In my read-through-the-Bible journey this year, I finished the book of Judges this morning. This is one of the most difficult books for me to read - much harder than Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy - because it is so sad and, in some places, so incredibly disgusting. Thankfully, tomorrow I will be reading Ruth, one of my very favorite books.
But back to Judges...
In chapter 11, we read about Jephthah, a mighty warrior whom God raised up to deliver the people of Israel from the Ammonites. The Ammonites had "crushed and oppressed" (Judges 10:8) the people of Israel for eighteen years. Long story short, Jephthah issued a call for able-bodied fighting men to join forces to help throw off the yoke of the Ammonites. However, when it came time to fight, the Ephraimites were conspicuously absent.
After God gave victory over the Ammonites to Jephthah, the Ephraimites gathered together and took up arms. Then, they marched up to Jephthah and accused him of leaving them out of the action and thus denying them their share in the glory of victory. In their jealous rage, the Ephraimites threatened Jephthah with these words: "We will burn your house over you with fire" (Judges 12:1).
Jephthah would have none of their nonsense. He basically told the angry Ephraimites: "I asked you to help, and you refused to come. So, I took care of matters myself." Jephthah and his men then proceeded to slaughter 42,000 of the Ephraimites.
This was not the first instance of such behavior on the part of the Ephraimites. In Judges, chapter 8, Gideon had a similar experience with them. When Gideon was recruiting troops to help fight the Midianites, the Ephraimites were, once again, conspicuously absent. After the Midianites had been defeated, here came the Ephraimites, all upset and fussing at Gideon for not allowing them to help.
Reading through these passages in Judges, it occurred to me that we probably all know an Ephraimite or two. You know, the person who expresses eagerness to help, but who is always mysteriously unavailable at crunch time. The person who quickly offers, "I can do X, Y. Z!" - but who then fails on his commitment.
Maybe it's something as simple as "I can pick up those files for you" or "Let me run the kids to ball practice" (instead of something big and hairy like fighting the Ammonites) - but what actually happens is, "I forgot" or "I got busy and lost track of time" or "I had something else more pressing come up." Whatever the task and whatever the excuse, the bottom line is: this person expresses willingness to help, then consistently fails to actually help.
And what's worse, they guilt the person they have failed. The Ephraimites scolded Gideon for not letting them in on the action, and they threatened Jephthah with violence. In both cases, the Ephraimites complained that they were the ones who had been done a disservice. Gideon smoothed things over by flattering the Ephraimites. Jephthah, on the other hand, thrashed them, and not with the flat side of the sword.
In my own life, I know people who do exactly the same thing. They offer to help. I take them up on their offer. They fail on their commitments, providing excuses instead of much-needed service. After repeating this cycle a couple of times. I just nod and smile when they offer to help, but I don't include them in any critical plans or expect them to show up at crunch time.
Inevitably, after the deadline or the frenzied push has passed, these people (who have been conspicuously absent or predictably busy or unavailable during crunch time) show up suddenly and scold me: "Why didn't you ask me to help?!" It's like they want to make me feel guilty for muddling through the crunch without them!
When I read these accounts of the Ephraimites in Judges, I wondered: Why didn't the Ephraimites simply say, "Wow, Gideon! Great job!" - or - "Thanks, Jephthah!" Why didn't they celebrate the victories of their brothers? Why didn't they choose to honor Gideon and Jephthah? Shoot, they could've gotten all crazy and said something like, "Man, Jephthah, you were right. We should have shown up for battle. We are so sorry we bailed on you." Why, then, did they insist on using their brothers' victories as an excuse to nurse their own bruised egos and whine about how they had been abused and neglected?
Reading through Judges again, I find the attitude and behavior of the Ephraimites both disgusting and wicked - not only because they refused to help, but because once the crisis was past, they rebuked and guilted the very men who had put their lives on the line for their countrymen. That's just wrong, people. That is sick thinking, and it is a sick way of relating to others.
Like Gideon, my response to my own personal Ephraimites has usually been to try to appease them, to soothe their hurt feelings, to play their game of making everything in life all about them. Something about being over 50, though, makes me consider Jephthah's approach increasingly attractive.
No, I do not want to meet these deluded, self-absorbed people at the fords of the Jordan River with a sword in my hand. (Deluded? Yes, deluded. I think they truly believe they want to help, despite the fact that their actions prove otherwise.) Rather, I want to skip the whole guilt game and simply state the truth.
Question: "Why didn't you ask me to help?"
Answer: "I did, and you didn't. Do you want to take a walk along the river and talk about it?"
2 hours ago