I would have laughed out-loud at the sentiment, “Life is a bowl of cherries” if I’d ever heard it; especially since I’d gotten a lot more of the pits than the pleasure! Even worse I held in my hand a letter which made me wonder if the idea that “life is a bowl of pits” wasn’t more accurate. In that letter was a desperate plea for help from the last people I would ever have believed capable of such a thing.
My country was at war again, and there was nothing I could do to help. If there was one consistent theme to the past fifty years, it was that our nation was ALWAYS at war, or so it seemed. Actually to say that we were “at war” was probably a rather large exaggeration; we were being systematically annihilated by a larger, more powerful nation. Farm implements and shepherds against trained soldiers with the latest military armament could hardly have been described as a “war”.
I had been exiled from the country of my birth years before, but – as leader of a large band of warriors and soldiers – I was able to send one of my own spies south to look over the situation. He had arrived back the night before, and as I held that scroll I knew I needed to hear from him.
I grabbed the arm of my valet. “Call Micah and tell him to report to me at once.”
“Has he gotten back from Rabbah yet?”
“He got in last night, and I need to talk to him about it.”
“When do you want him to report?”
Less than ten minutes later Micah, my most experienced spy, sat in my tent. “What did you find in the capital?”
“I don’t think there is any way that Gilead will be able to resist their attack!”
“And why is that?”
“Looking down the mountainside to the east I saw two divisions of archers, a division of charioteers, and at least three divisions of swordsmen.”
“Are you sure?”
“I watched them going through exercises on three different occasions. There could easily be three hundred thousand warriors in the valley south of Rabbah.”
My worst fears were confirmed. No wonder the leaders of Gilead were making such sweeping promises to me in this letter. They needed someone to lead the army.
I had been exiled from the country, but – as one of the best warriors the country had – I still felt a certain level of responsibility. It’s not cocky or proud to say that I was one of the best, the simple fact was – at the time our country was not known for its warriors. Having the ability to hoist a sword, and some experience in doing so, put me in the top few percent of our nation’s most gifted warriors.
We had been the proverbial “whipping boys” of the earth throughout our history. As a result, we were not at our “peak” as far as developing our fighting skills as warriors. There was no doubt that I could have been a big help in this struggle, but I had been content to stay away because of the circumstances surrounding my expulsion.
Now this letter arrives and I struggled with what to make of it. The letter indicated that the very people who had wanted me “out of the way”, were now wanting my help!
What should I do? Did I have a responsibility to those who had forced me away from my home? Could I sit by and allow my home to be destroyed? These were the questions I searched for an answer to; but maybe hearing my story will help you understand the struggle I was having.
My story actually started long before I was born! To understand my confusion in responding to the letter you have to understand the circumstances that had taken place many years before. It was a tale that went back to the days when we were leaders in the world, masters of all that took place around us.
The land where I was born was part of a larger conquest; part of a larger war that took place between my nation and an evil nation bent on conquest and filled with religious atrocities. The enemy possessed the territory we had been promised many years before, but had never really inhabited.
The land itself was one of extreme contrasts very similar to my people; from the stark hills and arid valleys of the desert, to the lush beauty of the Jordan River, the area of the Sea of Galilee, and the northern hills of the country. It was the type of country that could grow on you as you journeyed its beautiful paths and watched the sheep grazing; or it could tear you apart as you experienced the harshness of everything that made this land one of a kind. The only way to comprehend the depth of feeling that the Promised Land created was to live there – or to grow up with the indoctrination that went along with being a member of the Israeli people.
During the conquest of Canaan the clans of Reuben, Gad and half the tribe of Manasseh remained on the eastern side of the Jordan River. My tribe was Gad, and our ancestors had settled in the country around Mizpah. We began shepherding sheep and goats in the hills leading down to the Jordan River.
Life was easy and the grazing had been the best, so our families prospered. My own family was fortunate to be a part of that prosperity – or at least most people would have thought it was fortunate. With the wealth came greater visibility in the community. Because of that wealth the day came when a marriage was arranged very early in the life of my father, Gilead.
Years later I would sit down with my father, (he was about the only one in the family I could talk to about anything important) and ask about those early events. I was still quite young, so my questions were as naive as they were heartfelt.
“Dad, how did you get the name ‘Gilead’?”
“It was given to me by my father, your grandpa Levi.”
“Were you the first one’s to come here?”
My father must have wondered where this was going. He began to fidget, and I figured he was thinking of the things he had to do outside. “Jephthah, what are you really wanting to know? I need to get back to work.”
“I want to know if our family was the first one here.”
“Yes, our family was the first one in Mizpah.”
“So, that’s why they named the whole country after you!”
It took me years to understand why my father walked away laughing. I had thought he would compliment me. But at least I knew that I made him happy with what I said!
While that series of questions was often shared with laughter by those who would come to my father’s shop, there was another question that was never answered – regardless of how often I asked. It would be years later when I would learn about it. It had to do with my mother, and was the reason for my exile.
Because of our important place in the community, an arranged marriage was setup between my father and a young woman from our own town. They had no idea, for years, that they would be wed; so they attended school together, passed on the street in walking to and from the market, and even teased each other as they grew older.
Finally, at age eighteen, Gilead was told that he would be espoused to Esther. The revelation was devastating for my dad. The woman was short, over-weight, and continually whined about her supposed lack of prominence in the town. As another of the more important families in the community, she had come to believe that the respect of the community for her was inherited along with that of her father. He was held in very high respect after years of wonderful leadership in Mizpah, so Esther assumed that she would receive the same.
Because of this, Esther felt that she had a right to expect certain concessions from others, and this had caused her to become cynical toward those around her. She was not well-liked, and much of that was based on the fact that she had developed a haughty attitude toward just about everyone.
As the day of his wedding drew near, my father wondered if he could ever be truly happy with this woman. But the idea of not going through with the arranged marriage never really occurred to him, and so the wedding took place. Their life together began awkwardly, but it was a life that would have far-reaching consequences.
For the first few years of marriage things went along fairly normally for my father and his new bride. Esther was willing to make concessions to remind my father that she was a good Jewish girl. They had a couple of young sons, and enjoyed them immensely; but their life together was without passion or interest of any kind. They spent their days in their own worlds, and their nights in separate beds.
Maybe it was not too surprising, then, that my father began allowing his eyes to look in the direction of a beautiful young woman who lived across the street. This young lady was gorgeous, outgoing, and abundantly blessed with those physical features that caused a man to look twice. This woman was single, but never lonely! There were consistently men coming to her small apartment just about the time that the sun would go down, for this woman was one that would sell her body to those men.
It so happened that one night, following another of those verbal battles that my father and his wife would enter into over the rejection that she felt she had experienced in the town, that my father decided that he had had enough. That night my father was one of the men who entered the front door of the young woman’s house!
In the days that followed, my father would come to regret his moment of indiscretion. He knew the law allowed for his death if he were ever discovered, but his conscience demanded that he take responsibility for what he had done. It was only natural, then, that he would take responsibility when that moment of indiscretion resulted in a pregnancy.
Nine months later I entered the house of Gilead, but it would never be my home.
I was not quite six when my father came to me long after bed-time. I had gotten used to my parents arguing in the other room, but this night I could not go to sleep. My father had whispered as he approached.
“Jephthah, I have something important to tell you.”
I looked forward to those times when my father would greet me in this way. It always meant he had something to tell me that made me feel like a man. “What is it, father?”
He could not meet my eyes as he continued, “Your mother is not Esther!” I had learned that I was not to call Esther, “mother” as soon as I could remember, but this was something new!
“Father, what do you mean?”
“Your mother lives across the street.”
There were three houses across the street. One was the home of a aged man who was blind and mute. For a few years I was scared of him; but, then, after one of my brother’s friends dared me to knock on his door, everything changed. I was caught before I ever reached the door, and the man invited me inside. The things he made out of figs were unbelievable, and we became friends. It could not be him, he had no wife!
The second house was that of a wealthy old lady that yelled at me whenever I walked on her lawn. Her high-pitched nasally voice reminded me of the coyotes we would sometimes hear howling outside town. She would come to my father whenever I played too close to her house. She was cold, loud, and very mean – to my way of thinking. I hoped that it was not her!
The final house was one that I had always been told to stay away from. If Esther so much as saw me looking at the house she would slap me alongside the head. She would even yell at my two brothers if they glanced that way – but they were never slapped! The only reason I knew who lived in that house was because of something that happened quite unexpectedly.
I had been left to myself on my way home from the synagogue one day. My brothers had decided to run off and play with their friends, and I couldn’t keep up. I finally gave up at the market, but I didn’t know how to get home. That’s when a pretty lady came up to me and asked my name.
“I am Jephthah, of the house of Gilead,” I smiled proudly. “This country was named for my father!”
“Is that right?” The lady said. “He must be quite a man.”
“He’s the greatest man in this town.”
“I believe you. Come, I will take you home.”
As we walked toward home the lady asked me many questions. They were strange questions for me to answer. Some were things that Esther said I was not to tell anyone, but she was nice. I found myself wanting to tell her about my brothers. I also told her that my mother’s name was “Esther” and that it was that name which I was commanded to call her.
The lovely lady seemed worried by these words, but I did not know why. When we arrived on my street the lady waved “good-bye” and I had never seen her again.
“Could this be my mother?” I could not believe that but my father would say nothing more. As he turned away I thought I saw a tear in the corner of his eye.
Over a period of three years following that I was able to figure it out. Comments made by my brothers, a misspoken word from Esther, and a word here and there from my father. From then on I found myself trying to come up with ways to see “the lady” – my mother.
As I got older, I came to realize that my half-brothers didn’t accept me, and even resented the fact that I was the product of such a reprehensible act. For Jewish youth they weren’t overly religious themselves, but they were good at holding things against anyone believed to be “below” them.
For that, and many other reasons, my early life consisted of constant fights with my half-brothers and their friends. I was never very good at turning the other cheek when they would ridicule my mother, or mock my birth. As a result I became good at all types of fighting, and as I learned that I possessed natural talent, I began to build on that. I got a job watching the flocks for some of the families in town, and used that money on lessons from a soldier in the army with the same abilities.
The day came when he could no longer teach me anything I didn’t already know, and I was able to consistently beat him in our bouts. I went looking for someone with more knowledge. The man I found was a descendant of Caleb who had taken on – and defeated – a band of giants living on the section of land he had claimed for his own.
Adam was a marvel with weapons of every kind, and had picked up some of the martial arts from travelers from the Orient. I spent several years training with this remarkable warrior, and it seemed as though every day brought new areas of understanding and wisdom. The dagger became my weapon of choice largely because of its availability early in my training.
There was a second aspect of this man that was fascinating to me — Adam was also a man of conviction and faith. Along with our training and bouts, we would spend hours talking about spiritual things. He seemed to like nothing better than when I would suddenly grasp a new spiritual truth. He was always quicker to applaud these efforts than my fighting prowess. I would try to laugh it off, for I wanted nothing to do with religion in those days; but he would always say, “God has something unique for you Jephthah! You had better be ready.” I didn’t believe him, but his words haunted my dreams.
This training, this release from the pressures of my home life, began to give my life purpose. I was pressing the knowledge of my teacher more and more and I found new respect among my peers as they realized my abilities. I was able to live with the humiliation of my birth because of these things, and found myself able to endure the insults as well. I believed that things could reach a certain level of normalcy if this continued, but it was not to be!