Yossi Feintuch

Hubris and ignorance led to her death

When we read this weekly Haftarah (for parashat Chukat), all that we ‘’know’’ about the daughter of Jephthah, is that her father, a major Israelite chieftain, ignored the thrust of two Talmudic principles before he made his infamous vow, prior to his battling the Ammonites; ignoring those two dictums would cost the life of his only child, though that story was not included in the Haftarah that ends right before it starts to unfold.

Rather than being content and confident with sensing that the ‘’spirit of the Eternal came upon’’ him right before going to war, Jephthah goes for a pompous ‘’overkill’’ gesture and makes a gratuitous vow to God. In it he pledges that if he returned victorious (‘’ ’b’shalom’’ or in peace) from the battlefield then ‘’whatever comes out of the doors of my house to greet me [first]… will be [dedicated] to God… a burnt-offering.’’

In making this oath Jephthah is oblivious of, or overlooks the Rabbinic idea that warns against making a vow lest it becomes ‘’a yoke, so to speak, on [the vow taker’s] own neck’’, for ‘’vows are the vestibule to folly.’’ From the Rabbinic perspective, Jephthah used the wrong word – ‘’in peace’’ instead of ‘’l’shalom’’ (to peace); the former word is focused on a peaceful journey that one takes but not necessarily on its outcome, while the latter word is focused on the destination of the journey, namely, the state of the one who goes out after arrival at his destination.

In taking this vow Jephthah committed himself to a deed that nobody else throughout the Bible had ever pledged to do but he, even considering it to be sacred and irrevocable. Still, it is inconceivable that he did not intend to substitute an impure animal (e.g., a donkey), or a blemished livestock with a fitting animal, if any ritually unacceptable animal had welcomed him first in accordance with the sacrificial protocol. The Torah is plain and clear that any would-be offering ”of an unclean animal, he [who offers the sacrifice] shall ransom it by its value and add a fifth’’ to boot (Lev. 27:27).

Tragically, instead of what he certainly expected to see — a livestock animal roaming in his direction upon his triumphant returning to his Mitzpah home — it was his only child who emerged first out of the house to greet her heroic father in dance and with drums, as it was customary for Israelite maidens to do. Also jarring is the absence from the text of the name of Jephthah’s daughter; it’s much easier to relate to a person by her name, rather than by describing her solely as her father’s daughter — what religious value is served by erasing her name?

The unfolding calamity stemmed from Jephthah’s reluctance to find a replacement to having his daughter becoming a burnt offering ‘’to God’’ as it was incumbent on him to do, for sacrificing a human was an anathema in the religion of Israel (2K 3:27). Jephthah, thus, opted to honor his own word of vow rather than the word of the Torah that additionally prohibits the punishing of a child for her father’s wrongful actions (or vice versa).

Alternatively, Jephthah could have sought out the High Priest Phinehas to annul his vow in as much as the Kol Nidrei petition ‘’does’’ it in the Yom Kippur service.   Phinehas would have most likely told him that his oath was invalid because he would not have made it had he considered it likely that a human being, let alone his daughter, might welcome him first.  But it was Jephthah’s hubris — wasn’t he the chief military commander and a chieftain among his people? — that stopped him from turning to the High Priest for that critical help.  Rather, Jephthah believed that Phinehas – whom he deemed to be of a lesser hierarchical status – should seek him out by his own initiative to release him from his own catch-22.

And while Phinehas harbored the same thought about Jephthah’s own responsibility to turn to him and void his vow, the fate of ‘’Jephthah’s daughter’’ depended on which of the two leaders would blink first; yet, sadly for her, neither the religious nor the military (and civil) chief did, for their own self-perceived honor weighed hands down heavier than another person’s life.  Even if we consider Radak’s understanding that Jephthah substituted the burnt-offering option with ‘’merely’’ subjecting his daughter to be cloistered for the rest of her life – (why not for the rest of his life?) – that option too would contradict the Torah’s negation of a voluntary and witting celibacy (Gen. 2:24).

The Midrash literature presents the daughter as challenging repeatedly her father that offering her for a sacrifice would be flagrantly contradictory to sacred scriptures, especially as there was no precedent for a thing like this, or never will be! In fact, these Midrashic narratives do not only portray her as a person who is Torah versed, but they even suggest effectively that women, like Jephthah’s daughter, can best men, even one’s father, in knowing the Torah. As a last resort, the daughter, as Rashi avers, went on to bring her case before the Sanhedrin – the highest Rabbinic court in the land – but to her chagrin it too was of no help. Hence, with neither support either from the High Priest or from the Rabbis, Jephthah went on with his oath and slew her; (given the daughter’s proactive efforts to nullify her death sentence, one may presume that her slaughter was violently forced on her like on a sacrificial animal, rather than perpetrated with her acquiescence or passive submission to her father’s knife).

The Midrash seems also to impugn God over this tragic and utterly avoidable outcome when it informs us that only after the daughter’s demise did the Holy Spirit (a gentle euphemism for God) protest and shriek at Jephthah: ’’Did I ask you to offer me a human life, something ‘I have never commanded, nor spoken of, or [even] considered in my heart’ ‘’.  (If that heavenly voice had only appeared to Jephthah like the angel of God to Abraham on Mt. Moriah a second before slaying Isaac!)

Finally, the hubris of both, Phineas the High Priest and of Jephthah the military and civil leader – compounded by the latter’s ignorance of or his looking askance of critical rules of the Torah, while exhibiting false and fanatical piety – brought about severe consequences for the two.  Though the former continued to live on for many years the spirit of God departed from him and with it his continuous functioning as the High Priest. Jephthah would die six years after his military victory but his boiled-stricken body would lose limb after limb in every place he went to, and these limbs would be buried throughout the towns of Gilad.  Hence, the two egomaniacal leaders had come to pay a hefty price for not sparing the maiden’s life.

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About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.