The Trials of Yiftach
Haftarat Chukat, Judges 11:1–33
by David Friedman, UMJC Rabbi, Jerusalem
Our haftarah takes place during a 200-year time of adjustment for the twelve tribes in the Land of Israel. It was a time of chaos, and too often a time of turning from the Torah to Canaanite practices. The political stability of the nation was shaken as a result.
Jephthah or Yiftach is one of the Judges of Israel at this time in history, but he strikes the reader as a real outcast from his society.
Yiftach the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Yiftach away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” (Judges 11:1–3)
There’s a lot of rejection in those verses. Yiftach may have been a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a wayward woman. Like Joseph before him, Yiftach is rejected by his family and thrown out to fend for himself, with none of his father’s inheritance to help him. This was not a pleasant experience. Yet it was one that molded Yiftach’s character and influenced his personality. It could not have been otherwise. Like David after him, Yiftach fled from his town to live among riff-raff: “So Yiftach fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tov, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him” (Judges 11:3).
An interesting term is used in Hebrew to describe Yiftach’s band of compatriots: reyq, meaning “empty”. These were empty men who had no standing in life, no riches or wealth; men who had no status in society, men without hope and without family that loved them. They were just like Yiftach. Yiftach spent his career as a type of gang boss in the Jordan Valley, perhaps as an ancient brigand.
He is eventually received back into his society, in a time of desperation. Yiftach is appointed chief military leader and spokesman for the area of Gilead. Almost as quickly as Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt, Yiftach rises to his prominent role:
The elders of Gilead said to him, “We are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead. . . . Yiftach went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. (Judges 11:8, 11)
As I read Yiftach’s life story this week, it struck me as a microcosm of his people’s history. Israel has been the outcast of nations throughout our history. The Jewish people have suffered untold prejudices, have been wanderers in European history, marginalized and rejected in Church history, and despised during the spread of Islam. Yiftach as an individual lived through what our people have lived through as a nation over many years.
It also struck me that these are similar charges to those being leveled against Israel today. The Ammonites said, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably” (Judges 11:13). The Ammonites erroneously contend that Israel stole their land. Yiftach rather surprisingly takes his time and carefully explains to the Ammonites over 17 verses what really happened (see vv. 11–27). But there is no listening ear to Yiftach’s attempt at a diplomatic solution: “The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Yiftach sent him” (11:28).
The same charges with the same response, in the same area, occurs today.
But our story centers on Yiftach. I see in him a man to whom God brought an opportunity. Yiftach could have reneged on the chance to help his relatives, but he surprisingly takes the offer that the men of Gilad give to him. If he had been bent on revenge, he could have turned his head and allowed his relatives to suffer a military defeat, possibly losing their tribal inheritance! But this was not his perspective.
Instead, he uses his newly given role as a political and military chieftain to defend his relatives, and to move into a more favored position within the society that had formerly cast him out.
But before he confronts the Ammonites Yiftach makes a vow to the Lord: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30b–31).
Yiftach defeats the Ammonites and returns home.
And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” (Judges 11:34b–35)
Similarly, the Jewish people have been preserved by God through thick and thin, but even our survival and our victories have been mitigated by sorrow (for example, the Holocaust, losses on the battlefield, the ongoing list of victims of terrorism). So Yiftach’s return to his people and his victory over the Ammonites is mitigated, too, by the incident involving his daughter.
How can a Jew who cares about the Torah kill his own daughter to complete a vow to God? (see Lev. 20:1–5). Even the simplest of Torah students knows that the preservation of life is considered the highest of instructions given to us by God. Rashi (d. 1105) explains that after Yiftach sacrificed his daughter, it was decided that no one would ever do such a sacrifice in Israel again. “However, they were particular about their honor, and as a result she was killed.” Rashi envisions the incident as a stereotypical Middle Eastern “honor killing” (though not with the same mechanics as a modern Islamist honor killing). The vow had been made and simply couldn’t be cancelled.
I prefer the comments offered by Rabbi Jonathan Magonet. He notes that it is more logical to assume that Yiftach did not kill his daughter, but instead the vow that was made was to keep her single (thus celibate) for her entire life, thereby giving no descendants to her father’s line. We are told that his daughter was his only offspring: “She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter” (Judges 11:34). Yiftach’s ability to bear further offspring would be snuffed out by the completion of this rash vow. Indeed, his daughter comments upon this with her words: “Do this for me, release me for two months and I will go and go down upon the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my women companions” (Judges 11:37).
The literal text tells us that his daughter mourned being a virgin. Would she have mourned not having been married at her death? No, she seems to be mourning over not ever having the opportunity to bear children for the rest of her life. The Hebrew text is more ambiguous and flexible regarding the cause of her mourning than our English translations. Yet, the NIV relays the situation accurately, in my estimation:
“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. (11:36–39, emphasis added)
To conclude: “The Torah does not state that she was put to death, but that she remained a virgin” (Aish HaTorah website). Yiftach then had something to mourn, as did his daughter.
We can see from this that in spite of Yiftach’s great difficulties, he was used by God to preserve Israel during a trying time. The time of the Judges was just that way; imperfect people (e.g., Samson, Barak, and Gideon) were called by God to further his purposes. May it be so in our generation, too.