(1) Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute. Gilead was the father of Jephthah.
(2) And Gilead's wife also bore him sons. And when his wife's sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, "You shall not have an inheritance in our father's house, for you are the son of another woman."
(3) Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a movie released back in 1986 about a high school kid who is determined to have a day off no matter what his principal thinks about it, but a complication to the plot is that Ferris has a sister who hates his guts. Jeanie Bueller is angry, bitter, and out to get her brother, Ferris. She is one of those people who spends her whole life being mad because everyone else—especially her brother—is having more fun than she is. However, in the final minutes of the movie, she comes around. Right when Principal Ed Rooney is about to nab Ferris for missing a zillion days of school, Jeanie suddenly changes and saves Ferris' undeserving hide. This is a theme we find fairly often in Hollywood. A bad person changes in the end and saves the day.
Sometimes it happens in real life. I offer you Jean Lafitte. Jean Lafitte was a pirate and smuggler operating in and around New Orleans in the early 1800's. He was certainly not well thought of by the decent folks of the city. He was not the kind of person respectable people brought home for dinner. But during the war of 1812, the British decided to take New Orleans for themselves. Andrew Jackson came down from Tennessee to defend the city, but he found that the city was not eager to be defended. Until a few years earlier, New Orleans had been French; before that, it was Spanish. So, many people in the city had no problems with British rule. Jackson was in desperate need of allies, and was not finding many, until the smuggler, the Pirate, the neer-do-well, Jean Lafitte came to his aid, just in the nick of time, and the Americans whipped the British at the Battle of New Orleans. That is one of the great stories of American history.
There have been several novels and biographies written about Jean Lafitte. His life served as the basis for the 1938 movie The Buccaneer, which was produced by Cecil B. DeMille. The movie was remade in 1958, starring Yul Brynner as Lafitte.
Speaking of Movies I have often thought that Hollywood could find some great movie plots in the OT. In Judges 11, we find a story about another bad guy who turned good. Here is a brief synopsis. A boy is born at the wrong time, wrong way, to the wrong mother and father. Jephthah was the stereotype of the unwanted child. Nobody liked him, nobody wanted him. So he goes out of his way to become what they do not want him to be—a leader of a gang of outlaws. He goes away to the land of Tob, which was probably the unsettled territory between Syria and Ammon, and he gathers around him a group of thugs and criminals and proceeds to raid the surrounding villages and take whatever he wants. So Jephthah began bad, and he stays bad, for awhile, but then his tribe and family suddenly find that they are in desperate need of a war chief, and whatever Jephthah may be, however bad he may be, everyone knows he is a great warrior. The bad boy comes home, saves his tribe from the enemy in a fierce battle and rules over the people happily ever after. End of Story. Credits roll. Hollywood makes more money.
Unfortunately, that is not quite the story of Jephthah as we have it in the book of Judges. There is a subplot that is so terrible; so tragic; and so dark that it casts a shadow of evil overwhelming the glorious victory with deep despair.
But let us begin at the beginning.
Jephthah was born to a prominent soldier and a common street prostitute. It is an old story, as old as war and soldiers. . Daddy was sowing his wild oats and there was a crop. Unplanned, unwanted, and unloved, Jephthah was a treated like human trash.
His father had been a mighty warrior. Apparently his father was from Gilead. Gilead is the region east of the Jordan River in what is now the country of Jordan. Jephthah's father is also called Gilead. That is the old way of referring to a ruler. The king of England is sometimes called just England, the king of France is called France. The ruler of Gilead would have been called Gilead. We are told in V2 that Gilead’s wife also had several sons, and when they grew up, they forced Jephthah to leave home, saying to him, "You shall not have an inheritance in our father's house, for you are the son of another woman." If Gilead was a ruler, as I have indicated, the inheritance was probably very large. The eldest son would have been the royal heir. The others would have done well also. The old saying is, “Nothing divides a family like money.” Gilead's wife's sons drove out the son of the prostitute. Jephthah fled to the land of Tob, and robbed and stole for a living. He became the leader of a gang of outcasts, brigands, and thieves. He became the first “Robin Hood,” except he stole from the rich and kept it for himself.
But then the story takes a sharp turn toward God. Gilead was attacked by the neighboring country of Ammon and Jephthah was the best fighter around. So the leaders of Gilead go over to the land of Tob to make Jephthah an offer. “You can be our general,” they say, “and lead us against the Ammonites.” This is the kind of dramatic scene Hollywood would love. Jephthah and his misfit buddies are sitting in the shade of a big rock near their hideout in the desert, and here comes this band of shaky little guys, huddling so close together they are almost stepping on each other’s feet. Then they tell him what they want. “How would you like a job killing our enemies? You can be our commander.” Jephthah replies in v7, “Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father's house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress?” Perhaps some of Jephthah’s stepbrothers were in the delegation. Jephthah says, You kicked me out, and now you need me, but why should I care?
Then the elders made him a better offer. Not only could he be army commander, he could be ruler of Gilead. We assume that by now his father is dead. Jephthah could take his father's place. Initially Jephthah does not believe them. We cannot blame him for that. They had done him wrong before. Why should he believe them now? But the elders swore oaths of loyalty to him and made him king in Gilead.
So Jephthah achieves perfect revenge. His brothers make him king and swear allegience to him. And he lives up to expectations. He leads the tribe in battle and crushes the Ammonites. Now I am curious about battles, and I would like to know how Jephthah defeated the Ammonites, but the writer of Judges is not interested in satisfying my curiousity. We are only told that Jephthah routed them.
So where is the problem with all this? What is dark side of this story? The problem is a promise that Jephthah made before the battle. Jephthah tried to strike a bargain with God. Vs. 30-31: “And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
That was a foolish vow. No, it was more than that. It was stupid promise. Because Jephthah does not know what he is going to pay to keep this promise. It was kind of like buying a car and letting the car dealer write down whatever he wants on the bill of sale. Probably Jephthah thought should he win his battle that he would sacrifice a sheep, a goat, or a cow, but things did not work out that way.
Also it was an unnecessary vow. Jephthah did not have enough faith. He was trying to manipulate God. He wanted God to do what Jephthah wanted, namely win the battle.
But let us talk about what happened. After Jephthah won the battle, he was returning home triumphant. He and his army were rejoicing, they were happy. God was with them. They won a glorious victory. Halleluia, Amen. And the first thing Jephthah saw was his daughter.
Judges 11:34: “Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.”
Here is the dark tragedy. Jephthah kept his vow. After two months of mourning by his daughter, Jephthah sacrificed her, sacrificed his only daughter, because he made that vow to God.
Now you might say, How did this get into the Bible? What can we possibly learn from this horrible story? It was such a good story right up until Jephthah came home. The bad guy is really the good guy, who ultimately wins everything, but then suddenly the bad guy/good guy is a horrible father who kills his own daughter.
First of all, we should note that there is no claim that the people of the Bible are perfect people. They are just people, with flaws and sins, just like us. Moreover, in the book of Judges, we are dealing with people of a different culture. In chapter 10, we are told that the people of Israel had not been worshipping God. They had abandoned God to worship the Baals of the Canaanites, and the gods of the surrounding nations. Part of the worship of many of these gods was human sacrifice. We do not know how much of this idol worship Jephthah had absorbed living in the land of Tob. What seems horrible to us may have been expected by Jephthah. And we have to accept him as he was and accept his society as it was.
So what does Jephthah have to teach us? His vow was wrong, but many people still do the same thing today. We try to bargain with God. Several years ago when SC started the lottery a pastor told me a story about a lady who came up to him following the worship service to told him that she had bought a lottery ticket, and she had a chance to win millions of dollars. She asked him to pray for her to win, and she offered this bargain: “If God lets me win, I’ll give $10,000 towards paving the parking lot.” Why should God make a deal like that? If God wanted the money, God could take it all, but that is not what God wants. God wants a people of faith and love. Our relationship with God is a relationship of faith. Our covenant with God is not based on the “conditional if”--if you do this then I will do that. If you act this way, I will act this way. Bargain- making with God is an attempt to make us equals with God. It is our attempt to control God and keep divine power in our hands rather than trusting God. God was with Jephthah,to strengthen him, to enable him to win his victory over his enemies. Jephthah did not need a vow at all.
But there is certainly one more lesson from the story of Jephthah that we do not want to miss. Jephthah was a trash person. He was a throwaway child that no one wanted. But God wanted him. God wanted him to be a king in Gilead who would save the people. Jephthah was not trash to God. He was a valuable resource to be used at the appropriate time. And he proved his value. The lesson to us is there are no trash people. There are no throwaway people. Everyone has value. Maybe they do not look like they have value right now, but everyone have value.
This reminds me of a little story I heard. A speaker began his presentation by taking out a crisp, clean $20-dollar bill. He asked, “Who would like this $20-dollar bill?” As you might imagine, hands went up throughout his audience. He then said, “OK, but first let me do this.” He crumpled up the bill. Hands remained in the air. The speaker dropped the bill on the floor and started to grind it with his shoe. It was now crumpled and dirty. Still plenty of hands were in the air. The speaker said, “You’ve learned a valuable lesson. No matter what I did to the money, you still wanted it because it did not decrease in value. It was still worth $20. Many times in our lives, we are dropped, crumpled, and ground into the dirt by decisions we make and circumstances that come our way. We feel as though we are worthless. But no matter what happens, we never lose our value in God’s eyes. To God, dirty or clean, crumpled or creased, we are still priceless.”
Considering his background, Jephthah could have given up, saying, “People like me never amount to much,” yet God made him a hero. Eleanor Roosevelt stated, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” If we really believe that God is working in and through us, then we can assume God is pleased with his work. Why then should we degrade ourselves? Others may be more talented, smarter, better looking, but none of that matters. What matters is whether we are seeking to do God’s will for our lives. We are made in God image, and God does not make junk. If Jephthah felt he had nothing to offer, he would not have attempted much in life. If we see ourselves as worthless, we tend to give up too quickly, but we are not worthless, we are not trash--because God loves us, God never gives up on us. That is a great lesson from Jephthah.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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