Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Jephthah (part 2 of 2)

Generally, when the story of Jephthah is examined, much ink is spilled in discussion of what has come to be known as Jephthah’s “rash” or “foolish” vow.  That vow was “If you really do hand the Ammonites over to me, then whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from fighting the Ammonites---he will belong to the Lord and I will offer him up as a burnt sacrifice” (Judges 11:30-31).  Lo and behold, when this situation is brought about and victory comes, it is his only daughter that comes out of his house, “hurrying out to meet him, dancing to the rhythm of tambourines” (11:34b).  His understandable response was to say “Oh no!  My daughter!  You have completely ruined me!  You have brought me disaster!  I made an oath to the Lord, and I cannot break it” (11:35b).  Jephthah’s daughter takes it all in stride, saying “My father, since you made an oath to the Lord, do to me as you promised.  After all, the Lord vindicated you before your enemies, the Ammonites” (11:36). 

We will not dwell long on this story, except to note two things.  The first is that there is an element of exile and exodus within this story within the overall story of Jephthah; and the second is that it is not the Scriptures themselves that speak, in any way, of a “rash” or “foolish” vow.  That epithet comes only from commentary upon the vow that he made.  What we find instead, and which is something on which it is eminently more important to focus when it comes to this part of Jephthah’s story, is that “The Lord’s Spirit empowered Jephthah” (11:29a), and it is in that same empowerment that he makes his vow.  Regardless of how we treat the story, the Scriptures do not dwell upon it (nor is it ever referenced again), choosing instead to provide information about Jephthah’s dealings with the Ephraimites, and the conflict between them and the Gileadites that followed and would persist in the years following God’s deliverance of Israel from the subjugation of Ammon.  This ridiculous conflict between the men of Ephraim and Gilead, and the bloodshed and death that it produced, cannot help but put us in mind of the multiple accounts of ridiculous faithlessness of Israel following their exodus and God’s victory over Egypt, and the death that God was forced to pronounce against His own people in the afterglow of a phenomenal and victorious deliverance. 

Before reaching these two parts of Jephthah’s story, however, we still find Jephthah in exile.  “When the Ammonites attacked, the leaders of Gilead asked Jephthah to come back from the land of Tob.  They said, ‘Come, be our commander, so we can fight with the Ammonites’.” (11:5-6)  Jephthah has every right to be skeptical and downright hostile, though he is not.  He “said to the leaders of Gilead, ‘But you hated me and made me leave my father’s house.  Why do you come to me now, when you are in trouble?’” (11:7)  Reading that can, once again, vault us backwards through the Scriptures to the story of Moses for an analogy that serves to highlight the repetitive exile and exodus narrative that is now on display here again in the story of Jephthah, while connecting his story with the pre-eminent exodus story.  Now, it should be noted that the analogy may not be able to be carried very far, but that does not make it any less valid. 

When Moses showed forth his desire to be a deliverer to his oppressed people, by killing the Egyptian that was treating one of his countrymen severely, what was the reaction to the evidence of that desire?  Moses heard the words, “Who made you a judge and ruler over us?” (Exodus 2:14b)  This was the proximate cause for Moses’ personal exile, as learning that what he had done was known, he fled from Egypt.  Jephthah voices the other end of such a scenario when he says “you hated me and made me leave my father’s house.”  When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, and is now told that he is going to be deliverer for Israel, Moses is able to reflect on the fact that this is what he had attempted to do and to be while still in Egypt.  In much the same way that the leaders of Gilead came to Jephthah on behalf of the oppressed people, so too is the Lord coming to Moses.  As he reflects on the events that drove him into exile, we can imagine Moses thinking in the same way as Jephthah spoke, with words like “Why do you come to me now, when you are in trouble?”  “The leaders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘That may be true, but now we pledge to you our loyalty.  Come with us and fight with the Ammonites.  Then you will become the leader of all who live in Gilead’.” (11:8) 

With a final nod to the story of Moses within this story of Jephthah, as we round out our treatment of this curious character and his place in God’s narrative, we look at Moses’ return to Egypt as Israel’s God-appointed deliverer.  Upon his return, along with his brother Aaron to be his mouthpiece, we find that “Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people, and the people believed.  When they heard that the Lord had attended to the Israelites and that He had seen their affliction, they bowed down close to the ground” (Exodus 4:30-31).  In the case of Jephthah, he “went with the leaders of Gilead.  The people made him their leader and commander” (11:11a).  As Aaron had repeated the words of the Lord to Moses, so “Jephthah repeated the terms of the agreement” (11:11b).  Moses and Jephthah have a shared experience, in that they return from exile, share covenant terms, are accepted as deliverers, and receive a pledge of loyalty.  Following all these things in the lives of both men, we find exodus, as God’s people are rescued from their subjugation.       

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