It’s very easy to read the Hebrew Scriptures about characters from the Late Bronze Age, and be prejudiced about their intelligence and sophistication. It’s one of the ways we read into a passage assumptions based on our own culture and practice. The author of Judges, and Jephthah the judge, are two such people for whom I am guilty of prejudice. But I’m learning…
Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah. Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the sons of Ammon, saying, “What is between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” (Judges 11:11-12 NASB)
Jephthah is an outcast. And those who cast him out brought him back to be their leader, all he had to do was defeat the “Sons of Ammon”. The Sons of Ammon are like the Sons of Israel, in that they are descendants from Abraham’s family (actually Lot, Abraham’s nephew). Because of this familial association, Yahweh has defined boundaries with Israel and how they interact with Ammon.
Where my prejudice begins is in my assumption that the people of the Late Bronze period in Canaan weren’t literate. So far, we’ve run across two instances where that wasn’t true, one where even a youth can write, and Gideon can read it. It’s not as uncommon a practice as I thought. And now we have Jephthah, a rogue surrounding himself with vagabonds, who now recounts the specifics of the history of his people entering the land, and the relationship with Ammon. That’s a lot of detail to remember.
From verses 15 through 27, Jephthah replies with a detailed history of why the King of Ammon is wrong to claim the land between the Arnon and the Jabbok, two prominent rivers feeding the Jordan Valley from the east. This region wasn’t Ammonite, it was Amorite, and there is an important distinction. While the Ammonites were “family”, the Amorites were not. The Amorite king, Sihon, attacked Israel, and was defeated. Israel took that region from this Amorite king.
The important things here are that 1) God had set apart Ammon as family, and Jephthah still honors that position of God, and 2) Jephthah remembers these details from 300 years of Israelite history. He negotiates with Ammon because God wants Israel to treat them better than the Canaanites, and Jephthah does. Some commentators will criticize Jephthah for being wordy, or sending so many messengers, or other details of his negotiation tactics, but they, too, are prejudiced.
The writer of Judges has an audience among the people of Judah’s kings, and it is they who need read this negotiation. For whatever reason, this detail helps them understand better their relationship with Yahweh. Jephthah is represented as faithful. God honors him, and he’s honored among the people of Israel, right up through Hebrews 11, where he’s listed among those having lived by faith.
But to be that negotiator, Jephthah has to be able to read, write, and be educated about his heritage to a very high degree. He didn’t find a book while cleaning the Temple in Jerusalem. He didn’t discover a lost scroll, or find a scrap of some historical record in a jar. Jephthah knew the story already. He knew the history from hearing it or reading it. And clearly, he knew it well. He knew the details, the order of events, their significance, and from that, what God wanted him to do in this situation.
And therein lies the value of such study, searching Scripture, sifting through narratives and poetic lines and prose, all to learn what God would have us do in a given situation. Like Jephthah, we study before we encounter the situation. Then, when the situation arises, we’re already prepared. We study, seeking the purpose and character of our Master, so we too will be able to act according to His character and desires. We’ll know Him so well, we’ll know what He would do in a given situation.
But knowledge without experience leads to destruction. We need to add to our study time in prayer. We need to spend time listening to our Master, prayerfully seeking His face, so that we will be able to discern His Spirit from the other spiritual noise around us. Prayer and study combined into a daily practice opens us up to the presence of our Master. Let’s be characterized by the mindset of Jesus.
What’s your view through your hole in the fence?