Teaching the Book of Judges to Children: Abimelech and Jephthah


Just when you think this book is getting easier to teach to your kids, as you breeze through Deborah and Gideon, here comes more troublesome folks who are just too human! Abimelech was not a judge and certainly not chosen by God, but he’s part of Israel’s history and cannot be ignored. Jephthah made a truly stupid but understandably human mistake and his child had to pay for it; but still, he cannot be ignored either! As morality plays of warning against greed, rash actions, and underestimating God, these stories need to be taught to our children.

Gideon had 70 sons that lived with him, and then he had one more son who was the son of a slave women in a nearby town called Shechem. Gideon is an example of a good man who made some really stupid mistakes. The first mistake was to make that golden ephod. Remember that? I guess he meant it to be a kind of memorial to help the people remember what God had done for them. But the people started worshiping the ephod instead! The other mistake Gideon made was to follow the customs of the tribes around them by taking many wives and at least one concubine. A concubine was a sort of wife, but more like a slave. The son Gideon had with his concubine was named Abimelech.

Remember our cycle of Israel? Let’s look at it again. The people would sin and worship idols; God would allow a foreign nation to take over; Israel would repent and ask God for deliverance; God would send a judge to save the people; the people would serve God faithfully until that judge died; then they would fall into sin and worship idols again.

So, after Gideon died, guess what happened? Yes, the Israelites lost no time; they immediately started worshiping the Baals again. At the same time, Abimelech decided that he wanted to rule over everybody. I guess I’ve felt that way sometimes, haven’t you? But he didn’t just feel that way; he decided to make it happen. He went to his mother’s family and asked for money. They gave him money from the temple of an idol. Abimelech used this money to hire some thugs to help him kill all 70 of his brothers. And they did it, too, all except for the youngest brother. This young man’s name was Jotham, and he escaped by hiding. After Abimelech killed his 69 brothers, he declared himself king, and the people agreed to follow him. Would you want to follow a man who had just killed almost all of his own family? It would be hard to trust him, wouldn’t it?

The youngest brother, Jotham, when he heard that Abimelech was now the king, went before the people and made a speech. I want to read it to you out of the Bible. (Read Judges 9:7-20)

What do you think? Do you think the people treated Gideon’s family well?

God gave the people three years of Abimelech’s rule to repent. But they didn’t do it. So God let an evil spirit stir things up between Abimelech and the people. Suddenly, the people were saying, “Why should Abimelech rule over us? Who is he to tell us what to do?” When Abimelech heard what the people were saying, he set out to teach them a lesson! At first Abimelech was winning. But the people in the town he was attacking all fled to a strong tower to hide. Abimelech was going to set the tower on fire! But just then, a woman threw a huge mill-stone out of the window high in the tower. It hit Abimelech on the head and cracked his skull open! Abimelech was dying, but he called his slave over to him quickly. “Kill me quick!” Abimelech said. “I won’t have people saying I was killed by a woman!” So the slave stabbed Abimelech through with a sword. When the people of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, they all stopped fighting and just went home. Isn’t that weird?

After that, there were two more judges in Israel. They were named Tola and Jair, and they each were judges for over twenty years. Apparently they did a really good job of obeying God and there was no more fighting or war in Israel during that time.

But after Jair died, Israel went back to their old ways of worshiping false gods. They started worshiping the gods of the Philistines and of the Ammonites. So guess what? God let the Philistines and Ammonites take over Israel. Doesn’t that make sense? If the people wanted to follow the gods of the Philistines and of the Ammonites, shouldn’t they also be forced to be the slaves of the Philistines and the Ammonites? For 18 years, these foreign nations crushed the Israelites and oppressed them. Finally the people cried out to God for help. But this time, God said: “I have saved you time and time again, but you always go back to these idols. Why don’t you ask your new gods for help? Maybe the gods of the Philistines and the Ammonites that you like so much will help you.”

The Israelites knew that only the one true God could help them. This time, they truly repented. Instead of just asking for help, they destroyed their idols and showed that they really meant to change. So God sent them a new judge to lead them against their enemies.

This new judge was named Jephthah. Jephthah lived in the wilderness , and he was such a powerful warrior, he had gathered many companions, fellow adventurers, who followed him. I think he was kind of like Robin Hood and his merry men, living like outlaws, but really doing all kinds of good to help the helpless. Jephthah must have made quite a reputation for himself as a mighty champion, because the people came to him for help against the Philistines and the Ammonites. He agreed to help as long as they promised to follow him. He needed all of Israel to work together now. If they would not all follow him, he could not lead them to victory.

The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah and gave him wisdom and power to lead the people of Israel against their enemies. Jephthah must have truly wanted to serve the Lord, and he seemed to know a lot about the Scriptures. But, he was also influenced by his culture. He made a foolish vow, one that was common in his culture but was not anything God ever approved of. He made a solemn vow to God to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house if God would let him win the battle.

Did he really need to do this? God had already promised to give them the victory. We don’t ever need to make bargains with God. God keeps His word, and He expects us to keep our word, also. God, of course, let Israel win. He had already promised that He would, way before Jephthah was even called to lead. But the wicked vow had already been spoken and we must always keep our promises, especially our promises to God. So, what was the first thing that came out of Jephthah’s house? His daughter came dancing out, playing on a tambourine, celebrating her father’s victory. She was so happy that her daddy had come home safely from the battle. How quickly her happiness turned to grief! But she did not argue with her father when he told her about his vow to God. She knew as well as Jephthah that it is a sin to break a promise.

Now here’s the question you are all wondering, I’ll bet. Most of the time, when a person makes a sacrifice, the sacrifice is killed. But this is not always the case, and I don’t believe it was the case this time. Jephthah’s daughter asked for time to mourn because she would now never marry or have children. She did not mourn for her lost life. Also, the only person who was allowed to make sacrifices to God was the priest. No priest of God would ever make a human sacrifice. God made it clear over and over that human sacrifice is wrong. He was punishing the pagan nations all around Israel for making human sacrifices. How could He possibly accept such a thing Himself? No, Jephthah’s daughter was dedicated to the Lord’s work for the rest of her life because of her father’s foolish vow, but she did not die. She could never marry or have a family of her own, though, and that was a sad thing for her.

How can we avoid such a thing happening to us? Just don’t make vows! Jesus told us to just let our yes mean yes and our no mean no. We don’t have to “promise” that what we say is true. If we always speak the truth, people will always believe us without our having to make vows and promises.

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