Abimelech led Israel for three years during the period of the judges, though his impenitent wickedness showed just how deeply moral rot had settled into the visible covenant community (Judg. 9). The next major judge described in the book of Judges is Jephthah, whose religious and moral record is decidedly mixed, though he does not appear to have been as bad as Abimelech.
Jephthah rose to lead Israel due to the oppression of the Ammonites and the Philistines, though Jephthah fought only the Ammonites. Judges 10:6–9 says that God handed the Israelites over to the Philistines and the Ammonites after His people again fell into idolatry. The Ammonites harassed Israel mainly in Gilead, a territory east of the Jordan River that Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh shared (Num. 32). Israel captured this land when King Sihon of the Amorites refused Israel peaceful passage through the area, attacking them instead. Israel then defeated Sihon and another Amorite king named Og, seizing their territory. Gilead also bordered Ammon (21:21–35). In the era of the judges, the Ammonites moved to conquer the land, even making incursions into Israel west of the Jordan (Judg. 10:6–9).
The Israelites cried out when the Ammonites oppressed them, and at first God expressed reluctance to save them. Eventually, however, the Lord “became impatient over the misery of Israel.” Although this happened after Israel put away the gods they had been serving, it would be a mistake to think Israel’s perfect repentance moved the Lord to act. After all, Israel would fall into sin again. Ultimately, it was God’s love for His people that led Him to act, not the depth of their repentance. As Dale Ralph Davis writes in his commentary on Judges, “Our hope does not rest in the sincerity of our repentance but in the intensity of Yahweh’s compassion.” Sincere repentance indeed is vital, but as long as sin abides, our repentance will always fall short. Thanks be to the Lord, He saves us despite our imperfect repentance.
Jephthah was a Gileadite and of the tribe of Manasseh (11:1; see Num. 26:29). Though he was a mighty warrior, his brothers rejected him initially because he was the son of a prostitute. But when things sharply deteriorated, the Israelites turned to Jephthah, agreeing to set him over Gilead if he defeated the Ammonites. His initial act was to send messengers to Ammon and dispute their claim to the land. Gilead had been given to Israel by God, but the Ammonites refused to recognize Israel’s right to the land (Judg. 11:1–28).