Recall that as Judges 10 closes, Ammonites are gathering against Israel in Gilead. The Israelites lack a strong leader, however, but God will provide one. The opening section of Judges 11 introduces the man--Jephthah. Earlier in life he was not well-received. He was "a mighty man of valor" but also the son of a harlot! Because of this, he was rejected by his brothers and community. He leaves his home and goes off on his own. Many "worthless men" band together with him and he leads them. Eventually, when the elders of Gilead are desperate for a leader, however, they turn to Jephthah - "Come and be our commander, that we may fight against the people of Ammon" (11:6). Jephthah's reply was this - "Did you not hate me, and expel me from my father's house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?" (11:7). Their dialogue continues and Jephthah is willing to help them--if they make it worth his while. He will come back and lead the fight against Ammon if they will make him their leader (in both civil and military matters), assuming he is successful. The elders agree and give their word before the LORD.
Jephthah then proceeds as any wise military commander would in this situation: he communicates with the enemy. Before engaging in battle, it is generally wise to attempt peaceful negotiations. If a conflict can be properly resolved without bloodshed, obviously that is the preferred method of resolution. Jephthah wanted to get the facts settled in his own mind also, regarding the underlying cause of the Ammonite aggression, so he asks how Israel had offended Ammon.
The Ammonite king replied - "Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and to the Jordan. Now therefore, restore these lands peaceably" (11:13). Jephthah will reply with a history lesson containing four reasons why the Ammonite claim to the land is invalid:
- It was the Amorites, not Israelites, who had initially taken this land away from the Ammonites.
- The Israelites later took the land from the Amorites, although this was only because the Amorite king Sihon would not let them pass through the land peaceably. Israel intended to go on to her own inheritance, but Sihon gathered against them and fought. "And the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. Thus Israel gained possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. They took possession of all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan" (11:21,22).
- The Israelites laid claim to the land by what might be called "divine right." Their God had given them the land. Why should they give it up? Other nations practiced this same principle. Jephthah expressed the thought like this - "And now the LORD God of Israel has dispossessed the Amorites from before His people Israel; should you then possess it? Will you not possess whatever Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the LORD our God takes possession of before us, we will possess" (11:23,24).
- Israel had maintained possession of the land in question for approximately 300 years! Why was this becoming an issue now? Balak didn't ask for land back that had been lost in battle, so why are you (cf. Num. 21:21ff)?
Jephthah closes his communication with the Ammonite king with these words - "Therefore I have not sinned against you, but you wronged me by fighting against me. May the LORD, the Judge, render judgment this day between the children of Israel and the people of Ammon" (11:27). Jephthah believes it is the Ammonites who are in the wrong, and he is ready to let God be the judge on the battlefield if the king of Ammon will not desist.