By Rabbi Elie Mischel
Initially scorned by his brothers, Jephthah was appointed as the leader of Israel at a moment of crisis. When the evil Ammonites invaded the land of Gilead, Jephthah’s brothers begged him to lead them in battle against the enemy. Jephthah agreed to lead the men of Gilead in battle, and immediately sends messengers to the king of Ammon:
“Jephthah then sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites, saying, ‘What have you against me that you have come to make war on my country?’” (Judges 11:12)
The King of Ammon responds by accusing the people of Israel of stealing Ammonite land on the eastern shore of the Jordan River over 300 years earlier, when the Israelites first left Egypt and entered the land of Israel. The king then threatens Jephthah, demanding that Israel cede the land back to Ammon, or prepare for an invasion!
That should have ended the conversation. But for the next thirteen verses, Jephthah continues to argue with the king of Ammon, carefully explaining why the land in dispute did, indeed, belong to the people of Israel and not to Ammon. He explained that Sihon the Amorite had originally conquered the disputed land from the Ammonites, and the people of Israel then took the land from Sihon. The people of Israel had never attacked the Ammonites, and the land belonged to Israel, fair and square!
“Now, then, Hashem, the God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites before His people Israel; and should you possess their land?… While Israel has been inhabiting… all the towns along the Arnon for three hundred years, why have you not tried to recover them all this time?” (Judges 11:23, 26)
Unsurprisingly, the king of Ammon was not persuaded by Jephthah’s argument and proceeded to invade the nation of Israel. His accusations against the people of Israel were merely a pretext for the invasion; Jephthah’s arguments made no impact at all.
Jephthah certainly understood that the king of Ammon intended to attack and that his arguments would not dissuade him. Why, then, did Jephthah engage the king of Ammon in a public argument to convince Ammon of Israel’s legal right to the land? What did he hope to accomplish with this exchange?
I believe that although Jephthah was addressing the king of Ammon, his true audience was the nation of Israel itself. He knew that the Ammonites would not listen to his arguments, but he made them anyway in order to remind his own people of their history and their right to the land.
Jephthah understood that he could only defeat the Ammonites in battle if the people of Israel were conscious of their own history and their God-given right to the land of Israel. When a nation loses its self-confidence and begins to sympathize with its enemies’ points of view, it is doomed to defeat. And so, Jephthah recounted the history of the people of Israel and their conquering of the land to ensure that every last Jewish soldier would be confident in his people’s righteousness and their God-given rights to the land of Israel.
Jephthah’s insight is critically important for our own time, when many nations, from the Palestinians to the European Union, are challenging the right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Only one month ago, in January 2023, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Israel’s “prolonged occupation, settlement and annexation of Palestinian territory.” In the face of these spurious attacks, the Jewish people must respond with clear and strong arguments that prove God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people. Although the United Nations is unlikely to listen to these arguments, Israel must continue to make them, so that the Jewish people themselves understand that the holy land belongs to them!
Just as Jephthah made his arguments to remind his own people of their history and their right to the land, we must also clearly state our own arguments to ensure the Jewish people understand that Judea and Samaria belong to them. If they do not, they will not have the strength to stand up to Israel’s many enemies. Only by understanding the past will we have the strength to fight for the future.