the few who served God, yet disowned and disinherited by hateful kin, an exile from his people and from the Lord’s sanctuary. And here, in this land he must have spent most of the years that remained to him after his expulsion from his father’s house. For after his recall he lived but six years. He was married and had but one daughter (Judges 11:34), who was still young at the time when the war with the Ammonite e was fought, so that he may not yet have been an old man when death took him. With great vigor did he prosecute the war with the Ammonites. This strengthens the conclusion that he was still in his prime when, six years afterward, he died. Thus most of the years of his manhood were spent in exile. But his faith in God, however severely it was being tried, did not cease nor did the love that he bore his people turn cold. In his asylum, a growing number of what the narrative calls vain men joined themselves to him; and he became their leader. From his region of safety he was thus able to make successful warlike expeditions against the enemies of his people. And there are good grounds for concluding that he also did so; for it must have been on account of his deeds of valor, the report of which would go out to all the tribes, that the elders of Gilead implored him to be their captain in the war against the Ammonites, who had just entered upon a new expedition of pillage and plunder. It is doubtless against this enemy that Jephthah had directed his expeditions, Thus he had projected himself as a mighty hero. Hearing of his achievements, their choice fell on him. The Lord was with the man, they plainly perceived, because he trusted in God and had committed his case to him. During the time of his banishment in the land of Tob, he had acquired fame, house and possessions.
Despite the ill-treatment that they had afforded him in the past, and though they had failed to make amends for eighteen long years—his expulsion had occurred probably sometime previous to the beginning of this oppression,—the elders of Gilead, now that they were in distress, turned to Jephthah, as a last resort. They now had use for the man, as they now also had use for God. In their extremity, both God and his servant could render them some good service. They now^ needed the man. Brave, courageous, and God-fearing, with a proved capacity for leadership, he would make them an excellent general. So they searched him out in his hiding place and said to him, “Be our captain that we may fight with the children of Ammon.” Not a word did they say about the hard treatment he had received at their hands nor about their failure to invite him back before this. Not a word of confession falls from their lips. Let him forget the past and be grateful that they wanted him even now and consider the honor that they bestow upon him in asking him to be their leader in the war that they contemplated waging. It was not his desire to humiliate them, by directing their attention to their past, brutal conduct, now that he had them at a disadvantage, that caused him to reply, “Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father’s house? And why are ye come unto me now in your distress?” Jephthah plainly distrusted these men, their motive. Their brazen effrontery amazed him. In the light of ail that had taken place in the past, how had they now the courage to solicit his help, without first acknowledging that they had grievously wronged him and, on the ground of their confession, seeking his pardon. But that is the kind of men they were. And even now, after hearing themselves rebuked, they persist in ignoring their past sins and say to him, “Therefore we turn again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over the inhabitants of Gilead.” By offering him the headship of their tribe, they make their proposal as enticing as they know how. They go all the way with the man, except to acknowledge to him their sin. It is indeed doubtful therefore whether, on the part of the majority of these men, it is the sign of new life, that they do not shun the humiliation of going to Jephthah. They needed the man. And, in order to induce him to yield, they offer him the headship. But Jephthah is not a man who will lead them at any cost. Though born for rule, he was yet without lust for rule. He will be their head, certainly, but only on the condition that they evince that they have become other than they were, prove to him that they have truly repented of their sins and returned to the Lord; for only then are they such people as will insure the blessing of God in victory over their enemies. And the proof he demands is that they bring him home again to fight against the children of Ammon. And if the Lord will deliver the Ammonites before him and thereby declare that He has forgiven His people and accepted the face of Jephthah, then and not otherwise can he consent to be their head. “And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the Lord deliver them before me, I shall be your head.” This last clause has been taken as a question. So it appears in the English versions, where it reads, “Shall I be your head?” as if Jephthah were afraid, lest, after victory was won, they would no longer want him as head, and again expel him from their midst, and wished to assure himself on this point beforehand. But Jephthah was not that kind of a man. The clause in question is therefore affirmative. So taken there is no trace of personal ambition in it. His chief concern is not even whether they will bring him home again but whether, having brought him home, they have the courage, born of trust in God, to face their enemy in battle. Let them say that they have. That will satisfy him that now they are the kind of men to whom God can grant victory and over whom he can allow himself to be set as judge. The elders say to him, “The Lord be witness between us, if we do not so according to thy words.” It was enough. He would obey their summons; for he perceived that they were sincere. And the cause of God lay close to his heart. And he loved God’s people, the seven thousand who had not worshipped in Baal’s temple. They, too, were in distress. For their sakes he went with the elders of Gilead. The people kept their word with him. They made him head and captain over them with the understanding that they would do right by him for the rest of his days. And he uttered all his words including their words, it must be, before the Lord in Mizpah. This act had significance as an indication of the frame of his heart and mind, of his right attitude toward God. dt meant that he took God into his confidence, was conscious of his integrity and the rightness of his cause, was acting under the impulse of a living faith in the power and the willingness of Jehovah to grant victory to His penitent people, according to His promise to them and for the sake of His name. But it also meant that he took Jehovah as his witness with respect to the transaction between himself and the elders and that he wanted God to judge between him and them, should they go back on their word.
In this frame of mind and in the confidence that God was for him and could not fail him in the crucial moment, he transacted with the Ammonites through the messengers which he sent to the Ammonite king, who was again making war against Israel. Jephthah put to the king this question: “What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land?” So, before he proceeds to war, Jephthah enters into peaceable negotiations with the Ammonites, not because he m afraid of them, on account of their being a strong people (cf. Num. 22:1; Deut. 2:20, 21) but because, mindful as he is of their being the descendants of Lot, and. remembering that, by reason thereof, Israel, on their journey to Canaan, had not been permitted to assail them, he wanted to be blameless before God of their blood. Before he would draw the sword, he wanted a clear right to this war. He would therefore try to dissuade them from their hostile purposes by peaceful negotiations. If he failed in this, the blame for the ensuing bloodshed would be wholly theirs without question. Victory could be his only through the righteousness of his cause. But there was still another consideration that entered in here.
Though the people had put away their idols and returned to the Lord., though they had bewailed their sins before Him and implored His help, and therefore on the ground of His promise, made to the nation in the past, could expect that He would again send deliverance, the Lord, on His part, had as yet not let it be known to His people that He forgave them and would deliver them from their present troubles. His last word to them had been, “Wherefore I will deliver you no more. Go cry unto the gods which we have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation.” And as to Jephthah, though he was eager and stood, ready to war God’s warfare, he was still without the unction of the Spirit. He had uttered his words before the Lord, but as yet had received no reply. It meant that he was still without a calling. The mere presence of the Ammonites in Canaan’s borders could not serve as a ground for the right to this war. Though the Ammonites on their part sinned grievously in harassing the Israelites, God had sent them and was using them to chastise His people for their sins. There was then this question. Was the hour of deliverance at hand or was God determined to afflict His people a while longer and must they therefore acquiesce in their tribulations instead of striking a blow for freedom at this time? Jephthah did not know. The right to wage this war was implicit only in his divine calling. And as yet the Lord had not let Himself be heard from. Jephthah therefore must wait withdrawing his sword. Besides, he could do nothing until God raised him up, qualified him by the Spirit, instilled in his soul courage and daring—the courage of faith. And Jephthah did wait for the unction of the Spirit, but in the meantime he could request the Ammonites to justify, if they were able, their invasions of God’s country. He did so. The question he put to the king of Moab was pertinent. “What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land?” It was a most embarrassing question that Jephthah put to that Ammonite king. It is about as embarrassing a question as could be put to any government of this day and age, embarked, as they all are on policies of imperialism. For it is a question of right—right before God—and for such a question the Ammonite king was ill prepared. Had he been disposed to speak the truth, he would have said instantly, without one moment’s delay, “I am come against thee to fight in thy land because I am fired by the vile ambition to remove the bounds of the people, rob their treasures, find as a nest their riches, and gather all the earth, in order that the control and dominion of my nation may be extended. And the very special reason that I fight against thee is that I hate thy God.” But speaking the truth, the king would have projected himself before the eyes of the world in all his vile intents and purposes. Gone would be his power to command respect and admiration, to hypnotize men by fine sounding slogans, and to sell himself to the world as the hope of all mankind. Thus the answer that was needed and wanted was one that justifies, thievery and murder, in a word, the vile ambitions of a depraved man. Marvelous to say, the king had an answer, for he was a resourceful king.