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Bible Commentaries
Judges 10

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-18


Judges 10:1-18; Judges 11:1-11

THE scene of the history shifts now to the east of Jordan, and we learn first of the influence which the region called Gilead was coming to have in Hebrew development from the brief notice of a chief named Jair, who held the position of judge for twenty-two years. Tola, a man of Issachar, succeeded Abimelech, and Jair followed Tola. In the Book of Numbers we are informed that the children of Machir son of Manasseh went to Gilead and took it and dispossessed the Amorites which were therein; and Moses gave Gilead unto Machir the son of Manasseh. It is added that Jair, the son or descendant of Manasseh, went and took the towns of Gilead and called them Havvoth-jair; and in this statement the Book of Numbers anticipates the history of the judges.

Gilead is described by modern travellers as one of the most varied districts of Palestine. The region is mountainous and its peaks rise to three and even four thousand feet above the trough of the Jordan. The southern part is beautiful and fertile, watered by the Jabbok and other streams that flow westward from the hills. "The valleys green Kith corn, the streams fringed with oleander, the magnificent screens of yellow-green and russet foliage which cover the steep slopes present a scene of quiet beauty, of chequered light and shade of uneastern aspect which makes Mount Gilead a veritable land of promise." "No one," says another writer, "can fairly judge of Israel’s heritage who has not seen the exuberance of Gilead as well as the hard rocks of Judaea, which only yield their abundance to reward constant toil and care." In Gilead the rivers flow in summer as well as in winter, and they are filled with fishes and fresh-water shells. While in Western Palestine the soil is insufficient now to support a large population, beyond Jordan improved cultivation alone is needed to make the whole district a garden.

To the north and east of Gilead lie Bashan and that extraordinary volcanic region called the Argob or the Lejah, where the Havvoth-jair or towns of Jair were situated. The traveller who approaches this singular district from the north sees it rising abruptly from the plain, the edge of it like a rampart about twenty feet high. It is of a rude oval shape, some twenty miles long from north to south, and fifteen in breadth, and is simply a mass of dark jagged rocks, with clefts between in which were built not a few cities and villages. The whole of this Argob or Stony Land, Jephthah’s land of Tob, is a natural fortification, a sanctuary open only to those who have the secret of the perilous paths that wind along savage cliff and deep defile. One who established himself here might soon acquire the fame and authority of a chief, and Jair, acknowledged by the Manassites as their judge, extended his power and influence among the Gadites and Reubenites farther south.

But plenty of corn and wine and oil and the advantage of a natural fortress which might have been held against any foe did not avail the Hebrews when they were corrupted by idolatry. In the land of Gilead and Bashan they became a hardy and vigorous race, and yet when they gave themselves up to the influence of the Syrians, Sidonians, Ammonites, and Moabites, forsaking the Lord and serving the gods of these peoples, disaster overtook them. The Ammonites were ever on the watch, and now, stronger than for centuries in consequence of the defeat of Midian and Amalek by Gideon, they fell on the Hebrews of the east, subdued them and even crossed Jordan and fought with the southern tribes, so that Israel was sore distressed.

We have found reason to suppose that during the many turmoils of the north the tribes of Judah and Simeon and to some extent Ephraim were pleased to dwell secure in their own domains, giving little help to their kinsfolk. Deborah and Barak got no troops from the south, and it was with a grudge Ephraim joined in the pursuit of Midian. Now the time has come for the harvest of selfish content. Supposing the people of Judah to have been specially engaged with religion and the arranging of worship that did not justify their neglect of the political troubles of the north. It was a poor religion then, as it is a poor religion now, that could exist apart from national well being and patriotic duty. Brotherhood must be realised in the nation as well as in the church, and piety must fulfil itself through patriotism as well as in other ways.

No doubt the duties we owe to each other and to the nation of which we form a part are imposed by natural conditions which have arisen in the course of history, and some may think that the natural should give way to the spiritual. They may see the interests of a kingdom of this world as actually opposed to the interests of the kingdom of God. The apostles of Christ, however, did not set the human and divine in contrast, as if God in His providence had nothing to do with the making of a nation. "The powers that be are ordained of God," says St. Paul in writing to the Romans; and again in his First Epistle to Timothy, "I exhort that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings be made for all men: for kings and all that are in high place, that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity." To the same effect St. Peter says, "Be subject to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake." Natural and secular enough were the authorities to which submission was thus enjoined. The policy of Rome was of the earth earthy. The wars it waged, the intrigues that went on for power savoured of the most carnal ambition. Yet as members of the commonwealth Christians were to submit to the Roman magistrates and intercede with God on their behalf, observing closely and intelligently all that went on, taking due part in affairs. No room was to be given for the notion that the Christian society meant a new political centre. In our own times there is a duty which many never understand, or which they easily imagine is being fulfilled for them. Let religious people be assured that generous and intelligent patriotism is demanded of them and attention to the political business of the time. Those who are careless will find, as did the people of Judah, that in neglecting the purity of government and turning a deaf ear to cries for justice, they are exposing their country to disaster and their religion to reproach.

We are told that the Israelites of Gilead worshipped the gods of the Phoenicians and Syrians, of the Moabites and of the Ammonites. Whatever religious rites took their fancy they were ready to adopt. This will be to their credit in some quarters as a mark of openness of mind, intelligence, and taste. They were not bigoted; other men’s ways in religion and civilisation were not rejected as beneath their regard. The argument is too familiar to be traced more fully. Briefly it may be said that if catholicity could save a race Israel should rarely have been in trouble, and certainly not at this time. One name by which the Hebrews knew God was El or Elohim. When they found among the gods of the Sidonians one called El, the careless minded supposed that there could be no harm in joining in his worship. Then came the notion that the other divinities of the Phoenician Pantheon, such as Melcarth, Dagon, Derketo, might be adored as well. Very likely they found zeal and excitement in the alien religious gatherings which their own had lost. So they slipped into practical heathenism.

And the process goes on among ourselves. Through the principles that culture means artistic freedom and that worship is a form of art we arrive at taste or liking as the chief test. Intensity of feeling is craved and religion must satisfy that or be despised. It is the very error that led Hebrews to the feasts of Astarte and Adonis, and whither it tends we can see in the old history. Turning from the strong earnest gospel which grasps intellect and will to shows and ceremonies that please the eye, or even to music refined and devotional that stirs and thrills the feelings, we decline from the reality of religion. Moreover a serious danger threatens us in the far too common teaching which makes little of truth, everything of charity. Christ was most charitable, but it is through the knowledge and practice of truth He offers freedom. He is our King by His witness bearing not to charity but to truth. Those who are anxious to keep us from bigotry and tell us that meekness, gentleness, and love are more than doctrine mislead the mind of the ago. Truth in regard to God and His covenant is the only foundation on which life can be securely built, and without right thinking there cannot be right living. A man may be amiable, humble, patient, and kind though he has no doctrinal belief and his religion is of the purely emotional sort; but it is the truth believed by previous generations, fought and suffered for by stronger men, not his own gratification of taste, that keeps him in the right way. And when the influence of that truth decays there will remain no anchorage, neither compass nor chart for the voyage. He will be like a wave of the sea driven of the wind and tossed.

Again, the religious so far as they have wisdom and strength are required to be pioneers, which they can never be in following fancy or taste, Here nothing but strenuous thought, patient faithful obedience can avail. Hebrew history is the story of a pioneer people and every lapse from fidelity was serious, the future of humanity being at stake. Each Christian society and believer has work of the same kind not less important, and failures due to intellectual sloth and moral levity are as dishonourable as they are hurtful to the human race. Some of our heretics now are more serious than Christians, and they give thought and will more earnestly to the opinions they try to propagate. While the professed servants of Christ, who should be marching in the van, are amusing themselves with the accessories of religion, the resolute socialist or nihilist, reasoning and speaking with the heat of conviction, leads the masses where he will.

The Ammonite oppression made the Hebrews feel keenly the uselessness of heathenism. Baal and Melcarth had been thought of as real divinities, exercising power in some region or other of earth or heaven, and Israel’s had been an easy backsliding. Idolatry did not appear as darkness to people who had never been fully in the light. But when trouble came and help was sorely needed they began to see that the Baalim were nothing. What could these idols do for men oppressed and at their wits’ end? Religion was of no avail unless it brought an assurance of One Whose strong hand could reach from land to land, Whose grace and favour could revive sad and troubled souls. Heathenism was found utterly barren, and Israel turned to Jehovah the God of its fathers. "We have sinned against Thee even because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baalim."

Those who now fall away from faith are in worse case by far than Israel. They have no thought of a real power that can befriend them. It is to mere abstractions they have given the Divine name. In sin and sorrow alike they remain with ideas only, with bare terms of speculation in which there is no life, no strength, no hope for the moral nature. They are men and have to live; but with the living God they have entirely broken. In trouble they can only call on the Abyss or the Immensities, and there is no way of repentance though they seek it carefully with tears. At heart therefore they are pessimists without resource. Sadness deep and deadly ever waits upon such unbelief, and our religion today suffers from gloom because it is infected by the uncertainties and denials of an agnosticism at once positive and confused.

Another paganism, that of gathering and doing in the world sphere, is constantly beside us, drawing multitudes from fidelity to Christ as Baal worship drew Israel from Jehovah, and it is equally barren in the sharp experiences of humanity. Earthly things venerated in the ardour of business and the pursuit of social distinction appear as impressive realities only while the soul sleeps. Let it be aroused by some overturn of the usual, one of those floods that sweep suddenly down on the cities which fill the valley of life, and there is a quick pathetic confession of the truth. The soul needs help now, and its help must come from the Eternal Spirit. We must have done with mere saying of prayers and begin to pray. We must find access, if access is to be had, to the secret place of the Most High on Whose mercy we depend to redeem us from bondage and fear. Sad therefore is it for those who having never learned to seek the throne of divine succour are swept by the wild deluge from their temples and their gods. It is a cry of despair they raise amid the swelling torrent. You who now by the sacred oracles and the mediation of Christ can come into the fellowship of eternal life, be earnest and eager in the cultivation of your faith. The true religion of God which avails the soul in its extremity is not to be had in a moment, when suddenly its help is needed. That confidence which has been established in the mind by serious thought, by the habit of prayer and reliance on divine wisdom can alone bring help when the foundations of the earthly are destroyed.

To Israel troubled and contrite came as on previous occasions a prophetic message; and it was spoken by one of those incisive ironic preachers who were born from time to time among this strangely heathen, strangely believing people. It is in terms of earnest remonstrance he speaks, at first almost going the length of declaring that there is no hope for the rebellious and ungrateful tribes. They found it an easy thing to turn from their Divine King to the gods they chose to worship. Now they perhaps expect as easy a recovery of His favour. But healing must begin with deeper wounding, and salvation with much keener anxiety. This prophet knows the need for utter seriousness of soul. As he loves and yearns over his country folk he must so deal with them; it is God’s way, the only way to save. Most irrationally, against all sound principles of judgment they had abandoned the Living One, the Eternal to worship hideous idols like Moloch and Dagon. It was wicked because it was wilfully stupid and perverse. And Jehovah says, "I will save you no more, Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen; let them save you in the day of your distress." The rebuke is stinging. The preacher makes the people feel the wretched insufficiency of their hope in the false, and the great strong pressure upon them of the Almighty, Whom, even in neglect, they cannot escape. We are pointed forward to the terrible pathos of Jeremiah:-"Who shall have pity upon thee, O Jerusalem? or who shall bemoan thee? or who shall turn aside to ask of thy welfare? Thou hast rejected me, saith the Lord, thou art gone backward: therefore have I stretched out my hand against thee, and destroyed thee: I am weary with repenting."

And notice to what state of mind the Hebrews were brought. Renewing their confession they said, "Do thou unto us whatsoever seemeth good unto Thee." They would be content to suffer now at the hand of God whatever He chose to inflict on them. They themselves would have exacted heavy tribute of a subject people that had rebelled and came suing for pardon. Perhaps they would have slain every tenth man. Jehovah might appoint retribution of the same kind; He might afflict them with pestilence; He might require them to offer a multitude of sacrifices. Men who traffic with idolatry and adopt gross notions of revengeful gods are certain to carry back with them when they return to the better faith many of the false ideas they have gathered. And it is just possible that a demand for human sacrifices was at this time attributed to God, the general feeling that they might be necessary connecting itself with Jephthah’s vow.

It is idle to suppose that Israelites who persistently lapsed into paganism could at any time, because they repented, find the spiritual thoughts they had lost. True those thoughts were at the heart of the national life, there always even when least felt. But thousands of Hebrews even in a generation of reviving faith died with but a faint and shadowy personal understanding of Jehovah. Everything in the Book of Judges goes to show that the mass of the people were nearer the level of their neighbours the Moabites and Ammonites than the piety of the Psalms. A remarkable ebb and flow are observable in the history of the race. Look at some facts and there seems to be decline. Samson is below Gideon, and Gideon below Deborah; no man of leading until Isaiah can be named with Moses. Yet ever and anon there are prophetic calls and voices out of a spiritual region into which the people as a whole do not enter, voices to which they listen only when distressed and overborne. Worldliness increases, for the world opens to the Hebrew; but it often disappoints, and still there are some to whom the heavenly secret is told. The race as a whole is not becoming more devout and holy, but the few are gaining a clearer vision as one experience after another is recorded. The antithesis is the same we see in the Christian centuries. Is the multitude more pious now than in the ago when a king had to do penance for rash words spoken against an ecclesiastic? Are the churches less worldly than they were a hundred years ago? Scarcely may we affirm it. Yet there never was an age so rich as ours in the finest spirituality, the noblest Christian thought. Our van presses up to the Simplon height and is in constant touch with those who follow; but the rear is still chaffering and idling in the streets of Milan. It is in truth always by the fidelity of the remnant that humanity is saved for God.

We cannot say that when Israel repented it was in the love of holiness so much as in the desire for liberty. The ways of the heathen were followed readily, but the supremacy of the heathen was ever abominable to the vigorous Israelite. By this national spirit however God could find the tribes, and a special feature of the deliverance from Ammon is marked where we read: "The people, the princes of Gilead said one to the other, What man is he that will begin to fight against the children of Ammon? he shall be head over all the inhabitants of Gilead." Looking around for the fit leader they found Jephthah and agreed to invite him.

Now this shows distinct progress in the growth of the nation. There is, if nothing more, a growth in practical power. Abimelech had thrust himself upon the men of Shechem. Jephthah is chosen apart from any ambition of his own. The movement which made him judge arose out of the consciousness of the Gileadites that they could act for themselves and were bound to act for themselves. Providence indicated the chief, but they had to be instruments of providence in making him chief. The vigour and robust intelligence of the men of Eastern Palestine come out here. They lead in the direction of true national life. While on the west of Jordan there is a fatalistic disposition, these men move. Gilead, the separated country, with the still ruder Bashan behind it and the Argob a resort of outlaws, is beneath some other regions in manners and in thought, but ahead of them in point of energy. We need not look for refinement, but we shall see power; and the chosen leader, while he is something of the barbarian, will be a man to leave his mark on history.

At the start we are not prepossessed in favour of Jephthah. There is some confusion in the narrative which has led to the supposition that he was a foundling of the clan. But taking Gilead as the actual name of his father, he appears as the son of a harlot, brought up in the paternal home and banished from it when there were legitimate sons able to contend with him. We get thus a brief glance at a certain rough standard of morals and see that even polygamy made sharp exclusions. Jephthah, cast out, betakes himself to the land of Tob and getting about him a band of vain fellows or freebooter, becomes the Robin Hood or Rob Roy of his time. There are natural suspicions of a man who takes to a life of this kind, and yet the progress of events shows that though Jephthah was a sort of outlaw his character as well as his courage must have commended him. He and his men might occasionally seize for their own use the cattle and corn of Israelites when they were hard pressed for food. But it was generally against the Ammonites and other enemies their raids were directed, and the modern instances already cited show that no little magnanimity and even patriotism may go along with a life of lawless adventure. If this robber chief, as some might call him, now and again levied contributions from a wealthy flock master, the poorer Hebrews were no doubt indebted to him for timely help when bands of Ammonites swept through the land. Something of this we must read into the narrative, otherwise the elders of Gilead would not so unanimously and urgently have invited him to become their head.

Jephthah was not at first disposed to believe in the good faith of those who gave him the invitation. Among the heads of households who came he saw his own brothers who had driven him to the hills. He must have more than suspected that they only wished to make use of him in their emergency and, the fighting over, would set him aside. He therefore required an oath of the men that they would really accept him as chief and obey him. That given, he assumed the command.

And here the religious character of the man begins to appear. At Mizpah on the verge of the wilderness where the Israelites, driven northward by the victories of Ammon, had their camp there stood an ancient cairn or heap of stones which preserved the tradition of a sacred covenant and still retained the savour of sanctity. There it was that Jacob, fleeing from Padanaram on his way back to Canaan, was overtaken by Laban, and there raising the Cairn of Witness they swore in the sight of Jehovah to be faithful to each other. The belief still lingered that the old monument was a place of meeting between man and God. To it Jephthah repaired at this new point in his life. No more an adventurer, no more an outlaw, but the chosen leader of eastern Israel, "he spake all his words before Jehovah in Mizpah." He had his life. to review there, and that could not be done without serious thought. He had a new and strenuous future opened to him. Jephthah the outcast, the unnamed, was to be leader in a tremendous national struggle. The bold Gileadite feels the burden of the task. He has to question himself, to think of Jehovah. Hitherto he has been doing his own business and to that he has felt quite equal; now with large responsibility comes a sense of need. For a fight with society he has been strong enough; but can he be sure of himself as God’s man, fighting against Ammon? Not a few words but many would he have to utter as on the hilltop in the silence he lifted up his soul to God and girt himself in holy resolution, as a father and a Hebrew, to do his duty in the day of battle. Thus we pass from doubt of Jephthah to the hope that the banished man, the freebooter, will yet prove to be an Israelite indeed, of sterling character, whose religion, very rude perhaps, has a deep strain of reality and power. Jephthah at the cairn of Mizpah lifting up his hands in solemn invocation of the God of Jacob reminds us that there are great traditions of the past of our nation and of our most holy faith to which we are bound to be true, that there is a God, our witness and our judge, in Whose strength alone we can live and do nobly. For the service of humanity and the maintenance of faith we need to be in close touch with the brave and good of other days and in the story of their lives find quickening, for our own. Along the same line and succession we are to bear our testimony, and no link of connection with the Divine Power is to be missed which the history of the men of faith supplies. Yet as our personal Helper especially we must know God. Hearing His call to ourselves we must lift the standard and go forth to the battle of life. Who can serve his family and friends, who can advance the well being of the world, unless he has entered into that covenant with the Living God which raises mortal insufficiency to power and makes weak and ignorant men instruments of a divine redemption?

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Judges 10". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/judges-10.html.
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