Judges 10 Commentary

Jephthah and five other judges (10:1-12:15)

Little is known of the political or military activities of the judges Tola and Jair. They both exercised power for lengthy periods, and Jair’s family certainly enjoyed considerable power and prestige among the East Jordan tribes (10:1-5).

Again the Israelites turned away from Yahweh and worshipped false gods, and again they were punished. The Ammonites conquered the eastern tribes, crossed Jordan, and seized large portions of Israelite territory in Canaan as well. The Philistines attacked and conquered from the west (6-9). After eighteen years of oppression, the Israelites cried to God for help. In his mercy God saved them, though not until they got rid of their foreign gods and began to worship him again (10-16). Their deliverance from the Ammonites during the time of Jephthah is described in 10:17-12:7; their difficulties with the Philistines during the time of Samson are outlined in 13:1-16:31.

The leaders of the eastern tribes were desperate in their search for someone to lead Israel in battle against the Ammonites (17-18). The man they chose was Jephthah. The son of a prostitute, Jephthah had been cast out of his family and become the leader of a gang of bandits (11:1-6). He was tough, bitter and uncompromising, and he accepted the tribal leaders’ invitation only after they agreed that he would remain their leader after the war was over (7-11).

Ammon had ruled eastern Israel for eighteen years (see 10:8). Apparently aware of feelings of restlessness and revolt in Israel, the Ammonites decided to attack. They made the excuse that Israel had taken their territory from them, so now they intended to take it back (12-13).

Jephthah replied by giving them an account of Israel’s progress from Egypt to the region east of Jordan that was now in dispute. Firstly, he pointed out, Israel did not take any of this territory from peoples related to Israel, whether they were Ammonites, Edomites, or Moabites. All Israel’s land east of Jordan was taken from the Amorites, who were under the judgment of God (14-22). Secondly, the land had been given to the Israelites by their God Yahweh, and his will had to be obeyed (23-24). Thirdly, the Moabite king of the time made no complaint that Israel had seized his territory. Why, then, after all these years should a dispute arise (25-26)? Jephthah appealed for understanding, but the Ammonites would not listen (27-28).

Although God gave Jephthah his special help, Jephthah was still only a slightly reformed bandit. He knew little of the character of God, and thought that by making a vow to sacrifice a person as a burnt offering to God, he could buy God’s help and so ensure victory. Human sacrifice was against God’s law (see Lev 18:21; Deut 12:31), but the people had forgotten that law and followed the religions of the neighbouring nations (see 10:6; cf. 2 Kings 3:26-27). Having made his vow, Jephthah went to battle and won a great victory (29-33). On his return from battle, Jephthah found that the person whom he had to offer according to his vow was his only daughter. Nevertheless, he kept his vow and sacrificed her (34- 40).

Once more the Ephraimites were offended that they, the strongest tribe in Israel, had not been invited to the battle (cf. 8:1-3). They crossed the Jordan River into the eastern territory to complain to Jephthah and to fight if necessary (12:1).

Jephthah replied that for years the eastern tribes had been asking for Ephraim’s help, but had never received it. Why should they ask for it again (2-3)? The Ephraimites replied by accusing the eastern tribes of having run away from Israel; but when fighting broke out between the two groups, the Ephraimites were the ones running away. Jephthah’s soldiers cut off their escape at the Jordan. The Ephraimites’ attempt to disguise themselves and slip through the checkpoint was not successful, because their speech betrayed them as Ephraimites (4-6).

Having liberated his people, Jephthah then ruled over them, but after only six years he died (7). Three subsequent judges are listed, but little is known of them. From the sizes of their households it appears that they were people of wealth and influence (8-15).

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