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, Jephthah is a character, who for all intents and purposes, was meant to be a societal outcast. He was born of an illicit relationship: “And Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, and he was the son of a whore-woman, and Gilead had begotten Jephthah.” (11:1) This did sit well with his step brothers who were sired by his father once he married: “And Gilead’s wife bore him son, and the wife’s sons grew up and they drove Jephthah out and said to him: ‘You shall not inherit your father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.’” (11:2) Jephthah was forced to flee and to live on the fringe of society. The story obviously does not end here. Jephthah 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 expend a great deal of energy trying to temper Jephthah’s awkward lineage. Targum Yonatan, the Jewish Aramaic translation of the Prophets, translates “zonah – harlot” as “pundekita -innkeeper” while Rabbi David Kimche (12th century Provence) asserts that Jephthah’s mother was really a “pilegesh” (concubine), a relational status established in rabbinic law. He further states that the reason she had this status was only because it was thought improper to marry someone outside of one’s own tribe so that the tribe’s property would remain in house. The common thread in these comments is the search to give Jephthah a sense of familial legitimacy.
Still, it seems that the story is intent in capitalizing on Jephthah’s status as an outsider, a common theme among the heroes of the book of Judges. Perhaps there is a lesson to be found here in both the biblical story and the attempt of the medieval commentators to legitimate Jephthah’s status. The storyline seemingly chastises the community for making Jephthah an outcast. It makes its nation’s leaders “eat their words” by having to plead with Jephthah to save them. 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 societal stability. The wisdom is in knowing how to navigate between these two disparate ideals.