Judges 11:12-33, Jepthah's Conversation, Vow and Battle
Though the text isn’t written primarily with Jephthah’s psychological state in mind, I believe it yields valuable insights into the way that Jephthah’s past shaped his approach to his townspeople, their invitation to him to be their “head” and his subsequent leading of Israelite troops. The portrait that emerges from the previous essay, on 11:1-11, is of a person born as a result of a shameful relationship (son of a prostitute), expelled from the family by his brothers, and linked up with ne'er-do-wells from a nearby town. Then, when people from his hometown face pressure from neighboring Ammonites, he is approached to lead the people against the Ammonites. The townspeople avoid answering his important question of why they want him back now after having gotten rid of him unceremoniously in earlier days.
All of these things lead to the following tentative suggestions about Jephthah’s psychological condition. First, he likely felt some shame from his background and resentment against his family and the townspeople for getting rid of him. Few of us have experienced that level of rejection in life, where we literally are cut off, for no fault of our own, from every source of identity and comfort. Then, because he was bereft of family, he had two choices as to his personal identity—to continue to be adrift without a positive sense of self or to become “hyper-faithful” to God. As the old hymn says, “When other helpers fail and comforts flee. . . .abide with me.” Maybe that was his mindset. God, and God alone, was going to be the one who delivered him and was therefore worthy of his allegiance.
If we work with this hypothesis of Jephthah’s psychological condition (sorry, the counseling file on Jephthah seems to have gone missing from the Jerusalem archives. .), we are ready to read this long text.
Conversation with the Ammonites (11:12-28)
As we know, Jephthah was recalled from his exile by worried townspeople. The Ammonites were threatening them, and they needed help. That they called upon Jephthah must mean that people had seen some special capability in him before they got rid of him. They now want to make use of that talent. But before heading into battle, Jephthah wants an exchange of delegates or messengers with the Ammonites. We see through this exchange that he is one tough negotiator and one who is not afraid to split hairs where perhaps no hairs are really there to be split.
Here is what I mean. The Ammonites representatives go to Jephthah and give him one “tiny” demand. It turns out not to be so tiny, but all they want is the return of their land between the Arnon and Jabbok east of the Jordan. If one looks on a map one sees that this land is rather large, perhaps 50X100 miles. That is, it is no “tiny” thing to deal with land this size. Well, the Ammonite king wants the land “back.” There is some dispute, both in the Bible and in the Rabbinic tradition, who actually owned the land and in which order—whether Ammonites, then Moabites, then Sihon and the Amorites and then the Israelites or whether in a different order. But the king of the Ammonites is arguing that the Israelites have taken land that belonged to him.
In response, Jephthah argues skillfully that, actually, the Israelites came up from Egypt using a different route than suggested by the Ammonite king. They did engage in a war, but with Sihon of the Amorites (not Ammonites) and they defeated him. So, Israel did admit taking the land in question, but denied it was Ammonite land. It was Amorite land. And, just to add his final point, Jephthah argues that if Chemosh god of the Ammonites really protected them, he would have assured that they got that land back. For 300 years Chemosh hadn’t intervened.
Thus, in this exchange we see a number of things. First, the Ammonite king speaks 20 words and Jephthah speaks about 300 in response. So much energy is devoted to the verbal battle! Second, Jephthah is a deft controversialist, pointing out vulnerabilities in the argument of his opponent, though conceding the point that Israel did fight for the land in question. Third, there is a bit of a taunt in his words—somewhat like the taunt he delivered to his own townspeople who wanted him to fight for them. “Where were you when I needed your help?” So here it is, “Where is your god Chemosh when you need him?”
The Vow and the Battle
So this edgy character Jephthah, who has mastered the history of the people so well that he can deftly outmaneuver opponents when arguing about the past, who bears a bit of a grudge and resentment from the past, but who realizes that his hope is in God alone, the God of Israel, now utters a vow. He may be imitating the biblical character Jacob, with whom he might feel a lot of kinship (for Jacob, too, had to leave his home in fear of his life). Jacob uttered a vow to God in Genesis 28:20-21, “If God be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” Utter faith utters a sincere vow.
Jephthah also utters a sincere vow here. But the wording of the vow, in the Greek, is a bit problematic, for it says “Whoever” (masculine singular, v 31) comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return home. . .” thus, perhaps thinking of a person and not an animal he can easily offer for sacrifice. If Jephthah’s vow is problematic it isn’t because it is “rash,” as so many interpreters read it, it is because he seemingly makes it refer to a person, rather than “whatever animal” or “whatever beast” comes out to meet me. Thus, he is opening himself up to great disappointment and even disaster. But rather than coming from rashness, this vow emerges from faith, even excessive faith. That his faith may be so characterized comes from the fact that he had no humans on whom to rely his entire previous life, except maybe the “worthless” fellows he gathered around himself after being exiled from home. If his is a toxic faith, its toxicity was generated by the cruelty of humans, rather than anything rash in himself.
After all these things, there really is little to be said. The Scripture doesn’t spend much on the battle. All it says is that the Lord gave Ammon into Jephthah’s hand, and struck down many cities. Rather than being confident, Ammon was now humbled.
Up until this point, Jephthah’s seemingly debilitating experiences as a young person didn’t work against him. But, as will often happen in life, in the midst of victory comes greatest loss. And, as we will see in the next essay, it will be a loss occasioned by too much faith rather than by deficiency in faith.
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