Sibble Saturday: Weigh your remarks before you speak (Judges 10–11)

Happy New Year! What are your resolutions? This chapter we learn about a guy who regretted his.

Short snarky summary: A few undescribed heroes do their thing, and then the Israelites do their usual sinning and get conquered. Again. A scruffy bastard leads them all in battle, but makes dumb promises.


Chapter 10 is a bridge chapter full of narrative of a sort we’ve seen before. We start with two judges almost as obscurely described as Shamgar, but without the colorful details: Tola and Jair are the leaders who, apparently, follow Abimelech’s downfall. Again, it’s never clear if these are regional or Israel-wide leaders; Tola’s geography puts him a little bit northwest of the center of Israel, while Jair, who lived in Gilead, would have been a Transjordanian Israelite. Neither has much to be said about them, although Jair, in his 3 verses of description, manages to get a bit of clever wordplay in the second one:וַיְהִי-לוֹ שְׁלֹשִׁים בָּנִים, רֹכְבִים עַל-שְׁלֹשִׁים עֲיָרִים, וּשְׁלֹשִׁים עֲיָרִים, לָהֶם”, which uses the same word, “עֲיָרִים” in two different meanings, as “male donkeys” and “cities”. The JPS translation heroically attempts to preserve the wordplay, translating this passage as “He had thirty sons, who rode on thirty burros and owned thirty boroughs”. As a bonus, Jair’s own Hebrew name (יָאִיר) is a near homophone for this repeated word “עֲיָרִ”.

But the next 12 verses of Chapter 10 are devoted to the usual song-and-dance of idolworship, divine disfavor, occupation, and remorse. We get a long list of the Gods the Israelites follow, and it’s a pretty comprehensive one, including the gods of all of their neighbors as well as the “Baalim” (which seems to be a generic term for “gods”) and the “Ashteroth” (i.e. Ishtar or Astarte). This time God scourges them with the Ammonites (a neighboring people, not to be confused with the spiral-shelled mollusks of the same name), who occupy Transjordan and a decent chunk of the west bank.

For once the remorse takes on the character of a dialogue: the Israelites speak to God and God speaks back. The conversation is pretty ridiculous, because the Israelites say what they always say, about how very sorry they are, and God, for once, isn’t buying it, pointing out that every single time he rescues them they just lapse all over again. To their credit, Israel lives up to their promise of returning to God here (not that it lasts—it never does), and eventually God relents, so the final outcome is the same as if this dialogue hadn’t happened.

So in Chapter 11 we meet our redeemer: Jephthah! A personal note at this point: Judges 11 was my Haftarah portion, so it’s a little close to my heart. Our hero is presented as an outcast: his father is Gilead (a character we don’t know, but the fact that he shares his name with a large subtribe and geographic region in Transjordan suggests he’s a bigshot), but his mother’s a prostitute, so instead of living high off his inheritence, he’s banished and subsists as the leader of a gang of highwaymen.

But with the Ammonite attack, suddenly the legitimate sons of Gilead are welcoming back their bastard half-brother, inviting him to lead them. It’s not entirely clear why—maybe he learned tactical skills from banditry that surpass those of his peaceful brothers? Either way, it’s interesting to see a new origin story for the judges. Ehud and Gideon both rose from relative obscurity and proved their worth prior to raising an army (with assassination and iconoclasm respectively), and Deborah was, presumably, well-thought of even before the incident mentioned in the Book of Judges. Jephthah, unlike any of his predecessors, has been raised from infamy to honor without having actually done anything. This suggests his position might be a bit precarious, and explains how this story ends.

First off, though, there’s a bit of diplomacy, which, from a narrative perspective, serves to remind the reader that Israel in fact has a literally God-given right to Transjordan. Jephthah opens by asking the Ammonites why they attacked. Their response could reasonably have been, “Might makes right,” but instead they assert a historical claim to Transjordan. Jephthah’s (and, by extension, the story’s author’s) resonse to this is a recapitulation of the tale told in Numbers: Israel’s Transjordanian holdings were all taken from the lands of Sichon and Og, not from Ammon, and that if the Ammonites did have a legitimate claim, they should have brought it up centuries ago. I suppose if the author really wanted to make the point that this is a convincing line of argument, he might have had the Ammonites see the justice and withdraw, but they don’t.

And now we draw very near to Jephthah’s great mistake: anxious to win, he vows to God that, if he is victorious, he will offer whatever first exits his house on his return as a sacrifice. This seems like a pretty dumb vow, and it’s hard to imagine it going right. I suppose they probably did keep livestock and poultry in the house at the time, but it seems a whole hell of a lot more likely that something else will come out to greet him. Anyways, so armed with God’s favor (which he presumably would have had even without that vow) he does just like every other military judge does and leads the Israelites in a complete rout of the foe.

But, of course, now comes the tragedy we all saw coming, and on his homecoming, his daughter runs out of the house to greet him, and of course he then has no choice but to sacrifice her. Apparently Jephthah is the only person taken by surprise here, and he’s rather upset, but she faces her fate with equanimity, and asks just to have two months to “mourn her virginity”, which seems like a kind of odd phrasing. I’m reading it as “I don’t want to die without having sex!”, so I’d totally assume that she spends those two months in riotous debauchery, except that she’s still explicitly a virgin in verse 11:39 when she gets the knife. Incidentally, the text is a bit elliptical about whether he kills her, saying simply that he “fulfilled his vow”, which has led some commentators to hypothesize that he didn’t kill her, but consecrated her to God in some other, less violent fashion (presumably, given ancient-culture attitudes towards such things, with some sort of perpetual-virginity requirement).

This section of the story is apparently etiological, because the last verse of the story indicates that the daughter of Jephthah (who, incidentally, doesn’t get a name) is memorialized by the annual four-day lamentations of young Israelite women. I can’t find any other reference to this ceremony, but maybe it was a contemporary practice of the Deteronomic authors.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Sibble Saturday: Weigh your remarks before you speak (Judges 10–11)

  1. Pingback: Mibble Monday: Thuffering thuccotass! (Judges 12–13) | The Ecclesiastical Revue

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