Judges 11:1-11, Meeting Jepthah, Five Things At First
Almost twelve years ago I wrote an essay on Jephthah, eschewing the common interpretive line that the real issue in the story is Jephthah’s vow and looking rather at the first few verses of Judges 11 to get our bearings about Jephthah. As I return to the LXX’s retelling of that story today, I affirm that method, and would like to enrich that essay by looking at five things that seemingly shaped Jephthah’s character before he uttered his fateful vow. That is, I see the little hints dropped into the text of Judges 11:1-8 as crucial in understanding the later vow.
First, Child of a πόρνη (11:1)
Other characters in Judges are of low birth—we think of Gideon, for example, who complained that he ought not to be selected by God because his “thousand" was insignificant, and that his family was the most “humble” within the thousand. But here it is different. We are not talking about humble, but shameful, beginnings. The father is mentioned (Galaad), but no mention is made of why the πόρνη enters. What is the effect of being born of a πόρνη? That, really, is a discussion question for an adult study, but I would hazard a guess that there develops within such a person the contradictory feelings of inadequacy and desire to compensate at the same time. But we begin with this.
Second, Tossed Out By His Brothers (11:2)
The interesting thing about verse 2 is not necessarily that Jephthah has brothers but, because they are born of Galaad’s wife, they are “legitimate.” Happy family. Galaad, mother, sons. Then, there is Jephthah. Just the mere mention of his name or the look of him reminds everyone that he is the surd, he is the mistake, he is the reminder of the father’s dalliance. He just doesn’t fit. But the parents can’t really get rid of him. Ah, the brothers can! And so they do. They “cast him out” (ἐξέβαλον), a particularly strong verb in Biblical Greek. It will be the word that is picked up three hundred years later by the NT authors when they describe an exorcism. They want him out of the house that badly. Yet, as the subsequent narrative shows, before he was tossed there was a sort of assessment of his skills, and he may have been recognized as a special person. Something perhaps in his manner or the way he uncompromisingly approached life made people remember. That comes in handy in a few verses.
Third, A Band of λιτοὶ (11:3)
Though verse 2 says they “cast him out,” verse 3 tells us that he “fled.” Same result. Jephthah is thrown upon his own resources. He gets together with a band of guys, described as λιτοὶ, which Muraoka defines as “financially destitute,” but can be rendered in any way that captures their outcast character. Recension B calls them κενοί, “vain” or “empty” ones. What the text doesn’t do is tell us cause and effects—or who gathered whom. We don’t know if Jephthah as it were “fell in” with them or whether he “recruited” them. Sometimes it is hard to say. People of all situations in life recognize their economic or emotional “kin” and gather with them. The two verbs used for “gathering” with the others in A and B are different, but uncontroversially so: the difference between “gather” and “collect,” for example. We aren’t told if these are marauding empty/vain/destitute guys or whether they just hung out bemoaning their fate, but we have a person who will soon be recognized as immensely talented (Jephthah) hanging out with “empty” people.
Fourth, The Approach and Proposal of the Townspeople (11:4-11)
Well, the townspeople of Galaad (the same name as Jephthah’s father) now are under pressure from the neighboring Ammonites, and they realize they need the help of Jephthah. Because Jephthah was already grown up when he was tossed out, he had had the opportunity either to show his stuff, so to speak, or convince others of his talents. So they send a delegation to Jephthah to invite him to be their leader (ηγούμενον in A; αρχηγών in B). Of course, Jephthah is mindful of their past mistreatment of him, and so he decides to quiz them a bit. Verse 7 is worth quoting:
καὶ εἶπεν Ιεφθαε τοῗς πρεσβυτέροις Γαλααδ οὐχ ὑμεῗς ἐμισήσατέ με καὶ ἐξεβάλετέ με ἐκ τοῦ οἴκου τοῦ πατρός μου καὶ ἐξαπεστείλατέ με ἀφ᾽ ὑμῶν καὶ τί ὅτι ἤλθατε πρός με ἡνίκα ἐθλίβητε. . .
“And Jephthah said to the elders of Galaad, ‘Weren’t you the guys that hated me and tossed me out from the house of my father? And you sent me from you. Why have you come to me when you are suffering?”
Perfectly good and understandable question. ‘You didn’t want me earlier; in fact, you got rid of me. Why do you want me now when the tables are turned for you?’ We can hear a bit of resentment in his voice, a bit of a gentle taunt of the elders. The question really isn’t a serious one that is looking for an answer; it is more of his registering his pain with them. I like the strength of his language: the verb for “hating” is so clear and powerful (ἐμισήσατέ). ‘You hated me, and now you want my help?’ Huh?
Fifth, They Ignore His Question (11:8)
We know that Jephthah’s question is both the most important question but the most untimely one, too. It just isn’t the time to engage in apologies or lengthy explanations or exploring family dynamics that led to his expulsion from the family. We have the Ammonites at the door! You are the leader! We need your help! So, what is fascinating to me is that they just say a few words to his insistent question. They say, in A, οὐχ οὕτως and, in B, δια τούτο. The first is roughly rendered, “Not so!” while the second can be read, “On account of this” or “Just because.” That is, they are dismissive of his question—either by saying, “You have it all wrong” or “Well, that’s just the way it is.” It is a bit of further humiliation but we understand their reluctance to give him an answer. They need a leader. They don’t say, ‘We will get to that later, but now we have a fight.' In a sense, in A, they are dismissive of him once more.
The result of this five-fold reality for Jephthah is that he has been humiliated and not really “redeemed.” To use modern psychological talk, he hasn’t been able to “talk it out” and “reclaim” his life. So, he will look to the battle to reclaim it. But we also get an unexpected insight into his character when he has his pre-battle talk with the Ammonites, to which we turn now.
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