Notes on Judges 11, verses 19-27

by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)

Note: this is the second segment of Jephthah's reply to the king of Ammon.

Judges 11:19, KJV: And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said unto him, Let us pass, we pray thee, through thy land into my place.

This seemed like a reasonable request, similar to what Israel had asked of Edom (Numbers 20:14-2) before they headed east, then north, along the borders of Moab (Deut. 2:29). At the time, there may not have been any desire on Israel’s part to live on the east side of the Jordan. The spies had gone throughout the land (Numbers 13) but the text does not say they went over Jordan to what became the land of Gilead. At any rate, Israel was simply passing through, willing to avoid any contact, simply following the “king’s highway” until they were out of Sihon’s land (Num. 21:22).

20 But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his coast: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and pitched in Jahaz, and fought against Israel.

Edom had done the same thing, denying Israel access to Edom’s territory and coming out against Israel with many people (Num. 20:20), but there is no record of any actual fighting. Here, Sihon basically declared war on Israel, “pitch(ing) in Jahaz (“came to Jahaz”, Num. 21:23),” or setting up camp there and fighting Israel. The exact location of Jahaz, other than being on the east side of the Jordan, is unknown.

21 And the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them: so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country.

Note that it was Sihon who started the war against the Israelites. Israel fought back, in self-defense, and was able to defeat Sihon and his forces completely. See Numbers 21:21-31 for more information.

22 And they possessed all the coasts of the Amorites, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and from the wilderness even unto Jordan.

“Coasts” means “borders”. The Arnon was the northern border of Moab, and the Jabbok was a good ways north. How far the wilderness extended east, away from the Jordan, is unknown to us today.

23 So now the LORD God of Israel hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and shouldest thou possess it?

Jephthah reminds the Ammonite king that the LORD gave Israel victory over the Amorites and their land. Then he follows up with a question, “why should you try to claim for yourselves what our God, the LORD, God of Israel, gave us?”

24 Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the LORD our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess.

Note that Jephthah was not worshiping Chemosh, the (pagan) god of the Moabites, only mentioning the reality that war was spiritual as well as military in those days. It is not clear why he called the god of the Ammonites Chemosh as they Ammonites worshiped Molech/Milcom/Moloch/Malcham (variations of the same name as found in the OT). One idea is that Jephthah linked Chemosh with both Moab and Ammon because, earlier, both nations had united to oppress Israel near Jericho (Judges 3).

25 And now (art) thou any thing better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them,

Even as Rahab and other people of Canaan had heard about the mighty works of the LORD, before the entry into Canaan (Joshua 2; Joshua 9 for the Gibeonites, e.g.), Israel seems to have known about the deeds of others such as Balaam. Numbers 22-24 tells the story of Balaam, who left his home in Mesopotamia at the request of Balak, king of Moab, during Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness. Balak asked Balaam to curse Israel at least three times; Balaam, though, was restricted into only giving the message from the God of Israel. Jephthah then reminds Ammon’s king that Balak never fought Israel, so, why should he fight Israel?

26 While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that (be) along by the coasts of Arnon, three hundred years? why therefore did ye not recover (them) within that time?

Why Jephthah mentions the 300 years is not certain. It is true that Israel lived in some of those cities (Numbers 21) apparently before entering into Canaan near Jericho (Joshua 1-4). Allowing for five years of conquest (see Caleb’s testimony in Joshua 14:6-10), and 25 years of peace (Joshua died at 110 years of age, Joshua 24:29), that still leaves 270 years between Joshua’s death and the time of Jephthah. But the number 300 might be a round number; counting all the years of peace and the years of oppression, the total number of years is 279. Adding the years of conquest and peace would make the total 309 so 300 might well be a round number.

The point Jephthah seems to be making here is that Ammon had had nearly 300 years to battle the Amorites but there is no record they ever did. Israel had been careful not to enter or even interfere with Moab and Ammon (Deut. 2) and did not start the war against the Amorites. The Amorite territory was won in battle so Ammon had no legitimate claim whatsoever to it.

27 Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: the LORD the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon.

This is an incredible irony: the man the Gileadites chose to be their champion is trying everything he knows how to do in order to avoid war. He reminds Ammon’s king that Israel had done nothing wrong in this regard, and that they were sinning by attacking Israel without a valid cause.

Could it be that since Ammon had already waged successful campaigns against Judah, Ephraim, and Benjamin (Judges 10:7-9), they felt they could wage war successfully on the other side of the Jordan?

Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV).

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