The entire book of Judges is a record of man’s fickle unfaithfulness, yet a testimony to God’s steadfast faithfulness. He will not let His people go. He will certainly chastise them in judgment, but He won’t let them out of the covenant He made with them. He is faithful to uphold his promise of judgment when they disobey, drawing them back to covenant faithfulness.
Coming to Judges 10, the chapter opens with a description of a 40 year peace in the land of Israel. It followed after Abimelech died and Gideon had beaten the Midianites. For almost half a century, the country was quiet.
Two minor judges are mentioned in the opening verses. First is Tola, who judged Israel 23 years. After his death, another man by the name of Jair, judged for another 22 years. The text doesn’t tell us who they saved Israel from, or if there was even a foreign enemy to be dealt with. It could be that these men delivered Israel in the sense that they helped the tribes recoup their loses after the Midianite threat had been eradicated and Abimelech’s disastrous fake reign. Furthermore, they could have served concurrently with each other or had overlapping judgeships.
Whatever the case, however, Israel’s period of rest allowed the people’s heart to return to serving the false gods. Verse 6 names a few they followed: the Baals, the Ashtaroth, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the sons of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines.
In response to their spiritual rebellion, God sold the people to the Ammonites and the Philistines. The text says God’s anger burned hot against Israel and it was the LORD giving the people over to their enemies. The giving over was all God’s doing in order to fulfill his covenant promises detailed in Deuteronomy 28.
It is also important to note that there are more than likely two oppressions going on simultaneously. The Ammonites on the east side of Israel and the Philistines on the west side of Israel. Hence, the events between Jephthah and the Ammonites that are recorded in 10-12 and those happening to Samson and the Philistines in 13-16. In essence, God is squeezing Israel on both sides that led to them being delivered.
The specific oppression of the Ammonites lasted 18 years. Who were these Ammonites? Recall the story of Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19. After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot lived with his two surviving children in a cave. In an act of sin, the daughters got Lot drunk and each one slept with him in turn. The result of the unions were his daughters delivering Moab and Ammon. Throughout Israel’s history, the descendants of both Moab and Ammon were a problem. In this instance, here in Judges 10 and 11, they were raised up to be the oppressors of the Trans-Jordan tribes for 18 years.
Change of Heart
Eventually, God gets Israel’s attention and the oppressed tribes are broken, confessing their sin. Notice their confession:
We’ve sinned. They stated what their sin was, a forsaking of God and pursuing the Baals. However, note God’s response in Judges 10:13-14, “I’m will no longer deliver you, go and cry after those false gods you now worship rather than me.”
Do whatever seems best. In response to God’s refusal to deliver, the people tell Him to do with them whatever He thinks is best. They accept their punishment and trust God’s dealings with them.
Put away the foreign gods. Continuing in their acts of genuine repentance, they then put away their idols and false religion and returned to serving the LORD.
The Coming of Jephthah
When the Ammonites gathered to do battle with the sons of Gilead, they needed someone to lead them. They turned to a man with a shady background – Jephthah. He was a son of a harlot, so Gilead’s true sons had run him off.
During his exile in the land of Tob, he had joined up with individuals described as “worthless fellows” (Judges 11:3). Those men gathered themselves around Jephthah and they became marauding pirate types who successfully raided the Ammonites.
The men of Gilead, knowing about his feats, called him back to his people to be their leader. Jephthah wonders why they would do such a thing calling him back. He even asks if they would be willing to make him their main kinglike figure. Eventually he makes them swear an oath to him and agrees to lead them.
He begins with negotiations with the Ammonites and does so with an appeal to history. What is interesting about his speech to them is that he doesn’t doubt that history he recounts and assumes the Ammonites are also familiar with what he is telling them.
First he asks them what it was Israel did to them that they would come and occupy their land. He reminds them further that they did not occupy the land where Israel lived, but that the Amorites had dwelt there. He then tells them they needed to be content with with the area their false god, Chemosh, had allegedly given them.
Rather than heeding his words to them, the Ammonites disregarded them and prepared to make terrible war against Israel. The Spirit of the LORD then came upon Jephthah and he lead Israel in battle against them and subdued them.