ABIMELECH AND JEPHTHAH Judges 9–12
“Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the Lord. And He could bear Israel’s misery no longer” (Jdg. 10:16).Two disadvantaged young men remind us that environment determines no one’s future. What counts are the choices each individual makes in life.
Abimelech, son of Gideon and a Canaanite woman of Shechem, killed his 70 brothers and set himself up as a petty king with the aid of his mother’s people (9:1–21). Within three years the Shechemites rebelled, and Abimelech was killed (vv. 22–57). Jephthah (JEFF-thah), son of an Israelite father and a prostitute, was rejected by his family and clan, but was called back when the tribe was threatened by the Ammonites (11:1–12). When negotiation failed (vv. 13–28), Jephthah led Israel to victory (vv. 29–33). But the victory was won at great cost to Jephthah’s daughter (vv. 34–40), and led to intertribal warfare (12:1–7).
Understanding the Text
“His mother’s clan” Jdg. 9:1–6. Identification of the Shechemites as “men of Hamor” (v. 28) and their worship of Baal-Berith indicate the population of this city was primarily Canaanite. Abimelech enlisted their aid by (1) reminding them he was their own flesh and blood, (2) by implying Gideon’s 70 sons intended to rule over them, and (3) by implying a threat to their religion by using the name Jerub-Baal, “Baal fighter.” The citizens of Shechem financed the ritual murder of Gideon’s other sons with money from their temple treasury. The story reveals the character of Abimelech. He was ambitious, manipulative, without conscience or scruples, quick to use religion, but with no personal faith or religious commitment. Abimelech, child of an Israelite and a Canaanite, rejected the Lord and chose the ways of his pagan forebearers. “One day the trees went out to anoint a king”Jdg. 9:7–21. Gideon’s youngest son, Jotham, escaped when his brothers were slaughtered. His parable about trees was pointed. Those trees which were beneficial to men refused the title. Only the thistle, which was useless, wanted the crown. But the thornbush was not only useless, it was dangerous, for its dry branches were quick to catch and spread fires. Jotham warned the citizens of Shechem. If they had not “acted honorably and in good faith” in making Abimelech king, “let fire come from Abimelech and consume you . . . and let fire come out from you . . . and consume Abimelech!” Anyone who fails to act honorably and in good faith spreads around his own feet the fuel that will burst into flame and destroy him. “God repaid the wickedness that Abimelech had done” Jdg. 9:22–57. Abimelech’s petty kingdom did not encompass all Israel. From the cities named, he appears to have ruled only in western Manasseh. Within three years this small kingdom fell apart, as the citizens of Shechem, near important trade routes, turned to banditry and thus defrauded Abimelech of taxes he might have collected from merchants and travelers (v. 25). Abimelech attacked and destroyed Shechem. He himself was killed attacking another rebellious city. Abimelech and his coconspirators in Shechem had destroyed each other, just as Jotham predicted. Jotham’s prediction required no supernatural source. Evil acts always have evil consequences for the perpetrators. Abimelech and Jephthah. The story of Abimelech prepares us for the story of Jephthah. Each of these young men had a mixed parentage. Each may have been rejected by his brothers. But here the similarity ends. While Abimelech rejected the Lord, Jephthah trusted Him completely. While Abimelech murdered his brothers, Jephthah saved his family and tribe. The origins of each of these men may well have caused them pain. Each may have experienced unfair treatment. Yet it was the decision each made to reject or to seek personal relationship with God that was the determining factor in his life. “He led Israel twenty-three years” Jdg. 10:1–5; 12:8–15. These chapters briefly note five judges who ruled for various periods of time. The rule of many of the judges overlapped, as most had influence over only a few of the tribes and part of the land. “Because the Israelites forsook the Lord and no longer served Him” Jdg. 10:6–18. The depth of the apostasy preceding Jephthah is suggested by (1) the list of five nations whose gods Israel served along with the Canaanite Baals and Ashtoreths, (2) severe oppression from both the western Philistines and eastern Ammonites, and (3) God’s expressed unwillingness to save His people though they repented (vv. 11–13). All this displays not only Israel’s sin but also God’s compassion. Even though the punishment was deserved, God “could bear Israel’s misery no longer” (v. 16). How comforting to remember when we fall that the Lord “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps. 103:10). “Jephthah . . . as a mighty warrior” Jdg. 11:1–11. After the death of his father Jephthah, the son of a prostitute, was driven away by his half brothers with the support of the elders of Gilead. As David would when forced to flee from Saul, Jephthah gathered a small force of adventurers who were in debt or otherwise outcasts. They quickly gained a military reputation. When asked to return and lead Israel’s army, Jephthah negotiated with the elders and was promised the position of “head and commander”; that is, chief in peace as well as war. Prejudice drove Jephthah from Gilead. Need brought him back. It’s easy to forget another’s past when we need their help. How much better to treat everyone graciously in the first place. “Jephthah sent messengers” Jdg. 11:12–28. Jephthah pointed out that the Ammonites had no claim on the land they planned to take, for it was Israel’s by right of conquest and by right of 300 years of occupation. This message is revealing. First, it shows that Jephthah, despite his rejection by the Israelites, had a deep faith in Israel’s God. Second, it shows the Israelites had a clear memory of what God had done to bring His people into the land. The faith of this outcast in Israel’s God surely shamed those of “pure blood,” who knew as much as Jephthah about God, but who had rejected Him in favor of idols. Let’s remember that the only basis you or I have for pride is that we actively love and serve God. Lineage, wealth, or social position are meaningless. “Jephthah made a vow to the Lord” Jdg. 11:29–40. Making a promise to do something special for God should He provide victory was not at all unusual in Israel. Jephthah, whom the text specifies was filled with the Spirit of the Lord, made such a vow before his war with the Ammonites. As Israelite houses of this era made room for animals as well as people, Jephthah undoubtedly had an animal sacrifice in mind when he made his vow. “The men of Ephraim . . . crossed over” Jdg. 12:1–7. On word of Jephthah’s victory, Israelites west of the Jordan crossed over in force and threatened him. Their complaint that they had not been invited to fight was a lie (v. 3), and likely a disguised demand that they share in the spoil of victory. The threat to “burn down your house over your head” was simple blackmail. Jephthah responded by calling out his forces and crushing the invaders.
The Rest of the Story (Jdg. 11:29–40)
The story of Jephthah’s vow is a favorite of those who enjoy debate. One side insists that Jephthah actually killed his daughter as a blood sacrifice. The other argues that he did not. As is often true with difficult Bible passages, the debate obscures the rest of the story—and its point. But did Jephthah actually sacrifice his daughter? Not at all. The law of vows (Lev. 27:1–8) permitted substitution. What Jephthah did was commit his daughter to lifelong celibate service at the tabernacle, as in Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22. This is supported by the fact that (1) the text emphasizes her perpetual virginity, not her death (Jdg. 11:37–39), (2) child sacrifice was condemned in the Law (Lev. 18:21; 20:2–5), (3) no priest would officiate at a human sacrifice, and (4) Jephthah’s letter to the Ammonites shows he knew the Law, for it was the source of the history he quoted. But what about the rest of the story? It’s told in the simple words of the young teenage daughter. “My father, you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised.” God had been faithful in giving Israel the victory. The little family of Jephthah and his only child, a daughter, must be just as faithful to Him, whatever the cost.
True faith is better expressed by quiet commitment than by erudite debate.