Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏹️

Blurred still from Alan Parker's 1976 film, Bugsy Malone. Like Jephthah, Bugsy is recruiting an army of indigent, homeless people—vain men—to take on a rival gang, stronger than his own.

Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah. And Gilead's wife bare him sons; and his wife's sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house; for thou art the son of a strange woman. Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, and went out with him.
Judges 11:1-3

In reading the King James version of the Bible, it is easy to miss that Jephthah, after being cast from his family home due to his ignoble birth, becomes a bandit leader. The KJV uses the term vain men to describe what other translations more bluntly express as gang of scoundrels (NIV), band of worthless rebels (NLT) or worthless and unprincipled men (Amplified Bible). The word vain, more commonly used today to mean excessive pride or self-love also means to have the quality of being worthless or futile.1 Although the men attracted to Jephthah are described in such derogatory terms by later translations, more serious study of the term in the context of time and place reveals that these men were

"not wicked men, but empty men, whose pockets were empty; men without money...had nothing to live upon, no more than Jephthah, and he being a valiant man, they enlisted themselves under him."2

Their vanity was their emptiness, their lack of land, trade or income. The two translations that come closest to capturing this use the terms needy (Douay-Rheims Bible) and indigent (Catholic Public Domain Version). Typical of the period, where God's covenant with Israel was largely forgotten, these men, empty and needy, are the embodiment of the state of Israel which had become, spiritually, an empty and needy nation.

When we look at those breaking the law today, the house-breakers, bag-snatchers (the common thieves, not the executive ones who are often held in awe) we generally consider them to be unprincipled scoundrels, bad men who should be locked up. Perhaps they are, perhaps this is what they have become, but they are also people with unmet needs, people with no worth and little money, perhaps lacking education and denied honest work. Couple this paucity with our society's message that money, cars and property give a man his worth it is no wonder our streets are rife with crime. Criminals are not born, they are made. We make them. Jesus, much later in the scriptures, has quite a lot to say about this!

1 The book of Ecclesiastes uses the word vanity in this sense: empty, futile, vapid.
2 John Gill's Exposition of the Bible