The Gileadites were facing the superior army of the Ammonites. After eighteen years of oppression the Gileadites had little hope of victory. The one hope was to find a capable leader for their army. And this brought them to look for Jephthah who became the ninth judge of Israel mentioned in the book of Judges. Jephthah was a Gileadite. His father was named Gilead, probably not the founder of the clan in Manasseh but a leading man in this clan. Looking at this half of his parentage we can say Jephthah had a noble birth. The problem was looking at the other half, Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s legitimate children drove Jephthah out, refusing to share the family inheritance with him. (Judges 11:1-2) This helps explain why it took many years and a most dire situation before the elders of Gilead would even consider Jephthah as a potential leader for the tribe.
There are certain repeated themes in the Bible that give a breadth and depth to our reading and study. Certainly one of the themes involves rejection and suffering and then exaltation. Israel’s prophetic history tells of the nation itself being despised and suffering but one day will be exalted among the nations. King David himself was rejected and suffered life on the run from King Saul. But then one day, he was exalted to the kingship and was honored historically and prophetically. Judges 10 even applies this theme to the Lord whom Israel has forsaken for other gods. (Judges 10:6,9,13) It is not strange in light of this that Israel’s messiah also was rejected and suffered before his exaltation. (Isaiah 53:3,11; Acts 3:13-16) But this is no mere literary or Bible theme. It is a life principle we need to be mindful of in the various overwhelming and unfair things that can happen to us in life.
There are elements of the life in which we find ourselves that really aren’t fair. It wasn’t Jephthah’s fault what his mother and father did, but he suffered for it. We have adopted a number of special needs kids. Some of their moms drank heavily or used drugs during the pregnancy. A couple of the kids are seriously impacted with fetal alcohol effects. It isn’t the fault of our kids, but they suffer the consequences. And while it is sad, the best response isn’t to lament and complain but to do what can be done where they are. Our self-image should not be formed by our birth or our comparative natural abilities. Some people waste years and inflict self torture over their birth or their body or their capabilities or lack of certain capabilities. Whoever we are, however we are made, whatever we have, God can use in special ways if we present ourselves to him like a living sacrifice. In fact, it seems that God has a special interest in those people who might easily be overlooked by the “got-it-all-togethers” of the world: For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1Corinthians 1:26-29)
We soon see Jephthah leading men. They weren’t the noble knights which we might desire a Bible hero to lead. They were the men around Jephthah, the men who would gather and be led and thus led, would be changed. Jephthah may have led this motley brigand band in many raids against the Ammonites for those eighteen years they oppressed Israel. Similarly, when David was rejected and fled from Saul, men gathered to him and he led them on many military raids. From among the men who had been characterized as distressed, debtors and the discontented came men who were mighty men, transformed through being led by David. (1Samuel 22:2; 2Samuel 23:8-39) Whether you find yourself in an unfair or terribly difficult situation, the thought needs to be on what you can do where you are rather than what you would do if only you could be in some other, better place. And then start doing what you can where you are and see where God, at the right time, takes you.
I can imagine the discussion among the elders of Gilead as they try to figure out what to do in the looming battle against Ammon. They have to find a leader. But after eighteen years of trying to find a leader who can bring victory, they have reached the bottom of the barrel and are willing to consider people they probably had rejected out of hand before. While they had been stumped, Jephthah was leading men. Finally the “search committee” proposes a candidate who might really be able to lead them. Whatever their previous objections had been, circumstances have led them to pursue Jephthah and offer him leadership over the armies of Gilead. And in the briefly presented negotiations we can see interesting principles which apply to many kinds of negotiations.
Try to imagine the attitude and the expectations the elders of Gilead may have had when they came to Jephthah to bring him the offer, “Come and be our chief that we may fight against the sons of Ammon.” (Judges 11:6) Do you see who will get the credit for a victory in the way they state their offer? The elders of Gilead know they were giving Jephthah the very thing that Jephthah would desire and appreciate, being restored to Gilead society and leading the tribe’s army. What possible objection or counter-offer could possibly be raised? Jephthah responded to their offer with, what we can call, the step back. Good negotiations can take time. There is more going on here than just stepping forward to lead the army. Sometimes, before you can go forward, you have to go backwards; the path to the future is often found in reconsidering the past. Jephthah was not going to take the job of an army captain, working for wages in the task before them. So he asked, not eager but not sulking, “Did you not hate me and drive me from my father’s house? So why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?” (Judges 11:7) Can you picture the confident smiles fading from the elders’ faces as they are forced to answer him? The elders’ answer clarifies their position and presents their second offer. They increase his participation and his role after the fighting: “…you may go with us and fight with the sons of Ammon and become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” (Judges 11:8) Jephthah needs to make a serious clarification before he can accept to serve with Gilead. He has already seen their treachery. Those who put a high value on appearances often hide their real motives so you cannot trust what you do see. “If you take me back to fight against the sons of Ammon and the Lord gives them up to me, will I become your head?” And to this, the elders agree. (Judges 11:9-10) Jephthah recognized he was brought to do a job, lead the people in battle. And it is based on Jephthah’s effectiveness (which only came through what God would do in the battle) that the reward would be given of being leader over the them. Jim Rohn liked to emphasize that profits are better than wages. Wages will make you a living but profits can fund a lifestyle. Profits are the rewards of an effective outcome in the difficult project before you that brings a value to many. The reward Jephthah asked was appropriate to the task the elders asked of him.
Israel, even in their apostasies, was a religious nation. It would have been an appropriate cultural form to confirm an agreement before the Lord at a holy site. But Jephthah was a man of faith. He truly believed God exists and is a rewarder of those who seek him. He believed a word given before God was to be kept and that failure to keep such a word would be much worse than merely breaking a civil agreement with conmensurate fines or punishments. The agreement made before the Lord brought God into the agreement and brought God’s wrath on those who would threaten to break the agreement. And so, Jephthah “spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.” (Judges 11:11) The agreement was bigger than a contract with the Gileadites, it was a covenant with the Lord.
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