When the Judges Ruled: Jephthah

The book of Judges (11:1-12:7) records the story of Jephthah, a tragic tale of carnal, manipulative leadership in which God continues to work to redeem a wayward nation to Himself. There are two primary leadership lessons to emphasize from his life.

Divine Blessing Does Not Mean Divine Approval

When the facts recorded in Judges are considered in isolation, it would be a simple task to paint a picture of a despicable leader who only called upon the Lord when it suited him.

Indeed, the only comments regarding Jephthah that could be taken as distinctly positive from this passage are the claim that he was “a mighty man of valor” (11:1) and the work of the Spirit of the Lord in using Jephthah to subdue the Ammonites (11:29). Even at that, the first accolade is given in the context of his banditry in the land of Tob, and the latter is darkened by the long shadow of his rash vow that implicated his daughter’s life.

The writer of the book records no other accolades spoken by God, nor does he detail any other admirable aspects in the character of Jephthah. Nevertheless, he did deliver God’s people (the tribe of Gilead) out of the hand of their enemies, as Samuel notes (1Sa 12:11). Surprisingly, he even earns a mention in the great hall of faith in Hebrews 11:32.

The immediate lesson from this is to note that God will reward the faith of leaders if He can bless and preserve His people even when that leadership is flawed in character and conduct. It is a common flaw of human nature for us to either idealize or castigate leaders; we tend to see them as all good or all bad. This polarity of opinion is very visible in North American politics today. We would do well to understand that all leaders are just men, and to the degree they make themselves available to God they will be used of God, but there are no perfect earthly leaders in government nor in assembly oversight.

Holding this nuanced view allows us to show more grace toward the struggles that overseers face in our gatherings, and also sufficient motivation to lift them up before God regularly in prayer for wisdom, preservation and their own continued sanctification.

However, those who serve as overseers must also refrain from interpreting the blessing of God in our service as an unqualified approval of our character. Blessing ought to urge us toward humility rather than the assumption that we can rest on the laurels of our own spiritual or personal qualities. God may use us, but it does not mean that all of our character is fit for His use. This is why elders need to embrace accountability to the Lord and to one another; we all have blind spots and areas of growth that require further sanctification.

It is noteworthy that in the account in Judges, God has not one word to say to or about Jephthah. He is silent on the matter. I would suggest that Jephthah only earns his place in the hall of faith because he did move forward and assemble an army and rout the enemy under the influence of the Spirit. This much he did do and was rewarded for: he acted when the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. But how much more could he have been for God if his entire life had been marked by subjection to God’s will and work?

Carnal Leadership Leads to Loss

The veneer of Jephthah’s spirituality is cut even thinner by a close inspection of his conduct and words. His repatriation from exile to the position of military leader really only invokes a cursory rubber stamping of divine blessing (11:11). His retort to the king of Ammon offers some attribution to the Lord’s work in the history of Israel and ends with a token acknowledgment of God (11:27) rather than a sincere expression of submission to His will and authority.

Perhaps no scene is more descriptive of Jephthah’s carnality than his rash vow: in return for victory over the Ammonites, he commits to offering that which first comes forth from his home when he returns from victory.

Due to our legitimate discomfort with a human sacrifice being offered to the Lord, this vow of Jephthah is often downplayed into a sacrifice of devotion to service or seen as an expectation that some animal might be offered. However, I understand there is no evidence in ancient writings of victors returning from battle to be met first by the family pet or greeted by a bullock or a lamb bursting out the front doors of his house. Further, there was no place in the Jewish system of tabernacle worship for a woman to be consecrated to service in the tabernacle.

Surely this is further evidence of the intermingling of Canaanite practices into the outlying tribes of Israel and even into the religious values of Jephthah (remember, he had dwelt in the land of Tob for a period of time).

It is clear from the early part of the chapter that his formative years were defined by family discord and then banditry and renegade activities in a pagan land with nefarious associates. Let us not for a moment think that he was studied in the law of the Lord or even deeply convicted by those laws.

No, Jephthah’s leadership was carnal – only invoking the name of the Lord as a token acknowledgment or even as a good luck charm. It is noteworthy that his rash vow was entirely unnecessary; the text is clear that the Spirit of the Lord had already come upon him for the task of routing the Ammonites.

His carnal leadership led to the loss of his daughter and the loss of a future for his lineage. Further, the carnality came through again in his interaction with Ephraim, leading to the loss of over 40,000 lives (12:1-6).

While God did use this man’s carnal leadership to rout the Ammonites and deliver His people from them, that carnality also led to significant personal loss and the loss of tens of thousands of God’s people in an internal dispute. Let us be warned that carnal leadership is always marked by the loss of souls.