Whoever You Are, God Can Use You

Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1. Haftarah, Judges 11:1-33

Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, Interfaithfulness

In this week’s haftarah we read about Yiftach, or Jephthah as he is known in English. He lived during the time of the Judges, an undisciplined time when everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Samuel, the last of the Judges, would anoint Israel’s first king, Saul. But Jephthah lived before Saul’s day.

Jephthah had been driven away from his own people, who despised him because he was the son of a prostitute. This culture was very particular about people’s conditions of birth and their family lines. At a young age, he was sent away from his home in Gilead to the lawless land of Tob. He grew up a raider, attacking the lands of Israel’s enemies.

In modern terms Jephthah has a gang, and a very successful one at that. Clearly he has great leadership ability. His life takes an unexpected turn when the elders from Gilead send for him and beg him to help them fight against the Ammonites, who have occupied their land. They recognize his capacities and are well aware of his reputation. Now they need his help.

Jephthah questions the elders’ motives, saying, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?” (Judges 11:7). However, the leaders of Gilead give him an offer he can’t refuse when the elders promise, “Come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead” (Judges 11:8).

Jephthah is no dope. He requires them to articulate clearly the nature of their promise to him—to go on record for why they needed him. Then he has them repeat the offer and its specifics. This is the equivalent of having someone put things in writing. Finally, he ratifies these things with them ceremonially, making the people and God himself witnesses of the agreement that was being made.

Then he goes into action.

First, Jephthah tries to solve the problem with diplomacy, but the king of the Ammonites falsely accuses Israel of stealing their land centuries earlier. Clearly, this king is looking for a fight. Jephthah responds that the Israelites had taken no land from the people of Ammon, but from other peoples around them who had been hostile to them. He is clear on his history, and simply cannot be bamboozled.

Then Jephthah foolishly pledges to God that he will sacrifice to him whatever first comes out of his house to greet him, if God will but give him victory. Jephthah leads an attack on the Ammonites and his attack is successful, resulting in the devastation of “twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim” (Judges 11:33). But the first thing to come out of his house to greet him after the victory is his young daughter, whom Jephthah must sacrifice to God in order to keep his foolish vow.

Some people believe that he did not have to offer her up as a blood sacrifice, but rather that because of his vow, she never could marry and had to live as some sort of servant to God’s presence in the Tabernacle all the days of her life.

In other words, Jephthah made a stupid decision that totally affected the life of his daughter.

This passage teaches us important lessons for modern life.

First, God often brings victory through despised and marginal people, through outsiders.

Jephthah was rejected by his people because of his disgraceful birth. But when they needed his help they cried out for him to come back and he proved to be a capable leader and a victorious warrior.

So it is, in our day, God often provides renewal and victory through marginalized people.

Perhaps I am talking to some today who are people of little importance or standing in their family, job, or relationships. But God uses such people. This is the way God works so that no flesh should glory in his presence. “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Co 1:27).

The second lesson for us is that we must know our history. People will try to pick fights with us in politics and in business. They will say certain things happened that never happened. They will deny certain things happened that did happen. This is called gas-lighting. This is what happens when the Ammonites want to pick a fight with Israel, claiming that Israel took land from them hundreds of years earlier. Jephthah knows his history very well, and the king of the Ammonites cannot confuse him. He answers by telling the king the true story. In business, people will tell lies about you, especially if you are influential or powerful. In politics, nations will look to pick fights. Therefore, it is important for us to keep good records, to know our facts, and to not be confused.

The third lesson is this: When we are successful we must be especially careful not to get foolish and presumptuous. Jephthah makes a foolish vow to God. And often, when we are successful, we too will do something foolish—we will get involved in sinful behavior, we will make promises to God we can’t keep, we will take advantage of the poor and needy. We must never do these things! When God grants us success, whether it is in business, in politics, or in spiritual service, we must stay humble, reverent and wise. We must continue to respect God and not begin to think that we ourselves have become important.

The only good things we have are what God gives us: if we stop honoring him, he has the power to take them away.

Therefore let us remember three lessons:

  1. God uses peripheral people, weak people, to bring glory to himself, and to shame the wise.
  2. Especially when we become powerful, people will attack us by distorting the truth. This requires us to keep good records, have good memories, and keep our heads on straight.
  3. Finally, when we become successful, we must be careful not to become presumptuous. Especially at such times, we must walk in humility, wisdom and obedience before God.

May God help us all to do this!

Stephanie Escalnate