Judges 11:9-13 Jephthah’s suzerain-vassal treaty

JUDGES 11:9-13

9 So Jephthah said to them, “If you are bringing me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me, I will be your leader.” 10 The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord is our witness if we do not do as you say.” 11 So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead.

The agreement between Jephthah and the leaders of Gilead is essentially a treaty, and I would go so far as to call it a Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. Such treaties were common in ancient times; there are examples of them in the Mari Tablets (Mari was the ancient capital of the Amorites in northern Syria) and the Amarna Letters. The Amarna Letters were written from about the last year of Pharaoh Amonhotep III to the time of King Tut, which places them during the time of Joshua and the first judge, Othniel.

Such a treaty consists of a few simple elements. First, there is the identification of the Suzerain (overlord). Second, there is a retelling of the Suzerain’s dealings with the vassal or subordinate. Third, there are stipulations, which spell out the new relationship of the overlord and the subordinate. Finally, there are blessings and curses, the conditions of keeping or breaking the treaty.

These criteria are met by Jephthah and the Gileadites:

1. Jephthah is clearly identified when the Gileadites go to find him and bring him back to make him their leader (11:5-6).

2. Jephthah retells his relationship with his brothers and the Gileadites and how they treated him in the past (11:7-8a).

3. The agreement is set: If he will lead them, he will continue to be their overlord (rosh, head) after the war (11:8b).

4. Jephthah presents the blessing: If the Lord gives them victory, he will lead them (11:9). Then the Gileadites present the curse: If they do not obey Jephthah, the LORD was witness (and the curses of God would fall on their heads, which is implied but not stated, 11:10).

The people made him their leader and commander, and Jephthah repeated all his terms in the presence of the LORD at Mizpah.

What is more, Jephthah and the Gileadites traveled to Mizpah, where the treaty was restated before the Lord. This means that in some form of public worship—certainly a sacrifice was made and prayers were spoken—the people of Gilead were made aware of the treaty their leaders had made with Jephthah. He was now their leader and commander.

Jephthah Rejects Ammonite Claims
12 Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites, asking, “What do you have against me that you have come to fight me in my land? ” 13 The king of the Ammonites said to Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came from Egypt, they seized my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok and the Jordan. Now restore it peaceably.”

Jephthah’s position as leader, the Judge of Israel, was now made known internationally as he sent word to the king of the Ammonites using the pronoun “me” when speaking of Gilead: mah-li, “What (do you have) against me?” The Ammonite king had a ready reply: You Israelites seized my land. This was false in more than one way, and Jephthah would set the record straight with his reply.

He was already showing his leadership skills and taking advantage of the authority given to him by speaking as the chief of the Gileadites, and not as a renegade from the wilderness. He had accepted the call to become a leader of God’s people. The requirements for being a leader like a judge were not much different from leadership in the church today. If we compare the judges with the requirements for serving as a deacon in 1 Timothy 3, we will see the similarities.

A) “Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain” (1 Timothy 3:8). The judges were for the most part respected and held in honor during their lifetimes. We see this in the change of heart that Jephthah’s brothers had by asking him to lead them. The sincerity of judges like Othniel, Deborah and Gideon was unquestionable. We don’t have any account of any judge being a drunk, and Samson was even called by God to be a Nazirite, avoiding alcohol entirely. (Abimelech, the anti-judge, violated all these things).

B) “They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Timothy 3:9). Many of the judges show a devotion to God (Othniel, Deborah, Gideon, etc.) and we can expect that most of them did this. The fact that God gave the land rest through the judges until the people turned away again to the Baals is further evidence of the spiritual leadership under the judges (2:11; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6). (This, too, was violated by Abimelech).

C) “They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons” (1 Timothy 3:10). This process is shown by the Lord himself more than by the Lord’s people. The Spirit of the Lord came upon them (3:10 Othniel, 6:34 Gideon, 11:29 Jephthah, 14:6, 14:19 and 15:14 Samson) and raised them up for service.

Leadership in our lay leaders today is based on the same requirements. A man should show himself to be faithful in worship, respected by the congregation, not given to open, public sins (“not indulging in too much wine or dishonest gain”), and holding to the deep truths of the Bible “with a clear conscience.” Of course, there are other forms of service besides leadership. But the church needs leaders, too. If a man’s spiritual gift is leadership, Paul says, “let him govern diligently” (Romans 12:8).

Whatever gift you have, whatever way you have to serve Jesus, do it to the glory of God.

In Christ,
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

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