This morning we conclude the story of Jephthah as we continue to work our way through Judges.  Last week we read the story of Jephthah’s checkered victory over the Ammonites.  The Ammonites who bordered Israel on the East had invaded Israel and penetrated into Jephthah’s home region of Gilead.  Jephthah, after skillfully wheeling and dealing his way to become the leader of Gilead, immediately takes control of the situation and begins communication with the Ammonite king.  His skillfully worded argument recorded in chapter 11 puts on display the same kind of negotiating skill he exhibited when he bartered for political power with his fellow Gileadites.  Although Jephthah’s communication fails to persuade the Ammonites to halt their invasion, it may have bought Jephthah enough time to marshal his forces against them.  In an act of incredible grace in this context of gross sin, God defeats the Ammonites at the hand of Jephthah and the foreign threat is put down.  The victory is overshadowed however by Jephthah’s ill-fated attempt to strike a deal with god to compel Yahweh to win the victory for Jephthah and his army.  As you recall, before the battle Jephthah makes a vow to God promising that if God gives his army victory over the Ammonites, he will sacrifice as a burning offering to Him whatever first comes out of his house to welcome him home.  Tragically, but probably not surprisingly to Jephthah, his only child, his daughter comes out to meet him and he selfishly keeps his vow and sacrifices her.

The story this week picks up where that one leaves off, in the shadow of Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites.  The word of God says, “The men of Ephraim called out their forces, crossed over to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you?  We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”  2Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands. 3When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave me the victory over them.  Now why have you come up today to fight me?”  4Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim.  The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.”  5The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”  If he replied, “No,” 6they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’  “If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him as the fords of the Jordan.  Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.  7Jephthah led Israel six years.  Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in a town in Gilead.”

If part of this story sounds familiar, it should.  It brings to mind a similar incident in the life of Gideon.  You’ll recall in chapter eight after Gideon and his 300-man army had defeated the Midianites, these same Ephraimites came to him and said in 8:1, “Why have you treated us like this?  Why didn’t you call us when you went to fight Midian?  And they criticized him sharply.”  In that instance too the Ephraimites are resentful of not being brought into the battle.  You’ll remember that Gideon chose to placate them by schmoozing them saying, “Aren’t the gleanings of Ephraim’s grapes better than the full grape harvest of [his own home region] Abiezer?”  He flatters them by denigrating himself in comparison to them.  In the case of Gideon, when the Ephraimites are sufficiently schmoozed, they pat themselves on the back and go home.  Jephthah, as we’ve seen before is not a schmoozer so he deals quite differently with this same dilemma involving the men of Ephraim.

   In this incident the men of Ephraim are even huffier about being excluded from the battle—verse one says, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you/”  We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”  Isn’t this a thoughtful, restrained response to Jephthah by these Ephraimites?  They are resentful of Jephthah’s military authority and doubtless whatever acclaim he received as a result of this victory.  Instead of coming to thank him for saving their hides without a drop of their own blood being spilled, they instead turn on him and threaten to incinerate his abode with him in it.  Jephthah makes his defense to this charge in verses two and three, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands.  When I saw you wouldn’t help, I took mylife in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave me the victory over them.  Now why have you come up today to fight me?”  Jephthah responds to the Ephraimites charge with one of his own.

He tells them that he specifically called on them to help in the fight but they would not respond.  Be aware, this alleged plea for help to the Ephraimites or ANYONE else is strangely absent from the narrative we read last week.  There is no mention that Jephthah appealed to anyone for help in fighting against the Ammonites.  Whether this detail was omitted or whether Jephthah is engaging in an outright fabrication we can’t know for sure.  On the basis of what we know of Jephthah’s character and the way he manipulates people with his words, it is not a grossly inappropriate assumption to believe he is lying here.  One thing we DO know—and it is a telling detail, he doesn’t wait for an answer to his charge from the men of Ephraim.  The author indicates after he explains his action that he immediately went without even waiting for their response.  There is no real negotiating here—he simply answers their charge with his own counter-charge and immediately straps on his armor.

We do get one more detail of this pre-battle exchange in verse four.  It says, “The Gileadites (under Jephthah) struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.”  What does this mean?  We get some help here when we discover the word translated “renegade” is more literally translated “fugitive.”  These men of Ephraim are insulting anyone from Gilead—it was probably held that to be from Gilead was to be from the “wrong side of the tracks.”  When the Ephraimites call the men of Gilead “fugitives from Ephraim and Manasseh,” they are saying “If you were from Ephraim, we’d kick you out of our land—you’d be no better than homeless fugitives.”  They would be treated as outcasts.  You may have caught the acid-like quality of that remark to Jephthah.  Do you hear how this would cut to the bone a man who, like Jephthah had actually been kicked out of his homeland and forced to live as a fugitive?  This is a seething, bitter thing to say and Jephthah and his men respond with a furious attack.

Jephthah however, was not content to simply turn back these men from their intended mission of burning down his house around him.  Verse five tells us that in a brutal, bloodletting move, he viciously takes revenge on these men.  Verse five says, “The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”  If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’”  If he said, ‘shibboleth,’ because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.  Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.”  You have to know a bit of the geography here to understand this scene.  The men of Ephraim had crossed the Jordan to get to Jephthah.  So when it became clear they were defeated, they headed back toward home and the Jordan River was not a river you could just cross at any point in this region.  There were certain points where it was shallower and it was at these places you could cross without drowning.

Jephthah and his men, not content to simply thrash these men and repel their attack, somehow outran them back to the Jordan and occupied the places on the riverbank where the river could be forded.  When these Ephraimites would try to cross the river to go home, Jephthah and his men, not being able to recognize a native of Ephraim visually, checked their identity by listening for a speech distinctive native to Ephraim.  Israel was in those days like the United States is today.  That is, even though we as a nation speak English (most of us anyway) there are obvious regional differences in our speech.  If Iowa were to declare war on Minnesota and they wanted to “smoke out” whether you were a Hawkeye or a Gopher they might have you repeat the coca cola” at which point the Minnesotan would unfailingly say, “COAK.”  Or they might ask you to repeat the phrase, “Yes, certainly, you bet” at which point the native Minnesotan , trapped by his Scandinavian culture would instinctively utter, “Yah’ shooor, ya’betch’a’”  That’s a bit of a stretch but you get the point.

These Ephraimites evidently had trouble with the consonant blend “SH” and in its place would say, “Ssss.”  When the men of Ephraim said “Sibboleth” instead of “Shibboleth” they were brutally murdered.  These Ephraimites were trapped not only by the confines of the Jordan but also by their regional language distinctives.  The NIV misses the delicious irony in verse five.  The NIV describes these poor Ephraimites as “survivor[s] of Ephraim.”   The word the NIV translates “survivor” is actually a different form of the word earlier translated “fugitive” in verse four.  Do you catch the irony there?  Earlier when Ephraim was making these threats against Jephthah and the Gileadites, they accused them of being fugitives of Ephraim.  Now here THEY are, outside their country and trying to get back in which makes THEM fugitives.  The author wants us to see that irony. 

Don’t miss the sheer carnage of this scene.  Forty two thousand men are slaughtered as these men are cut down at those places where you could cross the Jordan.  Think about this.  These men are on the run—they have dropped their arms and are even willing to assume the identity of non-Ephraimites to get home but Jephthah cuts them down anyway, their blood defiling the Jordan River.  Also, 42,000 men is more men than the tribe of Ephraim had when they entered into the Promised Land under Moses according to Numbers chapter one.  The tribe had obviously grown since that time but the point is, this was a HUGE percentage of the men of Ephraim that are killed by Jephthah and his men and we must never forget thee men Jephthah kills are fellow Israelites!  These were members of God’s chosen people they are slaughtering there by the Jordan, not pagan Ammonites or Moabites or Edomites!  This is spiritual fratricide-they are killing their brothers by the thousands!  Do you see the brutality of Jephthah as he squashes these admittedly petty men of Ephraim?  In his lust for revenge there is no room for mercy.

Now, what application can we make to our lives from this brutal account?  Here are three truths we can take from the text.  The first is one we have touched on before but it bears repeating and is—Character, not giftedness is the true prerequisite for leadership of God’s people.  It’s impossible to come away from the story of Jephthah and not be impressed with his raw abilities.  He was an extraordinarily skilled warrior.  The first comment the author makes about Jephthah in 11:1 is, “Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior.”  His cunning and military might enabled him to be the leader of his own mercenary band during his days as an outcast before he became the leader of Gilead.  In today’s story, he and his men make these windbags from Ephraim look laughable as they mercilessly slaughter these men who had come to kill him.  Jephthah was very skilled as a warrior.  What’s more, Jephthah was also intelligent and extremely articulate.  He had the mind of a skilled trial attorney.  He was able to convince and manipulate the elders of Gilead to let him rule over them and he brilliantly dismembered the Ammonite king’s rationale for fighting against Israel in the message we read last week.  He is a born bargainer—even to the tragic point of arrogantly trying to barter with God.

Jephthah is a person of exceptional abilities—he is perhaps the most comprehensively gifted person in the entire book of Judges.  But the sad fact is, it is arguable that Jephthah is the worst of all the leaders in this book and one who was in all likelihood (as we saw earlier) not raised up by god but was the choice solely of a frightened, paganized group of men in Gilead.  At the end of the day, he brought severe hardship on Israel.  Though God used him to drive back the Ammonites, he then turns around and kills 42,000 of his Jewish brothers out of his thirst for revenge.  He has no concern for national unity and does NOTHING to preserve it—His allegiance to himself is far greater than any loyalty he may have had toward national Israel.  As a result, he unapologetically wars against his own people.  He brings judgment upon himself by killing not only his fellow Jews from Ephraim but also sacrificing his only child out of a perverse sense of obligation to keep a satanic, pagan vow.  In so doing, his family line ends—he has no legacy except as a murderer of his countrymen and even his own virgin daughter.  The author makes it clear that Yahweh, not Jephthah, defeats the Ammonites—God certainly didn’t NEED him to do this—he could have used anyone as we have already seen in the case of weak men like Barak and Gideon.  One scholar summarizes his sad legacy saying, “This egotistical man proves himself to be the consummate manipulator who opportunistically seizes power over his tribesmen, bargains with God, victimizes his daughter, and brutalizes his fellow Israelites”[Block386].

Jephthah’s life shows us that a man of great ability without a godly character is a dangerous person.  This man is responsible for the extermination of a large percentage of the men of one of Israel’s tribes not to mention the extermination of his own family line.  Had it not been for his gifts, which brought him to power, it’s safe to assume this would not have occurred.  We must learn that the test of leadership among God’s people must be godly character.  As much as we are, like the Jews were, impressed by flashy gifts, what counts most in God’s kingdom is a godly heart bet toward obedience.  It’s worth repeating that though we are easily seduced by people with winning personalities or extraordinary abilities, but the gold standard in God’s kingdom is strength of character in Christ.  Jephthah didn’t have that and the results for Israel and for himself are scandalous. 

Also noticing that possessing power and authority do nothing to change a person’s character.  Notice when we meet Jephthah he is a thug.  Very early in the story he hires himself out to intimidate and murder other people.  He is a common bully-skilled at what he does, but a thug.  Notice that after he takes the reigns of power he remains a thug.  The only difference is he is much more dangerous as a thug with power.  As a mercenary in chapter 11 he carries out small-scale missions of intimidation and ridicule.  As the ruler of Gilead with an army behind him, he uses his power to carry out his revenge on 42,000 men of Ephraim.  Instead of letting the Ephraimites go with a well-deserved spanking, he annihilates them along the shores of the Jordan River.  He is a thug when we meet him and he is a thug when he becomes leader of Gilead.  Power and authority given to a thug produce a thug with power and authority, nothing more.  The pages of church history are filled with examples of gifted but ungodly leaders who do great harm to Christ’s church.

The second truth we can see in this story is:  when God’s people do not mutually submit to the Kingship of Yahweh there will be no true unity.  Back in chapter ten we saw the Jews had completely forsaken Yahweh and served all the gods of the pagan nations surrounding them.  One of the most disturbing truths from this text in chapter twelve is the fact that there is little if any national unity in Israel at this time.  There is no sense of being in this together.  Them men of Ephraim attack Jephthah when they should have been grateful for his role in defending their nation.  There was no sense in their minds that Jephthah, because he had repelled the Ammonites invasion of Israel, had done anything for them.  And Jephthah obviously doesn’t think twice about slaughtering his fellow Jews.  He kills countrymen as readily as he doest the foreign Ammonites.

This absence of national unity makes perfect sense when you think about it.  Why would there be unity?  The only thing uniting the Jews at this point was their geography and their heritage, which they were effectively betraying.  There was no recognized king—Yahweh was their king but they weren’t submitting to his authority—they were too busy prostituting themselves before the gods of their neighbors.  Without their God to unite them, they were just twelve neighboring tribes.  The same is true for us.  If two Christians can’t get along or two or more factions in a church cannot get along, the ultimate reason is NOT because of whatever THEY SAY is causing the division—be it money or position or differing opinions on a given issue.  What ultimately divides believers is always the same:  the people involved are not submitting to the Lordship of Christ.  If two people are in lockstep with God, logic dictates they will be in lockstep with each other.  This doesn’t mean in a fallen world that people will agree on every issue, but because they are in agreement about their fundamental obligation to love each other with a First Corinthians 13 love that never fails, they will divide.

The lack of national unity in Israel during Jephthah’s leadership was not rooted in a disagreement over issues, but in the fact that they were not mutually submitting to their one covenant God.  The same is true today.  Nothing in Christ’s church will cause division faster than people who are submitting to different gods.  In a church if one person has as his/her god the “way it used to be” and another person has as his idol “what their former pastor or church did” and third person bows down to “whatever will bring them or their family the most recognition or convenience” the sparks will fly.  The reason is because when they try to make decisions related to the church none of them is listening to God whose one will on the issue would unite them.  If we see division in the church or among believers the first place to point the finger is not at the bonehead who isn’t smart enough to agree with you, but to point it inward and ask how we are not mutually submitting to God.  This morning if you are estranged or divided from a brother or sister or church, ask God to show you what is in your heart that keeps you from reconciling and repent of your sin.

A final point of application seen in these men from Ephraim is our pride causes us to resent other people’s achievements when we should celebrate them.  These men of Ephraim had a very high opinion of themselves.  We saw their pride in their interaction with Gideon when they criticized him for defeating the Midianites without them.  Gideon knows they are full of themselves so he placates them by doing what often works with prideful people—he flatters them, playing to their pride.  Sure enough, they drop their complaint and walk away without incident.  In the case of Jephthah, they can’t stomach the fact that God used a lowly Gileadite to defeat the Ammonites without the “extraordinary contribution” they would have surely made to this cause.  Their resentment comes from their pride and so much of the time, so does ours!

A very effective way to measure how much pride is operating in us is to see how we respond when a colleague or peer of some sort receives recognition or praise.  Is our first reaction to genuinely celebrate and feel genuinely happy for them?  Or is it to mentally scroll down a litany of their “obvious weaknesses” to make ourselves feet better?  Is it to perhaps cite several reasons why the given honor should have gone to someone else like well…Me for instance?  When someone close to us receives recognition is our impulse to have a burning desire to tell someone (maybe a spouse or a close friend) about all of our wonderful but tragically often overlooked attributes?  Paul says we are to “rejoice with those who rejoice”  “To consider others better than yourselves.”  The men of Ephraim are very arrogant and one symptom of that is to ATTACK someone who accomplishments by God’s grace they should have CELEBRATED.  Are we honestly excited for someone we know who is honored in some way or is our congratulations given to them through gritted teeth?

Jephthah is a wicked and tragic figure in Old Testament history.  He leaves us many examples, almost all negative.  May God give us the grace to unlike Jephthah walk with God in humble dependence upon Him.


Page last modified on 9/22/2002

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