Jephtha's Story - Part 1
by Francis Schmidt
(Guatemala City, Guatemala)
(1st person narrative, to be delivered dressed up as a Bible character.)
Which do you think is better: to have strong theology and weak faith, or strong faith and weak theology? Would you rather have lots of knowledge of the Bible and little faith, or lots of faith and little knowledge of the Bible?
Not an easy question to answer, is it? However, My life story teaches some lessons that I think can help us answer that question and I would like to tell you about it.
My name is Jephtha. You can find my story in the book of Judges, chapters 11 and 12.
In your culture a judge wears black robes and sits in a court of law. But in my culture, a judge was more of a military and political leader. We were also supposed to lead our people away from idolatry and back to a pure worship of the one true God, although some judges did a better job of that than others.
We were supposed to lead God's people back to God because God's people kept forsaking the Lord and worshiping idols. In my period of history, SIX TIMES God's people forsook the Lord and worshiped idols. They had to suffer at the hands of enemies before they'd call out to God, and God would raise up a judge. But with each cycle, the idolatry was worse and at the end of each cycle they ended up farther and farther from God.
By the time I came along, they were worshiping the gods of practically every country around Israel. As a result, God allowed the Philistines to conquer the Israelites on the west side of the Jordan, and He allowed the Ammonites to conquer those of us who lived on the east side of the Jordan. That's where I grew up.
The plundering of the Ammonites got so bad that the people cried out to YHWH, the Lord, and asked for His help. God heard their cries and took pity on them.
So, the next time the Ammonite army began to advance toward that eastern part of Israel to invade and plunder, the Israelite leaders met and decided to resist. First, they got together an arsenal of swords, spears, and shields. Then they got men to volunteer to be soldiers. They had everything they needed but one thing: they didn't have someone to lead their army. They didn't have a general. That's where I came in.
But before I tell you what happened next, I need to give you a little background. Those who knew me as a youth would have thought me the LAST person to become the leader of Israel. Let me tell you how I became that kind of leader in spite of my background.
My early story was a sad story of pain and rejection.
My father was named Gilead. He was a wealthy and respected member of the community. My mother, on the other hand, was a prostitute. From what I could find out when I was old enough, I guess they had what you would call a one-night stand. When my father found out she was pregnant, he brought her to live in his home until I was born. After I was born, he threw my mother out, but kept me as his son.
Did I mention that Gilead already had a wife and other sons? Well, you can imagine what a dysfunctional family situation I grew up in. His wife hated me and went out of her way to make my life miserable. I guess every time she saw me it must have been a reminder of her husband's infidelity. She took it out on me, as did my brothers.
But if life was tough at home, it was intolerable in the village. When I wanted to play with the other boys, they would mock me and run me off. "We don't want to play with you. Get out of here!" they would say. They spit on me and threw rocks and sticks at me. They called me names. They called me a worthless son of a whore and other names that I best not repeat from your pulpit.
So I learned to fight. I learned to fight back with my words and with my fists. I got good at it.
At home, my father had always tried to protect me from the abuse of his wife and my brothers, but one day I came home from working in the fields and saw everyone gathered around the house, weeping. My heart sank. Sure enough, my protector had died.
After the funeral, my brothers met with me. "If you think you're going to get part of the inheritance, you're crazy," they said. "You're not one of us. You're some other woman's son. In fact, we don't even want you around. Get out of here. Go live in some other country."
And so I did. I went to the land of Tob, way up to the north and east of where I had been born. I was unloved and unwanted at home. I was rejected by the community. I was shamed for being the son of a prostitute. I was a bubbling volcano of anger.
But at this lowest point of my life while I was in the land of Tob, two things happened that formed me into the leader I became.
The first thing was that I fell in with a group of young men just like me: unwanted, angry castoffs from society. In the violent, unstable times we lived in, you needed other people for mutual protection, so we banded together. We got weapons and learned how to use them. We became mercenaries.
And before long these rebellious young men who wouldn't take orders from anybody began taking orders from me. They saw that I was tough and smart. They saw that in the midst of a battle, when everybody else panicked and lost their head, I kept my cool and instinctively knew what to do. They saw I could lead them to victory. So they followed me.
The second thing that happened in the land of Tob is that I really came to know the God of my fathers.
Now, you need to understand that I didn't know much about the Lord God, simply because there wasn't much knowledge of God in Israel in those days. The priests at the Tabernacle in Shiloh were the sons of Eli, and they were a bunch of money grubbing, woman chasing, booze hounds.
All they knew of the Law of God was how to do the sacrifices, and the only reason they knew that was because that was how they made their money. They had copies of the Scriptures, but they didn't read them and they sure didn't teach them to anybody.
And the Levites who were supposed to teach everyone the law of God, didn't know the Law, much less teach it. In fact, the Levites sometimes ended up working as priests in the shrines of false idols.
So, with that context, you can see why I did not know much about the Lord God, but let me tell you -- what little I knew, I believed.
Now, I wasn't a nice, respectable believer. I mean, tough times make tough people, and I lived in tough times. If I had lived today, I probably would have been covered with tattoos. I probably would have had my hair long and pulled back in a ponytail. My speech was a little salty.
But I really believed. I rejected the idols and I clung to the Lord God. That's why you'll find my name listed in Hebrews 11. That's why in the book of Judges the author cited me as using the covenant name for God -- YHWH -- more than any of the other judges.
Maybe some of you come from rough backgrounds like me. Maybe some of you come from backgrounds of broken homes, of sexual abuse, of abandonment.
I want to tell you that God understands how we feel. He can heal those wounds, and use that pain to forge us into a better people. In my case, he used that pain to make me someone who could lead an army against the Ammonites.