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Commentary On The Book Of Judges 4.

By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD

Chapter 9. Abimelech.

Abimelech Becomes Sole Prince of The Gideon Tribes - His Rise and Fall.

This chapter contains an account:

  • Of the craft and cruelty of Abimelech, by which he had himself made a prince of Israel and king of the Shechemites.
  • Of the parable of Jotham, the youngest son of Gideon, in regard to the trees, in which he exposes the folly o the people in making Abimelech king, and foretells the ruin of them both.
  • Of the contentions which arose between Abimelech, and the men of Shechem, which were increased by Gaal the son of Ebed, who was drawn into a battle with Abimelech, and was defeated and forced to flee.
  • Of the quarrel between Abimelech and the men of Shechem which still continued, and resulted in the ruin of the entire city and its inhabitants, and in the death of Abimelech himself, in accordance with Jotham's curse.

Shechem was an ancient city situated in the hill country of Ephraim. It was mentioned in the 19th century BC Egyptian execration texts, and excavations show it to have been strongly fortified, covering fourteen acres. It was very prosperous in the Hyksos period (1700-1550 BC) during which time a massive fortress-temple was built. This may well have been ‘the house of Baal-berith’. In the Amarna letters (including correspondence between the Pharaohs and their vassals in Canaan in the 15th century BC) its king Labayu is said by an enemy (Abdi Heba) to have given Shechem to the Habiru (‘Should we do as Lab'aya, who gave Shechem to the enemy (Habiru)?’)? Labayu and his sons were spasmodically rebel leaders against Egypt with influence as far as Gezer and Taanach and they even threatened Megiddo, who wanted a hundred troops to assist in defending against them (‘ Let the king give a hundred garrison men to protect the city. Truly Lab'aya has no other intention. To take Megiddo is that which he seeks!’). Thus Shechem contained a non-Canaaanite section of population at this time. Later there is evidence of specific Israelite occupation, from 11th century BC.

There is no record of Joshua ever having had to take the city and yet it was there that he held a ceremony for the renewing of the covenant (Joshua 8; 24). It may well be that, when ‘Simeon and Levi’ destroyed the inhabitants of the city in Genesis 34, some from their households were allowed to settle there as a reward for assisting in the attack, and in order to look after Jacob’s land rights (Genesis 33.19; 37.12 compare Joshua 24.32), marrying the bereaved women to obtain their land rights and introducing the worship of Yahweh. They may well have been seen elsewhere as ‘Habiru’. This was possibly when the idea of Baal-berith, ‘the lord of the covenant’, originated, originally as genuine worship of Yahweh, or there may have been a gradual compromise and amalgamating of ideas. Habiru (stateless, non-Canaanite peoples) appear to have been settled there in the time of Labayu (see above). Thus when Joshua arrived and was welcomed and found non-Canaanites worshipping ‘the Lord of the Covenant’, and willing to submit to the covenant, he was probably satisfied to incorporate them into the covenant rather than treating them as Canaanites (consider Joshua 24.23).

Abimelech Usurps The Princeship of Israel and the Throne of Shechem (9.1-6).

9.1 ‘And Abimelech, the son of Jerubbaal, went to Shechem, to his mother's brothers, and spoke with them, and with all the family of the house of his mother's father.’

One problem with kingship was that on the death of the king there was usually unrest while the claimants to the throne settled their differences. The fact that this happened here supports the idea that Gideon had been made the equivalent of a ‘king’. Abimelech certainly saw it that way. It would appear that Abimelech had been brought up with his brothers. But he was always aware of his inferior status and when his father died he seized his opportunity. He went to Shechem to seek the assistance of his mother’s side of the family to gain the throne for himself.

9.2 ‘Saying, “Speak, I pray you, in the ears of all the chief men (‘lords’) of Shechem, and consider which is best for you, that all the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy persons, reign over you, or that one reign over you? Remember also that I am your bone and flesh.” ’

He suggested to his grandfather, together with his wider family, that they discuss with all the leading men of Shechem what the position was, and use their influence on his behalf to their mutual benefit.

His reference to seventy persons ruling was not so much to suggest plural rule as to indicate the problems that could arise for all as these sons sought to establish themselves in positions of authority. Surely it would be better if they were all got rid of leaving only one ruler to rule. And then he reminded them that it would further be to their benefit, because he was their blood relation.

So had begun the battle to replace the dead ‘king’. The main reason for giving this story in such detail, one which is so in contrast to the remainder in the book, must surely be as a warning against kingship.

9.3 ‘And his mother's brothers spoke of him in the ears of the chief men of Shechem all these words, and their hearts inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, he is our brother.’

His uncles on his mother’s side pressed his claims on the leading men of Shechem and they were persuaded that the idea that Abimelech receive the kingship was a good one. As king-makers they could look for many benefits in the future. But had they not recognised the potential right to ‘princeship’ of Gideon’s sons, and the probability that the rest of the people would accept his claim, they would simply have rejected him as deluded. His kingship of Shechem rested on his right to princeship of Israel.

9.4 ‘And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baalberith, with which Abimelech hired vain and light persons who followed him.’

The house of Baal-berith may well be the Temple fortress of which the remains have been discovered. This would have a treasure house of gifts given to the Temple and to the god. The ‘seventy’ pieces of silver probably denote a divinely perfect amount (seven intensified), to deal with the seventy sons. Thus he hired ruffians for his purpose. These may well have been Habiru mercenaries.

It is nowhere suggested that the people of Shechem were Canaanites, although like all in the land they were mixed up with Canaanite religion. They appear to have been a mixed population including many ex-Habiru. While they may genuinely have intended to equate Baal-berith with Yahweh and be faithful to His covenant, it was asking too much of them when even true Israelites engaged in such syncretism.

9.5 ‘And he went to his father's house at Ophrah, and slew his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, being seventy persons, on one stone. But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, was left. For he hid himself ’

Abimelech and his band presumably came on the brothers by surprise and took them captive. Then they took them to a large stone and used it as an execution block. It may have been an official execution site. This may have been done officially on some pretext of treason, while the men of the town were in the fields, arriving back too late to protest.

Or it may even have been done as a human sacrifice to Melech, supposedly on behalf of his dead father (compare for such a stone for killing, 1 Samuel 14.33). After all his name was Abi-melech (Melech is my father). But normally such sacrifices would ‘pass through the fire’, and there is no mention of fire here.

Similar activities to ensure accession by sons of dead kings were elsewhere an expected part of life, which would partly explain why there was so little furore. It was seen as an internal royal matter, and who was to argue with a son of the king with a strong band of mercenaries? All this is the more easily explicable if Gideon had officially been seen as their prince.

‘But Jotham, the youngest son of Jerubbaal, was left. For he hid himself.’ One, however, of the sons survived, seeing what was happening and managing to hide.

9.6. ‘And all the men of Shechem assembled themselves together, and all the house of Millo, and went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar that was in Shechem.’

The rivals now being satisfactorily removed, the instigators of the activity, the chief men of Shechem, assembled for a coronation at a sacred place.

‘All the house of Millo’. Beth-millo means ‘the filled-up place’ (compare a similar place in Jerusalem - 2 Samuel 5.9; 1 Kings 11.27; 2 Kings 12.20). This was probably the fortified tower and temple (verse 46), built on top of a previously levelled building or a filled in indentation. Thus the priests of Baal-berith were involved in the ceremony (8.33). They made Abimelech ‘king’ in their own fashion, but note that even here, as regards the section of Israel over whom he ruled he was ‘made prince’ (verse 22). What the Shechemites saw as a king Israel saw as a prince.

‘By the oak of the pillar that was in Shechem.’ Compare Joshua 24.26-27. This was the place where Israel had originally entered into the tribal covenant. They did not want what they were doing to be seen as an attempt to break from the covenant but as a confirmation of it in their own way. Ironically this ‘standing stone’ was originally intended to be the witness to them lest they denied Yahweh (Joshua 24.27 with 24) which was precisely what they were doing, although they may not have thought so.

It should be noted that Abimelech is not rated as a judge and that throughout the whole narrative Yahweh is not mentioned. The few references, and they are sparse, are to ‘God’. It is a disastrous tale of failed kingship, displeasing to God, and a warning of what kingship involves.

There is a great indirect stress on Baalism in this section, although no direct reference to the worship of Baal (however see 8.33 - but the people may well have seen themselves as worshipping Yahweh under the name of Baal-berith. God saw them as worshipping Baal). For example, the chief men are called ‘baals’; those from the ‘the house of Millo’, the Baal-berith temple, are involved in the coronation; Gideon is only referred to as ‘Jerubbaal’; the sons are probably seen as offered as human sacrifices, bought as it were, with money from the house of Baal-berith.

But the coronation actually took place at a site seen as sacred to Yahweh. The whole incident brings out the dangers of syncretism, begun when Gideon made the ephod, and continued by his behaving like a king with multiple marriages. It was a tragedy waiting to happen.

The Curse of Jotham (9.7-21).

9.7 ‘And when they told it to Jotham, he went and stood in the top of Mount Gerizim, and he lifted up his voice, and cried and said to them, “Listen to me, you men of Shechem, that God may listen to you.” ’

Once Jotham heard of the coronation he went to Shechem to utter a curse on Abimelech and on Shechem (verse 57). He climbed on to a spur on Mount Gerizim from where he could be observed in the city, and pronounced his curse.

‘Listen to me -- that God may listen to you.’ By this he indicated that his words were intended as a warning to them. If they listened and responded perhaps God would then listen to their prayers once again. But if they would not listen then God would listen in another way, He would observe their words and actions (compare Numbers 12.2; Deuteronomy 1.34). Mount Gerizim was previously the mountain from which blessings were to be pronounced. Thus Jotham reversed the process. From it he pronounced a curse. They had forfeited their blessings by their actions. (Deuteronomy 11.29; 27.12; Joshua 8.33-34)

9.8-9. “The trees went forth at one time to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, ‘You reign over us.’ But the olive tree said to them, ‘Should I leave my fatness, with which by me they honour God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees?’ ”

These words were a direct mockery of kingship. They revealed it to be a useless exercise taking men away from more important things. The efforts of the olive were far better spent in producing oil than waving uselessly over the trees. Its oil honoured both God and men. By it the light continually shone in the Tabernacle honouring God (Exodus 27.20; Leviticus 24.2). By it priests were anointed to the service of God honouring men (Exodus 30.24-25, 30-31). Why then should it leave this important duty simply in order to wave over the trees?

9.10-11. “And the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the fig tree said to them, ‘Should I forsake my sweetness and my good fruit and go to wave to and fro over the trees?’ ”

The fig tree’s reply was the same. It fed men and gave them pleasure. Figs were one indication of the pleasantness of the promised land (Numbers 13.23; Deuteronomy 8.8). It must fulfil its function and could not contemplate wasting its time acting as king, ‘waving to and fro’, lording it over the trees.

9.12-13. “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and reign over us.’ And the vine said to them, ‘Should I leave my wine, which cheers God and man, and go to wave to and fro over the trees?’ ”

Wine was offered as a drink offering to Yahweh (Leviticus 23.13; Numbers 15.5-10) and gave men great joy and pleasure (see Psalm 104.15). Thus the vine also would not leave its useful function to futilely and uselessly lord it over the trees

So Jotham took three examples of trees which were fruitful, which comprised part of the blessings of the promised land (Deuteronomy 8.8), and stressing their usefulness both to God and man, compared them with the uselessness of kingship. They were self-giving and provided blessing, in contrast with kingship which was a useless exercise and self-grasping while making a great parade of itself. Thus they would not leave their useful function to become mere parasites.

While we must not overpress the points, for good management is not a useless exercise, his words clearly revealed a poor view of kingship. In his eyes kingship should be left to God and all men’s efforts to be king were like branches waving to and fro, lording it over the trees, and accomplishing nothing. There is the hint here that, like their father before them, the sons of Gideon would not have ruled in a way that was autocratic, they would have followed the customs of their fathers, and have done so under the tribal covenant and in league with the tribal confederacy. It would be very different with Abimelech.

9.14 “Then all the trees said to the boxthorn, ‘You come and reign over us.’ ”

Now the trees were getting desperate. They are pictured as foolishly longing for a king over them, come what may. They went to the lowest tree of all, the boxthorn which could not be used for timber, bore no edible fruit and hurt men with its thorns. It was renowned for its thorniness (Psalm 58.9).

So Jotham pictures Abimelech as a boxthorn, useless and prickly, who was only offered the position because no one better would take it, for none other wanted full kingship.

9.15 “And the boxthorn said to the trees, ‘If in truth you anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow, and if not let fire come out of the boxthorn and devour the cedars of Lebanon.’ ”

The picture was deliberately ridiculous. Large trees coming and putting themselves under the shadow of the lowly boxthorn. Yet how else could he wave to and fro over the trees? Thus they would have to demean themselves and become stunted. And the boxthorn was capable of only one thing, bursting into flame and causing a forest fire.

The final phrase was Jotham’s judgment. The boxthorn was good for one thing. It would burn easily. Thus it could easily be ignited in hot weather causing a forest fire, and in that fire the mightiest of the trees, the cedars of Lebanon, would be devoured. So Jotham pictured Abimelech’s kingship as one that would demean them and eventually result in conflagration and destroy them all.

9.16-18. “Now therefore, if you have dealt truly and uprightly, in that you have made Abimelech king, if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal, and his house, and have done to him according to the deserving of his hands, for my father fought for you and ventured his life (‘cast his life before him’) and delivered you out of the hand of Midian, but you are risen up against my father’s house this day, and have slain his sons, all seventy, on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his bondwoman, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother;”

Jotham now outlined the position that they had taken and challenged them to justify it. They were of those who had requested that Gideon, and his sons after him, might reign over them. And they had not meant the ‘son of a bondwoman’ (Jotham’s aristocratic scorn is palpable). They had meant his full sons who had the right to inherit. Let them now consider whether they were dealing fairly and uprightly. Were they even doing what they themselves had requested? They did it originally because they knew such sons would be worthy, because they would be sons like Gideon. And yet now they were accepting, not an olive tree or a fig tree or a vine, all of which had been on offer to them, but a boxthorn.

Furthermore let them consider that Gideon had hazarded his life for their sakes, and delivered them from a most terrible situation, for Shechem had suffered from the Midianite incursions along with the rest. And what reward were they now giving him? Have they done what their hero deserved, in rising up and destroying his full sons, and doing it in the most heinous way? And then finishing up by giving his inheritance to one who had no right to it? And they were doing it for purely selfish reasons. There was no honour in it, no high feelings. They were doing it for what they could get out of it. They were doing it simply because Abimelech was related to them, and they thought that they could control him.

Note the constant use of seventy. It was not the exact number that mattered, (if the seventy had been originally exact then only sixty nine had been slain) it was what the number signified, it signified those who were within the sphere of the divine perfection. Their sin was thus against Yahweh.

9.19-20. “If you then have dealt truly and sincerely with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice all of you in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you. But if not let fire come out from Abimelech and devour the chief men of Shechem and the house of Millo, and let fire come out from the chief men of Shechem and the house of Millo and devour Abimelech.”

Finally he delivered his curse. Let it be according to their deserts. If they have done rightly let them fully enjoy the fruits of what they have done. And if not let them perish in mutual conflagration, the chief men of Shechem, the house of Millo (of Baal-berith) and Abimelech himself.

9.21 ‘And Jotham ran away, and fled, and went to Beer, and dwelt there for fear of Abimelech his brother.’

Having delivered his curse Jotham fled for his life. He journeyed to Beer, which means ‘a well’ and there he lived for fear of Abimelech ‘his brother’. The last words are sardonic. A brother indeed! But he found refreshment, while finally his brother would receive none. The place is unknown and was probably intended to remain unknown. (‘Beer’ would normally have another name attached e.g Beer-sheba). What mattered was that he had found refuge.

We are intended to see in this curse the hand of Yahweh. He was not pleased with the course that events had taken and would act accordingly. He was not powerless to act like Baal (6.31-32). But the writer does not want to mention His name in such a passage. He wants us to recognise that Abimelech was God-forsaken.

The Fulfilment of the Curse on Abimelech and Shechem (9.22-57).

9.22 ‘And Abimelech was prince over Israel for three years.’

Three is the number of completeness. His full reign was short. ‘Three years’ could mean one and a half years upwards. By ancient reckoning a part of a year was counted as a year.

Note that he was ‘made prince’ over Israel and not king. Only Shechem accepted him as ‘king’. But seemingly his accession after the death of Gideon was now accepted by those over whom Gideon had been prince, and his power was such that they did not wish to dispute it. ‘Over Israel’ indicates being prince over some part of Israel. It meant he was prince over some of God’s people who were an essential part of the whole.

The whole narratives make clear to anyone of any intelligence that he was not appointed king over Judah, the independent tribe to the south who were rarely called to arms, or over the prickly and jealous Ephraim, so concerned for their own position, or over Transjordan who would not even supply food to Israel’s army. Even a so-called naive writer would have been aware of that. But in fact they were not naive, they simply counted a part as the whole as the whole book demonstrates. To rule over a part was to rule over ‘Israel’. For a part of Israel to be subjected was for the whole to be subjected. How else were three or four combined tribes to be briefly described?

9.23 ‘And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem, and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech.’

Satan and his minions are ever at work, active in the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2.2), but the former prophets had no difficulty in asserting that they were under Yahweh’s control, for they believed rightly that all things were finally under His control. Such activity of an evil spirit produced animosity and enmity between Abimelech and the chief men of Shechem (compare 1 Samuel 16.14). Indeed here Yahweh is seen as active in the process. He can influence evil spirits as He influences wicked men. And it was His purpose to punish both Abimelech and the chief men.

9.24 ‘That the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and that their blood might be laid, on Abimelech their brother, who slew them, and on the men of Shechem who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers.’

The reason the evil spirit’s activity was allowed and even encouraged was so that vengeance might be gained on Abimelech in accordance with the curse of Jotham and of Yahweh.

‘Seventy sons’. A round number indicating all the slain and stressing their acceptance with Yahweh (seven intensified). ‘Jerubbaal’ is now used constantly to indicate that Abimelech was mixed up with and followed Baal. All were guilty, both the murderers and those who encouraged it.

9.25 ‘And the chief men of Shechem set liers in wait against him on spurs of the mountains, and they robbed all that came along that way by them and it was told Abimelech.’

The form of rebellion that occurred was due to their greed for gold. We must remember that many of them were former Habiru. These ‘chief men of Shechem’, the majority of the ruling class, arranged ambushes against passing travellers to seize their wealth. This was not thus an illicit band of thieves but a public policy encouraged by some of the authorities.

It is unlikely that it was a new venture. They had probably been doing it in secret through the years. But now they did it openly. It was ‘against him’ because as prince of Israel it would interfere with his collection of tolls, and because it was his responsibility to ensure that his people could travel in safety. It would also interfere with trade. If the routes to Shechem between the mountains were unsafe traders would avoid Shechem. The information soon reached Abimelech, no doubt indignantly reported by the travellers. This was their first treacherous dealing.

9.26 ‘And Gaal, the son of Ebed, came with his brothers, and went over to Shechem, and the men of Shechem put their confidence in him.’

Many of the chief men of Shechem were now aware that Abimelech was planning to interfere with their secret activities, and information concerning this seems to have been carried to a man called Gael, who was the son of Ebed (‘servant’), who possibly carried on similar activities further down the trail. He was also possibly a Habiru. So he came over to Shechem with ‘his brothers’ to discuss this new state of affairs and in discussions won the confidence of the chief men of Shechem. Gaal was possibly descended from the family of Hamor, the father of Shechem, in whose day disaster came on Shechem through Simeon and Levi (verse 28 compare Genesis 34). If he was he would thus have another reason for wanting to be in Shechem

9.27 ‘And they went out into the field, and gathered their vineyards, and trod the grapes, and held a festival, and went into the house of their god, and ate and drank and cursed Abimelech.’

Gaal stayed until the time for gathering the grape harvest came, and when the harvest was gathered they all held a festival, as would occur yearly at that time, and began to enjoy the fruits of the vine. In process of it they went into the house of their god, Baal-berith, eating heartily and getting drunk, and in the course of this, their tongues running freely, they cursed Abimelech. They had become disillusioned with him. This probably includes the idea that they discussed ways of getting rid of him. He was getting in the way of their profitable highway robbery. Gaal would have listened to this with interest.

Of course at this time they should have been gathering at the central sanctuary to worship Yahweh at the feast of Tabernacles. That may well have been where Abimelech, as a prince of Israel, was. But their support of that covenant was now non-existent.

9.28 ‘And Gaal the son of Ebed said, “Who is Abimelech? And who is Shechem, that we should serve him? Is he not the son of Jerubbaal? And is not Zebul his officer? Serve the men of Hamor, the father of Shechem. But why should we serve him?” ’

Gaal challenged them about their loyalty to Abimelech. He cleverly used the same argument that Abimelech had used against his brothers. He accused him of not being related to the true ancient occupants of Shechem. Note that he now included himself as one of them - ‘we’.

‘Who is Abimelech? And who is Shechem, that we should serve him?’ He contrasted Abimelech with the people of Shechem. Who was Abimelech to be served by them? Was he not the son of an Israelite prince who destroyed the altar of Baal and the Asherah, and had he not placed there his officer Zebul to keep watch over them? He was an outsider. And who were the Shechemites (spoken of as ‘Shechem’) that they should serve him? Should they really be serving an Israelite? Should they not be serving the true rulers of Shechem, the descendants of Hamor?

‘Is not Zebul his officer?’ Zebul means ‘exalted one, prince’. Zebul may thus have been a title demonstrating his position. This foreigner Zebul was there as Abimelech’s officer to keep an eye on them as his appointee. He may even have been sent to discover who was responsible for the highway robbery. That is at least probably what Gaal wanted them to suspect. Possibly at this stage he revealed that in fact, by coincidence, he himself was such an ancestor of Hamor and Shechem.

9.29a “And would to God this people were under my hand. Then would I remove Abimelech.”

Now Gaal made his appeal to the chief men of Shechem, whether as a Habiru leader or as a descendant of Hamor. If only he was appointed chief he would soon get rid of Abimelech.

9.29b ‘And he said to Abimelech, “Increase your army, and come out.” ’

We may see this as said to an absent adversary, spoken by a drunken leader from a distance into the air in the midst of the feast with a wave of the hand, but intended for Abimelech even though he could not hear it. It was a piece of impressive bravado. Its aim was to show that he was not afraid of Abimelech, even if he were to gather an even larger army. We must remember that they were all drunk.

The LXX changes to ‘I would say to Abimelech.’ This means the same but without the dramatic touch.

9.30 ‘And when Zebul, the prince of the city, heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger was kindled.’

Zebul, Abimelech’s deputy, learned of what Gaal had said and grew angry. If he was in the city representing Abimelech we would expect him to be. What it means is that he heard what was being said, possibly through a spy, and reacted accordingly.

9.31 ‘And he sent messengers to Abimelech secretly, saying, “Gaal the son of Ebal, and his brothers have come to Shechem, and behold they are constraining the city against you.” ’

Gaal and his brothers were probably well known as troublemakers, possibly as Habiru, always seeking to stir up trouble and obtain rich pickings for themselves. So Zebul let Abimelech know that they were there and what they were doing. The word translated ‘constrain’ usually means ‘besiege’ but here it is used metaphorically to describe the besieging of the mind.

9.32 “Now therefore up by night, you and the people who are with you, and lie in wait in the field.”

Abimelech was to come that night after sunset, bringing the men who were with him, and they were to lie hidden in the open country and in the hills outside the city. No one would be expecting them, and the men in the city would be recovering from their hangovers.

9.33 “And it shall be, that, in the morning, as soon as the sun is up, you will rise early, and set upon the city, and, behold, when he and the people who are with him come out against you, then you may do to them as your hand will find.”

Then when morning came they were to attack the city, and when Gaal and his supporters came out to meet them they could do to them whatever was necessary. He had outlined the primary strategy. At that point it would be up to Abimelech.

9.34 ‘And Abimelech rose up, and all the people who were with him, by night, and they laid wait against Shechem in four companies.’

As Zebul had advised, Abimelech came up at night with four companies of men and took up their hidden positions outside the city.

9.35 ‘And Gaal, the son of Ebed, went out, and stood in the entering of the gate of the city, and Abimelech rose up, and the people who were with him from the ambush.’

When the gates of the city were opened next morning Gaal went out to survey the position, not expecting that his enemy was already near. He had his men at the ready within the city (verse 39). But the opening of the gates was the signal for the attack, so Abimelech and his men rose from their ambush to approach the city quickly before the gates could be closed against them.

9.36 ‘And when Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebul, “Look, there are people coming down from the mountain heights.” And Zebul said to him, “You are seeing the shadow of the mountains, as if they were men.” ’ ’

Gaal was accompanied by Zebul, probably not suspecting that he knew of the proposed insurrection, (he had not been at the feast), and as he looked towards the mountains he thought he spotted a company of men coming down towards the city. So he pointed them out to Zebul to ask him what he thought it was. Shechem was situated between two mountains, Ebal and Gerizim, which towered over it.

‘And Zebul said to him, “You are seeing the shadow of the mountains, as if they were men.” ’ Zebul had his wits about him and replied calmly that Gaal was deceiving himself. What he was actually seeing was moving shadows on the mountains which simply gave the appearance of being men. All this gave Abimelech time to get nearer.

9.37 ‘And Gaal spoke again, and said, “Look, people are coming down along the middle of the land, and one company comes by way of the Diviner’s oak.” ’

Gaal looked again and now he knew that he was right. He saw two more companies, one coming through the middle between the two mountains and one coming by way of the Diviner’s oak, a tree where soothsayers practised their arts, which were forbidden in Israel (Deuteronomy 18.10; Leviticus 19.26), another sign of the disobedience of the land.

9.38 ‘Then Zebul said to him, “Where is now your mouth, that you said, ‘Who is Abimelech, that we should serve him?’ Is not this the people that you have despised? Go out now I pray you, and fight with them.” ’

The approaching forces were now so visible, and their purpose so obvious, that Zebul knew that he could keep up the pretence no longer. So now he challenged Gaal to live up to his boasting. Let him consider what he had said so arrogantly. He had spoken disparagingly of this people. So now let him prove his words and go out and fight them.

9.39 ‘And Gaal went out before the men of Shechem, and fought with Abimelech.’

Possibly stirred by the taunts of Zebul, Gaal, instead of shutting the gates of the city, which could anyway only be a holding device for a time, called the Shechemites who were supporting him and went out to meet Abimelech in battle. And there the battle was fought.

9.40 ‘And Abimelech chased him, and he fled before him, and there fell many wounded, even to the entering of the gate.’

Defeated, Gaal and his troops retreated towards the gates, but in their retreat many fell wounded, until at last they reached the gates where men held them partly open until they were inside and obtained refuge. And then the gates were closed to keep out Abimelech and his men.

9.41 ‘And Abimelech waited at Arumah, and Zebul thrust out Gaal and his brothers, that they should not dwell in Shechem.’

Having gained his first victory Abimelech now withdrew to Arumah to await events until he had heard from Zebul. And meanwhile Zebul was rallying those who were loyal to Abimelech (probably increased since the battle) and fought with Gaal and his brothers, their supporters having deserted them, and managed to drive them out of the city.

9.42 ‘And so it happened on the next day, that the people went out into the field, and they told Abimelech.’

The next day some of the people who were with Abimelech went from Arumah into the countryside, probably to survey the situation, and returned to tell him of the expulsion of Gaal and his brothers, something they may have learned from a messenger sent by Zebul. This interpretation is supported by the re-mention of ‘the people’ in verse 43.

Alternately it may be that some of the people in the city, thinking that Abimelech had withdrawn, themselves went out to their fields to prepare them for the next stage of ploughing, before Abimelech could attack again. Whatever else happened the supply of food had to be maintained. (This may have been Abimelech’s hope when he withdrew). Then this news reached Abimelech, either from scouts or by means of a messenger from the city, from faithful Zebul.

9.43 ‘And he took the people, and divided them into three companies, and laid wait in the field, and he looked, and, behold, the people were come forth out of the city, and he rose up against them, and smote them.’

Gathering that now that Gaal and his brothers had been expelled, the population of Shechem would feel able to move more freely, Abimelech divided his forces into three companies and waited in the countryside outside the city, and when many of the people in the city came out to work in their fields he arose with his men and smote them.

Alternately if we assume that verse 42 speaks of some people who had already left the city, this tells us that more now left the city, and it was they who were first attacked.

9.44. ‘And Abimelech, and the companies that were with him, rushed forward, and stood in the entering of the gate of the city, and the two other companies ran on all the people that were in the field and smote them.’

This now explains the attack in more detail, as commonly happens in ancient writings. Before attacking the people, now out in the countryside, they seized the gates to prevent them being closed against them, and then two of the companies smote the people outside, while the third held the gate.

9.45 ‘And Abimelech fought against the city all that day, and he took the city and slew the people that were in it, and he beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.’

Having dealt with the people outside, and no doubt having joined up with Zebul and his supporters, Abimelech now took the attack to the city itself.

Resistance was fierce and the battle continued all day. But eventually after much slaughter he took the city itself, apart from the fortified Temple, showing little mercy on the inhabitants and killing them, apart of course from those who had remained faithful to him. He was in no mood for compromise. Then he destroyed much of the city and spread salt in it.

This may be as a symbol of its destruction as salt fell on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19.26 with 24), or to indicate that he was making it a sacrifice to God (compare Ezekiel 43.24), or to indicate that it would ever be a wilderness (Job 39.6; Psalm 107.34). Whichever is so it would make the cleaning up of the city more difficult and unpleasant. Tiglath Pileser I (1115-1077 BC) (probably, the word is uncertain) claimed in his annals that he did the same to Hunusa around this time. ‘The whole of the city I laid waste, I destroyed, I turned into heaps and ruins, and on it I sowed salt (?).’

9.46 ‘And when all the men of the tower of Shechem heard about it, they entered into the hold of the house of El-berith.’

Meanwhile the priests of Baal-berith and their attendants saw and learned what was happening and themselves took shelter in the fortified Temple, the house of the covenant with El and Baal. Thus all the men with the responsibility for the worship of El and Baal, the father and main son of the pantheon of Canaanite gods, were gathered together in one place. Possibly they hoped that he would not destroy the Temple or harm the priests of Baal-berith.

9.47 ‘And it was told Abimelech, that all the men of the tower of Shechem were gathered together.’

The news reached Abimelech that all the priests of Baal-berith were there in the fortified tower, together with their attendants and priestesses, the cult prostitutes. These were men who had participated in his coronation. But instead of respect for them there was only hatred.

9.48 ‘And Abimelech took himself up to Mount Zalmon, he and all the people who were with him, and Abimelech took an axe in his hand, and cut down a bough from the trees, and took it, and laid it on his shoulder, and said to the people who were with him, “What you have seen me do, be quick, and do as I have done.” ’

Taking his people with him Abimelech climbed Mount Zalmon which was tree-covered, and was so fired up that he himself took an axe and cut a bough from the tree. Then he bid all his followers to do the same as quickly as they could. Mount Zalmon is unknown but may have been a part of either Ebal or Gerizim.

9.49 ‘And all the people likewise cut down every man his bough, and followed Abimelech, and put them to the hold, and set the hold on fire on them, so that all the men of the tower of Shechem died also, about a thousand men and women.’

The people obeyed his command and returned to the tower with their branches, and then they were piled up outside the fortified tower and set on fire, burning the tower with the people in it, who would no doubt be mercifully suffocated by the smoke. Thus all the priests and attendants of Baal died as well, together with the priestesses of Baal, the sacred prostitutes. Altogether ‘about a thousand’. Thus some hundreds. So was Jotham’s curse fulfilled (9.20).

9.50 ‘Then Abimelech went to Thebez, and encamped against Thebez, and took it.’

The insurrection in Shechem had spread. Abimelech had not been reigning as a prince of Israel long and already there was general dissatisfaction. It was not only his kingship at Shechem, with their syncretistic beliefs, that was in question, but his princeship over his part of Israel. Thebez was a fortified city in the hill country of Ephraim. It is modern Tubas about ten miles (sixteen kilometres) north of Nablus and twelve miles (nineteen kilometres) north east of Shechem on the road to Beth-shan. But Abimelech was an able general, and besieged it and took it.

It is possible that the city had sheltered refugees from Shechem and had refused to give them up. Or that they had refused Abimelech entrance when he had demanded it in order to search for refugees. Or even that they had withheld taxes levied by him. This was the problem with having a prince. He expected some financial gain from it. But in some way they had indicated their unwillingness now to accept him as prince.

9.51 ‘But there was a strong tower within the city, and to it fled all the men and women, and all they of the city, and shut themselves in, and made their way to the roof of the tower.’

As with many larger cities there was a fortified citadel within, and the people of the city, together with their servants and bondservants, secured themselves inside it. Then those able to help in the defence went to the roof of the tower to continue their defence by throwing from the tower on the besiegers anything available which could do them harm. They would have a pile of such things kept available at times like this.

9.52 ‘And Abimelech came to the tower, and fought against it, and went hard to the door of the tower to burn it with fire.’

Whatever Abimelech was he was not a coward and he took a full part in the attack. The door of the tower, as always, appears to have been its weak point and was made of wood, and it was thus inflammable. So he began, with his men, to prepare to burn it down and himself approached close to the door. This would be where the largest number of missiles would rain down, for it was the expected point of attack, but despite this he was in the forefront of the attack directing operations by example as he had at Shechem.

9.53 ‘And a certain woman cast an upper-millstone on Abimelech’s head and broke his skull.’

An unknown woman on the tower, seeing Abimelech not far below her, (the tower would not be very high), took her missile, which was a substantial upper-millstone, one used in her mill to grind the corn, roughly about 18 inches (half a metre) in diameter, and 3 inches (8 centimetres) thick, and hurled it down with all her strength on Abimelech. And her aim was good, and it smashed into his head and broke his skull. The tower was fairly low, and the upper-millstone would be fairly prominent, so that Abimelech knew who had thrown it and even in his agony his pride was such that he could not bear the shame of being killed by a woman, even such a redoubtable woman as this.

9.54 ‘Then he called hastily to the young man his armourbearer, and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, so that men may not say of me, a woman slew him.” And his young man thrust him through and he died.’

Recognising that his end was near he ordered his own armourbearer, a young man, to draw his sword and kill him. The sword would be sheathed because he was helping build up wood by the door of the tower. And the young man, recognising his predicament, for he knew that for a soldier to die at a woman’s hand would be to be disgraced, did as he was bid. But the disgrace has come down in history. The young armourbearer would carry Abimelech’s weapons, spears and shield, prior to a fight and would fight by his master’s side.

There is possibly some kind of justice recognised by the writer in what happened to Abimelech. He who had slain his brothers on a stone, was slain by a mill-stone. And stoning was often the sentence exacted on those in Israel on whom the death penalty was passed.

9.55 ‘And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they departed every man to his place.’

Once Abimelech was dead there was little point in fighting on. The point at issue was decided. It would be up to Abimelech’s heirs whether they wished to press claims to princehood in Israel and the kingship of Shechem.

9.56 ‘Thus God requited the wickedness of Abimelech which he did to his father, in killing his seventy brothers.’

God had avenged the hurt done to His servant Gideon by the killing of his sons, for He takes note of what is done to those who serve Him faithfully, and what Abimelech had done had removed Gideon’s heirs and had been an attempt to prevent the carrying on of his true line.

9.57 ‘And all the wickedness of the chief men of Shechem, did God requite upon their heads, and on them came the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal.’

‘On them’, that is on both Abimelech and the men of Shechem. Thus was the curse of Jotham, Gideon’s representative, fulfilled. Those who had plotted and had their part in the killing of Gideon’s sons now found that their deed had come on their own heads.

It is very significant that from Gideon onwards it is said of all the judges that they died, and the place of their burial is described. But of Abimelech nothing is said about his burial. He was as it were left where he was (9.55). He was not considered acceptable.

But what were the lessons of this very full account? One was certainly to show God’s faithfulness to Gideon and His abhorrence of what Abimelech had done to his heirs. But that could have been dealt with in a sentence or two. The fact is that the total lack of mention of the name Yahweh and the fact that God is only mentioned in respect of vengeance, except by Jotham, demonstrates more than this. It demonstrates the total failure of kingship, which now fades out and is not heard of again. God was not in it.

In some ways Gideon had brought what happened on his own head. He had multiplied wives; he had had a concubine, thus producing a son who was not a son, and was outside his direct control and was connected with another city and another class of society and a syncretised religion; he had localised, at first unintentionally, the means of obtaining Yahweh’s guidance; and this that followed was the result. It revealed to Israel something of what kingship involved, and that what that was, God rejected - multiple wives, problems of accession, civil war resulting from discontent with the king, dictatorial attitudes, and the upholding of one man’s honour and position, all resulting from one man’s princedom or kingship. And to us it is a reminder that what a man sows, so shall he also reap.

Judges 10 The Rise of Ammon.

This chapter gives an account of two judges of Israel, in whose days their parts of Israel enjoyed peace, After their reigns, by sinning against God, Israel came into further trouble, and as a consequence they were oppressed by their enemies for eighteen years, and were invaded by an army of the Ammonites. When they eventually cried to Yahweh for deliverance, confessing their sins, He at first refused to grant it. However, on their continuing to pray and confess their sins, and on their reforming, He had compassion on them, and the chapter concludes with the preparations made by both armies for battle.

Further Judges of Israel (10.1-5).

10.1 ‘And after Abimelech there arose to save Israel, Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, and he dwelt in Shamir in the hill country of Ephraim.’

It is noteworthy that it had not been said of Abimelech that he delivered Israel, or saved Israel or acted as judge. His short appearance was clearly seen as an interlude between judges, a blot on the picture. But once again, when he was gone, God raised up judges in accordance with His will.

The first was Tola, the son of Puah (sometimes Puvah). For these names (but not the persons) as connected with Issachar, compare Genesis 46.13; Numbers 26.23; 1 Chronicles 7.1. The name Dodo appears in 1 Samuel 23.9, and, interestingly, is found in connection with a cult object in the Moabite Stone (‘the altar-hearth of Dodo’), which was connected with the Israelites in Transjordan. The whereabouts of Shamir is not known.

Thus to this point we have had five judges, Othniel of Judah, Ehud of Benjamin, Shamgar, Deborah with Barak of Naphtali, Gideon of Manasseh and this, Tola of Issachar, is the sixth. He will be followed by Jair of Gilead, Jephthah of Gilead, Ibzan of Bethlehem (in Zebulun - Joshua 19.15), Elon of Zebulun, Abdon the Pirathonite, and Samson the Danite. Thus making twelve in all, the number of the tribes in the covenant.

Tola ‘saved’ Israel. This would suggest that he was more than just an administrator, but was a charismatic leader raised in a time of trouble. However, we know no more about him except that he judged Israel for twenty three years.

10.2 ‘And he judged Israel twenty and three years, and died, and was buried in Shamir.’

We sense from these two verses the sense that tranquillity had been restored. The tumult of Abimelech was over. The ‘twenty and three years’ may indicate that he judged for twenty years (half a generation) more than Abimelech was prince over Israel (9.22), an indication that righteous rule had replaced unrighteous rule.

10.3 ‘And after him arose Jair, the Gileadite, and he judged Israel twenty and two years.’

Jair means ‘he who enlightens’. He judged in a totally different part of the country than Tola, on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead. ‘After him’ may simply signify that he arose after Tola saved Israel and began to judge. Thus the judgeships may overlap. ‘Twenty and two years’ may indicate ‘just over half a generation’. He judged the same general area as that conquered by Jair, the ‘son of Manasseh’, in Numbers 32.41 (see also Deuteronomy 3.14; Joshua 13.30 which connect them with Bashan which was part of ‘all the land of Gilead’ (2 Kings 10.33)), but the latter only ruled twenty three towns (1 Chronicles 2.22), although compare ‘the towns of Jair’ (Joshua 13.30). This suggests that he came from a noble and influential family. His wealth is apparent from verse 4.

10.4 ‘And he had thirty sons that rode upon thirty ass colts, and they had thirty cities, which are called Havothjair unto this day, which are in the land of Gilead.’

He seemingly had a number of wives who gave him thirty sons, each of whom ruled a town. The fact that they rode on ass colts stresses their position and dignity. ‘Havvoth Jair’ means ‘the tent villages of Jair’, but by now, while retaining the old name, they had progressed to small towns and cities.

10.5 ‘And Jair died, and was buried in Camon.’

Both these judges appear to have served well and maintained submission to Yahweh, for it was only on their deaths that the children of Israel again backslid.

God’s Fifth Lesson - The Rise of the Ammonites and Its Consequences - Jephthah as Judge of Israel (10.6-12.7).

The Sins of Israel and the Oppression of Ammon (10.6-16).

10.6 ‘And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baalim, and the Ashtaroth, and the gods of Aram (Syria), and the gods of Zidon, and the gods of Moab, and the gods of the children of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines, and forsook Yahweh and did not serve him.’

These gods would include Ashtoreth (of Zidon - 1 Kings 11.5, 33), Baal-peor and Chemosh (of Moab - Numbers 21.29; 25.3; 1 Kings 11.7, 33), Melek (Molech, Milcom - of Ammon - Leviticus 18.21; 1 Kings 11.5, 7, 33), and Dagon and Baalzebub (of the Philistines - 16.23; 1 Samuel 5.2-7; 2 Kings 1.2-3). Molech was particularly known as a god requiring human sacrifice (Leviticus 18.21; 20.2-5; 2 Kings 23.10; Jeremiah 32.35).

From this it is apparent that a large part of the people were now seeking different gods in different parts of the country. This was to ‘forsake’ Yahweh. They no doubt kept up some formal observance of His requirements but they found the other gods more exciting and stimulating, and less demanding, and they could see them and be awed. It may also be that in some cases, such as the Philistines, Ammon and Moab, they were required to worship these gods because of the pressure from their oppressors.

Note that the number of gods mentioned is seven. This was in order to incorporate into the idea all the gods of all the nations, for seven is the number of divine completeness.

10.7-8a. ‘And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hands of the Philistines, and into the hands of the children of Ammon, and that year they vexed and oppressed the children of Israel.’

This is a general description given before each will be dealt with in full detail, the Ammonites first. The Philistines in the west on the coastal plain and the Ammonites in east Transjordan had Israel trapped in between them. The writer informs us that this was because Yahweh was sick of their behaviour and idolatry so that He ceased to protect them and handed them over into virtual slavery.

The Philistines were powerfully established on the coastal plain in the west and were now expanding outwards seeking tribute. This would affect a number of the tribes and many Israelite cities came under their sway, and on the whole this expansion now continued, with intermissions, until the time of David. Until then lowland Israel was never really fully free from the Philistine menace, and at times this also extended into the mountains. If they wanted Dagon, said Yahweh, they could have him! The beginning of the deliverance from them will come in later chapters

Meanwhile pressure also came from the east. The selling into the hands of the children of Ammon affected mainly Beyond Jordan, but it extended for a time into the lands of Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim west of Jordan. This was of a less permanent nature, but dreadful while it lasted. They were a cruel people and their god Melek (Molech is the same name with the vowels of bosheth (shame) implanted) demanded continual human sacrifice. Ammon surrounded their territory with small circular tower fortresses built of large stones (Numbers 21.24, as confirmed by archaeology) and regularly worked in conjunction with Moab (3.13; Deuteronomy 23.3-5; 2 Chronicles 20.1-30). They also worked in conjunction with the Amalekites (3.13) and the Midianites (Numbers 22.7 with Deuteronomy 23.3-5).

‘That year’ refers to the year when they first began their maraudings (verse 7).

10.8b ‘For eighteen years they oppressed all the children of Israel who were beyond Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead.’

This oppression would include the tribes of Reuben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh and was similar in length of time to that previously by the Moabites, Ammonites and Amalekites (3.13-14). We need not doubt that the Moabites were also active here. But while in Judges 3 the Moabite king was the stronger, here the Ammonite king was the stronger.

10.9 ‘And the children of Ammon passed over Jordan, to fight also against Judah, and against Benjamin, and against the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was sore distressed.’

This indicates the power of this king of Ammon. He was strong enough not only to afflict the tribes east of the Jordan but also to make incursions west of the Jordan, and attack the larger tribes there. Indeed he may have done this periodically. His main aim there was tribute and booty, but east of Jordan it was also an attempt to annex back land which Ammon had lost to the Amorites centuries before, land which was now controlled by the Israelites.

10.10 ‘And the children of Israel cried to Yahweh, saying, “We have sinned against you, both because we have forsaken our God, and have served the Baalim.”

Once again oppression brought the children of Israel to their senses. But this time they were to find out that His attitude had hardened. Those who go on sinning in the face of His mercy find eventually that the way back is harder. The mention of the Baalim shows that this was still their central sin, common to them all, and it was probably intended to include their dabbling with the other gods, which was equally heinous (Baalim = ‘lords’).

10.11a ‘And Yahweh said to the children of Israel.’

An unusual use in the predicate of ‘the children of Israel’ used only when covenant matters were very much in mind. Here they had sought to renew the covenant, but Yahweh’s reply was to be stern. He probably spoke through a prophet.

10.11b-12 “Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians, and from the Amorites, from the children of Ammon, and from the Philistines?”

The Hebrew is difficult here but the sense is clear. Yahweh reminded them of all He had done for them in the past. The first from the Egyptians was the great deliverance. But this was followed by deliverance from the Amorites when they fought Sihon and Og (Numbers 21.21-35), from the children of Ammon (and Moab) in Judges 3.13, and from the Philistines by the hand of Shamgar (3.31).”

10.12 “The Zidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites did oppress you, and you cried to me, and I saved you out of their hands.”

The Zidonian oppression is not mentioned elsewhere but would have been exerted against the northern tribes. The Amalekites were continual enemies right from the beginning (Exodus 17.13; Judges 3.13). The Maonites, possibly the Meunim, were people connected with Ma‘an, south east of Petra, who regularly associated with the Moabites and the Ammonites (1 Chronicles 4.41; 2 Chronicles 20.1 NIV; RSV; RV margin) and Arabians (2 Chronicles 26.7). The LXX has ‘Midianites’ instead of Maonites, but that was probably due to the fact that the Maonites were obscure, although there may have been close links between the two.

Seven oppressors are mentioned, the number of divine perfection. This summarises therefore all who had oppressed them at any time. When these people had oppressed them in one way or another they had cried to Yahweh and He had delivered them.

10.13-14 “Yet you have forsaken me, and served other gods, and for this reason I will save you no more. Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen, let them save you in the time of your distress. ”

As they have, once they were delivered, continually turned their back on Yahweh to serve other gods, let them now go to those gods to deliver them. Yahweh was finished with them. Let them look to the other gods to save them, and see what the result would be.

10.15 ‘And the children of Israel said to Yahweh, “We have sinned, you do to us whatever seems good to you, only deliver us, we pray you, this day.” ’

The children of Israel remembered Yahweh’s promises to Abraham, and were confident that He would pity them. They could not believe that He would not honour His promises. That is always a good place to start when we seek God. So they admitted their sins and sought Him for deliverance, telling Him that He could punish them as He wished if only He would deliver them.

10.16a ‘And they put away the strange gods from among them, and served Yahweh.’

His words had hit them hard. There was a wholesale cleansing and reformation, although we do not know how far it reached. Perhaps it was mainly limited to east of Jordan. So great was the distress that they removed all traces of Baalim from their houses, and all the household idols, and destroyed the altars of their other gods. They recognised that if Yahweh was to accept them again they must be thorough. Then they went to the central sanctuary and made all the necessary offerings, renewed their covenant with Yahweh, and returned home determined to obey His laws and walk in His ways.

10.16b ‘And his soul was grieved for the misery of Israel.’

Yahweh saw their repentance and He heard their cry, and He felt for His people and their misery. ‘His soul was grieved for the misery of Israel.’ This is human language, an anthropomorphism. How great is the goodness and mercy of God. So He determined that once again He would deliver them through someone raised up to help them. But possibly His choice owed much to the fact that they had treated Him as an outcast, for He would save them through an outcast.

The Conflict With Ammon and The Rise and Victory of Jephthah (10.17-11.40).

10.17a ‘Then the children of Ammon were gathered together, and encamped in Gilead.’

It may well be that the Ammonites and their allies saw the religious reformation in Israel as an act of rebellion. The Ammonites had placed their gods in Gilead and now they had been torn down, and what was more, the people of Israel here had been consorting with others in their tribal confederacy (a result of the reformation). This could only spell danger. It may also be that they had withheld tribute. So the armies of Ammon and their allies invaded Gilead, and encamped there, to find out what was happening, and to frighten Gilead into submission. ‘Gilead’ (which is a flexible term) here probably represents the whole of the Beyond Jordan tribes.

10.17b ‘And the children of Israel assembled themselves together, and encamped at Mizpah.’

In conformity with their renewed faith in Yahweh, and recognising that they must prepare to fight with Ammon, Israel also gathered together and set up camp. ‘Israel’ here probably means the Beyond Jordan tribes. But they had one problem, they needed a champion.

Mizpah. The word means ‘watchtower’. There were thus a number of Mizpahs. This one was in Gilead and was where Jephthah set up house. It may be the same as Ramath-Mizpeh - ‘the height of Mizpah’ (Joshua 13.26). Some have thus connected it with Ramoth Gilead, but this is uncertain.

10.18 ‘And the people, the princes of Gilead, said to one another, “What man is he who will begin to fight against the children of Ammon? He shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’

At this stage they had no judge over them so that having gathered for battle they had no warleader. It is, however, significant that the writer makes clear that they did not look for the answer from Yahweh. Instead they surveyed their own resources. Whoever would take over the responsibility, and was acceptable, would be made their ‘head’. But they could only think of one who was suitable and he was not available. Perhaps that is why they did not seek Yahweh’s advice, for they knew that this man could not be Yahweh’s choice. For he was the bastard child of a wanton woman, probably a prostitute. They were not aware that in spite of all he had a deep faith in Yahweh.

Chapter 11 Jephthah the Gileadite.

This chapter gives an account of a further judge of Israel, Jephthah. It describes his descent and character, and speaks of the call the elders of Gilead gave him to be their general and lead out their forces against the Ammonites, and outlines the agreement that he made with them.

It then tells of the message that he sent to the children of Ammon, which brought on a dispute, between him and them. The dispute was about the land Israel that possessed on that side of Jordan, which the Ammonites claimed as theirs. And he stressing Israel's right to it. However, as he probably anticipated, the children of Ammon did not agree with what he said, and so he prepared to give battle. But prior to giving battle he made a vow to Yahweh, after which he set forward and fought the enemy, and obtained victory over them. The chapter then concludes with the difficulties which Jephthah had on his return home, because of his vow and what it required of him.

11.1 ‘Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of a harlot, and Gilead begat Jephthah.’

The man the leaders of Gilead had their eye on was named Jephthah. His name means ‘opens’ and was probably short for Yiptah-el - ‘God opens (the womb)’. He was a great warrior. But there were problems. His father Gilead had begotten him by either an ordinary prostitute or by a wanton woman, although it has to be said in Gilead’s favour that he had then taken him into his home. But it was a different matter with Gilead’s family. For when Jephthah grew up he was thrown out of his home as the son of ‘another woman’, that is not a true wife or even a concubine. This was contrary to the teaching of the law which protected ‘the fatherless’, for thereby they had made Jephthah fatherless (Deuteronomy 10.18; 14.29; 16.11; 24.17).

11.2 ‘And Gilead's wife bore him sons, and when his wife's sons grew up they drove Jephthah out, and said to him, “You shall not inherit in our father's house. For you are the son of another woman.’

It would seem that Jephthah was Gilead’s first child, whom he took into his house. But then his own wife bore him children, and as they grew up the question of inheritance cropped up. One problem was that he was the firstborn, (although not legally), and assertive. We can understand why they feared for the future. But even the child of a prostitute could expect some kind of inheritance from his father when he was a part of the household (compare Genesis 25.6), and he certainly had a right to his father’s reasonable provision. They, however, begrudged him even that, which was why they drove him out. As Gilead would presumably not have permitted this we must presume that he was either ill, or more probably dying, although it may be that he was driven to it by a constantly nagging wife, as Abraham partly was by Sarah (Genesis 21.10-11).

Yet as a bastard Jephthah and all his descendants would be barred from entering the assembly of Yahweh, that is from becoming full Israelites, for ten (or ‘a number of’) generations (Deuteronomy 23.2). It took that long for the taint to be removed. His position was an unhappy one. Interestingly the same was true for their foe, the Ammonites (Deuteronomy 23.3), or even worse, because their barring was ‘for ever’.

11.3 ‘Then Jephthah fled from his brothers, and dwelt in the land of Tob, and there were gathered adventurers to Jephthah, and went out with him.’

So Jephthah had to leave his home and make his living as best he could in an unfriendly world. He had every disadvantage. He went to live in the region of Tob. Tob was an Aramaean city and area north of Gilead (compare 2 Samuel 10.6), possibly al-Taiyiba. It was named tby in the list of Thutmose III. But there his worth was recognised by similar stateless and rejected men, and by other adventurers, and they joined him under his leadership.

‘Went out with him’ indicates their purpose. They sought booty and spoils, probably attacking caravans, rustling and even attacking small towns and villages. And so, like David would after him, he developed skills in leading men, in fighting and in generalship, ready for when he would hear the call of Yahweh. He also built up a force of efficient, trained fighting men. It is probable also, that, like David, he did not attack his own countrymen, even possibly coming sometimes to their defence, otherwise they would not have considered him for the leadership.

We must beware of depicting him as too ‘rough’. He had grown up in an aristocratic household as a son of the house, and was used to good living. He had also had opportunity to develop his faith, even though he would have been excluded from much on the grounds that he was a bastard, although that may not have been generally known.

11.4 ‘And it happened that, after a while, the children of Ammon made war against Israel.’

This is the continuation of 10.17. Having encamped and waited for an approach from the elders of Gilead with the tribute due, the Ammonites now began to move into a war position and made a few sorties in preparation for the main attack.

11.5 ‘And it was so, that when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah from the land of Tob.’

Recognising the imminence of the coming main attack the elders swallowed their pride, and some went personally themselves to see Jephthah to plead with him to come to their assistance. Here was one trained fighting general who would know how to deal with the enemy. It had been one thing in a fit of zeal to destroy the Ammonite idols (10.16) and withhold tribute, it was another thing now that war was inevitable and the size of the opposing army had been verified.

11.6 ‘And they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our general, that we may fight with the children of Ammon.” ’

Their aim was that he should be general of their fighting men and bring his men with him. Victory would provide them with booty sufficient to satisfy them. They were admitting that without him they could not face Ammon with any hope of victory, and he knew it.

11.7 ‘And Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me, and drive me from my father's house? And why are you now come to me, when you are in distress?” ’

Jephthah’s reply demonstrates that in his time of need he had found no help from the elders. They had sided with Gilead’s true born sons and had had no time for his bastard. He had been in distress but they had been stony-faced and unwilling to help. Why did they now think that when they were in distress he would be any different? Why should he listen to them?

11.8 ‘And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “This is the reason that we are now turned again to you, that you may go with us and fight against the children of Ammon. And you shall be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” ’

The elders frankly and humbly replied that the reason they had come was so that he would fight for them and lead them against the children of Ammon. In return they would offer him the headship of the people who had rejected him. This had not been their first intention but they now recognised that it was necessary. It was a big step, for strictly he had no right to be recognised as a true Israelite, never mind their head.

11.9 ‘And Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the children of Ammon, and Yahweh deliver them before me, shall I be your head?”

Jephthah wanted to be quite clear about what they were offering. He had had no reason to trust them in the past. Why should he trust them now? But his reply demonstrated that in spite of his way of life, he trusted in Yahweh. His faith had been tested in the fires of affliction, and in his military way of life, and now he recognised that in order to obtain victory he would need Yahweh’s help. But his reply also gave them comfort. If Yahweh did give him victory, surely this would prove that Yahweh was satisfied for him to be their head. And if not, well, what had they lost?

11.10 ‘And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “Yahweh shall be witness between us. Surely according to your word, so will we do.” ’

The elders gave their solemn oath before Yahweh that they would do exactly as he requested.

11.11 ‘Then Jephthah went with the elders of Israel, and the people made him head and commander-in-chief over them, and Jephthah spoke all his words before Yahweh in Mizpah.’

Satisfied with their oath Jephthah went with them, and no doubt took his men with him, promising them due reward. They would form his spearhead attack. Then he was appointed head and commander-in-chief by acclamation of the people and in the presence of Yahweh by an oath. This was done at Mizpah where the Gileadite forces were gathered, somewhat fearful at the thought of the approaching enemy (10.17). ‘Before Yahweh.’ It may well be that the Ark had been brought there to lead them into battle as in 20.27 (compare also 1 Samuel 4.3-6; Joshua 6.6-7; Numbers 10.35-36). Or the oath may have been made at some recognised holy place.

11.12 ‘And Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the children of Ammon, saying, “What have you to do with me that you are come to me to fight against my land.” ’

Jephthah’s fighting experience was immediately revealed. He knew that nothing was more important than to try to put fear in the hearts of the enemy and to show them that his own army were unafraid. His words were really a challenge. They would also help to delay things until a reply was received, giving him time to organise his forces.

Note the words ‘my land’. He was now its head and its chief and could so speak of it. But we must also remember that he was speaking to the king of Ammon as ‘king’ to king. It emphasised to the king of Ammon to whom the land belonged. He did not expect the king simply to acknowledge his claim and go away. But he knew that the challenge would make him more uncertain.

11.13 ‘And the king of the children of Ammon replied to the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt, from Arnon even to Jabbok, and to Jordan. Now therefore restore those lands again peaceably.” ’

The reply came back just as haughtily. The king demanded the return to him of lands now under the control of Israel, (the territory of Reuben and Gad), which he claimed had once belonged to Ammon, (although Israel had taken them from the occupying Amorites, not from Ammon). But that land had never belonged to Ammon, it had belonged to Moab (Numbers 21.26). Thus it is clear that the king of Ammon was here linking Moab with himself in his claims. In other words he was speaking on behalf of an Ammonite/Moabite confederacy. (Compare Deuteronomy 2.9, 19 where both were to be treated as the same by Israel because they were the descendants of Lot. They were ‘brothers’). Furthermore he knew perfectly well how impossible it would be for Jephthah to acknowledge his claims. It would be to admit that Reuben and Gad should pay tribute to him in perpetuity. That would be worth sacrificing a bit of Gilead for, especially as he could always come back for that later and no doubt would levy tribute, but he did not really expect it to happen. What he hoped was that Jephthah would give up and pay tribute.

‘From Arnon even to Jabbok, and to Jordan.’ The river Arnon was the border between Moab and the Reubenites (the latter living where the Sihon and the Amorites were previously - Numbers 21.13), and the river Jabbok was the northern border of Gad (formerly of Sihon and the Amorites - Numbers 21.24). It was true that the land occupied by Sihon and the Amorites had formerly belonged to Moab (Numbers 21.26-30) and was captured by the Amorites from Moab, and then by Israel from the Amorites and populated by Reuben and Gad. But it had not been Moab’s for a long time and all saw it as having belonged to the Amorites by right of conquest.

One special importance for us of this statement is that it demonstrates that this attack was therefore not only by Ammon, but included Moab who regularly allied themselves with Ammon, for they were ‘the descendants of Lot’ and therefore ‘brothers’. (Compare 3.13 where Moab was predominant and mentioned alone all the way through except in verse 13. Had it not been for verse 13 we would have thought it was Moab alone. It was a general tendency among kings of a confederacy to take credit to their own people. Also see Deuteronomy 23.3).

We do not, of course, have here the full text of the message from the king of Ammon, and what follows suggests strongly that in it he did indeed stress that the territory had belonged to Moab their ‘brother’ and that it was theirs because it belonged to Chemosh their god.

11.14 ‘And Jephthah sent messengers again to the king of the children of Ammon.’

Jephthah did not expect for one moment that the king of Ammon would give way. Nor was he arguing a legal case. And he no doubt had the message read out to his own army before sending it. It was written as much for them as for the enemy. The aim of both armies was to put themselves in the right and justify their claims before their deities so as to be sure of their help, and to stir up their armies to support a ‘righteous (in their eyes) cause’. No one fights better than the man who fights for a patriotic principle and considers that he has a grievance and that his god is with him in it. And they would want their gods to fight for them.

So Jephthah was not only trying to put the king of Ammon in the wrong, he was also demonstrating to Yahweh why He should fight for Israel, and demonstrating that Melek and Chemosh had no good reason for fighting for Ammon, indeed that it was Chemosh who had given away the land in the first place. (Compare for a similar attempt at disillusionment, although on different grounds, 2 Kings 17.18-36).

The words he used show a good knowledge of history. This may partly have been a result of guidance and coaching from the elders and priests of Gilead, but he had grown up in an important family and would be aware of the history of the past which exalted Yahweh. But the essential message was his, for he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to put his enemies in the wrong, disarm their gods, and take away the sense of the patriotism of their action. Whether he really believed in their gods is beside the point. His recipients certainly did.

11.15-17 ‘And said to him, “Thus says Jephthah, Israel did not take away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon. But when they came from Egypt, and Israel walked through the wilderness to the Sea of Reeds (to Ezion Geber - Numbers 33.35), and came to Kadesh, then Israel sent messages to the king of Edom, saying ‘Let me I pray you pass through your land. But the king of Edom did not respond. And in the same way he sent to the king of Moab, but he would not, and Israel abode in Kadesh.”

Note the majestic opening, ‘thus says Jephthah’. Jephthah wanted the king of Ammon to recognise with whom he was dealing. We can sense here the pride of the newly appointed chief. Then he followed it by reminding the king of Ammon about how Yahweh had delivered them from the might of Egypt. ‘They came from Egypt.’ Not many nations could say that. It was a part of history, and what Yahweh had done in delivering them from Egypt was widely known in the area. Let him think about that! Then they had travelled through the wilderness seeking a home. But when they arrived at Edom, Edom would not help them, and neither would Moab. Every word is loaded as he depicts how Israel were wronged.

His aim here was to put Moab in the wrong. They had refused to help Israel and had made life difficult for them, even though Israel had promised to refrain from attacking them, recognising them as related tribes holding their land under Yahweh’s good hand (Deuteronomy 2.9). This was base ingratitude and demonstrated that they actually deserved worse than they got. Thus they had no case against Israel. It was the other way round. There is more detail here than in Numbers 22 where no messengers to Moab are mentioned, but it spoke of what was Moses’ general practise (Numbers 20.14; 21.21) and he was presenting it in a way that put Moab clearly in the wrong. There was nothing here that could be specifically denied.

Note the use of ‘Israel’ as subject of an active verb, very rare in Judges apart from in this speech. His aim was to depict Israel on a high level as a nation and not simply as a group of confederate tribes. The stronger he could show Israel to be the more likely that they would finally succeed. And there is possibly there too a hint that he now saw them as his people.

Then he went on to point out that not only had Moab or Ammon no right to the land in dispute but that their god Chemosh had actually handed it over to Sihon and the Amorites (Numbers 21.29). And that Israel had obtained it from the latter by right of conquest. Thus the land belonged by right of conquest to the people of Yahweh Who had dispossessed the Amorites.

But first he wanted to put Moab now even more in the wrong.

11.18 “Then they walked through the wilderness, and compassed the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and they pitched on the other side of Arnon. But they did not come within the border of Moab, for Arnon was the border of Moab.”

Israel, he pointed out, had carefully avoided Moabite territory. Rather than appropriating it they had left it alone. Thus they had treated Moab more than fairly. Why then were Ammon and Moab now attacking them?

11.19 “And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, ‘Let us pass, we pray you, through your land to my place.”

Israel had not only been generous to Moab they had also dealt in a friendly way with Sihon and the Amorites, with their capital city at Heshbon. All they had asked to do was pass through without fighting. They had had no intention of conquest. They had just wanted to reach ‘their place’ safely, the land which Yahweh had promised to them and which was therefore theirs. It was Sihon who insisted on fighting for the land. Israel’s behaviour was thus in contrast to Ammon’s now, for Ammon were positively invading it without provocation.

11.20-21 “But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his border. But Sihon gathered all his people together, and pitched in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. And Yahweh, the God of Israel, delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them. So Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country.”

Jephthah stressed that they had been forced to fight Sihon and the Amorites against their will. But that when they had had to do so, Yahweh had delivered it into their hands. It had thus clearly been Yahweh’s intention that they should have the land. So they had divine rights to it. Then he carefully stressed that it was the Amorites who were the actual inhabitants of the country at that time, not the Moabites, so that Israel had not taken it from Moab but from its inhabitants, from the Amorites.

He also probably hoped that the king of Ammon would note in passing what had happened to Sihon and the Amorites as a result of them confronting Yahweh.

11.22-23. “And they possessed all the border of the Amorites, from Arnon even to Jabbok, and from the wilderness even to Jordan. So now Yahweh, the God of Israel, has dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and should you possess them?”

So Jephthah emphasised that their right to possession of the land was because they had possessed it when Yahweh had dispossessed the Amorites on their behalf. Thus the Ammonites and Moabites had no right of possession such as they claimed. Let them beware. Yahweh would not be pleased with their claims.

Note what he was trying to do. He was not denying that the Ammonites could argue that if they conquered it then it meant that their god had given them the land as against Yahweh. He would have accepted that as being correct. But what he wanted them (and Yahweh and Chemosh and Melek) to recognise was that if they did so it was by right of conquest, not because of any previous rights. They had no justification other than conquest. Thus no nationalistic pride was involved. They had no inherent right to it.

11.24 “Will you not possess that which Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whoever Yahweh our God has dispossessed from before us, them we will possess.”

Chemosh was in fact the god of Moab, not the god of Ammon. Their god was Melek (Molech, Milcom). Thus many have claimed that Jephthah here made a mistake. But he has made no mistake. The king of Ammon was arguing about and laying claim to land that had in times past, before the Amorites had captured it, belonged to Moab, and he was making his claim on those very grounds (11.13). From his viewpoint that land had once belonged to Chemosh. So Jephthah wanted him to face up to the fact that it was Chemosh who had relinquished it to the Amorites (Numbers 21.29).

Essentially, he was saying, it was Chemosh, their own god (one of the gods of the confederacy) who had not given its possession to the Moabites, nor to the Ammonites, and it was this Chemosh to whom the king of the Ammonites was in the last resort appealing, Chemosh who had given it to the Amorites. Let them therefore possess what he had patently given to them, and recognise that he gave that other land to the Amorites and that Yahweh has take that land from the Amorites and given it to Israel. And that that is why they now claimed possession of it.

Once we recognise that the king of Ammon was speaking on behalf of an Ammonite/Moabite alliance (which he had to be to make the claim for the land that he made) the difficulty disappears. He was speaking on behalf of both Melek and Chemosh, and in relation to that particular land, of Chemosh. It was Chemosh who could theoretically claim a past right to the land, not Melek.

We must also recognise the possibility that Jephthah was cleverly trying to sow the seeds of division between the two allies. If he could get them to argue Melek against Chemosh, and that it was the king of Moab who should be asking for the land and not the king of Ammon, he would have divided their ranks.

At this point we can consider the effect these arguments, read out before his own men, were having on them. They would be chuckling and cheering and feeling strongly fortified. And his hope was that when the Ammon/Moabite leadership and their men heard it they would be feeling the opposite.

Jephthah now went on to point out that their delay in making this claim itself demonstrated that they had no case, and that no one in the past had dared to argue with Israel about it.

11.25 “And now are you anything better than Balak, the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive against Israel? Or did he ever fight against them?”

Now Jephthah sought to stress the superiority of Israel and of Yahweh their God. Even the famous Balak of Moab had not dared to claim back the land Israel had taken from the Amorites. Indeed, as they would be aware, he had been so unwilling to take on Israel, because he had heard what they had done to the Amorites with the help of Yahweh their God, that he had had to seek the help of the famous prophet Balaam against them.

11.26 “While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that are along by the side of Arnon for three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time?”

Indeed since then Israel had occupied the cities of the area, even those on the very borders of Moab, for ‘three hundred years’. And there had been no attempt at any time to claim even those cities along the border of the Arnon as theirs, never mind the capital Heshbon itself. Why, if these towns really belonged to Chemosh and Moab, had they not recovered them previously? Thus they had clearly not seen it in the way the king of Ammon did now.

The ‘three hundred years’ means a long period of time going back into the distant past. Three indicates completeness and the hundreds indicate a long period. It is doubtful if it was intended literally. It was a generalisation. No one would have kept a record of the number of years. We know of no official recorder in Israel until the time of David.

But even if taken literally, by ancient reckoning it need represent only about one hundred and fifty years, each ‘century’ being dated from one well known occurrence to another, for a part of one hundred would have been treated as ‘one hundred’. We must remember that there was no continual, carefully worked out calendar. Years were dated backward or forward from outstanding events (e.g. Amos 1.1) or from the accession of kings.

‘Heshbon.’ Tel Hesban, which has been mooted as Heshbon, had no remains dating back as far as the time of Sihon, although there are remains dating back to this time. Sihon’s Heshbon was thus probably one of the nearby mounds yet to be excavated. ‘Aroer.’ This is probably modern ‘Ara‘ir overlooking the deep gorge of the River Arnon (compare Numbers 32.34). It was later fortified by Mesha, king of Moab as witnessed on the Moabite Stone, ‘he built Aroer and made the road by the Arnon’.

11.27 “I therefore have not sinned against you, but you do me wrong to war against me. Yahweh, the Judge, be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon.”

Jephthah then finished on a note of injured hurt. He, representing Israel, had done nothing wrong to Ammon. It was Ammon who were behaving wrongly. Thus Yahweh the righteous Judge would judge appropriately and act accordingly. Yahweh would be on his side. He no doubt trusted that Yahweh, and his own army, would note his words as well as the king of Ammon.

Note how he spoke of himself as representing the nation. He was already behaving like a king. Previously he has spoken only of ‘Israel’, the term used by the king of Ammon (verse 13). Now he speaks of ‘the children of Israel’ because he is contrasting them with ‘the children of Ammon’.

By now, he knew, the king of Ammon would be thinking seriously. These were not the words of some frightened leader trying to bolster up his own courage, these were the words of a man of iron, who was unafraid, who was aware that Yahweh was on his side and would act for him, who was righteously indignant and who had no fear of Ammon. The king had been used to the cowering ways of the elders of Gilead when he received his tribute. Now he would realise why that tribute had recently been refused. A new man had arisen in Israel, a man of Yahweh.

11.28 ‘However, the king of the children of Ammon did not listen to the words of Jephthah which he sent him.’

That is, the king did not admit that he was in the wrong and return to Ammon. No one would have been more surprised than Jephthah if he had. It was not likely that he would easily relinquish the tribute that they had been receiving for so long. But Jephthah had made the impact that he wanted to make, both on his own troops and on the enemy, and, he trusted, on Yahweh. He had declared his faith and dependence on Him. Now he looked for Yahweh to respond. And He did.

11.29 ‘Then the Spirit of Yahweh came on Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over to the children of Ammon.’

Jephthah was now taken possession of by Yahweh, and he went through Gilead and Manasseh (not necessarily in person) gathering further troops to join those already gathered in Mizpeh (10.17). 12.2 may also indicate that he sent a summons to the tribal confederacy. Then he reviewed his army at Mizpeh of Gilead and was satisfied. So then he set off with his men and his army to face the Ammonites.

Alternately it may be that the troops that had gathered at Mizpah (10.17) had returned home to see to their fields and flocks when no leader was forthcoming, and thus had now to be re-gathered.

11.30 ‘And Jephthah vowed a vow to Yahweh, and said, “If you will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, they shall be Yahweh’s, and I will offer them up for a whole offering.” ’

Before going into battle Jephthah made a vow to Yahweh. He promised to ‘offer as a whole offering’ to Him whoever first came to meet him from the doors of his house, to be Yahweh’s for ever, a precious gift to God which God could choose for Himself. He possibly also hoped that news would filter through to the Ammonites of what he had done so that they would hear and fear. He may even have ensured that it did. That may well be why he put it in sacrificial terms. They would interpret his words in terms of their own god Melek who demanded such sacrifices. (His previous speech demonstrated the value he put on propaganda).

The question of what Jephthah actually intended here has been hotly debated. At face value, in terms of the system of sacrifices in Israel, it appears to mean that he would offer such a person up as a burnt offering, a human sacrifice, for that is what the technical phrase ‘offer up as a whole offering’, when used of animals, always indicated (e.g. Genesis 22.13). It was also what Abraham originally understood of his son in Genesis 22.2, until God then reinterpreted it. But is that what Jephthah, who probably intended Ammon to see it in that way, actually meant Israel to understand by it?

In considering the matter we should consider the following:

  • That the only reference up to this time of the ‘offering up’ of a human being as ‘a whole offering’ had resulted in the one spoken of being substituted by a ram and himself dedicated to the covenant of Yahweh (Genesis 22.2, 13, 17-18). The letter to the Hebrews can actually say of this, “By faith Abraham offered up Isaac”. Thus the whole transaction was seen as ‘the offering up of Isaac’.
  • That all mentions of actual human sacrifices up to this time were rather described in terms of being ‘passed through the fire’ (Leviticus 18.21; Deuteronomy 18.10).
  • That all human sacrifices in this area (to Melek and possibly to Baal) mentioned in the Old Testament were of children, and probably children of the offerer. Thus the offering of a servant, which Jephthah probably anticipated, would have been an insult to Yahweh.
  • That when the firstborn of Israel were ‘due’ to be sacrificed to Yahweh, they were redeemed by the substitution of a lamb and themselves dedicated to serve in the Tabernacle as ‘belonging to Yahweh’ (Exodus 34.19-20; Numbers 3.12-13).
  • That in the cult of Israel the offerings of a human being or of an ass were unacceptable. They were ‘unclean’. Thus they had to be replaced by a substitute.
  • That this had been a time of Yahwist revival (10.16) and it is therefore unlikely that a human sacrifice would be permitted.
  • That it is unlikely that a priest would be found to make the offering, or that the wider tribal confederacy would have permitted it or done nothing about it.
  • That what is said about the actual event fits well with Jephthah’s daughter being dedicated as a virgin to service at the door of the Tabernacle.


We will now consider this in more detail. In Genesis 22 Abraham was told to ‘offer up as a whole offering’ his son Isaac. But as we know God Himself restrained him from doing it, and so he offered up a substitute instead, and was thus seen as obeying Genesis 22.2, that is as ‘offering Isaac up as a whole offering’ (compare Hebrews 11.17). It could be therefore that ‘to offer up as a whole offering’ a human being was later seen as accomplished when that person was wholly dedicated to the service of Yahweh, and ‘offered up’, like Isaac was, by the offering up of a substitute, thus making the person in question ‘sanctified to Yahweh’, which is what finally resulted for Isaac. Alternately it may be that Jephthah, knowing the story of Abraham’s offering, himself interpreted it that way.

It is significant that there are no other examples of the use of the phrase ‘offered up as a whole offering’ of human beings, apart from 2 Kings 3.27 (much later than Jephthah) where the king of Moab ‘took his eldest son who should have reigned in his place and offered him for a whole offering on the wall’. But Moab were a very different kind of nation. They were very familiar with Melek (Molech). Melek was the god of Ammon, their neighbouring ‘brother’ state, and he was also clearly widely worshipped and included in the pantheons of other nations, including probably Moab, as witness the verses soon to be considered And he demanded human sacrifice. We are not told in the case of Moab to whom the offering was made, but the likelihood from what follows below is that it was made to Melek. It was an extreme sacrifice to an extreme god. We cannot determine Israel’s position from Moabite behaviour.

The writer spoke there in terms of what Israel saw. They saw the setting up of a sacrifice, they saw the son offered by fire, and they described it in shocked tones in their own terms of ‘a burnt offering, a whole offering’. Moab may well have described it in terms of ‘passing through the fire’. This cannot be used as determinative of the meaning of the phrase to Jephthah hundreds of year before. It demonstrated that such language could be used of a human sacrifice, but not that that was what the language would have meant to Israel previously.

We should further note that, with the possible exception of 1 Kings 16.34, which may not be speaking of human sacrifice but of providential accidents, (and was anyway referring to his own children), all human sacrifices mentioned in Scripture were of young children, and usually specifically people’s own children (see below), and they were never made to Yahweh, nor were they described as ‘being offered as whole offering’.

In contrast the impression given here is that Jephthah was not expecting his daughter to be the one who came out and that he was not thinking of ‘offering’ his own child but was thinking in terms of a servant. However the idea of offering a servant would seemingly not only be unique in Israel, but unique in that whole wider area as far as we know. For when human sacrifices were made it was their sons that they sacrificed not their servants. The latter is a practise unknown elsewhere in Scripture.

So if Jephthah had really intended an ‘acceptable’ human sacrifice involving death surely he would have offered, right from the beginning, to sacrifice his own child in accordance with custom, for that was the concept which in the area in question lay behind such sacrifices. To do anything less would indeed be an insult to Yahweh. On the other hand if he was thinking of someone being sanctified to the service of the Tabernacle he would think in terms of a male, and would thus consider a male servant acceptable as he had no son. The man would then be ‘adopted’ as a Levite, servicing the sanctuary, like Samuel.

Finally we must consider the confirming fact that under Israelite cultic requirements a human being was no more an acceptable offering than an ass. The Law made clear that neither man nor ass could be offered as a whole offering to Yahweh. Both had to be redeemed, a man compulsorily (Exodus 13.13). For an ass there was the alternative of breaking its neck. There would therefore be no question in the mind of Israel that if a human being was ‘sanctified to Yahweh’, whether by oath or any other way, that human being must be ‘offered’ by being redeemed and replaced by a clean animal, as originally happened with their firstborn. The situation would not otherwise be acceptable to Him.

Additional Note on Human Sacrifices.

We know from archaeology that human sacrifices did take place in Canaan. But they were not commonplace. To a large extent they appear to have been connected with the god Melek (Molech) who, although the god of Ammon, was widely worshipped (as in Israel at times), and that kind of sacrifice formed a pattern, a pattern which does not fit in with that above.

As we have already seen to speak of a human sacrifice as ‘offered up as a whole offering’ only occurs twice elsewhere. The first was Genesis 22.2, where Abraham was told to do so for Isaac and fulfilled it by offering a substitute. The only other example is 2 Kings 3.27 mentioned above where it is Israel’s description of what the king of Moab did in the direst extremity against a Moabite background. The closest phrases otherwise were Abraham’s offering of Isaac where he raised his knife to ‘slay’ his son as ‘a whole offering’ (Genesis 22.10), and Jeremiah 19.5 where it says, ‘they have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire for whole offerings to Baal’, the latter hundreds of years after the time of Jephthah. Notice the specific emphasis on burn, not used by Jephthah. This may indicate that Jeremiah knew that in Israel to ‘offer up as a whole offering’ could, when used of a human being, have a different meaning.

But this latter use may in fact have been Jeremiah’s own ironic and sarcastic way of describing what was usually described as being ‘passed through the fire to Molech’, for the idea appears nowhere else. And it seems clear that Jeremiah was not intending to be taken literally for he immediately connected this with Topheth and the valley of Hinnom which was the very place where children were ‘passed through the fire’ to Melek (Molech) (2 Kings 23.10; Jeremiah 32.35), not Baal. It would seem that to Jeremiah they could possibly both be dismissed in the same breath.

There may indeed have been some considerable interconnecting in people’s minds between ‘the lord’ Baal and ‘the king’ Melek, and we should especially note that later Jeremiah speaks of ‘building the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through to Molech’ (Jeremiah 32.35), thus connecting the two intimately. So his sarcastic reference to ‘burning their sons as a whole offering to Baal’ may well be his way of describing being passed through the fire to Molech

In view of this, and what our examination below reveals, his words may well not have been a technical description but Jeremiah’s own rather scathing irony.

The fact is that the predominant technical phrase in connection with human sacrifice was to ‘cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire’ or even just ‘to pass through’, with ‘fire’ understood (Leviticus 18.21; Deuteronomy 18.10; 2 Kings 16.3; 17.17; 21.6; 23.10; 2 Chronicles 33.6; Jeremiah 32.35; Ezekiel 16.20-21; 20.26, 31; 23.37). This was said of the action of Ahaz when he ‘made his son to pass through the fire’ (2 Kings 16.3). In Leviticus 20.2 it was described as a person ‘giving their seed to Molech’. Sometimes it was ‘to slay their children’ (Isaiah 57.5; Ezekiel 23.39), but there it was not technical language but contemptuous. Deuteronomy 12.31 refers to ‘their sons and their daughters do they burn in fire to their gods’, Jeremiah 7.31 says, ‘they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in fire’, while in 2 Kings 17.31, (compare 2 Kings 17.17 where the same is described as ‘being passed through the fire’), ‘the Sepharvites burnt their children in the fire to Adram-melech and Annam-melech’ (both variants of Molech/Melek). Thus ‘burn in the fire’ may have also been another semi-technical phrase, or it may simply have been a vivid description of what actually happened. But none parallel Jephthah’s technical description. The emphasis in those cases is on ‘burning’.

With regard to other references Psalm 106.37-38 says, ‘Yes, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons, and shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and their daughters whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.’ Ezekiel 16.20 says, ‘moreover you have taken you sons and your daughters whom you have borne to me, and these you have sacrificed to them to be devoured’. These latter two verses then do look on the child sacrifices as ‘sacrifices’ (zebach), although not necessarily technically. Compare Ezekiel 16.20-21. Micah 6.7 is only speaking theoretically of something farfetched but says ‘shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ The reply expected is ‘no, it would be no use’. But none see them as ‘whole offerings’.

If we acknowledge that in Jeremiah 19.5 it was not technical language that was being used, it leaves the only serious technical references to the giving of ‘a whole offering’ of a human being, (and in both cases a child of the offerer), as that of Abraham in Genesis 22 and the king of Moab in 2 Kings 3.27. But, as we have seen, in the former case the child was offered to God but not slain, as Jephthah would well know, while the latter was a much later description in an area closely involved with a god who demanded human sacrifices and is descriptive of what literally happened. So the message to Israel was clear. Yahweh does not want human sacrifice.

To summarise it would seem that such sacrifices were always of children, and the impression given is that it was of people’s own children, in some cases specifically the firstborn (Ezekiel 20.26; Micah 6.7; 2 Kings 3.27; Genesis 22). They gave that which was costly. We also note that the main god involved was Melek (Molech), although similar sacrifices may have been offered to other Canaanite gods; that the technical term was ‘to pass through the fire’; that while they were looked on as sacrifices they were not described as such technically; and that the ‘offering as a whole offering’ of a human being was only used in one case and that a unique one. It is so rare that it is only used to describe a human sacrifice which was not offered to Molech in the usual way, and that in a country with close association with Molech. All these factors are absent in the case of Jephthah who used it technically in terms of the cult.

End of note.

Additionally we must ask the question as to who, if this was a human sacrifice, would make this offering? Strictly such an offering had to be made by a priest (as head of his household before the time of Moses Abraham was a priest). But what priest of Yahweh would consent to offer such an offering? And would the children of Gilead as a whole also have allowed such an offering, even to a victor? It would have been seen as an abomination to Yahweh, and the substitutionary restriction appealed to. And certainly the tribal confederacy would have protested. This was especially so as it was a time of revival of Yahwism.

Consider the huge impact on Israel of what the king of Moab did in 2 Kings 3.27. They were so appalled that they no longer had the stomach to fight and returned home. They were devastated. It is thus difficult to see how Jephthah could have arranged such an offering with so little protest. And even more difficult to see how it could have caused so small a stir among his compatriots. Even to idolaters among them such sacrifices were made to Molech not to Yahweh.

The usual reply would be to the effect that Jephthah was an outcast who had a crude if rugged faith, and would ‘offer the whole offering’ himself, but he grew up in Gilead, and his basic ideas were formed there, and we have no grounds to consider that his beliefs would be any more crude than those of another young man who lived under the same circumstances, the godly David. He would know as well as anyone else in Gilead that such a self-offered offering would not be acceptable to Yahweh. Such offerings could be made by individuals only when there was direct commandment from Yahweh. And even then we still have to take account of the lack of external reaction to what he supposedly did.

The simplest explanation which alone fits in with all the above facts is that ‘offering a human being as a whole offering’ (Genesis 22.2) was seen as fulfilled in Israel when a person was specifically dedicated to Yahweh by a vow and a substitutionary burnt offering was then made in his stead. The person in question being then seen as belonging to Him and ‘sanctified to Yahweh’, ‘offered as a whole offering’.

Thus our suggested alternative to a literal sacrifice is that the ‘offering of a whole offering’ of a human being meant a total dedication of that person to the service of Yahweh, probably in relation to the Tabernacle, with a clean beast being offered as a literal ‘whole offering’ in his place. This can be further confirmed by comparing the situation regarding the firstborn.

As a result of the slaying of the firstborn in Egypt every firstborn male that opened the womb belonged to Yahweh. ‘Sanctify to me all the firstborn. Whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast, it is mine’ (Exodus 13.2). This was later amplified as referring to male firstborn (Exodus 13.12-13, 15). And it is clear that the primary idea behind this was that as Yahweh’s they had to be sacrificed to Him. This is brought out in that the firstborn of cattle had to be offered up as sacrifices, and the firstborn of men redeemed by the offering up of a substitute.

Consider also ‘The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me’ (Exodus 22.29). ‘All that opens the womb is mine --- the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem’ (Exodus 34.19-20). See also Numbers 3.13, ‘I sanctified to myself all the firstborn in the land of Israel, both man and beast. They shall be mine. I am Yahweh.’ This demonstrates that the basic principle was that, as Yahweh’s, the firstborn sons should theoretically be offered to Him and sacrificed. But that their redemption was necessary because, as with asses, they were not cultically ‘clean’, that is, they were not suitable for sacrifice. This was then to be followed by their total ‘dedication’ to Yahweh because they had now been bought by Him, resulting in their subsequent service in His sanctuary, later substituted by the Levites.

And what was the purpose of this? That they may serve in the sanctuary of God. So all firstborn sons wholly belonged to Yahweh, in the case of the cattle to be offered as sacrifices, in the case of the men to be redeemed by a lamb being offered in their stead, and set apart to Yahweh to serve in the Tabernacle. Firstborn asses too could not be sacrificed because they were unclean, but they were not set apart for the Tabernacle but handed back to their owners in return for a substitute offering. They were not suitable for service in the Tabernacle. This brings out the difference between man and ass. Man was ‘unclean’ as far as sacrifice was concerned but ‘clean’ for Tabernacle service once redeemed and once they had gone through due process (in the case of Levites as in Numbers 8.6-14, including the offering of a whole offering), although not in the sanctuary itself which was only for the priests (Numbers 4.20). The ass was unclean for both.

This especially comes out in that God then chose to replace these firstborn with the Levites. ‘And I, behold I have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of all the firstborn who open the womb among the children of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine. For all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I sanctified to me all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They shall be mine. I am Yahweh’ (Numbers 3.12-13). So the firstborn males were numbered as against the Levites, and when there were more firstborn males than Levites they had to be redeemed by the payment of five shekels to Aaron and his sons as representatives of Yahweh (Numbers 3.39-51). Then the Levites were to serve in the Tabernacle in their place (Numbers 18.14-18). From then on firstborn male humans had to be redeemed for five shekels once they were a month old, being constantly substituted for by Levites who were also being born (Numbers 18.15-17).

We can gather from this that, in the cases of these humans, service in the Tabernacle replaced their being sacrificed as an offering. They were ‘offered up’, but as living sacrifices to God, while their deaths were symbolised and effected by the sacrifice of a lamb almost certainly as a whole offering. In the eyes of Israel they ‘died’.

Many suggest that that was exactly what Jephthah intended. He saw them as ‘offered up as whole offerings’, and was probably indicating his intention to offer up to the service of Yahweh whoever Yahweh demonstrated that He wanted. What he did not expect was that it would be his daughter that would be involved. But that women did serve ‘at the door of the Tabernacle’ we know (Exodus 38.8; 1 Samuel 2.22), and while they were not particularly required to be virgins, for after all they had not all been ‘offered up’ to Yahweh, there may well have been some dedicated virgins there. But here Jephthah’s daughter was given to Yahweh in a unique way. She was His, a whole offering to Him. A lifelong Nazirite who must touch nothing unclean. And that was why she had thus to remain a virgin.

Such a dedication to the Tabernacle of a human being is also found in the case of Samuel although not in the same terms (1 Samuel 1.11). Compare also Samson’s dedication to Yahweh from birth as a Nazarite (Judges 13.5), although not to the Tabernacle. Such dedications were clearly a feature of the times.

End of Excursus.

11.32-33a ‘So Jephthah passed over to the children of Ammon, to fight against them, and Yahweh delivered them into his hand, And he smote them from Aroer until you come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and to Abel-cheramim, with a very great slaughter. So the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.’

The details of the battle are brief. Jephthah had been filled with the Spirit of Yahweh and had revealed his dedication by his vow. Thus as far as the writer was concerned Yahweh fought for him and the battle was won. We may, however, consider that he was also greatly helped by having his own trained band of fighting men and an astute knowledge of generalship. The victory was total. He cleared the border of Reuben (Aroer), took town after town (‘ten’ would mean ‘a number of’ so twenty (ten intensified) probably meant ‘a considerable number of’) decimated their army, and swept them out of the land and beyond. Minnith and Abel-cheramim are unknown although Minnith appears to have been famous for its wheat (Ezekiel 27.17) and Abel-cheramim means ‘the meadow of vineyards’. The suggestion may be that he appropriated the richest land of Ammon for Israel, or that he released for Reuben fertile and rich land which had been occupied.

Note the way that verses 29-32 sweep forward. They begin with the Spirit of Yahweh coming on Jephthah, and end with Yahweh delivering the enemy into his hand, with his vow mentioned in the middle. This confirms that his vow was acceptable to Yahweh and militates against it indicating human sacrifice.

11.33b ‘So the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.’

The final state of things is described. Ammon, and probably her brother nation Moab, were subdued. They were no longer able to trouble Israel. Yahweh had fulfilled His promised deliverance.

11.34 ‘And Jephthah came to Mizpah to his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels, and with dances, and she was his only child, besides her he had neither son nor daughter.’

Yahweh had heard his prayer and had given him victory. Now He took him at his word. For when Jephthah approached his house (which he had presumably set up since arriving in Mizpah and becoming chief), his daughter led the welcoming procession that came out to greet him. She was full of joy at her father’s success, as were those who followed her, and they danced and waved their timbrels. We are reminded of Exodus 15.20 where, after the glorious victory at the Sea of Reeds, Miriam led a similar triumphant procession. But both reader and hearer have been waiting for this moment and know in their hearts the sadness that will result.

The timbrel (or tabret) was a kind of tambourine, held and struck with the hand, used to accompany singing and dancing. It was an instrument of joy and gladness (1 Samuel 18.6; Isaiah 5.12).

‘She was his only child, besides her he had neither son nor daughter.’ The pathos of the situation comes home. She was all that Jephthah had in the world in order to secure offspring to ensure the future of his house. But now he knew that she must be dedicated to Yahweh, remaining a virgin and serving Him in the Tabernacle. The point is not only that she was his only child, but that, in view of that, after so many years of trying, he was unlikely to have any others. He had no doubt made the effort over the years.

11.35 ‘And so it was that, when he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas my daughter, you have brought me very low, and you are as one of those who trouble me, for I have opened my mouth to Yahweh and I cannot go back.” ’

When he saw who first came from his house he was devastated. He ‘tore his clothes’, an expression of great emotion and deep grief (compare Genesis 37.34). He was not blaming his daughter. He was simply letting her know how deeply he felt the consequences of his vow. But his firm faith comes out in his final words. He intended to fulfil his vow whatever it cost him.

The question of vows is a complicated one. Numbers 18.14 says, ‘everything devoted (given wholly to God) in Israel shall be yours (that is, Aaron’s).’ But it makes provision for the fact that a human being who is ‘devoted’ (strictly set apart as Yahweh’s) can be redeemed (verse 15). On the other hand Leviticus 27.28-29 says that anything ‘devoted’ must be put to death without redemption. The distinction lies in the meaning of devoted. The latter has in mind when Yahweh has devoted something to destruction (Joshua 6.17 following; Deuteronomy 20.16-17; Numbers 21.2-3 - Hormah means ‘devoted’; 1 Samuel 15.3 onwards). In that case there is no remission. The former means something ‘devoted’ because of legal requirements such as a firstborn, or an oath, when the provisions of the law must be followed whatever they be.

But in Leviticus 27.1-8 provision is made for a rash vow to be redeemed. The price of redemption for a woman would be thirty shekels. On the other hand Numbers 30.2 declares, ‘When a man vows a vow to Yahweh, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds from his mouth’. Once put into words it is binding (Deuteronomy 23.21-23). Much clearly therefore depended on what type of vow was in mind. The latter would seem to have especially in mind a vow like Jephthah’s, one made solemnly to Yahweh. From that there was no escape unless it was contrary to Yahweh. However, in the case of a vow to do something displeasing to Yahweh - a vow could not be paid with ‘dirty’ money, nor, we must assume, with something that was an abomination to Yahweh (see Deuteronomy 23.18) - it is probable that Leviticus 27.1-8 would be applied.

This would suggest that while Jephthah’s vow was heartrending, it was pleasing to Yahweh, otherwise Leviticus 27.1-8 could have been invoked. And it thus points to his daughter becoming ‘sanctified to Yahweh’ in the Tabernacle, ‘offered up as a whole offering’ in the offering up of a lamb, and then becoming one of those of whom Yahweh would say, “She is mine”. This rather than actually being sacrificed in a way that could not be pleasing to Him, indeed was an abomination to Him. Jephthah’s ignorance or otherwise does not come into this. He would certainly not have been short on advice and guidance about the matter.

11.36 ‘And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to Yahweh. Do to me in accordance with what has proceeded from your mouth, forasmuch as Yahweh has taken vengeance for you of your enemies, even of the children of Ammon.” ’

His daughter comforted him as best she could. Yahweh had fulfilled His part in the matter, she stressed, now it was up to him to do the same. She wanted him to know that she was in full agreement with what he had to do. Her love for him flowed out through her words. She did not want anything to hurt her father. But she also revealed her trust in Yahweh.

11.37 ‘And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me, let me alone two months that I may depart and go down on the mountains and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.’

From now on she was to be a perpetual virgin. Like Samuel after her she was sanctified to Yahweh by her parent’s oath ‘all the days of her life’ (1 Samuel 1.11). To a woman of Israel childbearing was everything. Yet for her this was to be denied. What she asked was that she might have two months to prepare herself for her new vocation and to get herself used to her new calling, to bewail the fact that she would never be a mother. And she went with her companions as though she were preparing for her wedding.

And in this preparation she went into the mountains. She knew that this was where Abraham had gone to ‘sanctify’ his son (Genesis 22). She knew that this was where Moses had gone to meet and commune with Yahweh. Thus she herself would go into the mountains to make her peace with Yahweh, for there was nowhere else that she could go. But it would not have been seemly, or wise, for her to go alone. ‘Go down on the mountains’ may indicate her desire to abase herself before God.

11.38 ‘And he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two moon periods. And she departed, she and her companions, and she bewailed her virginity on the mountains.’

Jephthah granted her request immediately. And she left him and prepared herself for what was to come, on the mountains, and faced up to her coming lifetime virginity. She remained there for two moon periods. She would be a symbol of what Israel should be, and a contrast with the Canaanite cult prostitutes. But we should note that it was due to her father’s rash vow rather than because Yahweh desired it. Yet Yahweh would use it for good.

11.39a ‘And so it was that at the end of two months she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed. And she had not known man.’

Obedient to her calling and to her father’s vow, she returned, and he took her to the central sanctuary and there she served Yahweh at the door of the Tabernacle, possibly even as a prophetess. The only thing that bound her was her father’s vow and her gratitude to Yahweh for the victory he had given to her father. She was a lifelong Nazirite (Numbers 6.2). The same would later be true of Samuel. It was such people who kept faith alive in the darkest days.

‘Did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.’ This personal action seems more to support the view that he took her to the Tabernacle and committed her to Yahweh and the life of a Nazirite than that she was offered as a burnt offering. Had it been such a positive and outstanding act it would surely have been described and such an act could not have been done personally. All Gilead would have been involved in something so dramatic following the defeat of Ammon, and all Israel would have been appalled. But we have no hint of disparagement from the writer.

Those who support the idea that he actually did offer his daughter as a burnt offering claim that the silence on the matter demonstrates the writer’s disapproval. But it is difficult to see how such an act could have been portrayed as a personal action.

11.39b-40 ‘And it was an ordinance in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to rehearse with (or ‘celebrate in song’) the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.’

Jephthah’s daughter became an inspiration to the women of Israel. Every year they would gather and ‘rehearse’ with her the righteous acts of Yahweh (compare 5.11 - same word) and celebrate her life and devotion in song. And it seems very probable that she became a source of guidance and comfort to them in their lives, and an inspiration to Israel. For all who saw her would know of her obedience and dedication to Yahweh and would remember the great victory that Yahweh had given them through her father.

‘Four days in a year.’ This may have been, for example, a day at each of the three covenant feasts and on the day of atonement. That seems more likely than a four day feast. Those who see her as sacrificed literally see this as referring to a feast of lamentation and many see it as Israel’s equivalent to the feast of weeping for Tammuz celebrated elsewhere.

Chapter 12. Jephthah and Ephraim Fall Out.

This chapter now relates:

  • A quarrel between Jephthah and the Ephraimites, which was fatal to the Ephraimites.
  • The period of Jephthah’s judging of Israel.
  • His death and burial.
  • Brief reference to three more judges of Israel, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon.

12.1 ‘And the men of Ephraim were gathered together, and went northward, and said to Jephthah, “Why did you pass over to fight against the children of Ammon, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house on you with fire.” ’

Next to Judah, Ephraim was the largest and strongest tribe in the confederacy. And they were jealous for their position of leadership. While not always fully responding to the call to arms (as seemingly in this case) once victory had been achieved they tended to be affronted that they had had no part in it.

It seems here also that they did not like the rise of a strong tribal group in Gilead which might usurp their position. Thus they decided to act on a pretext in order to exert their authority and superiority. Gathering a large army of about fifty military units (forty two military units were later decimated) they crossed the Jordan and moved northward towards Mizpah. It was civil war in the tribal confederacy. They no doubt hoped that Gilead had been weakened by their war against Ammon, and were certain that this Jephthah would prove no match for them.

Their excuse for the invasion was that they had not been called to help in the fight with Ammon. They felt slighted. But their real reason was in order to prevent Gilead from becoming too strong. They overlooked the fact that over the years of oppression they had not moved a muscle to come to the aid of the tribes Beyond Jordan.

‘We will burn your house over you with fire.’ They would teach this upstart leader, and Gilead, a lesson they would not forget. The idea was that they would destroy him to teach them a lesson. Of course, if he had recognised his inferior position and their importance and submitted to them they might have been merciful. And that is probably what they expected. They had not reckoned on strong resistance. Were they not, with their brother Judah, one of the two most powerful tribes in the confederacy?

12.2 ‘And Jephthah said to them, “I and my people were at a great strife with the children of Ammon, and when I called you, you did not save me out of their hands.”

Jephthah had no thought of submitting. He merely pointed out the great trouble that Gilead, Gad and Reuben had been in and that Ephraim, when called on along with others, had not been willing to do anything about it. ‘Did not save me.’ Here he was speaking of his people as now represented by himself. The call to the tribal confederacy for help, which had gone unheeded, was probably made by the elders of Gilead long before his appointment. But it had shown them that they would get no help from that quarter.

12.3a “And when I saw that you did not save me, I put my life in my hand, and passed over against the children of Ammon and Yahweh delivered them into my hand.”

Thus Gilead and he had done the only thing they could. Recognising that they would receive no assistance from the tribal confederacy they had taken matters into their own hands. Under his leadership they had taken the risk, trusted to their own sword arm and had attacked the children of Ammon, and with Yahweh’s strong help had been victorious. Note how proudly he speaks of his people in terms of himself. He was enjoying being judge of Gilead.

12.3b “Why then are you come up to me this day to fight against me?”

Like the strong man he was, and in the same way that he had done to Ammon, he showed his enemies that they were in the wrong. Let them consider well and give good reason for fighting against him. They should rather be thanking him, for Ammon had also made attacks on Ephraim (10.9).

12.4 ‘Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim, and the men of Gilead smote Ephraim because they said, “You Gileadites, you are fugitives of Ephraim in the midst of Ephraim, and in the midst of Manasseh.” ’

The Epraimites made an insulting reply. They had already determined to teach this upstart a lesson. They accused the Gileadites of being inferior, as being ‘fugitives of Ephraim’. Possibly this looked back to a time when they had run away from Ephraimite forces to a safe place across the Jordan. Or it may signify that their position should be one of subservience to Ephraim before whom they were now cowering and from whom they were now ‘fleeing’ (Ephraim’s view of the situation). Thus they should recognise their inferiority and not forget their place. It was trying to make them feel small. What chance had they against mighty Ephraim? They should recognise that they (many of them were Manassites) were part of, and owed what they had to, the Ephraim-Manasseh alliance of brothers east of Jordan, Ephraim being the superior partner. The fact that they were east of Jordan indicated that they had, in a cowardly way, withdrawn and hidden themselves across the Jordan. (It was arrogant Ephraim’s own interpretation of history). Thus they needed to be suitably repentant and submissive and recognise their place. The message was deliberately provocative.

There could be only one reply. Having showed the message to the elders of Gilead Jephthah gathered the fighting men of Gilead and attacked the Ephraimites (who had come across the Jordan into Gilead), thoroughly defeating them

12.5a ‘And the Gileadites took the fords of Jordan against the Ephraimites.’

It is clear that the Ephraimites had already crossed the Jordan in order to whip Gilead into line. Thus, having defeated Ephraim Jephthah moved swiftly and set strong guards at the fords that led back over the Jordan, to prevent the Ephraimites escaping. Jephthah was a great general, but he was not as merciful or tactful as Gideon. He was determined to destroy Ephraim’s whole army, and did not consider the future. This inter-tribal fighting, though forced on Jephthah, would weaken the whole tribal confederation, and more so when he dealt with his enemy with such severity. But he had been deeply insulted and was a hard man.

12.5b ‘And it was so, that when the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over”, the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?”

The writer’s sympathy was clearly with Gilead. Notice how he throws back in the face of Ephraim their jibe ‘the fugitives of Ephraim’ (verse 4). Now it was Ephraim who were ‘the fugitives of Ephraim’, fleeing for their lives. But when they came to the fords of Jordan to escape they were met by strong guards of Gileadites who questioned all who sought to cross as to whether they were Ephraimites (literally ‘Ephrathites’ , another name for Ephraimites, also occurring in 1 Samuel 1.1; 1 Kings 11.26).

12. 5c-6a. ‘If he said, “No”, then they said to him, “Now say "Shibboleth". And he said ‘Sibboleth’. For he could not so frame his words as to pronounce it correctly. Then they laid hold of him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan.’

The Gileadites were merciless. They had a simple test for whether a man was an Ephraimite. The Ephraimites pronounced their ‘sh’ like an ‘s’. So when they were asked to say ‘shibboleth’, they said ‘sibboleth’ and few could disguise it. And when they did that they killed them. This demonstrates how Ephraim kept themselves to themselves, so much so that over time they had developed different pronunciations and ways of speaking which they were unable to immediately adjust, and that only happens over a long period of time. The confederacy was not in a good state.

Shibboleth means ‘a stream in flood’. It was probably considered a good joke by the Gileadites. When the Ephraimites could not pronounce it they were ‘swept away by a flood’ rather than being able to cross the ford.

12.6b ‘And there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty two military units.’

The total slain by the battle and its aftermath was forty two military units. We do not know how many escaped. It may be that ‘forty two’ had a significance that we do not now know. They had jeered Gilead and now died. Compare how there were ‘forty two’ young louts who were killed for jeering Elisha (2 Kings 2.24). The number six sometimes indicates a falling short (of the perfection of seven), compare the number 666 (a threefold falling short). Perhaps forty two indicated a sevenfold falling short (seven times six).

12.7 ‘And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.’

Jephthah ‘judged Israel’ for six years. That is was responsible for acting as God’s representative over a part of Israel for six years. All who judged a part of Israel were seen as ‘judging Israel’. He may have died from wounds, or disease, for his life was short. And he never received acceptance by his family for there was no room for him in the family grave. He was buried ‘somewhere in Gilead’. To man he was an outcast to the end. But he was accepted by God.

‘Six years.’ In view of the seven years of Ibzan and the ten of Elon, this may indicate a life cut short, falling short of the seven.

12.8 ‘And after him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel.’

There were two Bethlehems, one in the tribe of Zebulun, (Joshua 9.15) and another in the tribe of Judah. We do not know which one it was although, as Bethlehem in Judah is called ‘Bethlehem-judah’ elsewhere (17.7, 8, 9;19.1, 2, 18), it was probably in Zebulun.

12.9a ‘And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters whom he sent abroad, and took in thirty daughters from abroad for his sons.’

This was a sign of his prestige and wealth. It would appear that he was polygamous but encouraged his sons to be monogamous. His family gave him wide influence, for his daughters no doubt made influential matches, cementing alliances with important families and clans, and he would marry his sons well with the same idea in mind. ‘Thirty’ is probably a round number to indicate perfect completeness (three intensified). ‘Sent abroad’, that is, away from the family home. This brings home even more deeply the sacrifice that Jephthah made in order to please God when he gave his only daughter.

12.9b-10 ‘And he judged Israel seven years. And Ibzan died, and was buried in Bethlehem.’

He died at the end of his divinely perfect judgeship, and was buried in his native place, in the family grave.

12.11 ‘And after him Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel, and he judged Israel ten years.’

These judges remind us that judges were needed in times of peace as well as in war. They are mentioned to make up the twelve. It may well be that little was known of them but their names. ‘Ten years.’ Possibly indicating ‘a number of years’, and a satisfactory judgeship.

12.12 ‘And Elon the Zebulunite died, and was buried in Aijalon in the country of Zebulun.’

Each was accorded honours in burial because of their faithful service. They had this in common, that they judged well and faithfully.

12.13 ‘And after him Abdon the son of Hillel, the Pirathonite, judged Israel.’

‘The Pirathonite.’ So called from Pirathon, where he was born, and which was in the tribe of Ephraim, as appears from Judges 12.15. It was also later the home of Benaiah, David’s captain (2 Samuel 23.30).

12.14a ‘And he had forty sons, and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy ass colts.’

He had an abundant family, described in this way to bring to the number seventy, divine perfection intensified. Compare Gideon (Judges 8.30). The fact that they rode on ass colts demonstrates that they exercised authority.

12.14b ‘And he judged Israel eight years.’

He clearly began to judge while quite old to have so many grandsons. These judges may have been partly contemporary. He too had the privilege of divinely appointed authority over some of God’s people.

12.15 ‘And Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died, and was buried at Pirathon, in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.’

Here was another Pirathonite who lived and died in honour and was gathered to his fathers. The ‘hill country of the Amalekites’ may have commemorated a great battle with the Amalekites, or have been their former dwelling place, or there may even have been a small group who dwelt there.

The Book of Judges: Contents




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