Judges 11: The J in Jephthah


You probably know the Book of Judges formula by now. Insert “Jephthah the Gileadite” as the savior of Israel, and “Ammonites” as the requisite evil other in need of slaughter.

Chapter 11 consists of three sections. I won’t guess about the textual makeup- they seem reasonably cohesive. My focus here will be mainly on the second section.

The first part regards Jephthah’s (וְיִפְתָּח) origin story. Like Abimelech, he was the son of a prostitute. And also like Abi, he had a strained relationship with his many half-siblings. They drive poor Jephthah out of town. Then the Ammonites invade; the elder’s of Jephthah’s hometown (Gilead) come begging him for aid. Jephtah is all “aw shucks, I can’t stay mad at you!” and pledges to protect his people.

Jephthah does something pretty surprising: he wants to know why the Ammonites are being antagonistic. So he just asks them. And we get a little history lesson, which, most interestingly, references the book of Numbers! This is very unusual for Judges. What’s going on here? According to the OSE editors, Judges 11:12-28 extensively references Numbers 20-24. This isn’t quite right. Really, it’s only a few sections of Numbers 20-22. And if I may engage in some amateur critical theorizing… the sections it references are strictly from J- the Jawhist source.

First thing I did when I came across the connection to Numbers was to pop open my copy of The Bible with Sources Revealed, Richard Friedman’s translation of the Torah color-coded by source. And while Numbers 20-24 consists of a mix of Priestly, Jawhist, and Elohist sources… the details of Jephthah’s history lesson are all taken from J text. Not all the J text is used, but none of the E and P information is referenced.

What follows is ALL of Judges 11:12-28 (left column) with relevant selections from the J text of Numbers (right column). Not all the J text is relevant, but none of the E or P text is even hinted at. I’m reverting to the NKJV translation simply because I can’t type this much myself.

Judges 11 Numbers
12 Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the people of Ammon, saying, “What do you have against me, that you have come to fight against me in my land?”
13 And the king of the people of Ammon answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and to the Jordan. Now therefore, restore those lands peaceably.”
14 So Jephthah again sent messengers to the king of the people of Ammon,
15 and said to him, “Thus says Jephthah: ‘Israel did not take away the land of Moab, nor the land of the people of Ammon;
16 for when Israel came up from Egypt, they walked through the wilderness as far as the Red Sea and came to Kadesh. (Familiar details of the Exodus myth.)
17 Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, “Please let me pass through your land.” But the king of Edom would not heed. And in like manner they sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained in Kadesh. 20: 14 Now Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom. “Thus says your brother Israel: ‘You know all the hardship that has befallen us… 20: 17 Please let us pass through your country. (The King of Moab is not mentioned.)
18 And they went along through the wilderness and bypassed the land of Edom and the land of Moab, came to the east side of the land of Moab, and encamped on the other side of the Arnon. But they did not enter the border of Moab, for the Arnon was the border of Moab. 21: 13 From there they moved and camped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness that extends from the border of the Amorites; for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.
19 Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, king of Heshbon; and Israel said to him, “Please let us pass through your land into our place.” 21: 21 Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 22 “Let me pass through your land…
20But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. So Sihon gathered all his people together, encamped in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. 21: 23 But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. So Sihon gathered all his people together and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and he came to Jahaz and fought against Israel.
21 And the LORD God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. Thus Israel gained possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country.
22 They took possession of all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. 21: 24 Then Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the people of Ammon; for the border of the people of Ammon was fortified.
23 ‘And now the LORD God of Israel has dispossessed the Amorites from before His people Israel; should you then possess it?
24 Will you not possess whatever Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the LORD our God takes possession of before us, we will possess. 21: 29 Woe to you, Moab!
You have perished, O people of Chemosh! (There are several references to their god Chemosh.)
25 And now, are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive against Israel? Did he ever fight against them? 22: 2 Now Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites
26 While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and its villages, in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities along the banks of the Arnon, for three hundred years, why did you not recover themwithin that time? (A map of Israel/Judah is handy to look at here. All this makes sense geographically. 300 years is the supposed time elapsed since Moses.)
27Therefore I have not sinned against you, but you wronged me by fighting against me. May the LORD, the Judge, render judgment this day between the children of Israel and the people of Ammon.’

All of those references are from what Friedman has established as J text. The only iffy bit is the story of Balak; he admits it’s an enigmatic mix of E and J.

If you’re not sure what E and J are, I’d better bring you up to speed. (This post gets pretty dense.) J (Jahwist) is a text that came from the southern Kingdom of Judah. E (Elohist) is a very similar work that came from the northern Kingdom of Israel. Sometime after 722 BCE, when Israel was destroyed, both were combined into one semi-cohesive mess we call JE. This document, in whole, was paired with a longer, painfully dull work (P) to form Genesis through Numbers. Got it?

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Most of the folktales from Judges are set in Ephraim or other northern tribal areas- all part of the Kingdom of Israel. As far as I can tell- I spent an entire couple minutes cross-referencing place-names on a map- all the judges are from northern tribes. None are from Judah. Some are right on the border- Samson is from Gad, for instance. The final story in Judges (which isn’t even about a judge) has characters returning from Judah- but the bulk of the story takes place in Benjamin. In short: Judges is a product of Israel, not Judah.

And Judges might be referencing J, which is from Judah. Whadup with that? Is it even possible? Is there a more likely scenario?

Let’s answer the question with SCIENCE or something resembling a very silly attempt at it.

I primarily want to know: What text was the author of Judges ch. 11 working off? He had to have some sort of source document on hand, for the references are exact. I jumped to the conclusion the author was using J itself. But it’s way premature to declare that. There’s several other options:

-The Torah itself (JE + P)
-The combined JE text.
-The original J text.
-A 3rd source from Judah that was used by both J and the Judges author.

We can dismiss the Torah being used. This is simply chronologically impossible, as the Deuteronomical Histories (compiled c. 622 BCE) precede the Torah’s assemblage. (The individual component texts in each work vary considerably in age, of course. Judges was written before P was added to JE, is what I’m sayin’.)

The combined JE is a possibility. While the author only references J, this does not prove he wasn’t using JE. There is only one E story within the sourced portion of Numbers- a very strange tale about Moses making a bronze snake. The author could have simply ignored it because it was off-topic. And there were relevant J sections that remain unused.

One snafu under this hypothesis is a slight time crunch. We have less than a century during which a several things need to happen. J and E were combined some time after the fall of Israel in 722 BCE. If the ch. 11 author was using JE as a source, he was writing after it had become an established document. Then his work needs to be collected into an anthology of northern folklore (almost all of what we call Judges). And then Judges needs to become part of the Deuteronomical Histories, which was assembled c. 622 BCE.

Besides the time crunch, this hypothesis says that proto-Judges (before D messed with it) had to have been compiled in Judah, after Israel’s destruction. This is certainly a possibility. But given the age of some of the material in Judges (the oldest anywhere in the Bible!) and it’s strict focus on Israel, I’m inclined to assume it was written in Israel before 722 BCE.

Was the ch. 11 author using the J text? This is the conclusion I initially lept to. Under this hypothesis, the author of Judges ch. 11 was using J itself, the collection of Judah folklore which would later be combined with E- a similar work from the north. (The exact relationship between E and J is fuzzy, and that’s all I’ll say for now.) J and E predate the 722 fall of Israel. If we assume ch. 11 was written in Israel, we now have a slight problem. He’s referencing a document from Judah. How did he get his hands on that? Well… a quick geography lesson should clear things up: the kingdoms’ capitals, Shechem and Jerusalem, are about thirty miles apart. Thirty miles!

So it’s possible the author was living in Israel, using a Judah source. But maybe he was a refugee in Judah following 722. Then there’s the possibility that J stuck around as it’s own thing even after someone combined it with E. I think a pre-722 date is most likely, but I can’t really prove that.

The final hypothesis is that the author of Judges ch. 11 used bits of a local history for reference; portions of this unknown text later made its way into the anthology of Judahic folklore we call J.

To see if this is more likely than simply having J on hand, we have to analyze the actual content of the relevant J sections. There are basically four or five:

Ch. 20
P 1-13 (the waters of Meribah)
J 14-21 (Moses near Edom)
P 23-29 (Aaron’s death)

Ch. 21
J 1-3 (Israel gets Hormah)
E 4-9 (Moses’s bronze snake)
J 12-20 (Israelites near Moab)
J 21- 35 (Israel vs Amorites)

Ch. 22
J/E 2-?(Balak)

The J text here is clearly an amalgamation of various sources, but artfully arranged. Edom, Moab, and Ammon are geographically sequential. The odd story out is the one regarding Hormah. It’s geographically nebulous (show me Atharim on a map, please) but references places in the Negeb, which is far to the southwest, in southern Judah. Not only is wrong geographically, but its the only J portion not cited by the Judges author.

Verses 21:12-20 are an especially murky mess. They contain a very tantalizing citation of “The Book of the Wars of YHWH”, another of the Bible’s mystery references.

21:23-35 are where the bulk of the information is drawn. It contains some prose, a poem, and some more prose. The first block of prose and the poem are both referenced in Judges.

And finally, Balam. He is just name-checked in Judges, but the story in Numbers is relatively long. Friedman is not sure if the Balam story is J or E; there is evidence of both. I’d guess that a short J version was intermeshed with a much longer E tale.

Based on all this, I’m declaring the “pre-J source” not a very good hypothesis. The cited texts are a mixed bag, obviously drawn from several sources by whoever compiled J. While there are some obvious inserts, some parts show affinity to the J text that precedes and follows. They are not a unified document in and of themselves.

So I guess the winner of this stupid game is… J! That’s my final answer. The author of Judges ch. 11 had J, or knew J well, and used it as a reference when discussing Moab and Ammon. My primary reasoning is:

-Judges most likely predates JE.
-Only J is referenced.
-J was around before 733 and probably accessible.
-The J references cross obvious source boundaries, discounting the possibility of a 3rd source.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

…Oh fuck, we still have the third section of Jephtah’s story to deal with. This post is long enough and needs to be put out of its misery. Tell ya what, I’m going to tack that onto the next post, which will cover the last Jephtah chapter and the prelude to Samson.

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