by Pastor David Groendyk
It’s not hard to distinguish where someone is from in America based on their accent. Vowels are pronounced much differently in Mississippi than they are in Michigan. (My wife and I frequently joke about how the words ‘pen’ and ‘pin’ sound exactly the same when our Mississippi friends say them.) In a different part of the country, you can tell a Bostonian from a mile away when you ask them to say, “Park the car in Harvard Yard.” The situation was no different in ancient Israel, and in Judges 12 we see Jephthah exploit that very situation in the midst of war.
But how did Ephraim and Jephthah get to the point of war? Ephraim was upset that Jephthah did not call on them to help fight the Ammonites (v. 1). Of course, this is a great example of not rushing to judgment before you’ve heard both sides of a story, because Jephthah actually had called on them, but they ignored him (v. 2)! When faced with that hard truth, Ephraim began mocking and insulting Jephthah and the Gileadites (v. 4b). Perhaps Ephraim had expected Jephthah to soothe their egos and act a little more diplomatically. If you recall, Ephraim had this exact same complaint after Gideon defeated the Midianites (Judg. 8:1–3). The problem with Ephraim, according to commentator Ralph Davis, is that they thought they were “somebodies” who deserved to be front and center; unfortunately for them, Jephthah was a “nobody” who had no time for “somebodies” (see Judg. 11:1–7). Rather than calm them down, Jephthah holds them accountable, and 42,000 Ephraimites died that day.
What’s the point of this story? Tragedy overshadows salvation. The Lord had worked a great deliverance through Jephthah for his people, but Ephraim’s pride insisted that they get glory. Salvation meant nothing to Ephraim if Ephraim didn’t get recognized for it. Israel’s unity is being fractured and God’s glory is being stolen because of Ephraim’s sin. Thus, we see Israel continue to spiral downward in rebellion against God throughout this book. There is certainly a strong warning for the church here against the sin of Ephraim. Are you the kind of person that needs to be front and center? Are you ok with God doing miraculous, wonderful, salvific works even if you’re not the one through whom he’s doing them? Beware that pride! It will fracture God’s people, and it will rob God’s glory.
But there’s more tragedy overshadowing salvation in this chapter. In quick succession, we read about three more minor judges: Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. All of the minor judges are a bit mysterious because we know almost nothing about them (see also Shamgar in Judg. 3:31 and Tola and Jair in Judg. 10:1–5). Here’s one thing that is apparent though: in quick succession, lots of judges are dying, and Israel continues not resting, either from their sin or from their enemies. Jephthah dies (v. 7), Ibzan dies (v. 10), Elon dies (v. 12), and Abdon dies (v. 15), and still Israel is spiraling. As you read through Judges, it should heighten the tension and make you all the more desperate for one final deliverer. The stage is set perfectly for Samson in Judges 13. As the people are spiraling, and as other deliverers keep dying, a certain baby is miraculously conceived and born after an angel announced it beforehand to his parents. I hope that story sounds familiar! Here is meant to come one last climactic deliverer; of course, if you know anything about Samson, you know he himself sins and fails and dies, leaving Israel still in ruin. It should keep whetting our appetite for Jesus, our deliverer who never dies and who finally gives his people rest from their sin and from their enemies. Finally, a salvation that triumphs over tragedy! Anywhere else to which you look and anyone else to whom you look for salvation will always be overshadowed by failure at the end of the day. There is only one place to look, and that is the cross and Christ. He is the only rescuer from our sin. Look to him today for all your help.