Good morning! In the ongoing saga of Israel’s tribal conflicts over the hundreds of years between conquest and established monarchy, we have two more episodes today in Judges 9-11. Both the stories emphasize the limits of raw power in defense of Israel when it is decoupled with righteousness. The first episode suggests that destructive means leads to destructive ends, while the second shows how a rash vow leads to heartbreak even in victory.
Judges 9 gives us the story of Gideon’s son Abimelech. One of about seventy brothers, Abimelech seeks to gain dominance over his brothers. Leaders in the region of Shechem acclaim his leadership and pay him protection money, with which he hires an entourage and kills almost all his siblings. Jotham, the one surviving brother, gives a parable denoucing Abimelech and those in Shechem who aid and abet his treachery. Jotham’s parable comes true throughout the rest of the chapter, as we see growing conflict between Abimelech and those he rules in Shechem. Both sides behave treacherously toward the other, and ultimately both the lords of Shechem and Abimelech die violent deaths. Their no-holds-barred battle brings modern TV shows like House of Cards or Game of Thrones to mind. Raw abuses of power invite escalating and opposite reactions, while innocents die on the scorched ground between the sides.
Chapter 10 mentions several other subsequent judges in passing, then the people fall away into idolatry once more—the cycle begins again. Oppressive rule by the Ammonites creates great lament and penitence from the Israelites, for whom God eventually has mercy. Battle lines are drawn in rebellion against the Ammonites, and the stage is set for Jephthah, another ruler with clay feet.
Jephthah’s biography at the beginning of Judges 11 emphasizes his coarseness and illegitimacy. He’s the son of Gilead by a prostitute, driven away from his father’s home by half-brothers. He’s a raider and an outlaw, but still a mighty warrior, so his former opponents recruit him to command Israel’s forces against the Ammonites. His attempt to reason with the Ammonites suggests that “ownership is nine-tenths of the law”, and that the Hebrew occupation of Canaan is the will of Israel’s God. When this doesn’t work, Jephthah vows that if God leads him to victory, he will sacrifice whoever comes out his door to meet him when he returns home. Victory follows, and Jephthah returns home to face his only child, a dancing daughter, at the door. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac comes to mind in what follows, but here God provides no alternative, and Jephthah declines to break his vow for the sake of his child. Jephthah’s daughter displays incredible courage, and her father grants her final wish of two months of freedom with her friends before she dies. Again we see that power alone is not enough. Jephthah is heartbroken despite his victories. The tragic story of Jephthah’s daughter is another example of “collateral damage” in a world where power-hungry leaders clash with one another for absolute dominance. What costs are bearable for victory in defense of “the homeland”, and what consequences (agreed to for the sake of pride) betray the righteousness for which the people were supposedly created in the first place? “Happy” reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Judges 12-16. Thanks for reading!