Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jephthah (part 1 of 2)

Jephthah presents us with an interesting and somewhat mysterious story.  The very first thing that we learn about him is he “was a brave warrior” (Judges 11:1).  With this being said about him, along with the fact that Israel is, in his day, in the exile of foreign subjugation (to the Ammonites), he is cast in the mold of Gideon.  It is interesting to note that, when we first met Gideon (one of the more famous of Israel’s “judges”), the Lord’s messenger speaks to him and says “The Lord is with you, courageous warrior” (6:12b).  This linking of Jephthah with Gideon, paired with what comes to be an explicit linking of Gideon to Moses, ties Jephthah to the dominant story of the Egyptian exodus, which makes perfect sense, as Jephthah is being raised up by the Lord, very much like Moses, to be a deliverer for the oppressed and suffering people of God. 

The second thing that we learn about Jephthah is that “His mother was a prostitute” (11:1).  Apparently, Jephthah’s father did not take the step of making Jephthah’s mother one of his wives, because those that were his half-brothers said to him “You are not going to inherit any of our father’s wealth, because you are another woman’s son” (11:2b).  Not only did they say this to him, but “they made Jephthah leave” (11:2).  So as Israel is already in exile, Jephthah experiences a double subjugation, being sent into his own personal exile from what rightfully belonged to him as his father’s son.  This mirrors Israel’s exile by subjugation, in that God’s repeated promises to them involved land and inheritance (note the words to Jephthah involving inheritance), which they were not able to fully enjoy. 

There are some brief analogies to be made here between Jephthah and Jesus, especially concerning this issue of prostitution.  In the genealogy of Jesus that is provided in Matthew, we meet with a man named Perez.  The mother of Perez, as is pointed out, was Tamar, who was impregnated by Judah while she was pretending to be a prostitute.  Further on in the genealogy, we come across the name Boaz, who was the great grandfather of King David.  Boaz, as is pointed out, was the son of Rahab, the famous prostitute from Jericho.  This lineage of prostitution puts Jephthah in good company with Jesus.  Additionally, in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel, we see Jesus interacting with the chief priests and the Pharisees, challenging them as to whether or not they are truly descendants of Abraham, in light of the Abrahamic covenant.  “They answered Him, ‘Abraham is our father!”  Jesus replied, ‘If you are Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds of Abraham (a clear reference to the all-nations character of the Abrahamic covenant and a swipe at the exclusivist practices that characterized Jewish religious practice in that day).  But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth I heard from God’.” (8:39-40a)  Jesus indicates that they wanted to send Him into a permanent exile, and then adds, “Abraham did not do this!” (8:40b)  Owing to this, then, Jesus makes the point that they must have a different father than Abraham, whose deeds they are imitating, saying “You people are doing the deeds of your father” (8:41). 

Those that have now been challenged by this young upstart (Jesus) retort with a reference to what must have been the very well-known and probably often-raised fact of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.  Even then, people were quite aware that the gestation process of a human being was roughly nine months, and were quite able to do the necessary arithmetic which would serve to inform them that Jesus’ parents were not yet married when Jesus was conceived.  Jesus’ father Joseph, undoubtedly, before receiving the message from the angel, would have wondered about the way that Mary had become pregnant.  Along with everybody else in their lives, the possibility of “prostitution” would not have been far from his mind.  Apparently, this possibility and accusation followed Jesus throughout His days, with His parentage and birth being viewed as ignoble.  How can such assertions be made?  Because the retort of the men to whom Jesus has been speaking, as he challenged their own lineage and birth-based legitimacy, was “We were not born as a result of immorality!  We have only one Father, God Himself” (8:41c).  They might as well have said “We were not born as a result of immorality (prostitution), like you.”  This was a not-so-subtle way of informing Jesus that He was very much looked down upon, as they readily forgot the prostitution, adultery, and murder to be found in the lineage of the two kings, David and Solomon, that were the most highly exalted and celebrated kings of Israel. 

Now returning to Jephthah, what do we see is his response?  He does not argue with his half-brothers, but does indeed leave, enduring his own exile in the land of Tob (11:3).  There, it is said, “Lawless men joined Jephthah’s gang and traveled with him” (11:3b).  This, of course, allows us one more brief and obvious comparison with Jesus.  With the Gospel stories concerning the plucking of grain from the fields on the Sabbath, not washing their hands before eating, their lack of fasting, and of course the infamous table fellowship of Jesus (with Gentiles and sinners) in which they no doubt joined Jesus, the men that joined Jesus’ “gang” were often accused of being “lawless men,” right along with Him.        

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