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Judges 11:14-28, The Language of the Story II



Though most translations and versions of Judges 11 begin a new paragraph after verse 11, when Jephthah first send messengers to the Ammonites, I begin here with verse 14, since this is where Jephthah’s fascinating recitation of Israelite history begins as it relates to the land in question. You recall that Ammon demanded the return of certain lands between the Arnon and Jabbok east of the Jordan. If Israel complied with this request, then they would go away “in peace.”  Just a slight little concession. ‘End Social Security and Medicare by next year and we will leave you alone forever. Or, at least for a while. . .’


Verse 14 begins Jephthah’s response to them.  The response is interesting in two ways—first, from the perspective of what constitutes the story of Israel (at least in Jephthah’s mind) and second, what linguistic moves each of the two Recensions make. The differences in language between the two Recensions in this section isn’t as fascinating as the preceding, yet the combination of story told and language still holds our interest.  Several points are worth mentioning.


1—Jephthah’s immediate rhetorical strategy is one of denial.  This method is helpful in this instance but will run him into difficulty when he has to confront his fellow Israelites in Judges 12. Thus, it is interesting that a style that may save a people in one instance almost destroys them in another. What I mean by denial is that he quickly responds to the Ammonite legates with the statement, ‘We didn’t take your land when we came up from Egypt (as Ammon asserted), but we stayed in Kadesh, which is quite far from Ammon (v 16).' Of course this doesn’t ultimately answer the complaint of Ammon (because you can go from Kadesh to invade the land of Ammon), but this is Jephthah’s starting point.


2—Jephthah then mentions, in the next two verses (vv 17-18), the peaceable intents of the people of Israel.  They wanted to get through to the land God was giving them West of the Jordan (and they had to go through certain occupied lands to get there) and so they made application both to the Moabites and Edomites for permission to pass through, but they were denied in both instances.  Rather than fighting, Israel amicably went along with the Moabites and Edomites and made sure to skirt the borders of Moab. The only linguistic difference of note between the two Recensions here is A’s use of οὐκ ἠθέλησεν (“he was unwilling”) to describe the Moabite king’s reaction to their request to pass through the land, while Recension B has οὐκ ευδόκησεν (“he was not pleased”).


3—Now things change, as Israel runs into someone who not only denies them passage but lines up the forces against them (vv 19-22). This is none other than Sihon, King of the Amorites, an Israelite literary punching bag in multiple biblical books. Recension A has the Israelites demanding passage through the land (παρελεύσομαι, “I will go through”) while Recension B softens it to a hortatory subjunctive παρέλθωμεν (“Let us go through”).  In A Sihon is unwilling, but in B he ουκ ενεπίστευσεν (“he didn’t trust (Israel)”). For good reason.  Well, the battle is joined, Israel wins, and Jephthah interprets this as Israel’s “inheriting” the land of the Amorites. It just so happens that the land “inherited” is precisely the parcel of land demanded by the Ammonites about 10 verses earlier. So, what Jephthah has deftly done is to say not only that Israel has won the battle for this land and thereby has “inherited” it, but that Ammon’s claim to it must have been subsequent to Israel’s claim and thus not valid.


4— The point just made is stated baldly in verse 23 in the form of a rhetorical question. “Now the Lord God of Israel has removed the Amorites from before the face of the people of Israel, and would you inherit it for yourself?”  The last clause is  ἐπὶ σοῦ, literally “on you,” and is considered superfluous and therefore dropped out by Recension B.


5—Then comes the taunting.  Jephthah used this method earlier when he taunted the elders of Galaad who wanted him to come and fight for them.  Now he taunts the Ammonites by saying, in essence, ‘if you had a strong God (Chemosh), he would have delivered land into your hands.  But, since he hasn’t, I guess he is either a wimp god or you don’t deserve the land.’  He doesn’t actually say these words, but this is the sentiment; his words in verse 24 are dripping with sarcasm.  He then throws in the story of Balaam for good measure in verse 25.  This method will perhaps be helpful for him as they triumph over enemies, but may come back to bite him later.


6—There is an interesting textual issue in v 26, as he continues the taunt. Jephthah mocks the Ammonites about not being able to reclaim this land for 300 years, but in A he talks about the house of Israel “and its daughters” while B only speaks about its “borders.”  Very strange, since the Greek words for “borders” and “daughters” have nothing in common.


7—The culmination of his speech (vv 27-28) turns the tables on Ammon.  Rather than Israel sinning against Ammon, the situation is therefore the reverse.  He then further digs in the knife.  Not only has Israel not sinned against Ammon, but they have done “evil” (πονηρίαν) against Israel.  With such a conclusion, it is easy to see how, in verse 28, Ammon doesn’t “hear” the words of Jephthah.




It is apparent in reading the story of Jephthah, and many other biblical stories, that what is of value to a person in one instance works to their disadvantage in other circumstances.  Mockery and unwillingness to negotiate will stand him in good stead to motivate an army and prepare for battle, but it isn’t an effective mode of working when you are dealing with your own people—as we will see in the next essay.

Judges 11:29-40, The Language of the Story III
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