Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library
Jepthah, the renowned Gileaditish general, makes his brief appearance in Freemasonry in the Second Degree, and although his reason for being there  should be obvious to anyone who knows the T. B.  I have often wondered how he managed to fit into masonic ritual and what was the real story of his military life, and of his huge battle with the Ephramites.

Goethe once said that “the man of action has no morals at all - only the man with a conscience is the tranquil onlooker”.  Be that as it may, this comment seems to fit Jepthah only too well. He was, what in modern parlance would be called a stand-over man.  By sheer force of arms he made city states pay him for protecting them in much the same way as a modern American gangster forces shopkeepers and others to pay for protection.

However, Jepthah was actually forced by circumstances  into his life as a stand-over man. , this life of shady business gathered about him  a band of freebooters that eventually became  a well trained, well equipped army.  Therefore, in order to understand this man, we must go back in time to see how his life fitted into that period.

Jepthah is, as far as I can see, only mentioned in the Book of Judges , chapters 10, 11 and 12, which tell of the conquest of Jordan by the Israelites  between 1300 and 1000 B. C.  the people who wrote this book of the Old Testament lived in the 9th. and  8th. centuries B. C. and so the actual recording of the events, which took place three or four centuries earlier,  could have put interpretations on the circumstances that did not exist at that particular time. It appears from the 47 verses of the life of Jepthah that they come from three different stories whose writers seem on occasions to have misunderstood their material.

The reason for thinking this is that the first story tells of how Jepthah, the Bastard, is driven out of his Manhanaim home to become a leader of men and is then called back to protect his homeland from the Ammonites.

The second story tells of negotiations in which Jepthah, supposedly an uneducated chieftain, endeavours in a sophisticated manner of one skilled in theology and law, to prove Israel’s claim  to East Jordan, and this, it is contended, is at least strange.

The third story tells of Jepthah’s vow and sacrifice and the author of this story appears to have been a poet, and it seems that his story has not been greatly altered by translators. This story is also the most gripping portion of the whole, it has titillated the imaginations of men for many generations and has even moved painters, poets and musicians to work on the theme again and again. Even Shakespeare, who rarely mentions Biblical figures in his plays, spoke of Jepthah and his daughter in Hamlet.  While Handel composed several oratorios  about him.

The writers of the story of Jepthah then, made him appear to think in a certain way and we now wonder whether or not  he did just that, at the time.  There is no doubt at all that the bloodthirsty ending  of the battles with the Ammonites  and the Ephramites, and the vow and it’s unhappy ending made Jepthah a mental wreck, but the effects left Israel in peace  for fifty years and this caused the country to become prosperous again. Jepthah ruled this happy, prosperous land as Judge  for seven years until at age forty he died, an unhappy, broken, old man.

Before beginning the actual story let me  say that the title of the book - Judges - comes from a very old Cananite word which means more than our word ‘Judge’ means.  The six men who were Judges of the people then, possessed special abilities in that they were saviours and deliverers, as well as leaders.

A superficial study of history shows a self evident fact that while one nation is at the peak of it’s power another is attempting to wrest this power from it by one of several ways. Jordan was beginning to lose it’s grip on the outposts of it’s empire  as Gilead, the father of Jepthah  and once a famous judge and mighty soldier, began to grow old. Many military campaigns  had worn the old man out and one day he died.  At this time burial ceremonies were  traditionally followed by a great feast, and Silpha, Gilead’s wife, decided to avenge herself on Jepthah, the son of Gilead by a concubine.  Silpha was extremely jealous of this concubine, Lewana, because she knew Gilead had loved Lewana  much more than herself, his legal wife.

Silpha’s revenge therefore was to invite Jepthah  to the feast at such a late time that it would be impossible  for him to be there for it. Jepthah, however, was informed earlier and arrived in plenty of time, only to learn that Abijam ( the priest ) and Silpha had decided to remove him from  his farm at Manhanaim.

Gilead had given this land to Lewana and her son, and owning land gave Jepthah, on Lewana’s death, a standing in the community that Silpha, her children, and the priest could not abide.

At this stage in Gilead’s history, farming was of prime importance - the nation had turned from a military campaigning nation to a peaceful farming one. Over the changing years the face of the god’s altered  from a fierce, warlike one to one more benign and placid.  At the same time farming was a very prosperous occupation mainly because labour was not cheap. The work was done by slaves - trophy brought home from the wars, from campaigns against Ammon and Moab.

Jepthah for his part decided that now Silpha and her three sons had managed to turn the priests against him, he would not wait for the order to leave but would just go.  At the same time he vowed that he would one day return.

He took his wife and daughter and headed for Tob.  Many of the people who worked on Manhanaim decide to go with Jepthah and so instead of leaving like a thief in the night, Jepthah  marched out at the head of  quite a large troop.  The land of Tob, a wild, rugged, and mountainous area was inhabited by the Anashim Rekim or freebooters,  more familiarly speaking - outlaws.  The climatic conditions he encountered in that first winter in Tob were hard, and this caused the weaker members to leave and some even died,  but when spring came, Jepthah  had about him a hard, seasoned band which was all the time expanding as more people came into the hills.

Soon the larger numbers became an embarrassment as food and money began to run out and tents became scarce.  In the band at this time was a huge dull-witted fellow named Nusu, who while on a foraging party killed some sheep herders in a rather gruesome way, and stories surrounding Jepthah and his band began to grow.  People began to fear him and Jeptha did nothing to stop this attitude from growing - in fact he encouraged it.

One night  two of his scouts went for a night of pleasure in the city of Aphek and in the early hours they killed the guards and opened the gates to Jepthah and some 120 heavily armed  followers. When morning came, the city fathers met with Jepthah who demanded  6,000 shekels as payment for his protection of the city.  Many other cities came under Jepthah’s protection in a similar way and, of course, for a similar  consideration.

In his fifth year in Tob Jepthah went to Bashan to buy some chariots and weapons. While there he climbed Mount  Hermon from the top of which he saw the whole of  the area from the sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea and he conceived the idea of uniting  it either by force or by guile.

In Manhanaim, Silpha and her sons heard  often of Jepthah’s wanderings and military forays and they did not like his success at all. As yet no one had filled the Judges seat left vacant  at the time of Gilead’s death, because there was no one of great enough stature to do so. Gadiel, Silpha’s eldest son, was a soldier but not a great general.  Jelek, her second son, was fat, sleek and cunning, a man interested in finance, while the third son, Shamgar, was a philosopher.  Silpha knew that none of these was a great enough person to fill the Judge’s seat.

In Jepthah’s sixth year in Tob the armies of Ammon  began to attack the outer edges of Gilead and they proved successful in these attacks.   At this time too, Jepthah had a standard of bronze made, and it depicted a pillar of cloud and a pillar of lightning or fire.

The next year King Nahash of Ammon made a full scale invasion  of Gilead and when Shamgar ordered men to the colours, few came.  When attacked, one town surrendered to Nahash and he by-passed it.  Another fought and he leveled the city killing the men and taking the women and children captive.  Then the Gileadites began to realise their danger and all called for Jepthah’s return to lead the army and rid Gilead of the troops of Ammon.

Jepthah met the priest Abijam and he laid down the conditions which he stated had to be accepted before he would return.   He wanted :

  1. i.    The Manhanaim farm back

ii.  The Judge’s seat  in Gilead

iii. Ketura, his wife, to be mistress of the house;

with Silpha to be the guest.

These conditions were quickly accepted and Jepthah’s army marched into the city.  All Gilead was astonished when it saw the size of the army, the way it was equipped and it’s obvious discipline.

Immediately Jepthah set about re-forming the troops of Gilead.  Some of the officers, knowing  Jepthah’s background refused to serve with him as their commander.  These he broke and placed their troops throughout his own units. Those who acknowledged him he left with their own units.  He then sent detachments of his troops  to bring the reluctant farmers to serve in the army.  The first who refused had his flocks slaughtered - the rest came. Jepthah then crowned himself Judge.

At this stage the priest Abijam decided that he wanted help from the Ephramites but Jepthah opposed the suggestion.  Many years previously the Ephramites had asked the Gileadites to help them and this help was not sent as Gilead thought  that the Ephramites were rough, noisy and unnecessarily troublesome.  However, Abijam ignored Jepthah’s opposition  and sent Shamgar to enlist their aid.

In the spring the long awaited battle against the Ammonites took place.  Jepthah ,who knew the terrain well, placed his troops in a position from which he could spring a trap on King Nahash.  Nahash, who was also a wiley commander, sprang a counter trap and while the battle appeared to be going against him, Jepthah that he would sacrifice the first person that he met that he loved when he returned, if YAHWEH  would grant him victory.  Soon after this he began to succeed in his efforts against the Ammonites. When the battle was all but completed the Ephramites arrived and camped near Jepthah’s army.

The Ephramites boasted that had they not arrived at that particular moment Jepthah would not have won the battle and these statements annoyed Jepthah.    The silly way the Ephramites lisped ‘SH’  as an ‘S’ , was also a cause of annoyance.  Jepthah’s lieutenant, Jemin, seeing the annoyance of his chief, decided to do something about it.  He called forth the troops and attacked the Ephramites.  They, never thinking that they would be attacked, were caught napping and thousands were killed.  Jemin then posted guards at the river crossings to catch and kill any of the Ephramites that may have escaped and who were attempting to reach their own country.

The guards were given a test word, Shibboleth, to put to those crossing the river and if anyone failed to pronounce it properly, they were to be killed.  This word contained the syllable  that the Ephramites were unable to pronounce through a defect in aspiration peculiar to their race.  Scripture informs us that 42,000 Ephramites were killed that day.

Sickened by this wanton slaughter, Jepthah decide to go back to the capital , Gilead. He chose to go there because he remembered his vow of sacrifice and he knew that both Ja’ala, his daughter, and Ketura were in Tob.  On arrival the first person who greeted him was his daughter, Ja’ala who had returned from Tob with her mother.  Jepthah immediately recalled his promise to YAHWEH and he became extremely confused and depressed.  In spite of this state of deep mental distress, some weeks later Jepthah carried out his vow.

Thus, brethren, ends the story of Jepthah, an important character in the Second Degree  OF Freemasonry.

A question that is often raised regarding the number of Ephramites slain  at the crossing of the river Jordan is . . .   2,040  or 42,000 ?   “Forty and two thousand”  is a precise translation from the Hebrew, in which language ( as in, say German or English in the time of King James) compound numbers must be conjoined with “AND” .  Hence, in modern English the number is correctly written as 42,000. Various  ‘Standard’ editions of the Holy Bible, all agree with this figure, and using the analogy of the numbering of the tribes of Israel distinguished masonic writers concur with that reckoning.  On the other hand there is the point of view, that that vast number would mean that the entire Ephramite army would have been obliterated  several times over, so the 2,040 is a more reasonable estimate.  Therefore the question remains unresolved:  do we accept the weight of modern Biblical scholarship,  or do we rely on common sense?

By W Bro R N Grimmett, PDGW
PM Ashburton lodge  no 1811, EC