The curious story of judge Jephthah
Judges 11 contains one of two significant episodes in the extraordinary life of the judge Jephthah: his sacrifice of his daughter and his civil war against the tribe of Ephraim resulting in tens of thousands of Israelite deaths. Jephthah was born in Gilead to a prostitute and was apparently raised by his father or his adopted father, but his father’s wife’s children tossed him out of the parental home. He journeyed to another country where he was joined by a band of men who “went out with him,” presumably engaging in illegal raids.
When the warring nation Ammon attacked the Israelite in Gilead, the elders rushed to the outcast and pleaded that he led their defense, probably because of the skills that he had developed during his raids. Jephthah chided them for joining his brothers when they expelled him from his home. After further talk, he agreed to lead the battle if they would make him their ruler. The elders agreed, swore that they would do so, and the oath was announced publicly.
Jephthah tried diplomatic negotiations with the Ammonite king, which included a review of the history of the relations between the Ammonite and Israelite people, without success. Then, before going out to war, he swore an oath: “If the people of Ammon are given over to me, then whatever goes out from the door of my house to me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be for the Lord. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Jephthah fought Ammon and was victorious. When he returned home, his daughter, an only child, greeted him with a victory ceremony, playing a musical instrument and dancing. Jephthah looked on in shock and tore his cloths in mourning. He told his daughter of his vow and insisted that he must keep it. His daughter agreed that he must do so. However, she requested that she be allowed to delay its execution for two months while she and her friends descended the mountain and bewailed the loss of her virginity. Then “he did with her according to his vow that he made.”
This story raises quite a few questions, including the following:
1. Why did Jephthah make his unusual oath?
2. Why didn’t he nullify the oath when he saw what had happened?
3. What happened to his daughter?
Can the questions be answered?
What makes this tale so fascinating is that the text itself offers no answers to any of these questions. Both ancient and modern scholars suggest solutions, but their resolutions are no better than speculations. Readers should examine the story and seek their own understanding. They can view each detail from a religious, moral, psychological, social, literary, or other angle, if they choose. They may conclude that Jephthah was a terrible man or a righteous judge. They may want to consider the following thoughts:
1. The name Jephthah is derived from phathah, which means “open.” One can argue that with the opening letter yud, the first letter of God’s name, it denotes “God opens.” Ironically, chapter 11 relates incidences that are far from open and God is not evident in the tale.
2. The story concerns unnamed brothers who banish Jephthah, and he, in turn, banishes or kills (we will discuss this below) his unnamed daughter.
3. With chapter 12, the narration depicts three family conflicts. Jephthah is pushed out by his brothers, he cuts off his daughter and, in chapter 12, and he kills tens of thousands of fellow Israelites of the tribe of Ephraim.
4. Jephthah was selected to lead the people after the elders swore that they would make him their ruler. When the conflict with Ammon started, this oath by the elders, which affected his future status, was on his mind, and he made one of his own. Is it possible that he was afraid of breaking his vow lest the elders would see that they can nullify their oath? Or should we note that this explanation is unreasonable and even bizarre since by keeping his oath he needed to kill his daughter?
5. Offering a sacrifice in relation to a battle was a commonplace practice for many ancient people, and Jephthah was complying with this ubiquitous ritual. He may have been showing his reliance on and thankfulness to God. He expected that an animal would be the first to rush out to him when he returned, since the animals were in the field surrounding his home. Ironically, his daughter, following another long tradition, went out with ceremony to greet him, and met her disastrous end.
6. Don Isaac Abravanel, Gersonides, Radak, and Altschuler in his Metzudot David, cite the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 4a, and the Midrashim Genesis Rabbah and Leviticus Rabbah and suggest that Jephthah could have had his vow annulled by the High Priest Pinchas. However, he felt that because of his new leadership position he should not take the initiative and go to the High Priest, but Pinchas should come to him. Pinchas, in turn, acted with equal hubris, demanding that because of his spiritual position Jephthah should travel to see him. Their arrogance resulted in the death of Jephthah’s daughter.
The sages do not discuss the irony that both Pinchas (in the Torah) and Jephthah performed zealous acts for what they considered to be pious reasons, and some commentators criticize both of them for their behavior, Jephthah for his vow and Pinchas for killing the man who had public sex during an idolatrous orgy without a judicial hearing.
7. Some commentators argue that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as he had vowed. They say that the Bible does not state this explicitly – but uses the words “He did to her as he had vowed” – because it was considered too repulsive an act for the Bible to state openly.
8. Some of the commentators state that although sacrificing children is strictly prohibited, as stated in Jeremiah 7:31, Jephthah and some other judges worshipped God together with idols and were so entangled with pagan notions that he did not realize that his act was wrong.
9. Some commentators, relying on the Talmud and Midrashim, have an interesting contrary interpretation of the entire event. They contend that Jephthah never vowed to offer whatever exited his house as a sacrifice. By translating the vav in his final sentence as “or,” instead of “and,” which is its meaning in many verses, they understand Jephthah saying: “I will sacrifice whatever exits my house if it is fit for a sacrifice. However (or), if it is unfit, such as a human or a dog, I will dedicate that item to God.” Thus, since his daughter came to meet him, she had to be dedicated totally to God; that is, she had to live alone in a cloistered manner. In fact, Abravanel suggests this episode as the origin and paradigm for the Christian idea to cloister females. Thus, he continues, Jephthah’s daughter requested a stay of two months while she could wander around and see the world for the last time before she was secluded from society. She also asked for this time to “bewail her virginity.” By this, she meant that she was bewailing the fact that she would never be able to see or marry a man in the future.
What answer can we give to the questions that I raised?
It is instructive to realize that the sages selected Judges 11 as the haphtarah, the reading from prophetical books, to accompany the Torah reading of the biblical portion of Chukat. Chukat deals with the obscure law concerning the “red heifer” which was used to purify an Israelite who became ritually unclean. Both the laws of impurity and its nullification by using the dust of a burned red heifer are obscure.
It is possible that Judges 11 was chosen as the accompanying haphtarah for two reasons:
1. Jephthah’s negotiation with the Ammonite king focused on how the Israelites captured the land that had once belonged to the Ammonites from the Moabites, who had taken it from them. He referred to incidences that are recorded in the portion of Chukat. Thus the accounts are related.
2. The chapters of Chukat contain laws that some sages consider inscrutable or difficult to understand. Those who chose the Jephthah account as the haphtarah may have wanted to suggest that the story of Jephthah is as obscure as many laws in Chukat, and we can only guess the answers to the questions that the tale raises.
The chronicle of Jephthah’s remarkable life raises many imponderables, including why he made such an outrageous oath, why he failed to have the oath nullified, and how he fulfilled his outrageous vow on his daughter. The biblical text offers no answers. It does not even hint at a solution. One can only speculate.
It is possible that the sages selected the tale of Jephthah as the haphtarah of the portion of Chukat because they recognized that Chukat has laws that are difficult to understand, and they wanted to highlight that the story of Jephthah is also obscure, but that it is worth-while trying to unravel it.
 The theme of a prostitute occurs often in Scripture. For example, Rahab is described as a prostitute who lived in Jericho and who aided the Israelites in conquering the city. The talmudic rabbis extolled her and there is a Midrash that claims Joshua took her as his wife. There is no indication that Jephthah’s mother was also extolled. Just the opposite; he is presented as a man of humble origin who started life as a brigand.
 The Bible is full of ambiguous and obscure statements and events. As I pointed out in the past, the great Argentine novelist Jorge Borges (1899-1986) wrote: two people write a good literature, the author and the reader.
 The number 10,000 is a stereotype figure, as in Judges 1:4, where the tribe of Judah killed 10,000 Canaanites, and should be understood as “numerous.”
 Numbers 25.
 Such as Olam Hatanach.
 Such as Y. Elitzur.
 The Torah gives no reason why the ashes of a red heifer “purify” or “cleanse” a person who came in contact with a dead body. In his Guide for the Perplexed 3:47, Maimonides outlines four reasons for the laws of impurity. Even a cursory examination of his reasons shows that he was convinced that there is no spiritual basis for the laws.
First, he states, the laws of impurity “keep us at a distance from dirty and filthy objects.” Thus, the ritual of the red heifer, which was employed when a person came in contact with a corpse, prevented—or at least somewhat minimized—the spread of infection.
Second, “they guard the Sanctuary.” By this he not only means that diseases are kept from the Sanctuary, but contrary to the view of many others, Maimonides feels that frequent visits to the Sanctuary would minimize its impact upon the person visiting it. Therefore the Torah established a number of impurity laws to reduce visits to the Tabernacle and later, the Temple, since an Israelite would frequently come in contact with “impure” objects.
Third, these laws reconfigure pre-Torah pagan notions of impurity and modify their rationale and practice, thus allowing them to be integrated into Jewish life.
Fourth, the Torah’s impurity laws reduced the burden imposed by the pagan impure practices—which applied to all aspects of daily life—and restricted the impurity rules only to the Sanctuary.
Thus the red heifer created no magic, neither did it remove anything since the “unclean” person was neither religiously or physically dirty. It is likely that the red heifer was chosen simply because it added a lesson. It reminded users of the misdeed of their ancestors who worshipped the golden calf.