The story of Jephthah has a painful and problematic ending. Jephthah, the tough, life- worn general and leader of the people made a thoughtless pledge to God in order to insure victory over Israel’s enemy, the Ammonites: “And Jephthah made the following vow to the Lord: ‘If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered (v’haaleeteehu) by me as a burnt offering.” (verses 30-1) As events have it, Jephthah’s daughter, his only child, was first to come out to greet him after his victory over the Ammonites.
Rabbi David Kimche’s father, Rabbi Samuel Kimche (12th century Provence) attempted to ameliorate the serious consequences of this promise through a creative interpretation of the above verse. He asserted that the letter “vav” in the word “v’haaleeteehu” means “or” in this sentence rather than “and”. The intent of the sentence would then be that Jephthah would offer up a sacrifice if that which exited his house was appropriate for sacrifice. Otherwise, he would donate what left his house to God. As a result of this interpretation, Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed. Instead, she became a celibate servant of the God.
The following passage from the Talmud saw the events differently, deriving from this story a painful lesson. The underlying assumption of this story, according to these sages, was that Jephthah did indeed sacrifice his only daughter: “Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan: Three people made requests of God in an inappropriate way. Two of them were, nevertheless, answered affirmatively by God while the third’s prayers were rejected: Eliezer, the servant of Abraham; Saul, the son of Kish; and Jephthah the Giladi. Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, as it is written: ‘So it came to pass, that the woman to whom I say, ‘Let down your pitcher etc.’ She might have been blind or lame, but he was fortunate in the answer given to him [by God] in that Rebecca chanced to meet him. Saul, the son of Kish, as it is written, ‘And it shall be, the man who kills him [Goliath], the king will make him rich and will give him his daughter.’ He might have been a slave or a mamzer, but he was fortunate that it happened to be David. Jephthah, [on the other hand], about whom it is written, ‘Then it shall be that whatever comes through the doors of my house…’ It might have been an unclean animal. He, however, had the misfortune that his daughter was the first to come to meet him…” (adapted and abridged from Taanit 4a)
At first glance, Jephthah’s fate, as interpreted by this midrash, seems mean and capricious when compared with how the others fared. Why should Jephthah be the brunt of such a cruel joke? Rabbi Jonathan, obviously, wanted to teach us an important lesson. People need to exercise maximum care and discretion when they express themselves. One never knows, in advance, the repercussions of one’s words. And so, according to Rabbi Jonathan, one should always be careful. Jephthah learned this painful lesson the hard way.