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Judges 12:1-7, Jephthah's Final Sadness

Thus far we have met a man of remarkable achievement, Jephthah, who reached enormous heights because of a combination of personal doggedness and vibrant faith.  Yet, as I argued previously, the abuse and humiliation he suffered as a young man likely made him more vulnerable in his expression of faith. The idea of “totally relying on God” through uttering an oath, an oath that was likely unwise because of the specificity and limited nature of the objects that could have satisfied it (“anyone who comes out of the doors of the house” would be sacrificed), actually made him vulnerable. His faith, I argued, led to his undoing.  And he adopted his expression of faith because his human relationship calculus was skewed through being mistreated as a younger person.


Thus, he faced the sad task of sacrificing his only-begotten daughter, the only sources of possible heirs.  But there is more sadness to come to Jephthah here, because we see through the events of Jud. 12:1-6 that he was unable to de-escalate a difficult situation successfully, which led to massive slaughter of the people of God. Let me develop the theory of “inability to de-escalate.”


                                                            Conflict Arises with Ephraim


After Jephthah’s wonderful victory over the Ammonites, he faced the most cruel result at home:  sacrificing his daughter to keep his vow to God. But the cruelty of life wasn’t done with him.  Apparently in calling people together to fight against Ammon he had neglected to invite the Ephraimites.  At least that is what the Ephraimites said. Thus, when the battle and celebrations were over, the Ephraimites themselves felt neglected.  This was more than just not getting an invitation to a cousin’s wedding; this was not being considered “important enough” to be included in the covenant battles of the chosen people. Ephraim felt not only slighted by this oversight, but slighted enough to challenge Jephthah on this point.

So, they asked Jephthah the question:  “Why is it that when you went to fight against the sons of Ammon you did not call us to go with you?” (12:1) We can see that this experience of neglect was traumatic for them because of the next sentence:  “We will burn your house with fire” (12:1).  Problem.  Big problem.  But this was not an unprecedented problem.  Just four chapters previously, in the time of Gideon, the same or similar situation happened. Gideon had won a signal victory over Midian and Amalek in Jud. 7 but then, in Jud. 8:1-3, a representative from Ephraim comes to him and says, “Why have you not called us when you were setting out to fight against Midian?” (8:1).  The statement in 8:1 that follows is almost as strong as 12:1, “And they disputed with him forcefully/argued strongly with him.”


                                            Gideon’s Skillful Answer


In both instances we have the Ephraimites enraged because they were not given the chance to fight with the rest of the covenant people against the enemy.  But notice what happened in each case. In Judges 8:2-3 Gideon is able skillfully to defuse the situation so that, at the end of their brief enchanted, it says “And they (the Ephraimites) desisted.  Then their spirit abated because of him. . .” (8:3). The thing that Gideon skillfully did in dealing with the Ephraimites was to realize that they were speaking out of wounded pride.  Gideon seemingly had demeaned or disrespected them by not calling them into the battle with him.  So, what did Gideon do?  He basically says to them, in Brenton’s helpful translation, “What have I now done in comparison of you? (Is) not the gleaning of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer?” (8:2)

That is, Gideon is humbling himself before his fellow Israelites.  He is confessing that they, the Ephraimites, are so far superior to his puny people that there is no comparison. The offscouring, the rejects of Ephraim are better than the chosen or picked soldiers of Abiezer (i.e., the people of Gideon).  Sometimes that is all you need—to honor the people who come to you with a deep sense of hurt. Ephraim had come to Gideon in that way.  Gideon skillfully realizes that their pride was injured and that he could swallow his to honor them. By doing this courageous act of self-humbling, he avoided conflict with them. Their very harsh words to him (v 1) vanished, and they calmed down.  Crisis averted.


                                                            Jephthah’s Case


Jephthah was confronted with a near identical situation in Judges 12, but he handled it differently from Gideon and it led to massive bloodshed.  What he showed in his response to Ephraim was his inability to read the signals sent by hurt people. And here is where the thesis I have been arguing all along about Jephthah comes in handy.  He was abused by others severely and was ridiculed because of his birth. Such a person inevitably not only bears scars but bears scars of a certain kind. In this case it is the inability to “pick up on” or “respond out of a spirit of generosity” to someone else.  He has never had the experience of generosity in his life and so, in this situation where a Gideon-type of response may well have defused the tension, he was unable to respond in that way.


He simply responded, in 12:2-3, with a rather highly-charged narrative of “the facts.”  The focus of this narration is on the skill and daring of. . . JEPHTHAH.  The tone of these two verses is that “we” were in trouble, and “we called to you,” but “you did nothing.”  Rather than picking up on the sense of hurt and perhaps honoring the Ephraimite memory of the facts as different from his (for they claimed that he hadn’t invited them to join them in fighting the Ammonites), he doubled down with words that only enflamed tensions:  “I saw that thou wert no helper.  .”  It is almost as if Jephthah is transferring the narrative of his life, where he had to function and fight as a solitary individual, into this situation.  In a nutshell, Jephthah says, ‘We were in need. I called you.  You didn’t respond. I had to put my life in my hands and fight.  Now, don’t come complaining to me.’


Even if Jephthah was correct in his recitation of the facts, and we have no way of telling whether to credit his memory or the Ephraimites (though he showed that he was a pretty clever and subtler arguer with the Ammonites earlier in Jud. 11), he was emotionally “tone-deaf” in this encounter.  And, I would claim, he was so because of the lasting psychic damage inflicted on him as a younger person.  Gideon, in contrast, had a father that stood by him.  When Gideon’s townspeople wanted to kill him because he had hewed down Baal’s altar, his father stood by Gideon and basically said, ‘Over my dead body!’ (Jud 6:28ff).  This unequivocal support of his son gave Gideon a kind of strong and free emotional space where he could offer to be gracious to the Ephraimites in 8:1-3 and have the strength to face whatever would come.  In contrast, the vulnerable Jephthah, made so by situations far beyond his control, was unable to draw upon the emotional reserves to be gracious.  He never had a person to stand for him; thus he felt he needed to stand for himself, stand firmly and rigidly.  And it led to massive carnage. And, no doubt Jephthah felt that this firmness against Ephraim was firmness in standing for the Lord.  Faith, and over-rich faith, was the cause of this downfall, too.




Sadly, then, we see that the privations or experiences of youth, more than any simple confession of faith or personal regimen of strength-building or endowments or skills, actually shape a life and lead to the greatest sadnesses of life. And, the greatest sadness of all is that Jephthah could do nothing to change things. . .

Judges 11:1-13, Language I
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