The apostle Paul says,“Whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one
who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8). In yesterday’s reading on Gideon we noted how he sowed to the flesh by governing through personal interests “sanctified” with a superficial spirituality. In today’s reading, his leadership bore the fruit of Abimelech, someone who also governs through personal interests but supports them through sheer violence with the religious element thrown aside. (As a reflection of how far the Israelites have distanced themselves from the covenant, notice that the covenant name “LORD” does not appear a single time in Judges 9).
With Abimelech, some of the previous elements of the judges repeat themselves: Jotham’s parable in Judges 9:7-21 serves as a prophecy to reprove his listeners like the message of the anonymous prophet in Judges 6:8-10. A woman
unexpectedly has a central role, and she does it through a common implement, an
upper millstone (Judges 9:53). But these elements don’t go against a foreign oppressor; they work against Abimelech, an Israelite oppressor who serves as an “anti-judge”, a fraudulent judge who takes upon himself the characteristics of a real one. This time, liberation from oppression must come against someone who rose up from Israel herself.
Notice in Judges 10 that the list of Israel’s idolatry has grown: “The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the LORD and did not serve him” (Judges 10:6). Therefore the oppression of Israel is duplicated and lengthened, too: “So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites, and they crushed and oppressed the people of Israel that year. For eighteen years they
oppressed all the people of Israel” (Judges 10:8). It seems like this additional oppression motivates a more profound repentance: “And the people of Israel said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD” (Judges 10:15-16). And Yahweh responds with even more grace: “And he became impatient over the misery of Israel” (Judges 10:16).
Jephthah is named to save Israel from Ammonite oppression. There is no
revelation from Yahweh like there was in identifying Gideon; he is named through
an agreement between two parties who are trying to follow their own agendas. Nonetheless, “The Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29); “So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand” (Judges 11:32).
But notice that there are only two verses given to Jephthah’s victory and many more dedicated to his vow and to the battle against Ephraim in Judges 12. The Bible tells us of Yahweh’s victory by grace and at the same time wants us to
concentrate on these other events in order to characterize Jephthah and the spiritual condition of his time.
First, look at the sacrifice of his only daughter to fulfill a vow. Wasn’t there any way to change it? Yahweh’s word tells us, “If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:2). Jephthah recognizes this: “I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow” (Judges 11:35). Is this the lesson that we are supposed to gather from Jephthah’s vow, that we must fulfill our vows completely, and it would be better if we considered our promises well before we state them?
Notice that the law also says, “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way [like the Canaanites], for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31). Yahweh doesn’t accept human sacrifice, even to fulfill a vow. Instead, He says, “If anyone makes a special vow to the LORD involving the valuation of persons, then the valuation of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. If the person is a female, the valuation shall be thirty shekels” (Leviticus 27:2-4). Yahweh’s law says exactly what to do with Jephthah’s vow. Besides, it encourages the people, “If any case arises… that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the LORD your God will choose. And you shall come to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall consult them, and they shall declare to you the decision” (Deuteronomy 17:8-9).
And this brings us to a more urgent question: where are the Levites in the book of Judges? How strange it is to read so much about them in Exodus through Joshua… and now, they’ve disappeared! Why don’t we hear anything about their teaching of the law? We don’t even have a reference to any priest serving in the
tabernacle. Could it be that part of Israel’s downward slide spiritually is due to a lack of instruction on the part of the Levites? My opinion is that the silence about the Levites is an indication of their neglect of teaching Yahweh’s law and a reason why there is little or no reference to Him and His law (as in the case of Abimelech) or a partial knowledge of the law (like Jephthah who knows the history of the conquest in the eastern lands well but does not know the laws regarding vows and the valuation of people). Because of his inadequate knowledge of Yahweh’s word, Jephthah acts more like a Canaanite than an Israelite when he fulfills his vow. And while the daughters of Israel mourn Jephthah’s daughter four times a year, they should lament for themselves and their future children if this ignorance of Yahweh’s word continues.
Second, notice the increase in violence between Israelites. In Joshua 22 we
saw that two groups of Israelites led by their zeal for Yahweh’s holiness could resolve a difference peacefully through diplomacy. A similar crisis was resolved in Judges 8:1-3, but through diplomacy based on pride and personal interests. Now Jephthah prefers to fight Ephraim’s pride with pride, and the battles between the two produce many more Israelite corpses than Abimelech’s vengeance had.
Yahweh’s grace with Israel has not ended, but the spiritual degeneration of the nation is accelerating.