One of the interesting details of Judges is the geography of the events. Never having been to Israel (a travesty I hope to remedy one day), I don’t exactly know the lay of the land. But generally speaking the spaces covered on a map are confusing, and that’s when we can find the locations on map.
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. 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 who were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. And the Ammonites crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah and against Benjamin and against the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was severely distressed. (Judges 10:6 — 9 ESV)
The confusing geography here has to do with Gilead. This region is on the East side of the Jordan, and north of the Sea of Galilee. It was the tribal inheritance shared by three tribes, Gad, Rueben, and Manasseh (The half-tribe of Manasseh). And this region is inconveniently located away from Judah and Benjamin.
So, the nation list looks like this: Syria (NE), Sidon (NW), Moab (SE), Ammon (E), and Philistia (WSW). The people of Israel are entirely encompassed by pagan nations. So, the cultural pressure to conform religiously is obvious. Now the political dominance of one neighbor is used by Yahweh to correct His wayward people.
It seems, at this time, that Ammon is beginning to assert themselves into the region across the Jodan, but then stop, and go due north. They’re already there, right below Gilead, but they first attempt the steep ascent into the highlands held by Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim. It’s easier to go north. The land is good grazing land (Numbers 32), so, it has resources. Why make the painful western climb first?
It’s possible that the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim were the stronger of the tribes. So, in order to effeftively subdue Gilead, the hill tribes had to be de-clawed first. But the timing, never a real important detail for the author of Judeges, seems confusing. We are left unsure whether the last part went first, or if Gilead was subdued first. What’s the deal with the “that year” reference, and then “eighteen year” oppression?
Okay, so, there are two issues, geography and timing. Timing isn’t new, we run into that all the time in Judges (see what I did there?). The geography isn’t new either, because we are often left wondering if a judge’s success is limited by region, or “national”. Or, does a regional success solve a problem for the whole nation? And that question with Jephthah is what I think the author is trying to answer.
If, as I suspect, Ammon had to subdue the hill country first, then a regional victory would serve a national purpose. In fact, the implied need to subdue the hills first would further imply Gilead is considered an easy target. And that would further heighten the miracle of Yahweh’s deliverance through Jephthah.
So, while confusing at times, geography is an important part of the story. The audience of the author already knew it, but we have to use our imaginations to understand the geographical significance. Once we do, we can sense better the power of our Master to overcome obstacles, even the obvious ones we take for granted. “Can anything good come from Gilead?” I suppose that’s what we’re about to find out.
That’s my view through this knothole. What do you see of our Master through yours?