There are lots of difficult biblical stories; stories which transmit societal rules and then go about breaking them as part of the storyline. We are familiar with this phenomenon already from the earliest stories in the Torah. Early biblical society practiced a principle known as primogeniture, namely, the firstborn son was intended to carry on the familial legacy. Yet, time after time, in the patriarchal stories, it was not the firstborn who heads up the next generation but the younger son.
In our haftarah, Yiftah is a character, who for all intents and purposes, was meant to be a societal outcast. He was born of an illicit relationship: “And Yiftah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, and he was the son of a whore-woman, and Gilad had begotten Yiftah.” (11:1) This did not sit well with his step brothers, sired by his father once he married: “And Gilad’s wife bore him son, and the wife’s sons grew up and they drove Yiftah out and said to him: ‘You shall not inherit your father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.’” (11:2) Yiftah was forced to flee and to live on the fringe of society. The story obviously does not end here for Yiftah becomes a “strongman” who is called upon to save the nation from its enemies and to serve both as its leader and savior.
The medieval commentators make an effort to try to temper Yiftah’s strangeness by somehow elevating his social status. Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, turns “zonah – harlot” into “pundekita -innkeeper”. Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) asserts that Yiftah’s mother was a “pilegesh” (concubine), a relational status established in rabbinic law. He further states that the reason she had this status was because it was thought improper to marry someone outside of your own tribe so that the tribe’s property would remain in house. The common thread in these comments is the search to give Yiftah a sense of legitimacy.
Still, it seems that the story is intent in capitalizing on Yiftah’s status as an outsider, a common theme among the heroes of the book of Judges. Perhaps there is a lesson to be had here in both the biblical story and the attempt of the commentators to legitimize Yiftah’s status. The storyline seemingly chastises the community for making Yiftah an outcast. It makes its leaders “eat their words”. On the other hand, the commentators teach us how important it is for a society to have rules which govern conduct in order to establish legitimacy. The wisdom is in knowing how to balance between these two disparate values.