Jephthah delivered Israel from the Ammonites (Judg. 11:32–33), but his career as a judge was decidedly mixed. He was known to hang out with a company of “worthless fellows” (v. 3). Jephthah also killed his daughter as a sacrifice out of a misguided follow-through on a rash and sinful vow (vv. 29–40). And he also got into an argument with the tribe of Ephraim, slaughtering thousands of them (12:1–7).
In many ways, Jephthah is representative of the people of God during the era of the judges. Though the Lord frequently delivered His people and they exercised faith, the people also would fall into great sin. The state of the people was reflected in the character of their leaders. This was also true of Samson, perhaps the most famous of the judges of ancient Israel.
God raised up Samson to “begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” The Philistines originally came from the region near the Aegean Sea and settled in Canaan by the time of the exodus. Descendants of Noah’s son Ham (Gen. 10:6–14), the Philistines would plague Israel up through the reign of David. They settled originally in the cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron (Josh. 13:2–3), which were located on the western coast of Canaan in the area that includes the modern-day Gaza Strip and the region just north of it. At the time of the judges, the Philistines had made inroads into the tribal territory of Dan, as the story of Samson makes clear, and this led many of the Danites to head north (Judg. 18:1–2). One Danite who remained among the Philistines was Manoah (13:2).
Manoah had a barren wife to whom the angel of the Lord appeared to reveal God’s intention to overcome her barrenness and give the couple a son (vv. 3–5). However, Manoah was reluctant to believe her report of the angelic encounter, and it took him some time to believe God’s promise even when the angel spoke to Manoah directly (vv. 6–20). Moreover, even after encountering the angel, Manoah jumped to the wrong conclusion that he and his wife were going to die, though his wife corrected him (vv. 21–23). These facts suggest that Manoah had a weak faith, which is borne out in his later failure to honor the Lord by finally acquiescing to Samson’s desire for a Philistine wife instead of an Israelite who believed in the one true God (14:1–10). This inconsistency would also be evident in Samson himself, whose own dedication to God was imperfect despite his being set apart to the Lord (13:4–5).