After the death of Abimelech, the next man to become a judge in northern Canaan was Tola. He was from the tribe of Issachar.
Tola led northern Israel twenty-three years. During that time there was peace in that part of the land because the worship of pagan gods and idols was almost completely stopped (Judges 10:1-2).
After Tola died, a man by the name of Jair came into power in eastern Israel. He had thirty grown sons who helped him maintain control as the mayors or rulers of thirty towns in northern Canaan. Jair and his sons chose to rule by God’s laws, and for twenty-two more years matters went well for the Israelites in that region (vs. 3-5).
Meanwhile, other judges ruled over the Israelites in southern Canaan, but that is another facet of the history of Israel.
Jair’s death triggered the return of the Israelites of northern Canaan to idolatry. The pagan nations all about them considered them curious or odd because they observed laws that didn’t allow religious orgies and wild festivals. Rather than be thought of as religious oddballs, the Israelites who wanted to be well thought of by their neighbors gradually fell into worshipping foreign gods.
Their desire to conform to the ways of the people about them wasn’t the only reason Israel went over to idolatry. The belief grew that pagan religions offered more freedom because there were less laws to observe. Israel forgot the many wonderful blessings that obeying God brings such as peace, health and prosperity.
This was foolish reasoning, but Israel today reasons the same way. Those who are of a religious bent generally join the largest most popular churches with a careful eye to conformity. Some of these people are being called out of such worldly churches to become part of God’s Church. They find that God’s ways are much different from what they thought, and that the churches from which they came are based on many pagan beliefs.
Because of the disobedience of the Israelites, God became increasingly angry. He allowed two nearby warlike nations to send soldiers into the land. They were the Ammonites, whose country was to the east, and the Philistines, whose nation was on a portion of the southeast shore of the Great Sea west of Canaan – the Mediterranean.
At first the Ammonite movements in the east consisted only of forays by small bands of soldiers who would attack Israelites’ homes and villages in Gilead, east of the Jordan River, then hastily retreat with any booty they could seize. Gradually the attacking bands grew larger and bolder until they were setting up armed camps well inside Canaan. It wasn’t long before the camps were growing into large garrisons from which enemy soldiers crossed the Jordan River into southwestern Canaan to kill and plunder (Judges 10:6-9).
Death, disease and poverty moved over Israel in a black cloud of misery. It appeared that if the wretched conditions continued, Israel would be entirely wiped out or fall into permanent slavery.
It was then that the people began to cry out to God. They admitted their sin of bowing down to other gods, and begged for forgiveness and help.
God’s reaction was far from hopeful. His reply was probably given through the high priest or someone chosen as a prophet.
“Did I not save you previously from the Egyptians, the Amorites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, the Zidonians, the Amalekites and the Midianites?” God asked them. “You pleaded for help when you were in danger, and I delivered you from all these enemies. Then you turned around and forsook me! Why should I save you again? Cry to your pagan gods to save you” (vs. 10-14)!
The Israelites knew better than to waste their prayers on heathen gods in a time of trouble. They were aware that only the God of Israel could help them, and they continued their pleas for deliverance.
“Do whatever you will to us!” they pleaded. “But for now, we beg you to spare us from our enemies!”
If God felt that the Israelites failed to show their sincerity, He didn’t have to wait long for evidence of it. All over Canaan the people swiftly turned from the heathen gods, destroyed their idols and temples and eagerly sought to learn God’s ways. To many the knowledge of their Creator’s laws was quite obscure. It had been almost a generation since the nations had last fallen into idol worship. When God witnessed the smashing of their little “good luck” objects, tearing down images of the national gods of foreign nations and earnestly seeking to find the right way, He felt sorry for Israel.
Again, after 18 years of oppression, the ever-merciful Creator moved to deliver His chosen people (Judges 10:8). He made it known to them that as many as possible should gather to meet the enemy in the land east of the Jordan, and that He would help them.
The Israelites were disorganized, but this wonderful news spurred them to action. During the next weeks thousands secretly came at night – especially from eastern Canaan – to gather at Mizpeh, a city in the southern portion of the land allotted to the tribe of Gad. Assembling wasn’t easy. Many who wanted to go found it impossible to leave home without being seen by enemy soldiers. Some fought their way free. Others died trying. Most of them had to leave home at the risk of being discovered and having their families taken by the enemy. It was all part of the price they were still paying for breaking the first, second and fourth Commandments, which generally lead to breaking the other seven.
It wasn’t long before the news of this great gathering reached the Ammonites, who were already bringing up heavy forces along the east side of the Jordan to their main garrisons in Gilead. They were about ready for a last mass attack on the half tribe of Manasseh and the tribes of Reuben and Gad in eastern Canaan. Israel’s move stepped up the action of the Ammonites, who hadn’t expected any mass resistance. If they had also learned another startling fact, they would have acted with even more haste.
That fact was that the quickly-organized army of Israel as yet had no leader or captain (vs. 17-18).
Meanwhile, near the eastern border of the territory of Manasseh in Gilead, there was a rugged man by the name of Jephthah who was the head of a desert band made up of trained fighters who made a living by somewhat questionable means. They probably raided and looted poorly protected Ammonite settlements and hired themselves out as guards and protectors. Jephthah’s father was one of the tribe of Manasseh, but because his mother was not his father’s legal wife, his half-brothers (whose mother was the legal wife of their father), wouldn’t allow him to share in their inheritance. Spurned by his own family, Jephthah had left home when a very young man to seek a living elsewhere (Judges 11:1-2).
He had journeyed off to the desert country to the northeast, where he established himself well in the ways of life in the wilderness (v. 3). He became well-trained in riding, hunting and fighting. Eventually he built himself up as a tribal leader, the builder of a small, private army that was the fear of fierce nomadic tribes and the protector of the weak and the poor. Jephthah was actually a kind of captain of men little better than cunning desert pirates, but he became respected and famous in his part of the country. He had a reputation for seizing booty only from bands of vicious robbers and killers, especially Ammonites.
In Mizpeh there was growing concern as to who should be chosen to head the army of Israel. Outside of a few men who had been officers of minor rank years previously, there was little choice. It was soon recognized that none of these men were able enough to lead the army. The elders of Israel realized that the leader must be one whom the soldiers would respect in knowledge, resourcefulness, patriotism, courage and experience.
When the name Jephthah was brought up, there was yells of derision, although it was well known that he was a mighty leader and had kept his private band free from Ammonite oppression (Judges 11:1). The more the elders discussed him the more seriously he was considered. They now realized the man they had self-righteously cut out was their only hope. The discussion ended with several men riding swiftly out of Mizpeh in the direction of Jephthah’s home far east of the Jordan. They were now ready to ask Jephthah to lay down his life for those who formally would not have given him a piece of bread if he were hungry.
Jephthah was surprised to be visited by chieftains of Israel. He was more surprised to recognize some elders of eastern Manasseh – and some of his brothers!
“This is quite a gathering,” he remarked coldly. “What business could you have with me? And why are my brothers here? To them I am a non-deserving outcast!”
“We realize that this must seem very strange to you,” an elder explained, “but all of us are here to ask your help against the Ammonites. We have a large army, but no general. Would you consider leading our newly formed army against them” (Judges 11:4-6)?
Jephthah could hardly believe his ears. There were countless able men in Israel, he realized, yet here were representatives come to ask an outsider to lead their army! He stared at his brothers, who eyed him uneasily.
“I suppose you know my brothers forced me out of my inheritance in disgrace years ago, “Jephthah addressed the elders. “They hated me and pushed me out of my home because my mother was a harlot. They caused others to hate me. The elders did nothing to protect me. Why should I now be the one to help you in your time of trouble?”
This time it was the brothers who answered. They stepped forward beseechingly.
“We did wrong, and we are sorry!” they exclaimed. “Forgive us! We beg you to go with us now to Mizpeh to help get our army moving. If you do, we’ll see that you shall become leader of all the people of your home region, the land of Gilead” (vs. 7-8)!
The brothers were so convincing in their sincerity that even Jephthah, a harden soldier, couldn’t help but believe them. He regarded them intently for a few moments, then turned to ask more questions of the elders. He didn’t wish to make up his mind without trying to find some underlying motive in this astonishing overture. After the plan had been laid out to him in more detail, and after he had sat before them for a time in thought, he asked them this last question.
“If I take your army against the Ammonites, and God makes me victorious, will the heads of the tribes east of the Jordan actually give me full direction and power to help change the lives of all the people?”
There was an affirmative chorus of solemn promises (vs. 9-10).
Jephthah turned to his brothers with a nod and slight smile. The Israelites elders tried to restrain their cheerful shouts. Jephthah’s brothers rushed forward to bow before him, but he pulled them up to embrace them.
Days later at Mizpeh, after Jephthah had been made leader of the northeastern tribes, he sent messengers to the king of Ammon, who was camping with a large army south of the Jabbok River in the territory of Gad. Although warfare was the thing Jephthah knew best, he loved peace and had long since learned that avoiding war was more often the wiser course. He was determined to at least try to resolve matters by diplomatic means. He courteously inquired of the king why he had come to fight against the tribes of northeastern Israel.
The messengers returned promptly with the Ammonite king’s curt reply:
“The Israelites took away my land when they came up from Egypt. I am here with my army to demand that you return it to me. It is all the territory east of the Jordan between the Arnon and the Jabbok Rivers,” (Judges 11:11-13).
Jephthah sent messengers back to the king, this time with a clarified piece of information he hoped would give the Ammonite ruler food for thought and perhaps a change of mind:
“You claim that the Israelites took your land when they came up from Egypt. We know, as well as you do, that this is not true. Neither did Israel take away the Moabites’ land.
“When Israel came up from Egypt by way of the desert, the Red Sea and Kadesh, messengers were sent to the king of Edom asking permission to pass through his land. He refused. Permission was asked of the king of Moab to pass peacefully through Moab, and he also refused. After the Israelites had camped at Kadesh for a time, they set out to the northeast, careful not to trespass into the lands of Edom and Moab, or disturb those people, as they passed by.
“Israel sent messengers to Sihon in Heshbon, king of the Amorites, asking permission to pass through his land. His land is this land now in question. The Amorites had formerly taken it from the Ammonites, and Ammon was never able to recover it. Instead of granting the request to let Israel pass through his land, king Sihon tried to wipe out Israel by the sword. But he was defeated. The God of Israel then turned possession of the land of the Amorites over to Israel. It included the territory from the Arnon River to the Jabbok River, and from the Jordan River westward into the desert. These are the boundaries of the land you claim as yours. (Judges 11:14-23)?
“Our God took that land from the Amorites and gave it to us. If your god Chemosh were to give you something, wouldn’t you feel that you should be the rightful owner? Whether it is the land you speak of or any other land, if our God drives out the inhabitants before us, we shall possess that country”!
“Do you feel that you are better than Balak, king of Moab, who knew better than to fight with Israel over the towns and territory he knew Israel rightfully owned? Did he ever claim we should give him the land Moab had lost to the Amorites? If you have felt that these places you lost to the Amorites should be recovered from Israel, why didn’t you do something about it long before this”?
“Considering all these things, you honestly must admit that Israel has done nothing to cause you to threaten the nation or to wage war. On the other hand, you are doing the wrong thing to threaten war against Israel!
“Let the God of Israel, who is the Supreme God, judge this matter between Israel and Ammon!”
Again the king of the Ammonites was quite prompt with an answer. It consisted of very few words, and left little doubt in Jephthah’s mind as to what would be the next turn of events.
“I say the land I designated belongs to me,” the return message read. “Why leave it to your God to prove anything? Prove it yourself” (Judges 11:24-28)!
Jephthah was through sending messages. He and his officers immediately passed through all of eastern Israel recruiting more soldiers and even sent messengers across the Jordan to ask the tribe of Ephraim for help. He told his officers to get the Israelite army ready to move. While preparations were being make, Jephthah foolishly uttered a very unusual and improper vow, thinking that his chance for victory would be greater if he could promise something to God in return (Judges 12:1-2; Judges 11:21-29).
“If you will give us success in battle and if I am allowed to return in peace, then I will dedicate to you whatever first comes out of my door to meet me,” he said to God, “and, I will prepare it as a burnt offering!”
God did not approve of this foolishly spoken vow and would have helped Jephthah just as surely if he had not made it. But regardless of what God thought of the vow, He helped Israel charge into the Ammonites with crushing strength. The battle raged over a thirty-mile area that involved twenty towns. When it was over, the Ammonites were completely defeated (vs. 32-33).
But the pleasant flavor of victory was soon to turn bitter for Jephthah. His courage and integrity had brought victory but his lack of good judgment was bound to bring grief. As he approached his home on his return from the battlefield east of the Jordan, his younger daughter – his only child – came dancing out of the house.
He stood speechless; remembering that he had vowed to dedicate to God whatever came to meet him (Judges 11:34)!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible. What happens to Jephthah’s daughter?