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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 5 - DEBORAH AND JEHTHAH

Part I: Deborah

The period of the Judges lasted from about 1200 to 1050 B.C. During that time the people of Israel were ruled by a series of charismatic leaders. There were twelve of them and although they are know as “Judges” their powers were more like those of a minor potentate. Their leadership was less than inspiring and scholars refer to that era as the Dark Ages of Israel- - “a cruel, barbarous and bloody epoch.”[1]

The stories of three of those Judges, Deborah, Jephthah and Samson give witness to that assessment and are chilling tales of deception and violence, representative of the kind of character and activity considered godly and exemplary by the people of their time. The other nine Judges, whose stories are not detailed in this book, exhibited leadership styles and characteristics similar to those whose stories are told.

Deborah was the first of the Judges and the only woman numbered among them. For the most part, the women of the Bible who are considered role models are lauded for what are seen as traditional, female virtues: subservience, child bearing and husband-tending. But in spite of this ongoing evaluation of a woman’s worth, both Jewish and Christian spokesmen have always been impressed with Deborah. Although she did not justify her existence by giving birth to a child, she was instrumental in causing the death of hundreds of Israel’s enemies. This capacity for violence redeemed her barrenness and insured that her story would be considered edifying for men, as well as for women.

Under Deborah’s leadership, the Chosen People were able to decimate the entire army of Jabin, a Canaanite king. An account of the carnage is given in chapters four and five of the Book of Judges. And in a rare instance of academic accord, scholars agree the “Song of Deborah,” which celebrates her exploits, dates back to 1125 B.C.

But it is not only Deborah who is celebrated in this account of female leadership. The scripture also tells the story of her contemporary, Jael, who was an assassin. They were a very effective team: Deborah routed the Canaanite army and Jael murdered Sisera, their commander-in-chief.

The Bible describes the bloody battle that took place and tells how all the Canaanites were killed- -except for Sisera. He managed to escape and made his way to the tent of a Kenite Chieftain. He thought it would be a safe place because the Kenites were at peace with Sisera’s people. The Chieftain was away from home but his wife, Jael, welcomed the exhausted commander. She gave him some refreshments, covered him with a blanket and promised to watch over him while he slept. She did not keep that promise. As he slept “(Jael) took a tent-peg, picked up a hammer, crept up to him and drove the peg into his skull as he lay sound asleep. His brains oozed out on the ground, his limbs twitched and he died,”  The Bible celebrates this event in The Song of Deborah.[2]

“Blest among women be Jael,
She stretched out her hand for the tent–peg.
Her right hand to hammer the weary.
With the hammer she struck Sisera, she crushed his head;
She struck and his brains ebbed out.
At her feet he sank down, he fell, he lay;
Where he sank down, there he fell, done to death.”

The “Song” goes on to describe how Sisera’s mother anxiously awaited the return of her son, unaware that he was dead. “Why is his chariot so late in coming”  she cried, and then found comfort in telling herself that he and his men were probably celebrating their victory. But of course he would never come: his skull had already been crushed and his brains had oozed out. Deborah’s Song ends with a benediction: “So may all your enemies die like that, O Lord.”

Although acclaimed by Christians and Jews as a song of praise celebrating the Lord’s help in military matters, the sentiments expressed in the poem are hardly uplifting. Nevertheless, Christian commentators justify the mayhem that it celebrates. In contradistinction to those who excuse their actions with the claim that the devil-made-me-do-it, these spokesmen excuse those who perpetuate violence in the name of the Lord when they claim that God-made-them-do-it. Having made this claim, the maiming and slaughter of individuals or of groups of people, becomes a virtuous undertaking.

The God who is described in the story of Deborah and Jael - - and in so many other places in the Bible - - is a partisan and violent deity. He is in fact a god-of-war as well as a god who wants to teach men how to make war. The book of Judges begins with an explanation of the endless bloodbaths that took place from the time that Israel first invaded Canaan. “So then, the Lord left some (enemy) nations in the land (Canaan) to test the Israelites about war, especially those who had never been in battle before.”[3]

It is this god-of-war who promises Deborah that Israel will be victorious in the battle against Sisera’s army. “The Lord God has given this command, take ten thousand men . . . and lead them to Mount Tabor. I will bring Sisera to fight you . . . I will give you victory over him.”

Modern scholars continue to credit God for the bloodshed of that battlefield. Matthew Henry, whose Bible Commentary is an unimpeachable text for evangelical scholars, insists: “The Lord must have all the praise. The will, the power and the success were all from him.”[4] And in discussing Jael’s murder of Sisera, Henry’s  commentary follows this pattern of praising God for that which he would condemn in human beings. “It is probable that Jael really intended kindness to Sisera, but by a Divine impulse she was afterwards led to consider him as the determined enemy of the Lord and of his people and to destroy him.”[5]

Kindness and cruelty have been juxtaposed: it is Jael who is kind and God who overcomes her innate compassion and turns her into an assassin.

Although only a small percentage of Christians read the various commentaries that form the basis of Bible scholarship, even the illiterate will eventually be exposed to the contradictory values they espouse. These commentaries are the resources utilized by ministers as they prepare the sermons that are the center of Christian services in the protestant tradition. They are also the foundation upon which Sunday school lessons are developed.

Unfortunately, these commentaries do not acknowledge that the Bible records an ongoing conflict between opposing moral and spiritual values. And what the people of a particular time and place considered Godly and virtuous, may not be neither. The story of Jephthah, another of Israel’s Judges, witnesses to that refusal to reject the judgment of an earlier and less spiritually developed time.

Part II: Jephthah

Jephthah was the ninth of the Judges who assumed leadership of the Hebrew people. He was born circa 1070 B.C. in Gilead, and the interpretation of the events of his life is a sad example of the kink of scholarship modern men have developed to avoid acknowledging that someone touted as a Bible hero acted in a way that was more devilish than the divine.

The insistence that an ancient biblical episode was morally acceptable in its own time is also a way of ignoring the fact that ancient people, like their modern counter-parts, were quite capable of attributing the most profane activities to divine inspiration, instead of accepting responsibility for their own actions.

Jephthah led the Hebrews in a successful campaign against the Ammonite people. Then, in thanksgiving for that victory, he killed his only child. And because Bible scholars are often anxious to attribute human savagery to God’s prompting, they accept his claim that murdering his daughter was an act of sacrificial worship; a godly, rather than a sinful thing.

Both the slaughter of the Ammonite soldiers and the slaughter of his own daughter came about in this way. As a young man, Jephthah left his home town of Gilead after he was denied any of the inheritance left by his father. The son of a prostitute, his half-brothers refused him any part in the estate, a decision that was upheld by the town elders. So the young man left town and settled in the land of Tob. A contemporary translation of the Bible reports that “There he attracted a group of worthless men, and they went around with him.”[6] In this case, “they went around with him” is a nice way of saying that under Jephthah’s leadership they became a band of marauding robbers who made a living by attacking merchant caravans and outlying communities in the district of Tob.

News of Jephthah’s successful career as leader of a robber band reached his home town and when the Ammonites decided to go to war against the Hebrews, the leaders of Gilead decided that Jephthah should be the one to lead them in battle.

“The leaders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah back from the land of Tob. They told him, ‘Come and lead us, so that we can fight the Ammonites.’ But Jephthah answered, ‘You hated me so much that you forced me to leave my father’s house.  Why come to me now that you’re in trouble?’ They said to Jephthah, ‘We are turning to you now because we want you to go with us and fight the Ammonites and lead all the people of Gilead.”

“Jephthah said to them, ‘If you take me back home to fight them and the Lord gives me victory, I will be your ruler.’ They replied, ‘We agree. The Lord is our witness.’ So Jephthah went with the leaders of Gilead, and the people made him their ruler and leader.”[7]

Not surprisingly, his attempt to get the Ammonites to relinquish their claim to territories that the sons of Israel had taken from them was unsuccessful. Jephthah told the Ammonite King that it was ridiculous for him to claim something his people had lost a long time ago. “For three hundred years Israel has occupied Hesbon and Arcer, and the towns around them and all the cities on the banks of the Arnon River. Why haven’t you taken them back in all this time?”[8]

Based on the argument that the land the King wanted returned had been occupied by the Hebrews for such a long time that the Ammonites no longer had a legitimate claim to it, the preparations for war began. And as part of that preparation, Jephthah made a vow he hoped would insure victory. “(He) promised the Lord: ‘If you will give me victory over the Ammonites, I will burn as an offering the first person that comes out of my house to meet me, when I come back for the victory. I will offer that person to you as a sacrifice.”[9] Obviously, Jephthah was unable to distinguish between the false gods of Canaan who demanded human sacrifices and the true God of the Israelites who didn’t.

But in spite of that lack of understanding, the biblical scribe reports that “The spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah…(He) crossed the river to fight the Ammonites and the lord gave him victory.” He demolished at least twenty cities and along with that destruction of habitat, “there was a great slaughter.”[10]

Jephthah’s god-of-war had come through for him, so it was time to offer a human sacrifice, according to his promise that he would “burn as an offering”  the first person who came out of his house after he had achieved victory. Odds were it would be one of his many servants who would be killed; but it didn’t turn out that way.

“When Jephthah went back home to Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, dancing and playing the tambourine. She was his only child. When he saw her, he tore his clothes in sorrow and said ‘Oh, my daughter! You are breaking my heart! Why must it be you that cause me pain? I have made a solemn promise to the Lord and I cannot take it back.”[11]

The self-pity Jephthah expresses at the thought of becoming childless deserves about as much sympathy as the plight of the man who murders his parents and then asks for compassion because he is an orphan. But in spite of this hubris, religious teachers laud him for his courage in killing his daughter and commiserate with him. “He was faithful to his vow to God, even though it cost him dearly.”[12]

None of these commentators discuss the killing with any sympathy for the young girl who begged her father to allow her to live a little while longer, so she could “wander in the mountains”[13] to grieve and prepare for her death. Instead, there is tacit agreement that her father was magnanimous in granting that request: “after she came back to her father he did what he had promised the Lord, and she died.”[14]

Some Christian scholars become positively lyrical when commenting on this story of human murder/sacrifice. They say that “the story is tenderly told, with emphasis on the emotions of both parties. It stands as one of the most beautiful expressions of tragedy in the entire bible.”[15] Others, in order to maintain the “beauty” of the story, insist that although Jephthah vowed his daughter would die as a “burnt offering,” surely he didn’t subject her to the horrors of immolation. Well, of course, as far as the information in the Bible is concerned, he did just that. But scholars, who are appalled at such a gruesome death, are not as upset by stabbing, so they offer their own scenario: “No doubt, what (Jephthah) envisaged was a quick death by the knife, before the corpse was burnt.”[16]

These Bible commentators typically endorse Jephthah as a great and godly leader; “He was one of the most illustrious leaders of that period of Hebrew history,”[17] and they offer an ethical imperative for the murder of his daughter. “A vow once uttered was irrevocable.”[18]  But this rationale ignores the fact that the Law of Moses forbade human sacrifice and said that anyone who committed such an abomination would no longer be numbered among God’s people. The same Law said “if the community ignores what he has done. . . I will no longer consider them my people.”[19]

Like contemporary scholars, the man of Jephthah’s time were well aware of the prohibition against human sacrifice; but as often happens in military victories the laws of morality, ethics, and of God are replaced by the celebration of destructive power.

The slaughter of the Ammonites and of his own daughter did not end the history making exploits of Jephthah. Soon after he defeated Israel’s pagan enemies, he used his destructive skills to kill his fellow Israelites in a civil war with the tribe of Ephraim. In a short-lived battle, forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed.

After giving this final report of mayhem, the International Standard Bible Encyclo-pedia (ISBE) sums up Jephthah’s life by extolling him as a great leader, “a man of energy and conviction, who was used by the Spirit of God.”

Another text written to instruct Christians in the ways of godly living refers to the slaughter of the Ephraimites as their being “discomforted” at the hands of Jephthah. Still another teaches that just because he was the leader of a robber band “he must not be thought of as a lawless freebooter.” And why not?  “Because he was a man with a conscience.” That is a nice thought but nothing in the Bible validates it any more than it validates another teaching from the same text. “He won (his daughter’s) entire confidence and religious respect.”

Centuries after the time of Jephthah, the prophet Isaiah pronounced an oracle against the violence reported so favorably in the scriptures and attributed to the instrumentality of God. “God told me to witness what the people are like. . .They are always rebelling against God, always lying …They say ‘Don’t talk to us about what’s right. Tell us what we want to hear.’ But this is what the holy God of Israel says: ‘You ignore what I tell you and rely on violence and deceit.”[20]

The oracle that the prophet gave in his own time applies to contemporary scholars and clergy who, in the guise of biblical studies, "are always lying," calling human sacrifice the laudatory fulfillment of a vow and the mass murder of 42,000 men, something that discomforted them.


[1]  The New Westminster Dictionary of the Bible.  H.S. Gehman  (ed.) (Philadelphia: the Westminster Press, 1976):, p. 529

[2]  Judges  4:21  NEB

[3] Judges 3:1, 2   TEV

[4] Matthew Henry

[5] Matthew Henry Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible. Moody Press Chicago. C 192. p. 198

[6]  Judges  11:3   TEV

[7]   Judges  11:4 - 11      TEV

[8]   Judges  11:26        TEV

[9]   Judges  11:30, 31   TEV

[10] Judges  11:29, 32,33 TEV

[11] Judges  11: 34 , 35    TEV

[12]  The International Bible Commentary, edited by F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986  p. 329

[13]  Judges  11:37

[14]  Judges  11:39

[15]  The International Bible Commentary, edited by F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986 p. 329

[16]  Wilcock, p. 116

[17]  The ISBE  (Grand Rapids. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979, Vol  II,  p. 984

[18]  Numbers  30:2

[19]  Lev  20: 1 – 5   TEV

[20]  Isaiah  30: 8 – 12   TEV

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