Commentary on the Haftarah – Judges 11:1-33

Haftarah for 13 July 2024

1 Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour. He was the son of a prostitute. Gilead became the father of Jephthah. 2 Gilead’s wife bore him sons. When his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You will not inherit in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” 3 Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Outlaws joined up with Jephthah, and they went out with him.

4 After a while, the children of Ammon made war against Israel. 5 When the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah out of the land of Tob. 6 They said to Jephthah, “Come and be our chief, that we may fight with the children of Ammon.”

7 Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Didn’t you hate me, and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?”

8 The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “Therefore we have turned again to you now, that you may go with us and fight with the children of Ammon. You will be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”

9 Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the children of Ammon, and Yahweh delivers them before me, will I be your head?”

10 The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “Yahweh will be witness between us. Surely we will do what you say.”

11 Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them. Jephthah spoke all his words before Yahweh in Mizpah.

12 Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the children of Ammon, saying, “What do you have to do with me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?”

13 The king of the children of Ammon answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel took away my land when he came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon even to the Jabbok, and to the Jordan. Now therefore restore that territory again peaceably.”

14 Jephthah sent messengers again to the king of the children of Ammon; 15 and he said to him, “Jephthah says: Israel didn’t take away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon; 16 but when they came up from Egypt, and Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea, and came to Kadesh, 17 then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let me pass through your land;’ but the king of Edom didn’t listen. In the same way, he sent to the king of Moab, but he refused; so Israel stayed in Kadesh. 18 Then they went through the wilderness, and went around the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and they encamped on the other side of the Arnon; but they didn’t come within the border of Moab, for the Arnon was the border of Moab. 19 Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land to my place.’ 20 But Sihon didn’t trust Israel to pass through his border; but Sihon gathered all his people together, and encamped in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. 21 Yahweh, the God of Israel, delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they struck them. So Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. 22 They possessed all the border of the Amorites, from the Arnon even to the Jabbok, and from the wilderness even to the Jordan. 23 So now Yahweh, the God of Israel, has dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and should you possess them? 24 Won’t you possess that which Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whoever Yahweh our God has dispossessed from before us, them will we possess. 25 Now are you anything better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them? 26 Israel lived in Heshbon and its towns, and in Aroer and its towns, and in all the cities that are along the side of the Arnon for three hundred years! Why didn’t you recover them within that time? 27 Therefore I have not sinned against you, but you do me wrong to war against me. May Yahweh the Judge be judge today between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon.”

28 However, the king of the children of Ammon didn’t listen to the words of Jephthah which he sent him. 29 Then Yahweh’s Spirit came on Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed over to the children of Ammon.

30 Jephthah vowed a vow to Yahweh, and said, “If you will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it shall be, that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be Yahweh’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”

32 So Jephthah passed over to the children of Ammon to fight against them; and Yahweh delivered them into his hand. 33 He struck them from Aroer until you come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and to Abelcheramim, with a very great slaughter. So the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel. (Judges 11:1-33)

Leadership, Faith, and Tragic Vows

The account of Jephthah, as recorded in Judges 11:1-33, is a narrative combining themes of leadership, faith, societal rejection, and the complexities of human vows before Elohim. This account serves as a strong reminder of Yahweh’s sovereignty, the importance of faith in leadership, and the grave consequences of rash vows. The account begins with his introduction as a “mighty man of valour” (Judges 11:1). Despite his valour, Jephthah’s lineage is marked by social stigma; he is the son of a prostitute. This illegitimate status leads to his rejection by his half-brothers, who, upon reaching adulthood, drive him away to prevent him from sharing in their inheritance. (Judges 11:2)

This rejection pushes Jephthah to the land of Tob, where he becomes the leader of a group of outlaws. His leadership qualities are evident even in this exile, as he commands the loyalty and respect of these men. (Judges 11:3) This part of the narrative highlights how societal rejection can force individuals into difficult circumstances, yet Yahweh’s plans often utilize these very situations for His greater purposes.

When the Ammonites wage war against Israel, the elders of Gilead seek Jephthah’s help, recognizing his military prowess. Their plea for his leadership is a witness to Jephthah’s reputation and abilities, despite his prior rejection. (Judges 11:4-6) Jephthah’s initial response is marked by a rightful indignation. He questions the elders’ motives, reminding them of their previous hatred and rejection. (Judges 11:7) This interaction indicates a critical aspect of leadership: the necessity of addressing past grievances and establishing trust. The elders assure Jephthah that, should he lead them to victory, he will be their head. (Judges 11:8-10) Jephthah’s condition for leadership is clear; his authority must be recognized, and Yahweh must deliver victory.

Jephthah’s first act as leader is diplomatic rather than military. He sends messengers to the king of Ammon, seeking to resolve the conflict through dialogue. The Ammonite king’s grievance is rooted in a historical claim that Israel took Ammonite land during their exodus from Egypt. (Judges 11:12-13) Jephthah’s response is a detailed recounting of Israel’s journey and Yahweh’s intervention. He clarifies that Israel did not take land from Moab or Ammon, but from the Amorites, whom Yahweh delivered into their hands. (Judges 11:14-22) Jephthah’s argument is purely theological, indicating that Yahweh, the God of Israel, has given this land to His people, just as Chemosh, the god of the Ammonites, supposedly grants them their territory. (Judges 11:23-24) This theological stance culminates in a bold declaration: Yahweh, the Supreme Judge, will decide the rightful claim. (Judges 11:27) However, the Ammonite king refuses to heed Jephthah’s words, leading to inevitable conflict. (Judges 11:28) Before engaging in battle, Yahweh’s Spirit comes upon Jephthah, empowering him for the task ahead. (Judges 11:29) This divine empowerment helps us see the theological theme that true victory and leadership are rooted in Yahweh’s presence and support.

In a moment of fervent faith and perhaps rashness, Jephthah makes a vow to Yahweh: if granted victory, he will offer as an offering whatever comes out of his house to greet him upon his return. (Judges 11:30-31) This vow, while reflective of Jephthah’s deep faith and desire to honor Yahweh, also sets the stage for a personal tragedy.

Yahweh grants Jephthah a decisive victory over the Ammonites, subduing them before Israel. (Judges 11:32-33) The triumph is complete, yet it is overshadowed by the impending fulfilment of Jephthah’s vow. Jephthah’s story is multifaceted, offering rich insights into leadership, faith, and the complexity of human vows. His journey from rejection to leadership exemplifies how Yahweh can use marginalized individuals for His purposes. His diplomatic efforts reflect a leader’s duty to seek peace before conflict. However, Jephthah’s tragic vow serves as a sobering reminder of the weight of our promises to El Shaddai and the unforeseen consequences they may carry.

As we reflect on the haftarah, we are reminded of Yahweh’s sovereignty and the importance of seeking His guidance in all of our decisions. Jephthah’s life, marked by valour, faith, and tragedy, invites us to a deeper understanding of our commitments to Yahweh Elohim and the serious impact of our words and actions in the unfolding of His divine plan.

May Yahweh bless you and keep you.

Mar Chayim bar Ya’aqub