When we read stories in the Old Testament, sometimes it's easy to know what we're meant to think about the events, because God tells us. Sometimes, however, it's not always obvious who (if anyone) is in the right, and who is in the wrong. Take, for example, the story of Jephthah in Judges 10-12. He only agrees to fight for Gilead (part of Israel at the time) if they make him their leader; he defeats the Ammonites, sacrifices his own daughter to keep a rash promise, and then massacres a load of fellow-Israelites because they didn't fight with him against the Ammonites. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? And was he right to sacrifice his daughter or not?
Here are a few pointers for how to go about it when we aren't sure who is right and who is wrong.
1. Trust the Narrator's Perspective
As Christians, we believe that the Bible is inspired by God (“God-breathed” in the language of 2 Tim 3:16). But the way God has inspired Scripture is usually by using human authors, so that the words we read are simultaneously the words of a limited human writer writing thousands of years ago and also the eternal words of God. Peter describes it like this “prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).
That means that the narrator's perspective is reliable, but not exhaustive. They don't tell us everything that they know – they select what they think is most relevant. But nor do they necessarily know everything about the events they are describing, as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:10-12. For example, the author (or editor) of 1 & 2 Samuel probably didn't understand exactly how David would serve as a template for Jesus.
Sometimes the narrator tells us directly what God thinks of an episode. For example, at the end of 2 Samuel 11, the narrator adds in his own comment “But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.”
Sometimes the narrator leaves it quite a while before commenting – one example would be the history of the Northern Kingdom during the time of the divided monarchy. We're given occasional comments such as “X did evil in the eyes of the LORD”, but the narrator saves up a long exposition of what was wrong with the Northern Kingdom until just after its final destruction in 2 Kings 17.
Sometimes the narrator is more subtle, as in Ezra 4. In Ezra 4:1-5, the Jews get into an argument with their neighbours about rebuilding the temple. The neighbours claim they want to help; the Jews don't want them to. It isn't immediately obvious whether the Jews are getting it right by excluding other nations or whether they are being too exclusive and just creating unnecessary trouble for themselves. Except that in v1 the narrator slips in a single word – he describes the neighbours as “enemies”. Problem solved – the Jews were right on that occasion.
2. Look for comments elsewhere in Scripture
One of the main ways this happens is by a New Testament writer referring to an Old Testament story. Because we can trust the writers to be accurate in what they write, even if they don't always see the whole picture, we can use the extra information to help us figure out the OT story. Here are two quick examples:
In 1 John 3:12, John discusses Cain and Abel, and tells us that Cain murdered Abel because Cain's actions were evil but Abel's were righteous. That makes it easier to understand their story in Genesis 4.
In Joshua 2, we read the story of Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who shelters Israelite spies. It isn't immediately obvious whether or not she is right to lie to her own people. However, James 2:25 tells us that it was an example of faith in action, which led to her being counted righteous. Likewise, Hebrews 11:31 also tells us that Rahab's faith shown in welcoming the spies saved her from the destruction of the city.
3. Pay attention to Prophets
Most human characters in the story are fallible. But not quite all. In particular, the books of Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel and 1&2 Kings were originally classified as “Prophets” not history. Modern theologians tend to describe them as “Deuteronomic history”, because they tie in so strongly with the priorities of the book of Deuteronomy. I've argued elsewhere, and am still largely convinced by it, that most of the Old Testament prophets saw themselves as preaching God's word largely as they had read it in Deuteronomy. (For this view from a more liberal perspective, see, e.g. Holladay's massive commentary on Jeremiah.)
Deuteronomy is Moses' farewell speeches/sermons to Israel. One passage that's of particular interest for understanding Joshua – 2 Kings is Deut 18:14-22. Moses tells the people that God will raise up a prophet “like him” for the Israelites, and that they must listen to him. The marks of the true prophet are that he will speak God's word, he will point the people to God and not to other gods, and that what the prophet speaks “in the name of the Lord” will happen. Prophets who claim to speak “in the name of the Lord” but who aren't really doing so are to be put to death.
In the books of Samuel and Kings, in particular, the major characters are often prophets. In fact, arguably the two biggest characters in the story from the Northern Kingdom in 300 years are Elijah and Elisha, both prophets and both of whom get more attention than any of the kings.
We're told that some of the prophets are false, for example Zechariah son of Kenaanah. We're told that other prophets are true prophets, such as Elijah, Elisha and Samuel. 1 Samuel 3:19 tells us that God was with Samuel and let none of his words fall to the ground. The author of 1 Samuel is also at pains to show that Samuel fits the description in Deut 18 of the prophet who succeeds Moses. We can therefore trust Samuel's words because we can trust that he is speaking from God.
The same is true of Elijah and Elisha. The author again takes pains to link them with Samuel and hence with Moses' promise of a prophet. For example, at Samuel's farewell he calls on God and God answers with thunder and rain (1 Sam 12:16). When Elijah turns up in 1 Kings 17, he declares that it will not rain, then several years later, he prays and there is thunder and rain. The signs show that he is a true prophet, therefore his words can be trusted.
Of course, that doesn't mean they are perfect at all – Samuel is a poor father; Elijah gets very depressed in 1 Kings 19, and so on. The Bible loves to show that God uses normal people with normal human failings, and even that he can use them to speak for him.
4. How does it fit into the big storyline?
It often pays to be aware of how the passage you are reading fits into the big story.
For example, Genesis 12 is one of the key passages in the storyline of the whole Bible. God makes a series of promises to Abram – that his descendants will become a great nation, that God will give them the land of Canaan, that God will bless them and make them into a blessing to the nations. Those promises are a major theme right through the Old Testament and into the New.
But straight after that, in Genesis 12:10-20, you get an odd incident. There is a famine in the land, Abram and his wife go to Egypt; Abram pretend that Sarai isn't his wife and she joins Pharoah's harem, God sends diseases on Egypt because of them, but it's not obvious what God thinks of Abram's action until you compare it with the promises that have gone before.
Abe has become a curse to the nations, not a blessing. He has left the land that God promised to give him and has stopped treating his wife as his wife, therefore putting the idea of children at risk. Why? Because he failed to trust God's blessings. Ultimately the passage shows that when Abe fails to take God at his word things go worse for him and for the world than they would otherwise have done. But God won't let Abram's unfaithfulness de-rail his promises...
In the same light, Elimelech and his family leaving Israel for Moab due to a famine at the start of Ruth is seen in a negative light. It's part of the big pile of mess which Naomi is carrying and which God redeems in the story.
Or take the book of Judges. It's part of a huge story arc, running from Joshua to 2 Kings, which shows that despite starting with every advantage, ultimately God's people fail to live up to God's standards and so lose their place in the Promised Land. Joshua is mostly positive – the people obey God as long as Joshua and Eleazar live. But Judges marks the point where the rot starts to set in. From Judges 17 onward, the refrain “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” keeps coming up. In fact, what we see in Judges is a descent from well-ordered obedience to God to vicious anarchy, where the author sees the best solution as being the need for a strong central government – a king. The next big stage of the story, in Samuel & Kings, shows that though the kings start well and solve the problem of anarchy, they don't solve the problem of disobedience to God. Ultimately, that takes Jesus's redemption and the Holy Spirit's transformation...
Knowing the shape of the book of Judges explains why it misses out the last and probably greatest judge (Samuel) – because it runs from the ideal judge (Othniel), through the pretty good ones (Ehud, Deborah) to the really-not-very-good-at-all ones (Jephthah, Samson) and then into chaos. That means that when we see the horrific events towards the end of the book (chs 17-21), we shouldn't necessarily expect anyone to be in the right. It's depicting the anarchy that ensues when human sinfulness runs riot without even the restraining influence of central government.
5. How does it fit with God's character as revealed in Scripture?
The fifth criterion we can use to get something of God's perspective on an event is to compare it with what we know of the character of God from elsewhere in Scripture. This is probably the hardest criterion to use well, because it's easy to have our ideas of what God is like, then reject anything in the Bible that doesn't fit with them.
An easy example would be where someone in the Old Testament does something expressly forbidden in the Old Testament Law, like marrying a non-Israelite or where Onan abuses the tradition of Levirate marriage to sleep with his brother's widow while avoiding the responsibility of having children (Gen 38:8-10, and Deut 25:5-10).
But there are big principles too, like mercy triumphing over judgement and knowing that God does not desire the death of sinners but rather that they turn from their wickedness and live (Ezekiel 18:23).
Back to Jephthah
So what about Jephthah? We're told in Hebrews 11 that he had faith in God, which helps a little. But last time I preached on him, I described him as “a bastard in every sense of the word”, which still seems about right. He is one of the later judges in the book, so we should expect him to be very flawed, but still used by God to rescue (like Samson).
We can see he is angry and jealous at earlier rejections because he is illegitimate (Judges 11:1-11). We can say that his father should have done a better job of providing for him, and also that he should have learnt to be more gracious in his responses.
He does trust what God has done in the past and therefore rebukes the Ammonites. We are told that God's Spirit came on him and enabled him to defeat the Ammonites. (11:12-29)
He made a rash promise to God to sacrifice whatever came out of his house first when he returned. His daughter came out of the house first, so he sacrificed her. (11:30-39) We can tell from elsewhere in the Bible that bargaining with God is a bad idea, and from Deut 12:31 that God hates the thought of people sacrificing their children to him – the Canaanites sacrificed children to their gods and that is one of the reasons God drove them out of the land. Jephthah had two ways out of it as well – he could have broken his rash promise to God and thrown himself on God's mercy, or he could have bought his daughter back – Leviticus 27 strongly suggests that Jephthah could have bought his daughter out of the oath for 30 shekels of silver. That he did not shows us that either he was ignorant of the law or that he was exceptionally bloody-minded.
As for what happens in 12:1-7, with the massacre of the Ephraimites, it's obviously against God's character, though the author remains silent about it. There's probably a deliberate parallel with Joshua 22, where there is another quarrel between the same two groups of people. But there, just as they are ready for war, they discuss it first and end up agreeing and rejoicing together. Here, they don't bother listening to each other and it just descends into civil war.
These tools give us a pretty good way forward with understanding what God's perspective on narrative events in the OT is. It's an important first step for understanding the significance of the events, why they are recorded in Scripture and what they mean for us - I'd recommend a book like “The Word Became Fresh” by Dale Ralph Davis for taking the next couple of steps...
There are also some events this doesn't really help with because I don't think we're meant to see them as clear cut right or wrong. Was David right to let Absalom back in 2 Samuel 14? I don't know – it's part of a sequence following on from David's adultery with Bathsheba which shows how that has left him less capable of leading his own family, and I think that's closer to being the point of the story. It's understandable, and it has bad consequences, but not everything recorded in the Bible is clearly right or clearly wrong. It's messy - much like life.