I’m of the opinion that Deborah was pretty much the highpoint of Judges, and Gideon was a pretty good follow-up, but after that everything just goes downhill.
We get a break in the stream of judges following Gideon’s death to learn a little about one of his seventy sons, Abimelech (or Abimelek if you’re using the most recent translation of the NIV). Abimelech has a very impressive resume with accomplishments including the murder of all his brothers, ruling over Israel as its king for three years, and getting killed in battle when a woman drops a millstone on his head (he tried to get that last one removed with the help of his armor bearer, whom he instructed to run him through so no one could say he was killed by a woman–the Judges author isn’t fooled though; death by impalement doesn’t override the fact that Abimelech was going to die of his other injuries anyway, and now we can also add “thought it was humiliating to be killed by a woman” to his list of accomplishments).
Abimelech’s a real charming person, right?
His whole episode sets up an interesting scenario, because it seems that the root problem with Abimelech (besides all the kin slaying) is that he wants to set himself up as king of Israel (something his father expressly refused to do). Chronologically following the Book of Judges is the Book of Samuel, which gives an account of how Israel established its first legitimate king (who also turned out to be kind of crazy) and warns that Israel’s desire for a mundane ruler in place of God will only cause them trouble (you can see the echoes of the theme of broken covenant as theodicy that run throughout the Deuteronomistic texts). Nonetheless, Abimelech comes across as more of an odd blip in Israel’s history, though he’s a monstrous one.
The next judge that we’re introduced to is Jephthah. He’s interesting because he fits into the mold of the successful underdog that’s a common thread connecting most of the judges we read about here. Of course, Jephthah’s classification as an underdog comes from the fact that he’s an outcast son of his father’s house because his mother was a prostitute (this unfortunate situation inclines me to sympathize with Jephthah, because it seems wrong to punish him for an accident of birth; shortly we’ll see why that sympathy doesn’t last long).
Because Jephthah is outcast, he apparently leads a very difficult life where he gathers a “gang of scoundrels” around him and earns a reputation as a mighty warrior. His reputation as a warrior is so good, in fact, that his brothers actually come to him and ask him to lead their military campaign against the oppressors of the decade, the Ammonites. In exchange for Jephthah’s expertise at killing people who are trying to kill him back, the Gileadite leaders offer to let Jephthah rule over them if he’s successful in defeating the Ammonites.
This deal’s just too good for Jephthah to pass up, so he agrees to it and sends a letter to the king of the Ammonites requesting that they stop attacking. The Ammonites claim that Israel’s taken land that rightfully belongs to them, and they’re just trying to take it back, but Jephthah doesn’t buy that argument. So the two sides go to war.
Because this is a history from Israel’s perspective, we can already guess that Jephthah’s campaign is successful. What’s interesting here is the promise that Jephthah makes to God in order to guarantee his victory: he promises to sacrifice as a burnt offering the first thing that greets him when he returns home.
Of course, that turns out to be Jephthah’s only (unnamed) daughter, and being the violent, live-by-the-sword kind of guy that he is, Jephthah carries out his promise.
This incident’s always been kind of troubling, because we have someone making a vow to God, then finding that in order to fulfill it, he has to make a human sacrifice, which God doesn’t stop (it’s an interesting contrast with the story of Abraham and Isaac, although in that case Abraham didn’t promise to sacrifice his son so much as he was carrying out God’s instructions up to the point where God stopped him by providing a wild ram).
In my study Bible, which I began using less and less throughout the Justice League study, there’s a footnote about Jephthah’s oath that says something to the effect of “God will not be mocked!” The point of the footnote is to suggest that Jephthah is at fault for making the vow in the first place, and that God was punishing him for being so rash. That’s problematic because the Law doesn’t condone human sacrifice (even animal sacrifice had very strict regulations surrounding it), and it seems monstrous of God to use a person’s death as a way of teaching someone else a lesson about swearing oaths. It’s a cruel and unusual punishment, and on top of that it involves hurting an innocent in the process.
I don’t much care for that reading of God’s character here.
Conversely, a viable reading of this passage that doesn’t suggest God’s no better than George Bluth, Sr. examines the fact that Jephthah was an outcast from his clan. He lived separately from his family, and made his life on the foundation of being a conqueror. It’s entirely possible that Jephthah was just poorly educated in his faith, and had no idea that God wouldn’t be pleased with a human sacrifice (keep in mind that while this reading promotes Jephthah’s ignorance as an explanation of his actions, it doesn’t excuse them; he still murdered his daughter).
That’s a less troublesome reading all around, I think.
Of course, we still have to contend with Jephthah’s inclusion in Hebrews 11 (I told you Gideon was the least problematic judge listed there), but that’s a topic for another time.