Introduction: Judges chapter 12 concludes the flawed legacy of God’s eighth deliverer Jephthah. After sacrificing his own daughter in a misguided vow to God, he helped to start a civil war with the neighboring tribe of Ephraim. He then reigned over the Israeli controlled portion of Jordan for a mere six years. He was then buried in an unknown location. He was then followed by three deliverers whom we know little about. We only know that they were prosperous, they reigned in peace, and their burial cities are known. Some assume that these were “minor” judges or deliverers because little is recorded about them. This is a mistaken view. Their quiet reigns of peace were more consistent with God’s expectations than the reigns of Gideon and Jephthah, which were filled with pride and wrath. From these four very different deliverers, God reveals seven lessons on how to be a Spirit-led leader, serving after His glory and not your own.
First, through Jephthah’s confrontation with the tribe of Ephraim, God reveals that a Spirit-led leader is meek or humble in the face of conflict. Second, from Jephthah’s decision to initiate Israel’s first civil war because he felt insulted, He reveals that a Spirit-led leader shows forgiveness to an enemy. Third, through Jephthah’s brutal execution of 42,000 captured soldiers, He reveals that a Spirit-led leader shows mercy to an enemy. Fourth, from Jephthah’s short six-year reign and his burial in an unidentified city, He reveals that the self-righteous acts of leaders are but filthy rags to Him that are quickly forgotten. Fifth, from the ninth deliverer Ibzan (who united Israel with 60 marriages between other clans and his own children), He reveals that a Spirit-led leader unites the body of Christ. Sixth, from the tenth deliverer Elon (who ruled for 10 years, a symbol of the divine order of the Ten Commandments), He reveals that a Spirit-led leader leads by example through the Ten Commandments. Finally, from the eleventh deliverer Abdon (whose name means servant), He reveals that a Spirit-led leader leads as a servant.
Jephthah’s angry confrontation with the prideful tribe of Ephraim. Like Gideon, Jephthah faced the jealous tribe of Ephraim after defeating a foreign adversary without their help. Unlike Gideon, Jephthah became enraged and argued with the elders from Ephraim: “1 Then the men of Ephraim were summoned, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, ‘Why did you cross over to fight against the sons of Ammon without calling us to go with you? We will burn your house down on you.’ 2 Jephthah said to them, ‘I and my people were at great strife with the sons of Ammon; when I called you, you did not deliver me from their hand. 3 When I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hands and crossed over against the sons of Ammon, and the Lord gave them into my hand. Why then have you come up to me this day to fight against me?’” (Jdgs. 12:1-3). The elders from Ephraim confronted Gideon with an almost identical challenge when his soldiers, empowered by the Holy Spirit, defeated the Midianites: “Then the men of Ephraim said to him, ‘What is this thing you have done to us, not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?’ And they contended with him vigorously.” (Jdgs. 8:1). Ephraim was prideful and felt entitled to the glory of victory for at least three reasons: (1) Jacob switch the birth order of Joseph’s children Manasseh (from which the tribe of Gideon descended) to put the second born Ephraim before it (Gen. 48:13, 17-20; 41:50-51; Nu. 13:8, 16); (2) Joshua, the Jews’ leader in their conquest of the Promised Land, was a member of the Ephraim tribe (Nu. 13:8; 14:6-9); (3) at this time, the tribe of Ephraim guarded the ark in its territory and hosted all sacrifices and the three yearly festivals for the nation (Josh. 18:1). In other words, it was the de facto capital of the 12 tribes. These facts led to its pride. They ignored God’s Law that they not make peace with the Canaanites (e.g., Ex. 23:32; Dt. 7:2; 19:13). Instead of driving them out of the Promised Land, the tribe of Ephraim used the Canaanites as slave labor (Josh. 16:10). After Solomon’s death when the Kingdom of Israel separated into two, Ephraim was the dominant power in the north. But the tribe of Ephraim was later condemned for its pride and apostasy (Hosea 4:17; 5:3). Its pride led to its decline (Prov. 16:18). Yet, although Ephraim was the aggressor in both accounts, Gideon handled them differently than Jephthah. Instead of arguing with them, Gideon was self-deprecating and hid his own pride by claiming that his own clan was not worthy to eat the scraps of food that fell from the table of their mighty tribe. “But he said to them, ‘What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer?”’ (Jdgs. 8:2). By contrast, Jephthah grew up as a violent man who could not control his anger. He inflamed the tribe of Ephraim by claiming that they failed to respond to his request for assistance. But there is no record in the Bible that he ever made this request. Based upon his other conduct, he appears to have lied in an effort to save himself. His actions were like fuel on a raging fire. Believers can look to Jephthah’s actions as a lesson on how not to act in a conflict.
Be meek in the face of conflict. Instead of arguing with the angry elders from Ephraim, Jephthah should have shown meekness (strength under control) by trying to calm them: “But the humble will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” (Ps. 37:11). “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:5). “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Prov. 15:1). “By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue breaks the bone.” (Prov. 25:15). “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but the slow to anger calms a dispute.” (Prov. 15:18.) “A perverse man spreads strife, . . . .” (Prov. 16:28 (a).) “If the ruler’s temper rises against you, do not abandon your position, because composure allays great offenses.” (Ecc. 10:4). When others offend you, do you argue with them to defend yourself? Or, are you calm in the face of insults, seeking instead to defuse the conflict?
Give the glory to Jesus alone. Both sides in this dispute sinned in desiring out of pride to share in God’s glory. The tribe of Ephraim wanted to receive credit for helping to defeat Israel’s enemy. Jephthah likewise gave only one passing reference to God while using the personal pronouns “I”, “me” or “my” a total of 12 times in just three verses! (Jdgs. 12:1-3). In the Bible, 12 is the number of God’s perfect government. Jephthah believed that the people would not have been delivered without him. But Jesus is the only savior: ‘“I, even I, am the LORD, and there is no savior besides Me.”’ (Is. 43:11). Believers are not to try to share in His glory: “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, . . .” (Is. 42:8). Do you give the glory to Jesus when others praise you?
Jephthah’s decision to initiate Israel’s first civil war because he felt insulted. As part of his heated exchange with the elders from Ephraim, Jephthah decided to initiate Israel’s first civil war after they offended him by calling him a refugee: “4 Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought Ephraim; and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, because they said, ‘You are fugitives of Ephraim, O Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and in the midst of Manasseh.’” (Jdgs. 12:4). The elders of Ephraim apparently knew that Jephthah was once a fugitive of his own people. The elders played upon this to insult the entire clan of Gilead, which descended from the tribe of Manasseh. The accusation is that neither of their brethren tribes of Ephraim or Manasseh accepted the tribe of Gilead as their own. They were alone. Jephthah did not respond with a rash blow during this confrontation. Instead, to defeat Ephraim’s army of 42,000 troops (Jdgs. 12:6), he would have needed days if not weeks to assemble his army throughout the land of Gilead to prepare an attack. Jephthah’s hatred only grew with time.
Jephthah starts a civil between the tribes of Gilead and Ephraim1
Forgive others when they offend you. Jephthah should have forgiven his brethren tribe instead of inciting the tribe of Gilead to begin a civil war against the tribe of Ephraim: “A man of violence entices his neighbor and leads him in a way that is not good.” (Prov. 16:29). ‘“You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.” (Lev. 19:18). “Do not say, ‘I will repay evil’; wait for the LORD, and He will save you.” (Prov. 20:22). “Do not say, ‘Thus I shall do to him as he has done to me; I will render to the man according to his work.’” (Prov. 24:29). “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matt. 5:39; Lk. 6:29). “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.” (Ro. 12:17). “Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay’ says the Lord.” (Ro. 12:19). Have you forgiven the people who have insulted and offended you?
Love your neighbor, even when they offend you. Instead of going to war, Jephthah should have loved his neighboring tribe. This is God’s second greatest Commandment: “The second is this, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27; Matt. 19:19; 22:39; Lev. 19:18). “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”’ (Gal. 5:14). “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (Jo. 13:34). “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” (Jo. 15:12). “This I command you, that you love one another.” (Jo. 15:17). “For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another;” (1 Jo. 3:11). When others offend or hurt you, do you show Christ’s love in your response?
Jephthah’s execution of 42,000 captured soldiers. Defeating the tribe of Ephraim was not enough to satisfy Jephthah’s thirst for vengeance. He then blocked the retreat of the fleeing soldiers and executed any enemy soldier who tried to conceal his identity: “5 The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan opposite Ephraim. And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me cross over,’ the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ 6 then they would say to him, ‘Say now, ‘Shibboleth.’’ But he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it correctly. Then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus there fell at that time 42,000 of Ephraim.” (Jdgs. 12:5-6). Jephthah captured the fleeing and disarmed enemy soldiers if they had the wrong accent. The term “Shibboleth”, which was used to find the Ephraimite soldiers, has found its way into the English language. Today, it defines a “a manner of speaking that is distinctive of a particular group of people.” (Webster’s online dictionary). The Southern term “y’all” would be one example. This account is noteworthy for three other reasons. First, it showed that the prideful people of Ephraim were really cowards. Second, it solidified the Jordan river as the boundary between Israel and those who lived in Jordan. The identity between these two groups of Jews would grow further apart as time would go on. Third, this account revealed Jephthah’s brutality and lack of mercy. If he were alive today, he would not be considered a hero. He would instead be prosecuted as a war criminal for mercilessly executing his prisoners.
Be merciful as God has shown mercy to you. If he were really led by the Spirit, Jephthah should have shown mercy upon the fleeing soldiers by sparing their lives: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Lk. 6:36). “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned.” (Lk. 6:37). “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” (Matt. 7:1). “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” (Ro. 14:10). “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” (2 Cor. 5:10). When you have information that will cause another to suffer embarrassment, pain, or isolation from misconduct that they have caused, do you show mercy by holding back?
Jephthah first captured and then murdered 42,000 soldiers from the tribe of Ephraim 2
Jephthah’s vengeance leads to the death of 42,000 captured soldiers from Ephraim3
Jephthah’s short six-year reign and his burial in an unidentified city. While other judges ruled a united Israel, Jephthah ruled only in Jordan for a mere six years: “7 Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.” (Jdgs. 12:7). In the Bible, the number six is the number of mankind (Gen. 1:27). It is an incomplete number that also symbolizes the limitations on what mankind can achieve without God. Jephthah’s reign of six years symbolized the short and unstable peace that mankind can offer. By contrast, the type of peace that Jesus offers is permanent (Jo. 16:33). Unlike other judges in this chapter, the exact city of Jephthah’s burial is not known. He was quickly forgotten because few ventured to pay their respects to him. His acts are recorded here merely to instruct us how not to act.
God sometimes works through believers, even when their conduct is unrighteous. Many feel tempted to whitewash or ignore Jephthah’s actions. Some reason that he would not have been a deliverer or listed in the book of Hebrews for his faith if he were really that bad of a leader. Yet, God can confirm a message by repeating it twice. In the Bible, two is a number of confirmation (2 Cor. 13:1). He gives us the dual examples of Gideon and Jephthah to show us that He sometimes works through believers despite their lack of righteousness. These men also give us a glimpse of how the self-righteous acts of mankind appear to God. They are but filthy rags to Him: “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Is. 64:6). Consider the number of parallels between Gideon and Jephthah while serving as God’s deliverers: “Both [accounts] open with a confrontation between God and Israel. (6:7-10; 10:6-16.) Both men begin as nobodies and become tyrants in Israel. Both are empowered by the Spirit of God, an event that is immediately recognized by the rallying of the troops. (6:34-35; 11:29.) Both follow up the divine empowerment with expressions of doubt. (6:36-40; 11:30-31.) Both win a spectacular victory over the enemy. (7:19-25; 11:32-33.) Both engage in confrontations with jealous Ephramites after the battle has been won. (8:1-3; 12:1-6.) Both brutalize their countrymen. (8:4-17; 12:4-6.)” (Daniel Block, The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Judges, Ruth, Vol. 6, B & H Publishing Group 1999 p. 342-3). Jephthah also has a number of parallels to the counterfeit deliverer Abimelech, Gideon’s son: “Both he and Abimelech are born of secondary (probably foreign) wives (8:31; 11:1) and surround themselves with brigands and good-for-nothings. (9:4; 11:3.) Both are opportunists who negotiate their way into leadership positions. (9:1-6; 11:4-11.) Both seal the agreement with their subjects in a formal ceremony at a sacred shrine. (9:6; 11:11.) Both turn out to be brutal rulers, slaughtering their own relatives (9:5; 11:34-40) and engaging their countrymen in battle. (9:26-35.) Despite these similarities, Jephthah and Abimelech are separated by one major difference: Abimelech is nothing more than a destroyer; Jephthah is a deliverer.” (Id. at 343). The lesson for believers is not to become prideful if God does a good work through you. His work may be done to fulfill His will despite your conduct, not because of it. Jesus is the only real deliverer of mankind.
God sometimes hands a people to the leader they deserve to have them turn to Him. The elders of Gilead selected Jephthah to be their deliverer because they liked his violent reputation (Jdgs. 11:1-8). Yet, God warns: “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways.” (Prov. 3:31). If the elders had prayed, God would have likely appointed someone else. To teach the people to turn to Him, He gave them the violent ruler that they wanted: “Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, . . ..” (Ro. 1:24(a)). “As Jotham had so eloquently expressed in his fable (9:7-15), this people has received the leader they deserve. This son of a harlot embodies all that is wrong in spiritually harlotrous Israel. . . . In the end Jephthah may have solved the Ammonite crisis, but he left his own nation in a worse state than he found it (or it had found him). The people once united under Moses and Joshua were disintegrating under the cancer of jealousy, which exposed the raw nerves of linguistic, tribal and spiritual division. Israel had become as fragmented as the Canaanite population they were commanded to expunge.” (Block p. 386). This lesson should also give believers pause about the secular and immoral leaders that they elect. God sometimes allows the people to pick the leaders they deserve to teach them a lesson. Do you make a candidate’s views on the Bible your own “Shibboleth” test for voting?
Be patient in waiting for God’s guidance in finding a leader. How can believers avoid picking a Jephthah to lead them? First, the Holy Spirit must guide the process (Jo. 14:16-18, 26). Believers must also be patient and trust in God’s timing. Selecting a leader must never be done in haste: “do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.” (1 Tim. 5:22). Second, a prospective leader must be content (1 Tim. 6:6-9). A man seeking to manipulate others into power like Jephthah did is an obvious red flag. Third, the leader must be “above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach.” (1 Tim. 3:2). In other words, the leader also must not be “addicted to wine or be pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money.” (1 Tim. 3:3; 6:6-10). Jephthah’s violent reputation should have disqualified him from the beginning. Fourth, he must also manage his own household well (1 Tim. 3:4). Jephthah’s unstable family life turned him into the violent and vengeful man that he was. Fifth, the leader must also not be a new convert (1 Tim. 3:6). Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter shows that he was an idolater and unfamiliar with the Word. Sixth, the leader must also lead by being a servant to others (1 Tim. 6:2). Jephthah was motivated by his own self-interest. Finally, you will also know a godly leader by his fruits (Matt. 7:16, 20). Jephthah’s fruits were of the flesh. Thus, Jephthah failed every test to be a leader.
God’s ninth deliverer Ibzan. As the antidote to the civil war that began under the prideful and violent leadership of Jephthah, God appointed the quiet and little known deliverer named “Ibzan”: “8 Now Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel after him. 9 He had thirty sons, and thirty daughters whom he gave in marriage outside the family, and he brought in thirty daughters from outside for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years. 10 Then Ibzan died and was buried in Bethlehem.” (Jdgs. 12:8-10). Some dismiss Ibzan as a minor or secondary deliverer because only a few verses are written about him. This is a mistake. Following the evil reign of Abimelech, God also restored Israel through a little known deliverer named Tola, who also had only two verses written about him (Jdgs. 10:1-2). Ibzan’s name only appears here in the Bible. His name comes from the Hebrew word for “swift.” His name suggested that God acted swiftly to correct the evil that Jephthah had unleashed in Israel. His reign of seven years was also short (Jdgs. 12:9). But it symbolized God’s completeness. Like the seventh deliverer Jair, Ibzan was blessed with 30 sons (Jdgs. 10:3-4; 12:9). But Ibzan was also blessed with 30 daughters. While Jephthah used his leadership to begin a civil war, Ibzan used his blessings to unite the people. He purposely had his sons marry woman from other clans. Likewise, he sent his daughters to marry men in other clans (Jdgs. 12:9). Thus, like his name, he swiftly united no less than 60 clans in a mere seven years. By contrast, Jephthah killed his only heir. His burial city is forgotten because no one mourned his passing. By contrast, Ibzan burial city was remembered throughout Israel as Bethlehem (Jdgs. 12:10).
Ibzan united the people and served in humility4
Unite others in the Body of Christ. Like Ibzan, you are called upon to unite others in the Body of Christ. “so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Ro. 12:5). “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17). “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.” (1 Cor. 12:12). “But now there are many members, but one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Cor. 12:20-21). “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;” (Eph. 4:4). Do your words unify others for God’s glory? Or, do your words cause pain and division?
God’s tenth deliverer Elon. Like Ibzan, God’s tenth deliverer “Elon” came to restore Israel: “11 Now Elon the Zebulunite judged Israel after him; and he judged Israel ten years. 12 Then Elon the Zebulunite died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun.” (Jdgs. 12:11-12). Elon’s name means “oak.” The oak tree is a strong tree with deep roots. His 10-year-reign was also short. But the number ten symbolizes divine order. It is the number of God’s Ten Commandments. Elon brought strength and stability through divine order. Like Ibzan, he was loved and remembered. His burial place in Aijalon was visited by his subjects and remembered long after he died.
Elon quietly served and brought order to God’s people5
Live as an example to others according to God’s Commandments. Like Elon, your life should be ordered according to the Ten Commandments. Jesus was the great “I AM” who gave Moses the Ten Commandments (Ex. 3:14; Jo. 8:58). Although you are no longer judged under the Law, Jesus reveals that you show your love for Him when you keep His Commandments voluntarily: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (Jo. 14:15, 21; 1 Jo. 5:3; 2 Jo. 1:6). “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (Jo. 15:10). “[I]f you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matt. 19:17). Whether you keep the Commandments out of love (and not obligation) is also the test regarding whether you “know” Him: “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” (1 Jo. 2:3). Do you live your life as an example to others by following His Ten Commandments out of love and not obligation?
God’s eleventh deliverer Abdon. God’s eleventh deliverer Abdon also brought restoration and blessings to Israel: “13 Now Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite judged Israel after him. 14 He had forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkeys; and he judged Israel eight years. 15 Then Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died and was buried at Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the hill country of the Amalekites.” (Jdgs. 12:13-15). The name Abdon means “service.” He lived in service to God’s people. In return, God blessed him with 40 sons and 30 grandsons. His 70 descendants symbolized a complete line of descendants. This stands in sharp contrast to Jephthah, who sacrificed his only descendant. His 70 donkeys (the equivalent today of 70 cars) symbolized great prosperity. His peaceful 8-year reign was a symbol of God’s new beginning for His people. But it was also a test to see of the Jews’ hearts would turn from Him again. This is a test that they would again fail. Like Ibzan and Elon, Abdon’s subjects loved him and visited his burial place in Pirathon. Although little is written about him, he was not a minor or secondary deliverer from God as some claim.
Abdon served God and His people to restore Israel6
Be blessed as a servant leader for Christ. If you wish to lead, put the needs of others before your own: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28; Mk. 10:44-45; Phil. 2:8). Do you put the needs of others before your own? Or, do you put your own needs before others?