Jephthah? – Oh, You Again

The Return of Jephtah

A Reading from the Book of Judges Chapter 12, vv. 1-7

Daily Office Proper 14

Remember Jephthah, from last night,  who promised God he would offer the first person greeting him at the door as a sacrifice if God would give him victory over the Ammonites?  As it turned out Jephthah misspoke in a very damaging way and ended upon obligating himself to sacrifice his own daughter.

Well in the reading from the Old Testament for today at the Daily Office Jephthah is once again put upon by some rather angry and disgruntled fellows who are miffed because he dared to take on the Ammonites alone and not include them, the  Ephraimites, in the enterprise.  Jephthah is so bold as to truthfully remind the Ephraimites that he had indeed called upon them to come and help him but that they had failed to show up and so he went on without them. The Ephraimites took offense at this and I suspect they felt Jephthah had dishonored them by calling into question their dependability and commitment.   They retaliated against the perceived insult by issuing another insult and a challenge by suggesting that the men of Gilead to which Jephthah belonged were really fugitives from Ephraim.  Well “them was fightin words” and the battle did in fact commence with Jephthah and the Gileadites against the Ephraimites.  As you may guess Jephthah wins again.  This time he slew 42,000 of the Ephraimites.  Given the thousands that got themselves slain in the Old Testament I am given to wonder why there is anyone left in the Middle East these days.   Jephthah went on the “judge” for six years and then he died.

So what do we make of this.  Jephthah seemed to have a knack for getting into fights usually not of his own making.  He also had a knack for rubbing people the wrong way probably because he spoke the “truth” plain and simple without varnishing it with hyperbole or excessive diplomatic phrases.  I must admit I always felt that politeness, tact and diplomacy were the way to go particularly in Church settings. “Let us not disturb the water” by introducing the truth into the mix. But as of late I have changed my thought.  Sparing feelings at the expense of truth can have drastic consequences.

A few weeks ago a priest friend introduced me to The Truth about God –The Ten Commandments in Christian Life by William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas.  In their examination of the eighth commandment they say that  “A deceitful world is deeply threatened by even one little life lived truthfully.  So those who live chaste lives are called prudish.  Those who speak the truth are called arrogant, abrasive. Those who live simple lives are called irresponsible.”

The same priest friend who put me onto the book has sometimes been described by some as “abrasive”.  I know why.  It is because in that wonderful Midwestern way she speaks the truth without varnish and without flattery just the plain truth like Jephthah.   The world does not like that. We want praise, flattery and lies.  We, like the Ephraimites, don’t want to be told we have done something we should not have done but rather we want to hear the truth through a filter that makes us feel good.

As for me, I have realized, as Willimon and Hauerwas point out, that “eloquent perjury” ultimately does violence to the person it claims to be protecting.  So from here on I will, like my priest friend, seek to speak the truth knowing full well that as Jephthah discovered speaking the truth will not be rewarded on this earth and may cost you dearly.

RSV version of Judges Chapter 12 vv 1-7

1 The men of E’phraim were called to arms, and they crossed to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites, and did not call us to go with you? We will burn your house over you with fire.”
2 And Jephthah said to them, “I and my people had a great feud with the Ammonites; and when I called you, you did not deliver me from their hand.
3 And when I saw that you would not deliver me, I took my life in my hand, and crossed over against the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into my hand; why then have you come up to me this day, to fight against me?”
4 Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with E’phraim; and the men of Gilead smote E’phraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of E’phraim, you Gileadites, in the midst of E’phraim and Manas’seh.”
5 And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the E’phraimites. And when any of the fugitives of E’phraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an E’phraimite?” When he said, “No,”
6 they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the E’phraimites.
7 Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in his city in Gilead.



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