Why didn’t Jephthah annul his vow?
Many people imagine that the Bible portrays its heroes in a favorable manner. Actually the opposite is true. Scripture portrays people with their faults. For example, Nachmanides claims that the patriarch Abraham sinned grievously in Genesis 20 when he travelled to Gerar and told its inhabitants that his wife Sarah “is my sister,” to save his life from the lascivious Philistines.
In chapter 11 Jephthah didn’t try to nullify his vow that he would sacrifice whatever came out to greet him when he returned from battle, and as a result he sacrificed his daughter. Most commentators, but not all, vilify him.
In this chapter, the men of the tribe of Ephraim were furious because Jephthah didn’t take them with him when he battled Ammon, perhaps because they were unable to share in the spoils of the twenty captured cities. The said, “we will burn your house upon you with fire.” Jephthah replied that they hadn’t helped his tribe during the close to two decades when Ammon persecuted them, so he felt he had to fight without them. Scripture does not reveal their reply. It is possible that they denied it and prepared to destroy Jephthah’s house, meaning he, his family, and possessions, and in self defense, Jephthah preempted them and defeated them in battle. But we really do not know why Jephthah engaged in civil war.
Jephthah was successful. Some of the Ephraimites attempted to escape over the Jordan River, but Jephthah’s men were there. The Ephraimites dissembled saying they were not Ephraimites, but since Ephraimites were unable to say “Shibboleth,” and pronounced it as “Sibboleth,” Jephthah’s soldiers were able to expose their ruse and “the fell at that time of Ephraim 42,000 (people).” These three incidences seem to portray Jephthah in a negative fashion.
Let’s look more deeply into one of them. Why didn’t Jephthah annul his vow? Everyone knows that people make hasty vows and there are even religious ceremonies to annul vows, such as the recitation of Kol Nidrei at the start of Yom Kippur.
Jephthah had no choice but to carry out his vow. Anglo-Saxon law allows the nullification of vows based on a mistake, so too does rabbinical law; but this ability to nullify an oath did not exist in the biblical period. The only near-nullification process that is mentioned in the Bible is in Numbers 30 which states that a father or husband can nullify a daughter or wife’s vow.
This sole exception existed because the Torah considered daughters and wives property of their fathers and husbands. What she has belongs to him and he controls her vows. Even if she wants to retain what she promised, her father or husband can stop it. The only exceptions are widows and divorcees, who are no longer under male dominion, whose vows, like those of men, cannot be rescinded.
This ancient Jewish view of the non-nullification of vows was the view of all, or at least most, ancients. Thomas Hobbes discusses the rationale of the practice.
Oaths and Contracts: The Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) achieved international fame for his 1651 classic The Leviathan. Hobbes postulated that people joined together to form societies because of self-defense and enlightened self-interest. The natural condition of people, according to Hobbes, was an isolated wild existence, unrestrained selfish uncivilized competition where each person took care of his or her own needs.
In this “state of nature,” each person had a “natural right” to everything they could acquire, including the right to defend themselves and their acquisitions in any way they chose. There was “war of all against all.” Life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
People soon realized that there were others who were smarter and stronger than they were, and they feared a brutish death. The more intelligent among them persuaded the people that their own self-interest was better protected by joining together, having their behavior controlled by mutual agreement, a contract. Law, according to Hobbes, is the enforcement of contracts.
Apropos our subject, Hobbes pointed out that at least in early societies, the most important law, the basis of civilization, was that “covenants must be honored.” The social contract that formed the societies stood or fell by the validity of this rule. He gave the example of a man who promised a robber, who was threatening his life, that he would give him a thousand pieces of gold the next day and that he would not tell the police about him. Would this man be bound by this oath? Hobbes says “yes.” If he didn’t keep his promise, this robber and all others would not trust people in these situations, and the chance of saving one’s life in the future would be lessened by this breach of his oath.
The periods of the patriarchs, Joshua, and Judges, all the way to the time of King Saul and probably later, was a time in which the Bible testifies “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” This was a period when self-interest and the cohesion of society made it vital that every person kept his oath. It was only later, when society was more firmly grounded, that the rabbis devised ways in which, under certain controlled circumstances, oaths could be annulled.
Thus, Jephthah’s inability to quash his vow is not unique. He couldn’t invalidate it and had to sacrifice his daughter. Three other tragic stories showing the inability to annul vows appear in the Bible. The patriarch Isaac’s blessing of Jacob could not be reversed even though it was given in error even though he wanted to bless his son Esau. Once he uttered the blessing he could not retract it. Joshua was unable to back away from the promise he made to theGibeonites in Joshua 9:19. The tale of the tribe of Benjamin is a fourth instance; the tribes were unable to abolish their vow not to marry their daughters to men of Benjamin.
 The laws of vows for men are also in Leviticus 5:4 and 5, Numbers 6, and Deuteronomy 23:19, 22-24. But this is the only site dealing with female vows.
 See Genesis Rabbah 60:3.
 Genesis 27.
 See also the discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 46a.
 Judges 21, see also Mishnah Gittin 4:7.