Monday, July 21, 2008

Jephthah's daughter

In the biblical story of Jephthah, a leader makes a vow to God, and, in spite of what it costs him, he kept it. A girl died, but Jephthah attributes the cause of her death to her own precipitate action,
    "Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have become one of those who trouble me! For I have uttered a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract" (v. 11:35).
Various Midrash point out some of the facts of the case. First, Jephthah was raised without a mother and so it must be assumed that he did not know the Torah. Perhaps his daughter also was raised without a mother. Where was her mother?

Second, human sacrifice is an abomination. It is possible to get out of a vow by making a payment in place of the sacrifice. Various Midrash point out that Jephthah did not consult a priest, and both he and the priest are to blame. The spirit of the Lord is removed from the priest and Jephthah dies a painful death.

Third, Jephthah's daughter was proactive and made an impassioned plea for her life.
    As Jephthah was making ready to offer up his daughter, she wept before him and pleaded,

      "My father, my father, I came out to meet you full of joy, and now you are about to slaughter me. Is it written in the Torah that Israel should offer the lives of their children on the altar?"

    Jephthah replied,

      "My daughter, I have made a vow."

    She answered,

      "But Jacob our father vowed, 'Of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.' [Gen. 28:22] Then, when the Holy One gave him twelve sons, did he perchance offer one of them on an altar to the Holy One?

      Moreover, Hannah also vowed, 'I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life,' [1 Sam. 1:11] -- did she perchance offer her son [on an altar] to the Lord?"

    Though she said all these things to him, Jephthah did not heed her, but he went up to the altar and slaughtered her before the Holy One.

    At that moment, the Holy Spirit cried out in anguish:


I think you would enjoy Midrash if you are not already familiar with it. You can read more about the Sefer ha-Aggadah here. HT Iyov

Other material on Jephthah's daughter.

Though Jephtah was one of the Israelite judges, he was chosen for the position because of his bravery and might, not because of his Torah scholarship—indeed, he was woefully ignorant.6 And though he was not bound whatsoever by the vow he made—as it clearly transgressed the rules of the Torah—he ignorantly went ahead and offered his daughter as a sacrifice.

Had he only consulted with Phinehas, the learned High Priest of the times, he would have been informed of his error. But that didn't happen. Jephtah was too arrogant to travel to Phinehas to receive guidance: "I am the general of the Israelite forces, and I should go to him?!" And Phinehas was too proud to unilaterally go to Jephthah to advise him: "He needs me, why should I make trip?"

The hubris demonstrated by these two leaders cost an innocent girl her life. According to the Midrash7 both were punished. Phinehas lost the divine spirit that had hitherto rested upon him. Jephtah became ill, and he lost many of his limbs. Because his limbs were buried in many locations, the Bible says that Jephthah was "buried in the cities of Gilead."8


The Rabbis concluded also that Jephthah was an ignorant man, else he would have known that a vow of that kind is not valid; according to R. Johanan, Jephthah had merely to pay a certain sum to the sacred treasury of the Temple in order to be freed from the vow; according to R. Simeon ben Laḳish, he was free even without such a payment (Gen. R. l.c.; comp. Lev. R. xxxvii. 3).

According to Tan., Beḥuḳḳotai, 7, and Midrash Haggadah to Lev. xxvii. 2, even when Jephthah made the vow God was irritated against him: "What will Jephthah do if an unclean animal comes out to meet him?"

Later, when he was on the point of immolating his daughter, she inquired, "Is it written in the Torah that human beings should be brought as burnt offerings?" He replied, "My daughter, my vow was, 'whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house.'"

She answered, "But Jacob, too, vowed that he would give to Yhwh the tenth part of all that Yhwh gave him (Gen. xxviii. 22); did he sacrifice any of his sons?"

But Jephthah remained inflexible. His daughter then declared that she would go herself to the Sanhedrin to consult them about the vow, and for this purpose asked her father for a delay of two months (comp. Judges xi. 37).

The Sanhedrin, however, could not absolve her father from the vow, for God made them forget the Law in order that Jephthah should be punished for having put to death 42,000 Ephraimites (Judges xii. 6).S. S

Jewish Encyclopedia

Jewish Perspectives


Ruud Vermeij said...

The story of Jephthah is a very cruel story. It is surrounded by questions. It is good that the Midrash shows that the Jews too have wrestled with this story.

- it seems that the daughter didn't protest (11:36).
- she didn't go to the Sanhedrin, but into the mountains to mourn.

One of the problems with this story is, that Jephthah's deed is not condemned in the story itself. Is Jephthah seen as a hero?

Sue said...

In the ha-Aggadah he is seen as "no wiser than a block of sycamore wood!"

The point is that just because something is in the Bible it doesn't mean that we cannot critique it.

Anonymous said...

I have read (but cannot remember where) that the term olah while usually meaning burnt offering was also used for someone/thing totally devoted to God, in this case as in worshipping at the temple/tabernacle. In other words, his daughter was not killed, but worked at the tabernacle all her days.

Don Johnson

Suzanne McCarthy said...

There are several traditions related to this story. I chose one of the two that were in the Sefer ha-Aggadah.