Judges: Jephthah of Gilead

Sermon by Cory Brock on June 21

Judges 11:1-11

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My assignment tonight is Judges 10, 11 and 12, which is a lot! John Calvin, he did not preach through the book of Judges in his lifetime, although preaching through almost every single other book of the Bible. And he said he didn’t because he thought Martin Bucer did such a good job preaching through Judges in Geneva that he didn’t need to. But after reading tonight’s passage and all the other passages of Judges, I think we’ll all say, “John, you are a very special, special guy, but that was really convenient of you!” Judges is hard reading and it’s hard going and tonight is the classic, classic – the question of Jephthah’s tragic vow to sacrifice his own daughter. And so that’s what we have to work through.

This is a narrative of paradox and it’s a narrative of seeming contradictions. You’ve got a seeming contradiction, a paradox in what God says in chapter 10 and in Jephthah’s identity and what we do with Jephthah in chapter 11. So let’s pray together and then we’re going to read specifically from Judges chapter 11. So let’s pray.

Lord, we ask that You would open up Your Scriptures to us. We ask for the Holy Spirit’s help as we think about, read, and consume Your holy words. And we ask for this in Jesus’ name, amen.

So we’re going to read chapter 11 verses 1 to 10, and then 29 to 40. Chapter 11 verse 1 to 10, 29 to 40. This is God’s holy Word:

“Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.’ Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him.

After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. And they said to Jephthah, ‘Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites.’ But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?’ And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘That is why we have turned to you now, that you may go with us and fight against the Ammonites and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’ Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.’ And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘The Lord will be witness between us, if we do not do as you say.’”

Now verse 29:

“Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.’ So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’ And she said to him, ‘My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.’ So she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.’ So he said, ‘Go.’ Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.”

This is God’s holy Word.

We’re going to see four things tonight – the end of idolatry, God’s paradox, the outlaw king, and the real sacrifice.

The End of Idolatry

So first, the end of idolatry. And I want to be really brief here because this is basically just the whole message of the book of Judges. And chapter 10 where, we didn’t read it, but the people of Israel serve once again the Baals and the Ashteroth. And it says they served the gods of five new nations. And in the south, they worship the god of the Philistines, and in the south, they were oppressed by the Philistines. In the north, they worship the god of the Ammonites, Chemosh, and they became oppressed by the Ammonites. And what that means is that in the book of Judges, the god that Israel worships determines the nation that then oppresses them. When they worship the Philistine’s god, Dagon, they become slaves to Philistia. And here in our passage, they worship Chemosh; they become slaves to Ammon.

And what that means is, the widespread Biblical truth – that idolatry always leads to enslavement. It says in verse 7, “God sold them to Philistia.” God sold them to the Ammonites. And you know, that’s language that pops up again in Romans chapter 1 where it says “God gives people over to the natural consequences of their idolatry.” And the natural consequences of idolatry is that whatever we love more than God will always become our slave master. And so for an example, if you worship money, it will possess your heart, it will determine your decisions, it will steal your emotional life, it will take your time away, whatever you treasure becomes your master. And that’s the massage of the book of Judges and it pops up right here again at the beginning of our story.

God’s Paradox

So secondly, God replies to this oppression. God’s paradox. He replies twice. The people cry out to Him and He answers. And they cry out in verse 11 after 18 years of being enslaved in the north part of Israel to the Ammonites. And the Ammonite god I mentioned is Chemosh. And Chemosh is one of the two gods in the Old Testament that accepts worship through child sacrifice, meaning that Israel had worshipped Chemosh for quite a long time, meaning it’s very likely that Israel had practiced human sacrifice during this period as part of worship. And so when they cry out and say, “God, we don’t want to be slaves anymore!” God comes in verse 14 and He says, “I will not rescue you this time. Go to the gods that you have been worshiping if you want to be rescued.” Now why does God say this to the people of God, to the promised people? One, because they had been worshiping Chemosh, that’s the implication, through hideous, egregious abomination as the book of Kings calls it, this practice of worship. But even within that, even more than that, it’s simply because God is holy and He’s just. Remember the burning bush in Exodus chapter 3, God says to Moses, “Come, Moses. Come close to Me.” And then as soon as Moses starts to step forward He says, “Stop right there. Get back or you’re going to die!” And it’s because even the promised people – God is holy and just.

But then – here’s the paradox – verse 16, all of a sudden it says, God says that He became impatient. God became impatient over the misery of Israel and determined then to save them. Why the change? Some commentators have come and said we see right here an ancient near eastern contradiction – a God who changes His mind; a God who is performing willy nilly in the text and just flip flopping here. But look, if you notice, the reason that God speaks this way the second time is first because when the Israelites cried out to Him in the beginning they did not repent. They merely regretted the consequences of their actions. They didn’t repent. Michael Wilcock, one of the commentators, says this. “The first cry out to God here is one of mere recognition. Recognition is not, however, the same as repentance, as we see from the Lord’s reply, ‘Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen,’ it is as though He is saying, ‘I know what this cry of yours really means. It is merely a cry for help, which might just as well have been addressed to any of the Baals that you have been worshiping.’” It didn’t matter what god; they were just looking for somebody to save them. It was all about circumstances, not about repentance. God, the holy God, the just God, will not be used. He won’t be used just as a “get out of circumstances free.” He will be no puppet. That’s what He’s saying here to the Israelites.

But in verse 16 it says after they repented they said, “Do whatever You will, Lord.” And it said that He could not tolerate their misery any longer. He had to save them. He was compelled to save them. And the commentator says this. “Will God’s holiness” – this is the question – “Will God’s holiness and His demand for obedience to His commands override His promises to Israel? Or will His gracious promises mean that He will somehow overlook human sin? As much as theologians may seek to establish the priority of the law over love or love over the law, the book of Judges will not settle this question.” You see, here, justice – God is holy – and God saying, “But I am also full of mercy and love,” are in the balance, in tension. Is God contradicting? No, but the book of Judges does not answer this question. It says, “Wait for it with patience.” It doesn’t resolve it.

The Outlaw King

And so third, that brings us to – enter Jephthah, the outlaw king, in Judges chapter 11. The question now – God has said, “I’m going to save them.” Well who’s going to save them? And we’re introduced at the top of 11 to Jephthah, and again, we encounter another paradox in the identity of Jephthah. So far in the book, every single one of the judges has been explicitly at the beginning of their story raised up by the Holy Spirit, called to save the people through the Spirit. But here, Jephthah is called by a bunch of Gileadite men who basically took up the call on their own, who had previously kicked him out of the country. It has nothing to do with the Lord in the beginning.

And that introduces the paradox of Jephthah. On the one hand, like all of us it’s really clear when you read the passage, Jephthah is influenced by the world and by his own culture in a lot of different ways; overly influenced by his culture in a lot of ways. But at the same time, while Jephthah is often treated as a bad guy entirely – in the commentaries and in other sermons – the problem is, when you flip to the New Testament you come to Hebrews chapter 11 you will find Jephthah’s name listed as one who, by faith, conquered kingdoms in the name of God. And so in the midst of the tragic vow, in the midst of Jephthah’s obvious outlaw status, we’ve got Hebrews 11 and a paradox that’s standing right before us. So let’s think about that.

First, Jephthah’s resume. Everybody’s got a resume and we judge people by that and Jephthah’s is very clearly presented here. In verse 1 it says he was, on the one hand, “a mighty warrior,” a great hero. He’s an Achilles figure in this passage. “But,” that grand conjunction there in the middle of verse 1, “But he was the son of a prostitute.” And for any Israelite reading that at the time, they knew Deuteronomy 23:2 – a son or daughter of a prostitute cannot have citizenship in Israel until the tenth generation. And that means he was not a legal citizen in the land of Israel. It says that he is the son of Gilead. Now his brothers kicked him out of the country, but look, that sounds specific, but Gilead was the land in which Jephthah lived, so what it’s saying is that he was the son of Gilead – not an individual man – he was the son of the land; he was the son of the nation, meaning he was probably born in a brothel, nobody knows who his dad is; he was poor. “Worthless” can also be translated “impoverished.” He was poor, and the brothers, his brothers, meaning the other men of the nation, the elders of Gilead, gave him the boot; they kicked him out of the land! They kicked him out of the land because they thought he was a worthless fellow.

And it says that he goes out into the wilderness to the land called Tob and he aligns himself with “worthless men,” meaning he became an outlaw, the leader of a group of outlaws in a place called Tob. Now the Gileadites, they humiliated him; they hated him. But when they realize that this guy can fight, they go out to get him because when Jephthah can come up to their advantage, he can be useful, they’re willing to say, “Alright, come back, and not only be a citizen but you can be the king! If you win, you can be the king!” – contradicting every single aspect of the resume they had previously judged him by.

Let’s press pause for a second. It’s just a brief story. This is only mildly related to the text today, which is never a good way to start an illustration or a story, but it’s worth it! John the apostle, the writer of the gospel of John, we have a lot of stories about John from the tradition that – we don’t know for sure whether they’re true but they’re written in early church texts. John settled in Ephesus after the events of the gospels and he was preaching in Smyrna one day and he noticed a boy in the crowd. And for some reason he was moved by the Spirit to reach out to this young boy and so he meets him afterwards and he gets to know him and he takes him to the local minister in Smyrna and this is the language from one of the early texts. He said, “I am entrusting you, bishop, with this youth in the presence of the entire church and I call to witness Jesus Christ right now.” And so the young man was baptized, he was raised in the church, he was a disciple of this local minister, but when he grew up he became a thief and a murderer and he left the town and went and lived in the caves with the outlaws outside the town of Smyrna. And many, many years later when John came back to Smyrna for some ministry, he came and he preached and he came to the local bishop and he said, “Where is the boy? Return to me the pledge in which Jesus Christ and I entrusted you.” And the man said, “He is dead to us – a thief, an outlaw, living in the caves.” And John turned to him and said, “What kind of a father are you? Go get my horse.” So John got on his horse and he galloped out as an old man into the caves, the desert, and the outlaws captured him and they brought him before a man, on his knees. And John looked up and the boy that he had once knew had become the outlaw king, the head of this gang in the caves.

And as soon as the boy-become-man saw John, he dropped his weapon and he ran because he recognized John and he was afraid of him. And John hopped on his horse and chased after the boy and he said – it’s recorded like this – “Stop! Why are you running? I am an unarmed old man. I would die for your soul just as Christ died for me. I have been sent by Christ to claim you!” And the young man stopped and he wept and he asked Christ and Saint John to forgive him.

Now that’s basically the opposite of the Jephthah story because people of God kick Jephthah out of the land, they create an outlaw, and then when they find this villain useful, they go out to the caves and say, “We want you to be more of an outlaw than you’ve ever been. We want you to do your thing. We want you to come and to kill!”

And look, this is the paradox of Jephthah. He has no right to be king. He’s not a legal citizen according to Torah law. He is villainous, he was not called by God but by men, and yet Hebrews 11 – a man of faith, that by him kingdoms were conquered. Look, the hook, the transition, it’s in verse 29. It says that after a time, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. The Holy Spirit filled him up and he defeated the Ammonites and he conquered kingdoms and he was the judge appointed by God to do this work.

Look, what this means is that when the Holy Spirit gets ahold of people He can use very bent sticks and very broken reeds to do truly great things for the kingdom. And you know, for many of us perhaps, our past is full of regrets and full of sins and full of troubles. But look, Jephthah became so strong and mighty for God through the horrible things he experienced, through the way he was treated. Without being poor, exiled, the son of a prostitute, he never becomes God’s mighty warrior who by faith, conquered kingdoms. He was despised and rejected by men. He was driven out from his own people. He was born among his own, but his own people knew him not. He saved Gilead through his marginality. They rejected him so that, by the Holy Spirit, he could save them!

And that means, every single Judge, the New Testament tells us, is a signpost to the Judge, Jesus Christ, and so is Jephthah. And look, the Spirit can take us people who have gone through sorrows and troubles and sins and struggles and use that past to make a great ministry to other people. One example is this. The Holy Spirit, it says in the New Testament, God says that by the Holy Spirit He will take people who have a hard heart, a hard heart towards all sorts of things, all sorts of sins, and break them into people of deep sympathy. Romans 12 – “to weep with those who weep.” There is nobody that can care for the imprisoned like those who have been imprisoned; nobody who can care for somebody who’s lost that person like somebody who’s lost that person. The Spirit can take broken reeds and bent sticks and do pretty great things.

The Real Sacrifice

Now fourthly and finally, what do we do with the paradox of Jephthah – Hebrews 11 and the tragic vow at the end of the passage? The vow is in verse 30 and interpreters have historically been fairly divided over what to do with this passage. Jephthah makes a vow to the Lord, “If You, God will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace, shall be the Lord’s. It will be offered,” our text says, “as a burnt offering.” And of course it’s his daughter that comes out.

Now one commentator, Darrell Bock, says that God is essentially out of the picture here entirely. In fact, he’s saying that about the whole Jephthah narrative. But if that’s the case then I don’t know what to do with Hebrews 11. And another said Jephthah’s problem here is that he doesn’t know the Scriptures. But let’s just think. I’m going to give you six – very quick, I’m just going to list them – details here that help us, I think, to understand another way of what’s maybe going on.

The first is that Jephthah knows the Bible; he knows the Torah – Genesis to Deuteronomy – which is the only Bible written at this point, because, we didn’t read it, but from verse 12 to 28 he goes to the King of Ammon through a messenger to say, “Look, why are you trying to attack us right now in the land of Gilead?” And if you read that section carefully, 12 to 28, you will see that Jephthah is basically outlining the book of Numbers. He gets to one point where he says, “Have you not read the story of Balak from Moab who tried to do this already, who tried to come into this territory to beat Yahweh, to beat the God of the Bible? It didn’t work! Why are you trying this again?” That’s Numbers 22 to 25. He knew the Torah. He had very clearly read the Torah.

The second thing is this. He is anointed by the Spirit. Verse 29 says that “the Spirit came upon him,” and then in the very next verse, you see, he makes the vow. And so perhaps it’s, if we read it differently, the vow is not so tragic but the vow is being led by the Spirit for a bigger purpose.

Third, “the vow” in Hebrew – a little detail here – is ambiguous. It can be translated in multiple ways. So the vow strongly suggests that he’s talking about a person and not an animal. Animals did not live in people’s houses at this time and the word in Hebrew reads better as “whoever comes out of my house,” not “whatever.” But, Robert Alter, who’s probably the greatest Hebrew scholar living in the entire world today, he says that it’s very unlikely that there’s any suggestion here of an actual human sacrifice in the language. And that’s because this little phrase that is being translated, “the burnt offering,” that whole sentence is just two words in Hebrew and it’s a play on words. And you could translate it literally like this – “I will sacrifice the sacrifice.” It’s a verbal form of the same word that then appears as a noun. “I will sacrifice completely whatever sacrifice comes out.” And so it’s ambiguous. Sometimes it can be translated as “whole burnt offering” because it’s used that way, but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be translated differently.

Alright fourth. This is the details part but it gets to the point in just a second. Point four, the Lord gives him the victory. The Lord blesses this vow in verse 32. He blesses it.

And then fifth, Jephthah here, even when he comes home and he sees it’s his daughter, he is willing to lose even her for the sake of the promise he has made to the Lord. He is committed to this. And that says something. Why is he so upset? His real sin here in this vow is that he hopes, because of the Gileadite promise to be the king, that he will be God’s man; he will be God’s “David, future David,” he will be through Him the dynasty of the coming true King. It will be him. That’s what he’s hoping for. He’s so upset that this is his daughter because the text emphasizes three times “she was his only child.” She was his only child. That means his dynasty ends today because of the vow he made, hoping that he would truly be the lineage of the king.

And so that brings us finally to the sixth thing which I think reveals what’s really going on here and that’s to look at – What is she lamenting in verse 36 to 38? She says, “Let me go into the mountains and weep with my handmaidens, with the women that serve me, for” – for what? “For my virginity” is what she laments. And it repeats that over and over again. The women who would have been by her side, lamenting with her over her perpetual virginity, are the same women in the Hebrew culture who would have stood by her side to give her to her husband at her wedding.

In other words, what I think is actually happening here is that in Exodus 38:8 God established a role for women at the tabernacle and later at the temple to commit themselves lifelong to never be married and serve in the tabernacle, at the tabernacle door, all the people that would come to minister, to greet, to help, to do all sorts of tasks. We don’t even know all the things they did. But 2 Samuel 22:2 calls them “the ministering women at the tabernacle door.” And so there’s been a long tradition of interpretation that has most definitely said, “This is Jephthah sacrificing his daughter as a human sacrifice,” but there’s also been a tradition that’s said, “If you look at the details a little more carefully it actually appears that his daughter is being given to lifelong tabernacle service, pledged as one who would never be married.” In Hebrew culture, to be married, to have children – it was everything! And that is what she is so stricken over; that’s what she is lamenting so much.

And look, when you read it like that, it tells you something; that, as we close, this is about something so much bigger than this moment. You know, why, why would Jephthah make a vow like this? Why make such a strange promise that “Whatever comes out of my doorway is to be given to the Lord”? And the reason for that is because you see all throughout the Old Testament that gates and household doorways – city gates, household doorways – are very common places of vowing, covenanting, promising. And the reason for that is they’re saying, “When you enter through this city gate, this is God’s city. When you enter through this threshold, doorway, this is God’s household.” You would make a vow; you would make a promise in the threshold, in the city gate. It was not uncommon. This is not rare; this is normal.

And it comes from – where does it come from? It comes from the Israelite – it comes from the Passover. Remember the Passover? The angel of death comes to take the first born child of every household because of the sin of that household – Jewish, Egyptian – it doesn’t matter. And if you don’t want death to come by your household and take your first born, then what would you do? You would take a substitute, a sacrifice, and you would spread its blood across the threshold doors, the doorway – the place that determines the structure, the foundation, the integrity, the identity of a household. You would spread the blood of the lamb across the door.

You see what is happening here. This is the first born who passes through the doorway of Jephthah, the place that determines the identity of a household. And the substitute at the Passover meant that if you spread the blood over the threshold, that household will be declared innocent. The doorway, because of the Passover comes to mean this. When a human passes through, they symbolically die through the blood of another. When this woman passed through the threshold as the first born, it wasn’t that she was meant to be a human sacrifice; it was that she was meant to be a symbol, you see, of a first born who truly would have His blood spilt over the doorway of the household of the people of God. Just think about it. She would also stand at the tabernacle door for the rest of her life as a virgin under oath. And the purpose – commentators say – the purpose for this is, these women were symbols for all time that the people of God were waiting for their true husband. Where is she standing? She’s standing at the doorway of the temple, the house of God. She comes from one doorway to another. She couldn’t be the sacrifice for this. She was not worthy. She comes to this doorway to say, “We are waiting for a King that Jephthah could have never been, for a Husband that Israel has not yet known, and for a Lamb that was actually worthy to cover the sin of the household upon the threshold.”

Now as we close, the Old Testament does not resolve the paradox – remember the paradox? God’s justice and God’s promised mercy. But all of history, all of the book of Judges, shadows the Christ, the King, the Lamb who was worthy to have His blood spilt upon the doorway; the Husband that Israel was always waiting for that Jephthah’s daughter would signal for all of time as she stood in that doorway. Look, Jesus Christ walked through the door of death so that He could say in John’s gospel to every one of you tonight, “I am the door.” And if anyone enters by Him, they shall be saved, they shall find pasture, He says. May He be our hope, our King, our Husband, because He is the worthy Lamb.

Amen. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and God, we thank You that in shadows, in symbols, You are always turning our faces toward the Christ. We confess tonight His kingship. We confess that He is the worthy Lamb, sacrificed for us, once and for all, at the doorway of Your justice so that by Him we might be able to walk through the door of the family. We give thanks and we ask for our hearts to be moved tonight as we step into our week. By the Spirit, Lord, would You take us as broken reeds and bent sticks and do great things. We ask this in Christ’s name, amen.

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