Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. — Judges 11:32
The Torah portion for this week is Chukat, which means “requirement,” from Numbers 19:1–22:1, and the Haftorah is from Judges 11:1–33.
This week’s Haftorah reading brings us the story of Jephthah, one of Israel’s leaders who rescued the people from an attacking nation. On the surface, the story seems to be about Jephthah’s personal journey. The reading begins by telling us that his mother was a prostitute, his brothers kicked him out and exiled him, and then he became the leader of many strong, but ignorant men. We read how when Israel was in danger, the elders came to Jephthah begging for his help. Jephthah made sure that if he, in fact, helped them out, they in turn would make him their leader. Jephthah triumphed over Israel’s enemies and became the ruler of his tribe.
However, while it might seem that the focus is on Jephthah, the individual, the truth is that this is a story about the nation of Israel. It might look as though Israel’s fate rested in the hands of Jephthah, but in reality, it was the people who determined their own destiny. Jephthah was merely a pawn in God’s hand.
Let’s look at a few verses before our reading begins, in Judges 10, where we first learn that Israel was under threat. God made it very clear why Israel was in danger, “Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD . . . And because the Israelites forsook the LORD and no longer served him, he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines . . .” (vv. 6–7). No surprise here. The people had abandoned God and brought harsh consequences upon themselves.
A few verses later we read, “But the Israelites said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.’ Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the LORD. And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer” (vv.15–16). Again, it’s clear that when the people repented, God took up their cause and their safety was secured.
With that background, we now can look at the narrative of our reading differently. Perhaps all the details of Jephthah’s personal life were included to tell us what the Jewish sages also concluded — Jephthah was not the greatest leader that Israel ever had! However, it’s not the leader who determined the people’s destiny; it’s the people and their relationship with God that secured their future. Jephthah was merely God’s instrument to make that happen.
This is an encouraging message for anyone who has lost faith in the people and circumstances that appear to be determining his or her destiny. The truth is that we determine our own destiny by how we relate to God, the only true Savior. Don’t give away your power; rather harness your power through prayer, repentance, and faith.