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  • Writer's pictureForestdale Church

Judges: Jephthah

The Wrong Man for the Job.

Text: Judges 11:1-11

Speaker: Christian A. Schmitt

1 Introduction

1.1 Father’s Day

"Good morning, everyone. It’s Fathers’ Day today, and I know that there are a good number of fathers and grandfathers on this Zoom call. Some of you have labored tirelessly to provide for and raise your own children. Maybe others of you have adopted or fostered children, any I know that many of you have discipled and mentored those younger than you. And there are many who plan to be fathers and aren’t yet, or perhaps who want to be a father but for some reason cannot be. This is a day to honor and thank fathers of all sorts for the ways that they have selflessly built up others. So all of you who are fathers, thank you for what you’ve done and what you are doing.

I’m sure, though, that anyone who has ever fathered or mentored or discipled before could tell us that fatherhood is a tall order. It demands a lot, and it makes us question: 'Am I up to the task? Am I the right man for the job? What does it even mean to be the right man for the job?' Well, friends, we’re not talking much about fatherhood today, but we are going to look at the story of the judge Jephthah, whom God used to free Israel from the oppression of the Ammonites. But here’s the thing about Jephthah: he was very decidedly the wrong man for the job. But God used him anyway. And watching God use Jephthah can give us hope for ourselves and for our world.

1.2 Introduction to Judges 11

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. We’re picking up with Jephthah in the middle of his story, at a very particular point in the Judges cycle. Everybody remember the Judges cycle? It’s the sequence of every long story in the book of Judges, and we’ve seen it a number of times already: Israel turns away from God, so God gives up Israel into the hand of its enemies, then Israel repents and God sends a judge to free them. Once they’re free, Israel has a few good years, but then turns back to worshiping the gods of their tribal neighbors, like Baal and Asherah and Molech, instead of the God who brought them out of Egypt. And the cycle begins again. All over again.

In Judges 10, the previous chapter, we’ve already covered the first few parts: Israel turned away, and God gave them up to the Ammonites, one of their neighbors. By this point, many Israelites are basically slaves in their own country. So Israel repents. Right before chapter 11 picks up, the Israelites “put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord” – and then they rise up against the Ammonites and trust the Lord to save them.

This is the place in the pattern where God reaches down and calls a judge. We’ve seen this before with Ehud, with Deborah, and Gideon. So let’s take a look at the guy who ends up getting the job.

2 Jephthah is the Wrong Man for the Job of Delivering God’s People . . .

2.1 . . . In Peoples’ Eyes . . .

'Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute.' What an introduction! It doesn’t take too much time reading the Old Testament to see that the Hebrew mind was obsessed with tracing family lineages. We had Ehud, son of Gera, Barak son of Abinoam. In this sort of culture, your father’s first name functioned just like our last names do: they show association and family honor. So to be called “Jephthah, son of a prostitute” is an incredible insult: it means that Jephthah is deprived of family association and family honor.

If this is the way that people feel about Jephthah, it’s no wonder that his brothers, and probably the rest of the town with them, drove him out of Gilead to make his way, all alone, outside of Israelite territory. He ends up in the land of Tob, far from family, far from familiar culture, far from any support network he might have had.

In Israelite eyes, Jephthah is the guy with the lowest social standing possible, and and they knock him down as much lower as they possibly can. In the eyes of the Israelites, at least at the beginning, Jephthah is the total wrong man for any job at all, let alone delivering Israel from the oppression of the powerful Ammonites. The fact that he’s an illegitimate child makes him absolutely worthless to his brothers.

We have to ask ourselves, though, if this is the way that God sees Jephthah’s birth – does God think that Jephthah’s illegitimacy disqualifies him as a judge? I don’t think so. In fact, one of the crimson threads that unite all of these stories is that God is taking someone who looks disqualified and turning that supposed disqualification into the essence of their judgeship. Remember how Ehud was left-handed? How Deborah was a woman? How Gideon was a little bit skittish? All of those characteristics disqualified them by worldly standards, but God is looking for something different. Being the right man for the job in God’s eyes doesn’t look anything like being the right man for the job in the world’s eyes. So what about Jephthah? In God’s eyes, might Jephthah be the right man for the job?

2.2 . . . And in God’s Eyes . . .

So let’s dig a little deeper into the story. Lets fast forward a few years now and see what kind of man Jephthah has made himself out to be. After his brothers drive him out of Gilead and he made a new home for himself in Tob, the Bible says that 'worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him.' The phrase 'went out' is a Hebrew figure of speech: it means to go out raiding and pillaging. Jephthah and his worthless fellows are 'going out' to the grocery store to run errands or to the nightclub to go dancing. And they’re certainly not going out to fields to farm them. They’re 'going out' on the warpath to neighboring villages, all dressed up in their weapons and armor, in order to shake the villages down. To plunder whatever looks nice to them. So our friend Jephthah isn’t just someone’s illegitimate son anymore: he’s a tribal warlord ravaging the countryside.

And on top of that, it’s not just any countryside that Jephthah is pillaging. As far as anybody can tell, Tob was right across the border between Israel and Aramea, so Jephthah would have been crossing back over into Israel and raiding Israelite towns! That’s the reason that the Gileadites know that Jephthah is a mighty warrior and try to get him to be their general: he’s been raiding them for years! So Jephthah is no better than the Ammonites or the Moabites or the Philistines that came to raid Israel.

And as we keep reading, another side of Jephthah comes out. He’s not only a tribal warlord, but he’s also a skilled negotiator. Take a look at his negotiations with the Gileadites. It’s hard to tell from the English what is going on, but here’s the gist: the Gideadites ask him to come as a military general. The ESV calls this a ‘leader.’ Jephthah says, however, that he’ll only fight against the Ammonites if he gets to be the Gileadites’ ‘head:’ the Hebrew here isn’t only a military term, but a civil and a political one. Jephthah isn’t content to wield military power for a short time, he wants all of the power and he wants it forever. It’s not enough to be the general, Jephthah wants to be ruler.

And it’s not just here that Jephthah is a shrewd bargainer: he tries to bargains again with the Ammonites before the battle, and in chapter 12 he’s going to try to talk the Ephraimites out of starting a civil war. It’s bad enough that Jephthah would try to wheel and deal people like this, but he even does that with God! Next week, we’re going to talk about the vow he makes to God, to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he returns. He’s treating God like a vending machine: if he puts enough in, he’ll be able to force God to help him. It’s clear that all of Jephthah’s time around Canaanites has deformed his idea of who God is and how we relate to him as humans. Jephthah is treating God like a petty Canaanite god and not like the God that Israel knows!

So let’s summarize: Jephthah is a illegitimate, conniving, traitorous, self-obsessed, Canaanized highway bandit. Maybe he’s a mighty warrior, and maybe that makes him seem like a good idea, but from God’s perspective, he is squarely the wrong man for the job. So it makes sense that Jephthah is the first judge that God doesn’t call. God doesn’t give Jephthah a sign like he does for Gideon. Instead, it’s the people who call Jephthah as judge. And that’s bad news, because he’s the wrong man for the job. The vow he makes is going to end up terribly for everyone involved. The Ephraimite civil war, which he fights in, I mentioned is the bloodiest single event in the Book of Judges! Israel is going to continue on this downward spiral for ten more chapters–it’s never going to get better. All because Jephthah was the wrong man for the job, and that’s bad news.

3 . . . But God Delivers His People Through Jephthah Anyway.

But Jephthah’s story isn’t all bad news. God is still going to work through him. Because of Jephthah the mighty warrior, the Ammonites are going to be repelled and Israel is going to at least have a few years of peace. Verse 29 says that 'the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah.' God divinely empowered him to free Israel even though he was the wrong man for the job, and even though he stayed the wrong man for the job. It certainly wasn’t because God owed it to Jephthah. But it was because of God’s grace to Israel that he used a bent stick to strike a true blow for the good of his people. If you get one thing out of Jephthah’s story, it should be that God is faithful to Israel, and powerful to work through the people we least expect. God is not limited in the sorts of people he is allowed to use, or how he’s allowed to use them. He’s the lord of history, he uses anyone he wants. The amazing part is that that might be people whose view of God is more formed by pagan religion than the Bible, like Jephthah. People who still have a long way to go before being able to call themselves Christians can still be unwitting tools in God’s hands. If God wants the job done, he doesn’t need the right person for the job to do it. And that’s proof that it really is God working out his will in history. He’s the ultimate actor.

When I look at Jephthah, I see an incredible reminder for us: we can have hope that God can work good even through the wrong people for the job. And that’s a powerful reminder, isn’t it? Sometimes I feel like I’m just looking out at the world and only seeing the wrong people for the job.

And if I’m honest, it’s not only on the outside. It’s on the inside too. When I look inward, it’s clear to me that I’m the wrong person for the job. Left to my own devices, I would be a selfish husband, a lazy pastor, and a lukewarm Christian. My only hope for any of that is that God is the one working in my marriage, in my ministry, and in our relationship. But this is exactly the hope that the book of Judges brings: that sin does not prevent God from working powerfully for the good of the people he calls his own. Amen? Amen. Thank you.

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