Jephthah and the Grafting In

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The story of Jephthah is preceded and set up by a description of the lot of Israel. Yet again, they have turned from serving God to serving the gods of the nations around them. God has already delivered them repeatedly from the oppression of their neighbors, and yet they have rejected Him again. This time, He has loosed the Philistines and the Ammonites upon them (though only the Ammonites concern us in the account of Jephthah). The story of Jephthah is centered upon the land of Gilead and the Israelites on “the other side of the Jordan River” (Jdg 10:8). Gilead is subjected to such straits at the hands of Ammon that they decide whoever will fight Ammon will be their leader.

The first thing that we are told about Jephthah is that he is “a mighty man of valour” (Jdg 11:1). So even before he receives God’s calling, he has some renown. But the same sentence tells also that he was the son of a harlot by a man of Gilead whose very name was Gilead. So right away we know that, at least in type and shadow, Jephthah is going to encounter some serious pitfall. The harlot is always a harbinger of severe trials for God’s people. And so it is that Jephthah is expelled from his household by the sons of his father’s wife. They tell him, “You shall not inherit our father’s house, because you are the son of another woman.” In this, his lot is like Ishmael’s. Isaac was the son of the true wife and for this, Ishmael was expelled. But in that instance, God’s chosen vessel was the son of the true wife; here, he is selected from the anti- type. Here we see God’s anointed in a capacity other than that typified by Isaac. The son has yet to be grafted in. And so, we will see a picture of what that grafting entails.

After his expulsion, Jephthah resided in Tob, still in Gilead, and there he was surrounded by “vain men” who “went out with him.” The Hebrew word, rake, means literally “empty” and can indeed mean vain, worthless or spiritually empty, but  it can also indicate one who has been emptied and thus humbled. Either way, the point is that Jephthah found himself numbered among those who were of no value to their own people, and thus his fellows make clear what his present state signifies. He has been rejected by the world and brought low. He has not chosen to separate himself for a higher calling, but has been rejected despite or even because of his worldly qualities. In this, he is like Israel coming out of Egypt into the wilderness, or better, Joseph expelled by his brothers and exiled to Egypt. For “Tob,” the name of the land of Jephthah’s exile, means “good,” and Joseph likewise found himself in a goodly land. This signifies the provisions of God for those of his children that are presently enduring trial. And like Joseph, Jephthah comes to be the head of his new home.

In the meantime, the elders of Gilead have decided that they must select someone stronger than themselves to lead them into battle with the Ammonites. It’s important to note for later reference that Israel as a whole is under attack, but for now we’re only concerned with the theater of Gilead. The elders’ choice is Jephthah, and they arrive in Tob to ask for deliverance from their enemies, again much as Joseph’s brothers found themselves in Egypt receiving deliverance from their previously rejected brother. Jephthah reminds them of their error before agreeing that, if God “deliver them before me,” he will lead the attack against the children of Ammon. He comes to the camp of Gilead in Mizpeh, which means “watchtower.” This signifies the state of God’s people at the juncture typified here. Reconciliation must be followed by diligence and watchfulness against the enemies of peace, whether is the peace of the church or the peace of the individual.

At this point, as Jephthah requests an explanation from the king of the Ammonites, we find that this conflict is, as expected, over land. The land of course typifies our body, and corporately, the church. Who shall reign over God’s vessels? Will it be those led by His spirit, or will it be the flesh. For Ammon is, like his brother Moab, near kin and flesh of Israel. Both are the result of the drunken union of Lot, nephew of Abraham, with his misguided and fearful daughters. And their pedigree is indicative of their nature. Ammon claims that Israel took their land as they came into Canaan from Egypt. This of course is a distortion of the truth. As Jephthah reminds them, Israel had taken great pains to avoid the land of Ammon, because Ammon had refused them mere passage through their land en route to Canaan. They had instead asked passage from the Amorites, who in response attacked Israel. The Amorites were the ones who had forced this land from Moab. And it was from the Amorites that Israel had, in consequence of their victory over them, wrested the land.

But what does this little history lesson of Jephthah’s signify? He is justifying Israel’s possession of the land against the slander of their near flesh. They are accused of having what is another’s. Jephthah points out that, while it may have indeed been possessed by another first, it truly belongs to Israel by virtue of the fact that it was given to them by God; their God. Jephthah goes so far as to suggest to Ammon that they may possess whatsoever their god, Chemosh, “the one who subdues,” gives to them. Far above a mere squabble for land, this dialogue is a type of confrontation between philosophies; that of the faith of God’s elect versus that of the world and its empty hopes and promises; God versus Chemosh, which is of course truth versus a lie. And that too is what Jephthah had on his side; God and the truth. Jephthah concludes by pointing out that he has done no wrong to Ammon and that Ammon is completely unjustified in its attack on Israel, as indeed, all our enemies should be if we serve God in truth.

Of course, Ammon will have none of it, and so Jephthah leads the attack. But in so doing he demonstrates that which is lacking from those whose progress in their walk with God corresponds to Jephthah’s present circumstance: He feels the need to bargain with God; to buy his blessing.

Jdg 11:30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,
Jdg 11:31 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.

Nowhere are we told that God spoke directly to Jephthah; only that His spirit came upon him. So while Jephthah was indeed being directed by the Lord, it was without his knowledge and understanding. And so, in his ignorance, he commits himself to something over which he has no power or say. And so we all do. We know that God is delivering us, but we don’t know what is in store. And of course, not knowing, there is fear and uncertainty. And with it, especially during exceptionally trying times, say just before we head out with a small ragtag bunch of Gadites, Manassites and other second- rate Ephraimites to do battle with the kind of Ammon, we try to convince God of our cause and our need (both of which are already his concern) and to offer something in exchange for his help (when we in fact have nothing to offer). Jephthah’s offer is a strange one. He offers to sacrifice “whatsoever comes forth of the doors of my house to meet me.” First of all, he seems not to know that such things already belong to God. But more pointedly, why was it such an oddly specific offering? What was he expecting? The dog? His wife? A servant? One thing is obvious; he didn’t fully consider his choice. But more broadly, he is illustrating in an almost absurd fashion that neither he nor we are able to offer anything to God over which we have sufficient authority or control to offer it in the first place. And even more broadly, if we are uncertain of the future (as indeed we cannot help but be) why on earth would we make any promises whatsoever that are based on it?

And so, Jephthah proceeds to rout Ammon and to kick them out of the land of Gilead. He is then able to return to Mizpeh where we find out for the first time that his home is there. And who should be the first to greet him but his only child, a daughter, dancing and rejoicing for his victory in the Lord no less. Jephthah is of course sickened by the prospect of having to fulfill his vow, but fulfill it he must, for you do not break promises to God. But we should note what exactly Jephthah promised and what we are told that he did. At first reading in the King James and other versions, it sounds as if Jephthah is about to burn his daughter as a sacrifice. And this has resulted in a lot of scholarly acrobatics attempting to re- word the underlying Hebrew; everything from misplaced characters to lost words has been blamed for the present English translation. However, if we just look at the entire scenario, we will see that this is totally unwarranted. First of all, such an act was an abomination to God. Israel was expressly forbidden to do such a thing. Secondly, the Hebrew does not say that it shall be the Lord’s and I will offer it up; it gives each as a possibility. In other words, it will be the Lord’s, or I will offer it up. And as we will shortly see, the former, not the latter, is what happened.

Jephthah’s daughter encourages him to fulfill his vow. She asks only that she be permitted two months to mourn her virginity. In the company of friends, she mourns upon the mountains. Afterwards, she dutifully returned to her father and submitted to his vow. And what are we told of her fate?

Jdg 11:39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man…

As a devotee to God, Jephthah’s daughter is to be chaste for the rest of her natural life. She will have no husband, and no children. This pictures the fruit of our promises in sharp contrast to the promises of God. No wonder that we are told:

Jas 5:12 But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.

At the close of the chapter, we’re told:

Jdg 11:40 … the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.

So what have we been told? Notice that Jephthah had no sons. His only offspring was a daughter, so he had no heir. And his only link to the future, through his own bad judgment, had been consecrated to God. Clearly, Jephthah, even in his service to God, represents something that is passing. The consecration of his daughter, while a physical curse, represents the passing of the old and the carnal in favor of the spiritual new. Furthermore, her period of mourning is for two months in the mountains. She is a figure of witness to the lofty places. This experience serves as a warning to those who, like her father, stumble over pride.

So after delivering Israel but losing his daughter, Jephthah receives the following gratitude from his brethren:

Jdg 12:1 And the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together, and went northward, and said unto Jephthah, Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? we will burn thine house upon thee with fire.

Ephraim was the most militant tribe of Israel at this time. In fact, throughout the book of Judges, they are pivotal to most of Israel’s conflicts with their enemies. The verse above shows them to be haughty, arrogant, and cruel. They made the same complaint to Gideon earlier in the book for merely not calling them soon enough to join him in battle against the Midianites. Gideon was able to soothe them with words of commendation and self- deprecation. But their conceit has reached new heights as they threaten the life of their deliverer. This in light of a fact of which we are not apprised until now; that Jephthah had indeed requested their help against Ammon and that they had done nothing. Only then did he venture to confront the enemy. In other words, Ephraim resents Jephthah for accomplishing what they would not, and they desire glory for something they willingly had no part in. This is born of a haughty attitude that is further demonstrated by their attitude to toward all those who actually confronted the Ammonites.

Jdg 12:4 … they said, Ye Gileadites are fugitives of Ephraim among the Ephraimites, and among the Manassites.

These words will come back very shortly to haunt them. Jephthah gathers Gilead and proceeds to remind Ephraim of their place. And here Ephraim finds themselves to be in truth the very thing of which they accused Gilead.

Jdg 12:5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite?

The Hebrew word for “fugitives” is “pawleet.” This is the same word behind the reference to those Ephraimites who escaped the slaughter. As further proof of Ephraim’s deficiencies, the Gileadites devise a means of detecting those “fugitives” of Ephraim who are attempting to cross Jordan back to their homeland. They demand that the say ” shibboleth,” but the Ephraimites are not accustomed to this pronunciation and pronounce the word “sibboleth.” Upon detection, they are killed on the spot. Thus we are warned through Ephraim’s example against pride and haughtiness in the victories given us by God. As David tells us:

Pro 16:18  Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.

Then the story of Jephthah is ended with this summation.

Jdg 12:7 And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.

Six years – the number of man. Thus we find that Jephthah, though led by the spirit, represents merely that portion of the walk that demonstrates the best that the flesh can muster in service to God. The son of a harlot, with no sons himself, occupying only the other side of the Jordan and not able to cross over, presuming to bargain with God, at war with those within as much as those without, and limited in his influence to six years, Jephthah typifies those who endeavor to serve, but those who serve with their own understanding instead of that provided by revelation. But what are these but all those who are grafted in at the first. Without exception, when God calls out his elect, they come out of the world into a lonely place where they adapt to hardship. Accustomed to adversity by the grace of God, they rise to new challenges that they could not have endured before. But in so doing, they are then confronted by the challenge of pride and conceit, running the risk of arrogating God’s work and its glory to themselves. When confronting this enemy within, the enemy that occupies the high ground for which we are striving, the land on the other side of Jordan, we are to act thoroughly and mercilessly. All of this has a corporate application as well. Our walk is common with the rest of the church. And the world around us should see us as one. The church as a whole is admonished with the individual. Ephraim displays the same jealousy and avarice as those in the church who are long established or otherwise raised to prominence. Deeming themselves more mature or better qualified than those whom God is continually grafting in, they look on neophytes as a threat to their own position. In so doing they forget the providence of God. The personal application is that, while we should recognize the changes that God effects in us, we must always acknowledge that those changes are despite our nature, not because of it. But throughout all of this, we should be encouraged by the story of Jephthah, who despite all his initial shortcomings, was raised up by God to effect the next victory of God’s elect over their afflictions, whether those afflictions be from those around us or the members of our own bodies.

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