The Book of Judges is a bit of a wild ride. It’s a book full of surprisingly bloodthirsty stories of the history of Israel. When people talk about this book, they often talk about it being cyclical - going round and round in circles. The people of Israel fall away from following God, and follow the idols of the Canaanites living around and among them instead. God then allows them to fall into a period of oppression, usually by one of the various tribes surrounding them - Philistines, Amorites, Ammonites, Moabites, Mennonites. Well, maybe not the last one.
After a time of oppression, the people realise their mistake, fall on their knees, tear their clothes, put on sackcloth and turn back to God, begging Him for forgiveness and liberation.
God then appoints a judge - less of a court figure and more of a tribal chief and military leader - who wades into battle on behalf of the people, or rather on behalf of God, and rescues them from oppression. The people rejoice, throw away their idols and all is good in the world again. For at least a few weeks. Until it happens all over again.
Idolatry - oppression - repentance - rescue - restoration round and round and round we go.
Except that the book of Judges isn’t actually a cycle at all. It’s a downward spiral. At the beginning of this book the Israelites have had their dreams come true. They have arrived in the Promised Land. Promised for generation upon generation back to the time of Abraham. The dreams of a nation have come true. This should be perfection.
By the end of the book we find that the land has dissolved into civil war, and we’re told in the very last verse of the book that “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
Often when we hear these words used as a prelude to the beginning of 1 Samuel, and the selection and anointing of King Saul. King Saul was the first king of Israel, after all. The time of the judges was at a close, and the time of the kings was about to begin. But I think that this is a mistake. The book of Judges is not just about the downward spiral of the people of the Israel into violent lawlessness. It’s a book about a downward spiral away from God. Saul was not the first King of Israel. God was. When the people moved into the promised land, they entered into a covenant with God - He was their Lord; their King. Their downward spiral is a spiral away from God. Away from a theocracy; a heavenly monarchy, and into a human, flawed monarchy by way of anarchy.
The downward spiral features, of course, a bunch of Judges. And they also start out quite reasonable, but they get gradually worse as the book goes on, finishing with Samson. Sandwiched between last weeks coward Gideon and next weeks musclehead Samson, we have the often overlooked Jephthah, who we will be considering today.
But before we consider him, we must not mistake the other underlying storyline of Judges - that of the unending faithfulness and mercy of God.
Our reading today is the beginning of the story of Jephthah. The whole story breaks down into 4 vignettes of his life. We start with his initial call - our reading - and then 3 further pictures into this 6 year tale.
Firstly we read of Jephthah’s attempt at diplomacy with the Ammonites, as he tries to persuade them that, historically, the disputed land was not the Ammonite land. In fact, the Israelites had skirted round the land of the Ammonites and the Moabites and instead conquered the land of the Amorites. So, he argues, there should be no reason for this dispute. Yahweh gave us the land of the Amorites, and Chemosh has given you your land.
Sadly, the Ammonites remain unconvinced, and so the other main piece of Jephthah’s story is his defeat of the Ammonites, marred by his foolish vow that leads him to sacrifice his only daughter.
Finally, we end with a tale of essentially a civil war, wherein Jephthah massacres 42,000 Ephraimites after they pick a fight with him.
So - that’s the story of Jephthah in a nutshell.
But what does this rather tragic tale of thousands of years ago have to say to us today. I want to highlight 3 aspects of Jephthah’s life today which I believe serve as timely warnings to us. His calling; his understanding of God; and his faith.
First up - his calling. Jephthah is somewhat unique in this regards. Because he was never called. The Israelites living in Gilead had, true to the spiral, turned back to God when the Ammonites had begun to oppress them. They had put away all their false idols and begun to worship God again. This is where God would normally step in and raise up a leader for the people. But that’s not what happens here. Instead, the leaders of the people of Gilead say to themselves “We need to find ourselves someone to rescue us from the Ammonites.” And so they turn to Jephthah, a man who had been kicked out of Gilead because of his parentage. But he was, we are told, a mighty warrior complete with a band of outlaws running around the hills causing trouble.
Now, I’m working on the assumption that none of you have ever resorted to calling in a local mobster to solve any of your problems. But the question here is not about whether or not you’ve made questionable decisions, but where you find your solutions. The point of Jephthah’s calling is that the Israelites did not turn to God for their help. Rather than asking God to help with this decision, they made up their own mind. They looked at the situation and sought the most practical solution. They saw a fight, and went looking for a mighty warrior.
I wonder how often we seek God’s advice for decisions in our lives? And how often we simply choose the most practical solution based on our own wisdom? Where is God’s place in our lives? Is He our King? Does He get a say in what we do? When we move jobs? When we move house? When we make decisions that affect our families? When we make financial decisions? Do we ask Him? Do we pray?
My experience is that, for many Christians, the answer is no. We’re much more like the Gileadites. We look at the circumstances and we make a practical decision. We choose the thing that looks best. We only turn to God when we’re out of options. When there are no decisions left to make and there’s no way out.
Indeed, one of the most common questions many Christians have is how they can hear from God. Because we have forgotten how to listen for Him, how to recognise His voice. Jesus said that his sheep would follow Him because they recognise His voice. Do you? Do you pray and expect God to answer? When you open your Bibles, do you do so believing that God speaks through His Word?
Sadly, this is also the case in many churches around our nation too. Decisions are made based on finance rather than faith; guided by worldly wisdom and personal preference rather than Godly guidance. Jesus may be the head of our church, but he’s become a notional figurehead.
There is a story of an ecumenical meeting. An episcopal, baptist and a presbyterian minister walk into a coffee shop - couldn't really be a bar, could it? And they get around to chatting about how they handle the Sunday offering. The episcopal priest says, "Well it's simple. I simply tip the money onto the vestry table, and then say 'Two for the church, and one for God; two for the church, and one for God'". The baptist pastor remarks, "That's really interesting. I do something very similar. I pour out the money onto a table, and say 'Two for God, and one for the church; two for God and one for the church...'".
The Presbyterian minister looks a little abashed, and comments "Well - I put all the money onto a big sheet. I throw it all up in the air, and God throws back down anything he doesn't want......"
So the first challenge for us today is to get back on our knees, metaphorically at least, before God in our decisions. To actively seek His guidance in the movement of our life.
The second warning from the story of Jephthah comes through his understanding of God. He was obviously not an uneducated man - he was able to tell the Ammonites of the history of His people, and even tell them of what it was that God had done for them. He was filled with the Spirit of the Lord and went to war with them. And yet he makes this rash vow and ends up offering his daughter as a burnt offering.
Bear in mind that, in this time, one of the unique aspects of the Jewish religion compared to those of the various tribes surrounding them was they did not make human sacrifices. In fact, it was forbidden by God’s law to do so. Indeed, there is even provision within the law allowing someone to back out of a vow if fulfilling it would result in sin. There was no need for Jephthah to follow through on his vow, and yet he does. And this failure represents not just a failure to understand God’s law, but, I believe, a failure of Jephthah to understand the character of God.
He knows about God. But he doesn’t know God. How tragic this is, and yet how common this continues to be in our world? Jesus himself encounters this, and laments that the scribes search the Scriptures and yet do not come to Him.
It’s easy to bemoan a culture which has become increasingly illiterate when it comes to the Bible. People who have no knowledge of any of the stories of the Bible. But, I believe, part of the reason for this is that we failed a generation of people who knew their Bibles but never knew God. They knew all the stories, but never the author. They knew that the answer was always Jesus, but never encountered Him for themselves.
Often in youth gatherings I will use the illustration of marriage. It's my anniversary on Wednesday, and I will talk about the special day we had and that we remember. I will show them my wedding photo album, and the ring on my finger that is a symbol of my marriage. But, I will point out, all of these things are pointless outwith the context of my relationship with my wife. The photos, the day, the ring - none of it make sense outwith the relationship.
So it is with Christians. We have special days - Easter, Christmas, and so on; we have a special book - the Bible; we have a special symbol - the cross. But all of these make no sense outwith the context of our relationship with Jesus. They're meaningless without that relationship.
So the second challenge is to think about how you might build your relationship with Jesus. How might you spend time with him this week? In prayer? Reading the Scriptures? In worship? There are loads of resources to help you in all three of these.
Finally today, I want us to consider Jephthah’s faith. You might think, given all that I’ve already said, that this is a strange place to finish.
But led me read from Hebrews 11:32 - in a passage where the author is writing of the history of faith in Israel, and he says “What more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”
Jephthah, for all his failings, for all his mistakes, makes the roll call of the faithful. This should give us cause for great hope! Even he makes the cut!
He makes the cut because of Jesus - the author and perfecter of his, and our faith. He makes the cut because it is not what we do that makes us right with God - it is what Jesus has done.
One of the great tragedies of the church in our time is that we have made being a Christian about swapping one set of behaviours for another. We have given the impression that Jesus forgives us for our sinful past, but now we need to knuckle down and behave or we might not make the cut. We might be saved by grace, but now we need to live by the law. Maybe not the Jewish law, but some sort of cultural, middle-class set of rules and expectations.
We have lost the meaning of grace, and trapped people under the law.
The reason that Jephthah gives us hope, even in the challenges he presents, is that it is all about what Jesus has done, not about what we do. Salvation is in God’s hands, not ours. The wonderful, hopeful, beautiful delight of the gospel is that Jesus has already accomplished it. He has already died for all the sin we have committed in the past, and all the sin we will commit in the future.
Salvation is not about behaviour, it’s about Jesus. Now - when we accept Him, what He brings to us is a transformation of our hearts, and a transformed heart will certainly begin to change our actions - but the change is from the inside out, and not the other way around. Change is not imposed upon us, but exposed from within us.
So the final challenge of Jephthah is simply a reminder of the gospel of Jesus. We may not have surrounded ourselves with outlaws, or sacrificed our children, or massacred a bunch of relatives. But there are still areas of our lives that make us feel the weight of guilt and shame. But Jephthah was still a child of God; still a man of faith. And so are you. Not through extra good works, but through the finished work of Jesus.