Our reading begins today with the story of Abimelech, Gideon’s son. We see the depravity of Abimelech in his willingness to destroy his own family to gain power (9:2-5). We also see the depravity of the people of Shechem who desired a man like that as king (v. 3, 6). These people are the target of Jotham’s parable, as explained in verses 16-21. The prophecy of Jotham plays out in verse 23, which we see was the sovereign work of God. Gaal enters the story and like Abimelech before him claims the right to lead based on family ties (v. 28). What comes around goes around, especially when what comes around is sin. And though Abimelech defeats Gaal (vv. 40-41), and though he leads a successful campaign against Shechem (vv. 42-49), we see that his evil ambition leads to his downfall. Whereas Abimelech killed his brothers “one one stone” (v. 5), meaning that he sacrificed them on a pagan altar, Abimelech is killed by a stone (v. 53). We see in verses 56-57 that God meted out judgment on the evil of Abimelech and the men who followed him.
Chapter 10 begins with a brief description of two minor judges, Tola and Jair (10:1-5). In verse 6, we see the familiar refrain of disobedience by Israel. Idolatry is again at the heart of their sin. Note that the list of idols is getting longer! When Israel prays to God for deliverance (v. 10), He tells them to pray to their idols (v. 14), which results in Israel’s repentance from their idolatry (v. 16). But they need a leader to save them from their oppressors (v. 18).
Chapter 11 introduces us to Jephthah. He is an outcast because his mother was a prostitute (11:1). He is driven away by his brothers (v. 2) and becomes the leader of a band of “worthless fellows” (v. 3 – like those Abimelech surrounded himself with – see 9:4). This is a parenthetical flashback, and 11:4 continues the story of 10:18. The people of Gilead need a mighty warrior to deliver them, so they turn to Jephthah, who agrees to lead them if they make him their head. We see in verses 11 that this is a vow Jephthah makes unto God. The Ammonites offer terms of peace: give them back the land Israel took from them (vv. 12-13). Jephthah explains that Israel did not take the land from them, but God did (v. 21, 23), because the Ammonites would not allow Israel to pass through their land peaceably (vv. 19-20). Jephthah is here describing the power of God over against the futility of idols (v. 24) – a lesson that Israel themselves need to learn! In verse 29 we see once again that the deliverer of Israel is empowered by the Holy Spirit, a pointer to Jesus and His Spirit-empowered deliverance.
In verses 30-40, we have the story of the Jephthah’s vow. The most common interpretation of this story is that Jephthah makes a rash vow to sacrifice whatever living thing first exits his house if God gives him victory. That living thing winds up being his daughter, and he has to sacrifice her to fulfill his vow. This would certainly show a downward spiral of idolatry in Israel, since sacrificing children to pagan gods was the pinnacle of idol worship.
But there is another possible interpretation (I leave it up to you to decide)…
Consider this: Jephthah displays a Godly character throughout the narrative. He is patient in his dealings both with the men of Gilead and the Ammonites. He was not rash. He knew the history of redemption as he recounted what God had done or Israel, and had the faith to realize it was all of God’s grace. As we saw, he was empowered by the Holy Spirit (v. 29) right before he makes this vow (v. 30). And in verse 31, the “and” could be “or” (Hebrew has one conjunction with many possible translations). Jephthah can be offering to dedicate to God what comes out, or to make it a burnt offering. In other words, if it is a person, they will be devoted to the service of God, if it is an animal, it will be a burnt offering. Dedicating someone, like a child, to God was not uncommon, and we know that as early as the making of the Tabernacle there were women dedicated to God’s service (see Ex 38:8). In verses 37-39, we see that the focus is on his daughter’s virginity, which would remain as she was now dedicated to the service of God. In verse 40, the word translated “lament” is the Hebrew word for “commemorate” (it’s the word translated “repeat” in Judges 5:11). So rather than lamenting her death, it could be a commemorative celebration of her devotion to God. Finally, Jephthah is included in the faith hall of fame in the book of Hebrews (Heb 11:32). Could the Holy Spirit inspire the writer of Hebrews to commend a man whose faith was so great that he sacrificed his own daughter like a pagan after a sinfully rash vow?
Chapter 12 begins with a familiar scene. The tribe of Ephraim is insulted that they were not called to the battle by Jephthah (12:1 – see their complaint against Gideon in 8:1). But the disunity in Israel has continued to grow, and this time there is civil war (v. 4). Though he is victorious, Jephthah only judges Israel for six years (v. 7). Whereas other judges lasted decades and decades, we see that the periods of rest in the cycle are getting shorter. We see this confirmed by the years the next three judges ruled (v. 9, 11, 14).