When Jephthah returned to Mizpeh after his victory over the Ammonites, he approached his home to see his only child dance out of his house to meet him (Judges 11:34)!
He remembered then the vow he had made to God before the battle. Jephthah was so upset that he tore his coat to shreds. As his daughter rushed to meet him, he seized her in a fond embrace. Then he told her of the vow he had made. It was a shock to her, but she didn’t complain.
“If you have made a vow to God,” she told her father, “then you must keep it. God has given you a victory over the Ammonites, as you asked, so do with me according to your promise in this matter.”
A vow to God is something that should be made very seldom – if ever. Jephthah began to realize that he had been very foolish in making such a rash vow. But, thinking any vow was binding, he was determined to carry it out, even though God certainly disapproved of such an act. The lesson God wants us to learn from the book of Judges is recorded in the last chapter: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). God had forbidden them to do what was right in their own eyes (Deut. 12:8).
“Before I go,” Jephthah’s daughter told him, “I should like to take two months to visit my friends who live in various places in the nearby mountains, as I shall probably never see them again!”
Jephthah readily agreed (Judges 11:33-38). At the end of two months she dutifully returned home. The Bible doesn’t explain the details of what happened. It merely concludes: “. . . . . she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed” (Judges 11:39). Though some commentators have thought Jephthah kept his daughter a perpetual virgin, the Jews and most commentators have understood this tragic story as it is explained in the King James translation of the Bible.
Jephthah learned a mighty lesson. He discovered, through this tragedy, the real lesson of faith that one does not have to vow to God in order to have Him perform what He has promised. What God expects is that we learn to trust Him in everything. When Jephthah finally learned that lesson, he became an outstanding example of faith. Paul even referred to him in Hebrews 11:32 as one of the outstanding examples of faith in the Old Testament.
It later became a custom in Israel for the young women to spend four days of every year in expressing sorrow for Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:40).
When the other tribes of Israel heard that their brothers east of the Jordan had freed themselves from the Ammonites, they reacted in various ways. It should have been a cause for happy celebration, but the people of Ephraim didn’t see it that way. They were offended because they hadn’t been given part of the glory Jephthah’s army earned in fighting the Ammonites. In fact, they were so irked that they formed an army and marched northward to a spot where they could cross the Jordan River and then headed eastward to confront Jephthah.
“Why didn’t you let us in on your battle with the Ammonites?” they angrily asked. “Were you trying to take all the glory of winning for yourself? You have acted in an unbrotherly and selfish manner, and for that we should set fire to your home and burn it down on you!”
This was an unfair charge and a ridiculous threat, but Jephthah didn’t lose his temper.
“There was no time to lose in preparation against the Ammonites,” he explained. “If you had wanted to help, you could have volunteered whatever number of men you might have quickly gotten together when I asked you for help. But you sent no one. So now you have no good reason to complain. Thousands of men, including myself, risked their lives against the enemy, but God delivered us and the matter is over. What, therefore, is your reason for bringing an army to fight me” (Judges 12:1-3)?
Jephthah’s words only served to stir the Ephraimites to greater anger. They began shouting childish insults at the eastern Israelites.
“You men of the Gilead area have no national pride?” they yelled. “You are trying to establish a country all of your own, but you won’t succeed because you are only the outcast and the scum of Israel!”
These groundless affronts stung the Gileadites, and though Jephthah tried to keep them under control, the continued yells of contempt soon developed into the action of attack. It wasn’t long before a battle was raging.
The Ephraimites had come as the angry ones, but Jephthah’ s men, after all those insulting remarks, had greater anger, and they fell against their brothers with such power that they quickly defeated the men of Ephraim, who broke ranks and fled in fear and confusion in all directions. Jephthah knew that eventually they would all move to cross the Jordan westward to get back to their home territory to the south, so he ordered his men to rush to the places at the river where it was possible to ford it. He felt that people who had such a miserable attitude should be punished, and God allowed him to do just that.
At first the Gileadites had difficulty in identifying people because there were so many crossing the Jordan. To get safely across, the Ephraimites tried to pose as people from east of the Jordan so that they wouldn’t be attacked. Then someone thought of a good way to determine which were Ephraimites. Each man, as he approached the river, was asked to pronounce the word “shibboleth.” Persons who were east of the Jordan could pronounce it correctly, but Ephraimites, because of their particular manner of speaking, couldn’t bring themselves to say “shibboleth.” They could not pronounce the letter H but insisted it was “sibboleth.” All those who mispronounced the word were slain. By the time the matter was finished, forty-two thousand Ephraimites were dead (Judges 12:4-6)!
As the elders of Gilead had promised, Jephthah was made judge of northern Israel. He died after being in power for six years. During the next twenty-five years three other judges ruled that part of Israel. None of them did anything particularly eventful, but in those years there was a degree of peace and prosperity in that region (Judges 12:7-15).
While all this was taking place, the state of affairs in other parts of Israel varied from fair to miserable. When the Ammonites, years previously, had moved in from the east, the Philistines had come into Canaan from the southwest. All during that time the northern Israelites were troubled by the Ammonites, and during the time of peace that followed Jephthah’s victory, most of the rest of Israel was suffering from the inroads by the Philistines. By the time Gideon had died, the people of northern Israel had begun again to fall toward idolatry. Soon northern Israel had fallen away from God’s ways to a great extent, and curses were beginning to fall on them. With southern Israel almost completely in the hands of the Philistines, all of the Israelites were once again embroiled in calamity of their own making.
In those days there was a Danite named Manoah who lived in the town of Zorah, which was in the tribe of Dan near the border between the territories of Dan and Judah. It was about twenty miles west of Jerusalem, and in the land occupied by the Philistines.
Manoah had been married for several years, and though he hoped to rear a large family, his wife had no children. As time went on, the couple had to face the discouraging possibility that Manoah’s wife was incapable of bearing children.
One day when Manoah’s wife was alone, a strange man came to speak to her. She was startled at the sight of the stranger because of his outstanding appearances. He had unusually expressive and piercing eyes, and gave the impression that he was a man of exceptional and even terrible power.
“I know that you haven’t been able to have children,” he said to Manoah’s wife, “but now I want you to know that soon you shall give birth to a son. Listen to my instructions. This son of yours shall be under the vow of a Nazarite from the time he is born till his death. Therefore you should not drink wine or strong drink while your son is on the way. And don’t eat any food that is unclean. This son of yours shall grow up to be a special person who shall start to deliver Israel out of the power of the Philistines (Judges 13:1-5)!
What Manoah’s wife did then will be related a few paragraphs later. The vow of a Nazarite should first be explained. When the Israelites camped at Mt. Sinai and received from God complete instructions on how to conduct themselves rightly, those directions included what should be done if one decided to give himself or herself over to special service to God for any chosen period of time, whether it was for a month, a year, or several years. This promise to go into such special service was known as the vow of a Nazarite.
Anyone who made such a vow was to do three things. Drink no alcoholic drink nor consume grapes or any product of grapes such as vinegar or raisins; touch no dead body; refrain from cutting their hair (Num. 6). Manoah’s son was to observe these rules all his life and Manoah’s wife was to observe them until her son was weaned.
Because Christ was born in the town of Nazareth in the land of Galilee, the word nazarite is sometimes erroneously connected with the place of Jesus’ birth. For this reason Christ is sometimes referred to as a nazarite. Inasmuch as the Son of God led a perfect life while in human form, there was hardly any necessity for his making a vow to be of special service. And not having made such a vow, there was no reason for Him to observe the three rules that a nazarite was obliged to follow.
Nevertheless, some insist that Christ lived the role of a nazarite. The truth is that Christ didn’t have long hair as he is often pictured. He wasn’t averse to drinking wine or grape juice. The New Testament several times mentions the fact that Christ drank wine (Matt. 11:18-19; Luke 5:29-30). He also had no aversion to touching a dead body. He was a Nazarene, a native of Nazareth, but never a nazarite. Christ did not live by the rules of the nazarite vow, for these things Jesus did would have broken the nazarite vow. That would have been sin. If Christ had sinned, He could not have become our Savior (II Cor. 5:20-21).
The stranger who had appeared to Manoah’s wife left as suddenly and mysteriously as he had arrived. Manoah’s wife immediately went to her husband and excitedly told him what had taken place.
“I asked him his name but he neither answered my question nor told me where he came from!” she exclaimed. “He was such an unusual man that I felt as though I were in the presence of someone holy” (Judges 13:2-7)!
Manoah was at first inclined to believe that his wife’s imagination was a bit over active, but the more he thought about what she had told him the more he came to believe that some person sent by God had spoken to his wife. The matter began to weigh so heavily on his mind that he prayed that God would again send the mysterious man to give them further instructions as to how they should rear the son who would come to them.
A few days later, when Manoah was working in his fields at a distance from his home, his wife was at the same time working in an area close to their home. She stopped to rest, and it was then that the mysterious stranger suddenly appeared again to her. She was greatly startled, and ran to her husband to tell him that the person who had predicted she would have a son was again present. Manoah hurried back with his wife to find a man who exactly fitted the description she had given him days before.
“Are you the one who spoke to my wife a few days ago?” Manoah asked a bit hesitantly.
“I am the same,” the stranger answered.
“You predicted we would have a son,” Manoah went on. “We would like to learn in more detail how we should rear him.”
“I have already given your wife instructions,” the stranger replied. “If you hold to them, you will do well.” He then repeated those instructions to refresh their memories (Judges 13:8-14).
Manoah believed that this man was some kind of a prophet in whom he could rely, and he was so pleased to know that his wife would have a son that he asked the man to stay until a young goat could be broiled for a special feast. The stranger told Manoah that he wouldn’t stay to eat, but that if he wished to cook meat, it should be offered as a sacrifice to God.
The more Manoah talked with the stranger, the more curious he became about his identity.
“What is your name?” he finally inquired boldly. “We would like to know so that we may rightly honor you when your predictions come true and our son is born.”
“By now you should realize that my name should be kept secret,” the stranger replied. “Therefore you shouldn’t ask about it.”
Manoah still didn’t understand who the man was, but he did as suggested and placed a dressed young goat on a nearby large flat-topped rock. As he stepped back to pick up some sticks to make a fire, the stranger pointed at the rock. Flames shot up out of it! Then, as Manoah and his wife stared, he stepped onto the rock and miraculously shot upward with the flames and smoke!
Manoah and his wife were so startled at the sight and by the sudden realization that this man was a visitor from God that they fell fearfully to the ground. When finally they looked around they saw no sign of the stranger (Judges 13:15-20).
“We must have seen God!” Manoah muttered. “No one can look on God and live! We’ll surely be struck dead because of this”!
His wife wasn’t so alarmed about the matter. She comforted him by pointing out that if God intended to strike them dead, He wouldn’t have accepted their sacrifice and He wouldn’t have told them that they would soon have a son (Judges 13:21-23).
The couple had not actually seen God. The stranger was either an angel or Jesus Christ in human form. If it had been Christ manifesting Himself in His natural spirit state, Manoah and his wife would not have been able to look and live.
Eventually a son was born to Manoah’s wife. He was named Samson. He grew up to be an exceptionally strong young man who felt very forcefully that something should be done to free his people from the control and influence of the pagan Philistines (judges 13:24-25).
One day when he was in the town of Timnath, a few miles south of his birthplace, he met a Philistine woman and, after becoming better acquainted, they fell in love and decided to marry. He immediately returned home to tell his father and mother that he wanted them to visit the Philistine woman’s parents and arrange for his marriage to their daughter.
Manoah and his wife were shocked and disappointed that their only son should choose to marry a foreign woman instead of a daughter of his own people. They did not realize God was using this situation to begin delivering Israel from the Philistines.
Sampson was so insistent that they finally went to Timnath.
Sampson went with them. At one point he went on ahead for some distance to see if the trail was safe. Suddenly a large lion came roaring out from behind a boulder! Unarmed, Sampson quickly turned to face the fierce beast with his bare hands as it lunged upon him (Judges 14:1-5)!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible.