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Parashat Chukath (Haftara) 5759/1999

Jephthah's Vow

Jonathan Jacobs

Department of Bible

The haftarah this week is about the story of Jephthah, found in the book of Judges. The climax of this story is Jephthah's vow and its consequences. Jephthah vowed as follows: If you deliver the Ammonites into my hand, 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 by me as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:30-31). This article focuses on the vow itself, not its consequences. Our analysis of Jephthah's vow includes a discussion of four points, some of them interrelated:

1. At which stage in the events described in the story did Jephthah make his vow?

2. Why did the narrator choose to place Jephthah's vow in the middle of the account of the battle?

3. Did Jephthah intend to offer a human or an animal sacrifice?

4. How does the formulation of Jephthah's vow compare with other vows in the Bible?

Some people believe Jephthah's vow should be associated with "his words before the Lord at Mizpah" (Judges 11:11). According to this view, Jephthah made his vow before turning to the king of the Ammonites, surely before making his final preparations for battle. According to this approach it is not clear how the episode of the vow fits into the sequence of events in the story of the battle. One could say that the narrator deliberately placed the vow in the middle of the account of the battle: taken on their own, verses 29 and 32-33 describe a great victory by Jephthah and constitute a climax in the plot of the story, since this victory resolved the problem of the enemy threat facing Israel from the beginning of the story. However, by incorporating Jephthah's vow in verses 30-31, the great victory on the battlefield is transformed from an independent climactic point in the plot to just another detail in a chain of events. The victory constitutes fulfillment of one side's undertaking in the vow: Jephthah stipulated that if G-d help him win in battle, he would undertake to perform a certain thing.

The victory thus could be said to constitute fulfillment of the conditions on the part of G-d. The identity in the formulation of the condition in the vow, "If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands" (11:30), with its fulfillment, "and the Lord delivered them into his hands" (11:32), hints that the vow was connected with the victory. G-d's fulfillment of the condition is a factor that advances us towards the next step in the plot--Jephthah's fulfillment of his obligation. Accordingly, incorporating the vow in the middle of the description of the battle changes the reader's understanding of the role played by the victory on the battlefield. Instead of the victory turning Jephthah into a hero, elevating his status to the utmost, the victory turns Jephthah into the victim of his vow, which leads to his tragic downfall.

Another view holds that the vow is placed in the narrative according to the chronology of events. That is, Jephthah made his vow as he was preparing for battle. As Talmon put it, "Moving from topic to topic in this way is one of the prominent means used by the authors of Scripture to indicate that certain events took place simultaneously. Jephthah made his vow as he was leaving Mizpeh of Gilead on his way towards the Ammonites."[1]

This view suits the sequence of verses better. In this case I believe one can even say that the object of combining these topics is not only to show that the events took place simultaneously, but also to use the vow to transform the account of the victory in battle from a independent climactic point to an event that advances the plot. According to such an interpretation, the irony in the story line is even greater. The reader already knows what the hero does not know. The narrator has told us that the spirit of the Lord had come upon Jephthah (v. 29), and therefore we know that Jephthah did not need to make his vow at all. Jephthah, however, who had not received and would not receive any direct message from G-d, inadvertently did something which was against his own interest, perhaps because he wished to bolster his self-confidence.[] His vow is what ultimately leads to his ruin.

Opinions also differ regarding the question of Jephthah's intentions in his vow. Most commentators and Bible scholars believe that Jephthah intended to offer a human sacrifice from the outset.[3] This is based on the words "comes out of the door of my house," which appear to indicate a human being. In addition, the phrase "come to meet" (latzet...liqrat) is used with respect to humans, not animals. See, for example, I Samuel 18:6: "the women of all the towns of Israel came out singing and dancing to greet King Saul." This point is also supported by the context. Jephthah's vow was made in an hour of emergency and had to be unusual and exceptional. Sacrificing animals was commonplace, not special.

The Sages' comments imply that they believed Jephthah intended to make an animal sacrifice: "Jephthah made an improper request, and the Lord answered him in like measure. His request was improper in that he said, 'then whatever comes out of the door of my house,...' The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, 'If a camel, or a donkey, or a dog were to come out, would you offer these as a sacrifice to Me?' What did G-d do to him? He answered him in like measure, and had his daughter come out to meet him. Thus it says, '[When] Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, [there was his daughter]'."[4] In other words, Jephthah intended to offer an animal sacrifice, and G-d was angry at him because he did not say explicitly that he meant to offer an animal fit for sacrifice. Support for this view, according to the Sages, can be found in the fact that the word liqrat, at or towards, is also used with respect to animals, as in Judges 14:5: "a full-grown lion came roaring at him."[5] Likewise, they interpret "the door of my house" not literally as the door itself, but as the general area around the house. What made the animal sacrifice special was the fact that it was to be the first thing that came out towards Jephthah, an offering like that of first fruits or a first-born.

A third approach can be seen in the interpretation of R. Joseph Kimhi, Radak's father, cited in Radak's commentary: "My father of blessed memory viewed the conjunction ve ('and') in the words 'and shall be offered by me' (ve-ha'alitihu) as being in place of 'or,' meaning 'would be offered by him or would be dedicated to G-d'; if it were something not fitting for a sacrifice, it would be dedicated, and if fitting for sacrifice, it would be sacrificed. A similar example of ve meaning "or" can be found in Ex. 21:15, 'He who strikes his father or [ve] his mother,' and this interpretation is well-taken."[6] In other words, from the outset Jephthah deliberately intended to cover all possibilities.However, it should be noted that the plain sense of the words "and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering" explains what was meant by the words "shall be the Lord's," and do not present another alternative, as suggested by Radak's father.

The multiplicity of views shows that there is not an unequivocal answer to the question of Jephthah's intentions in making his vow. It appears that the narrator deliberately maintains ambiguity in the formulation of the vow, perhaps in order to hint to us that Jephthah himself did not choose his words clearly. Jephthah was facing a fateful moment in his life, a moment that would either grant him great success or bring him a failure which would return him to his former position or worse. Unlike the judges who preceded him,[7] he had received no encouragement from G-d, and finding himself under pressure, he took upon himself an obligation of a general nature without paying attention to the full implications of his undertaking.[8] It is the unclear formulation of his vow that ultimately leads to Jephthah's undoing.

Jephthah's vow to "bring a gift,"[9] like other vows in the Bible, has the standard opening and closing formulation: first a conditionis stipulated, beginning with the word "if," and at the end a certain promise to do something is made, dedicating his belongings to the Lord. Also the language in the vow is reminiscent of other vows in the Bible:

Gen. 28:20-21

Jacob then made a vow, saying,

"If G-d remains with me, ...

and if I return safe to my father's house--

the Lord shall be my G-d.

Numbers 21:2[10]

Then Israel made a vow to the Lord

If You deliver this people into our hand,

____________

we will utterly destroy their towns.

Judges 11:30-31

And Jephthah made the following vow to the Lord:

If you deliver the Ammonites into my hand,

then ... on my safe return from the Ammonites

shall be the Lord's and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.

All these vows have an introductory formula, a conditional statement, and a promise. However, when we compare Jephthah's vow with others we see that his formulation is overly wordy and somewhat flawed. Whereas in all the other formulations of vows in the Bible the conditional statement appears separately from the statement of the undertaking (in addition to the above examples, cf. also I Sam. 1:11; II Sam. 15:7-8), in Jephthah's vow we have a double condition, and the second part of this condition appears in the middle of the statement of the undertaking. The first condition is "If you deliver the Ammonites into my hand"; the second condition is, "whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's." In addition, there are several details which Jephthah repeats twice: "whatever comes out of the door of my house [lit. "coming out"] to meet me," and "shall be the Lord's and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering." Here we see Jephthah, the master of words whose rhetorical talent is manifest in his dispute with the elders and in his major speech, standing before the Lord and trying to phrase his vow in an especially festive way. The vow that results, however, is long, unclear and clumsy. As we said above, the biblical narrator wished to intimate that the vow marks the beginning of the hero's downfall. The vague formulation, "whatever come out ... coming out," makes the reader wait in tense anticipation to see who will it be? This vague formulation leads us to the terrible tragedy of his daughter being sacrificed.

[1] Olam ha-Tanakh, Judges, p. 104.

[2] Jacob, on his way to Haran, also used a vow to bolster his self-confidence (Gen. 28:20), and so did the Israelites in their war against the king of Arad (Num. 21:2). Jephthah's vow is compared with these vows below.

[3] This view is held by Nahmanides, for one (cf. Lev. 27:29).

[4] Genesis Rabbah 60, Theodor Albeck edition, p. 642; cf. also Ta'anit 4a.

[5] Note that likrat in this context is not "coming to meet," which weakens the force of this argument.

[6] Radak's commentary on Judges 11:31. Ralbag and Abarbanel also followed this approach.

[7] Barak received guidance from the prophetess Deborah (Judges 4:6; 4:14). Gideon continually conversed with G-d (cf. 6:15, 25; 7:2, 7, and elsewhere). Gideon, however, despite his tie with G-d, is characterized as a skeptical judge who time and again tried the Lord (cf. 6:17, 37-40; 7: 10-11).

[8] The pressure under which Jephthah found himself and due to which he made his vow can be compared to the episode involving King Mesha of Moab, who was also in tight straits and therefore sacrificed his son (II Kings 3:26-27), although the cases are not completely parallel since the latter does not involve a vow.

[9] Cf. M. Harran, Neder, Encyclopedia Mikrait, p. 787.

[10] The Israelites' vow (Num. 21:2) comes between sections on the conquest of the eastern bank of the Jordan river, with which we are familiar from Jephthah's speech (Judges 11:16-22), and just as Jephthah's speech borrows many expressions from Numbers, so too, his vow was influenced by the vow here.

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