Jephthah’s first act as leader of Gilead is to confront the leader of the amassed army of Ammon asking why Ammon was getting set to attack Israel. (Judges 11:12) It is interesting to see Jephthah, a proven man of action, step back from quick action to take this opportunity to avoid conflict through wise negotiations. It is also interesting how a man who had been rejected by his people made himself comfortable as their leader, as seen when he claims Ammon’s attack as an attack on him and his land. Many times our effectiveness may be weakened by carrying baggage of the past. The issue was not how Gilead had treated Jephthah in the past but how Ammon was treating Jephthah and his people by invading the land and amassing for war. Ammon replied to Jephthah claiming that the land Israel occupied belonged to them and therefore, the only peaceful solution was to give up the land of Gilead to Ammon. (Judges 11:13) While this is not the reply Jephthah wanted, it gives focus for Jephthah’s reply which justified Israel’s possession of this land and set forth Ammon’s error behind their attack.
Jephthah’s reply recounts history and theology to justify Israel’s possession of the land and to establish the injustice Ammon will commit by going to war with Israel. Clearly a reasonable argument is unlikely to resolve a conflict like this. The modern day negotiations between Israel and Palestinian groups are unlikely to resolve their conflict. But it is the right thing to do. What we do as individuals or corporations or nations does matter. There is a standard of right and wrong, and there are often consequences when right is violated. And even if some succeed by believing that their might settles the argument of what is right, there is a God before whom we live and act. Those who profess faith and wisdom certainly should follow Jephthah’s example and present a case for what is right and how a peaceful agreement can be achieved.
First of all, Jephthah argued that Israel did not take Ammon or Moab’s land when they were going to enter the land of Israel. In fact, when Ammon refused passage for Israel, they went further on and asked the Amorites for passage. The Amorites, not content with negotiating some way for Israel to pass through their land, went out and attacked Israel. This is the battle that resulted in Israel gaining possession of the land on the eastern side of the Jordan. (Judges 11:14-22) Israel acted honorably toward Ammon when Israel was entering the land. The war Israel was involved in was started by the Amorites and the land Israel won and settled was Amorite, not Ammonite land. The Ammonites have no basis to ask for anything back from Israel.
Second, both Israel and Ammon recognized that god, as they percieved him, was sovereign and responsible for the outcomes of battles and the boundaries of their nations. Therefore, it is the Lord who gave Israel the land, and it was the god Chemosh who Ammon recognized that gave up the land. (Judges 11:23-24) Even the Ammonites would recognize this argument was valid though they would not abide by it. Perhaps for a similar reason that muslims today would affirm Allah’s sovereignty but deny that Israel winning various battles and wars showed Allah’s will and thus a reason to end hostility toward Israel. Nonetheless, the theological argument is relevant and important. There is a God who exists and it is appropriate to recognize him and his acts in history. While this has been abused by people throughout time, it is still a valid and necessary argument.
Third, even if there had been any basis for a claim against Israel, it would be the neighboring king, Balak son of Zippor who had it, but he did not exercise any claim. And if, in spite of all these facts, the Ammonites yet insisted they had a claim, why had it taken hundreds of years to press the claim? Certainly it is too late to press any claim on the land. (Judges 11:25-26) Jephthah’s argument is complete and convincing. Ammon had no basis for their demand to have Israel’s land. There was no historical, theological or legal basis for their claim. Jephthah could therefore conclude he and Israel had not sinned against Ammon but Ammon, in going to war against Israel, was sinning against them. (Judges 11:27) Jephthah and all Israel believed God would uphold the justice of their cause. But while the argument is solid, Ammon rejected it for it was not logic or justice that motivated them, it was their potential gain from going to war.
In the first half of the story of Jephthah, we see an outstanding example of a wise leader, a man of faith. The inspired writer of the book of Judges has let us see in Jephthah’s words and acts, a wise leader who has a knowledge of the Lord and his works in Israel. We see a man of faith who truly belongs in the New Testament Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11:32. In first half of the account of Israel’s ninth judge, we can find elements of Jephthah’s example that are applicable to people of faith who want to live in true faith and wisdom. Therefore it is all the more shocking to see what happens in the second half of the story of Jephthah when we see his foolish vow and his exacting and violent actions against another tribe in Israel, things which no person of faith would want to emulate.
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