GOD’S WORD FOR YOU
14 Jephthah sent messengers back to the king of the Ammonites 15 saying, “This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. 16 But when they came out of Egypt, Israel went through the desert to the Red Sea and from there to Kadesh. 17 Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let us go through your land,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They also sent messengers to the king of Moab, but he refused. So Israel stayed in Kadesh.
Faced with his first challenge of the Ammonite crisis, Jephthah calmly responded to his enemy’s demands. To begin with, he explains where his nation came from. He begins with Egypt, since prior to being in Egypt they were a family of nomads for whom there is still a petty argument as to whether there were 70 or 75 people in all (cp. Genesis 46:27, Exodus 1:5 and Acts 7:14).
Jephthah shows how well all of Israel knew the story of the exodus by carefully explaining the basic route of their trip. They did not travel by the easy road that led out of Bashan, through Philistia and up to Megiddo and beyond. Instead, they walked through the desert east of Goshen to the shore of the Red Sea. (Note that Jephthah leaves this detail unexplained: How did they cross the sea? It is almost as if he is leaving an opening to evangelize the king of Ammonites by being willing to share their remarkable history and God’s miraculous rescue.) After the crossing, they went “from there to Kadesh,” an understated way of describing their 40-year sojourn in the desert.
Next, Jephthah states the requests Israel made to the Moabites and Edomites, but neither of those nations would permit them to pass through. He does not mention the Ammonites, and God had actually commanded Israel not to harass or provoke the Ammonites since they were descended from Lot (Deuteronomy 2:19).
18 “Then they traveled through the desert and around the lands of Edom and Moab. They passed along the east side of the land of Moab and camped on the other side of the Arnon. But they did not enter into the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the boundary of Moab.
To some readers, this geography lesson will be a challenge. But remember that Jephthah had lived over there as an outlaw and a renegade. He knew every valley, every cave, and he certainly knew the political boundaries. He also knows that, to the north, “the Jabbok is the border of the Ammonites” (Deuteronomy 3:16), and to the south, the Arnon was the boundary of Moab. But between these rivers was a large area claimed by another nation, the Amorites, at the time of the exodus. By beginning with the statement that he did not violate Moabite land, something the Ammonite king would agree with, he establishes that the geography and route of the exodus plays an important point in Israel’s claim to land east of the Jordan.
19 “Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites who ruled in Heshbon. Israel said to him, ‘Please let us travel through your land to our own country,’ 20 but Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. Sihon called together all his troops, camped at Jahaz, and fought with Israel. 21 Then the LORD, the God of Israel handed Sihon and all his men to Israel, and they defeated them. So Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country. 22 They captured all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.
Since the Amorites were on Israel’s shopping list of which nations to destroy, the Lord gave them their first big military victory with the defeat of Sihon. The territory they conquered was not claimed by either Moab to the south nor Ammon to the north, and so when the Amorites were destroyed, Israel moved in. This became the land originally settled by Reuben, Gad and Manasseh—the Gileadites. This was Jephthah’s legal argument: Israel did not take anything from the Ammonites.
Perhaps an American illustration would help. What if a delegation of descendants of the Inca nation came to the Rio Grande and demanded that all territory captured from the Incas be returned to them? Even though the argument is centuries late (the Conquistadors and others took over Mexico five hundred years ago) some might think that the argument might have some legal standing. But a modern day Jephthah who knew his history and geography could easily say: You Incas are from South America; you never had land up here in North America—not Mexico, not New Mexico, and not Texas. So you have no claim over what our ancestors did when they were provoked by another nation long ago.
Jephthah knew that this wasn’t the end of it. His final argument was still on its way. But he did what he had to do: he spoke the truth to defend his people. He was proving his worth as a leader by using the tools God gave him, beginning with the accepted lines of communication. As Solomon said, “There is a proper time and procedure for every matter” (Ecclesiastes 8:4).
The various judges each shows a different skill or gift. Othniel had faith. Deborah had wisdom. Shamgar acted in an emergency with an unexpected tool. Ehud was crafty and used his left-handedness to his advantage. Gideon was brave. Samson of course had extraordinary, superhuman strength. Jephthah was showing that he was a communicator—and yet for all of the value he knew that words had, his own words would be his failure in the end.
This is part of the human experience, using our strengths to God’s glory and knowing that our failures, our weaknesses and our sins are covered by the blood of Christ. Even Peter, after betraying Jesus when his mouth got in the way of his faith, was forgiven. Jesus came to Peter after his resurrection and said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17). We have a difficult test of Jephthah’s faith fast approaching, a steep fall after a soaring victory. It will be hard for us to read and to meditate on, but let’s keep remembering Peter’s repentance and forgiveness, and learn from Jephthah’s mistake.
Pastor Timothy Smith
Archives by Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel: http://www.wlchapel.org/worship/daily-devotion/
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota