The Story of Jephthah: The Urge to Manipulate
In selecting haftarot to supplement and illumine the weekly Shabbat readings (parasha), the rabbis chose just three from the Book of Judges (shofetim). One is the Song of Deborah (Judg 5), and it is matched to Parashat Beshallah (Exod 13:17–17:16) that contains the Song of the Sea, for their poems celebrate some of God’s greatest acts on behalf of Israel. Another, extracted from Judg 13, tells about the annunciation of Samson’s birth. It is read in conjunction with the Nazirite laws of parashat naso (Num 4:21–7:89). A third reviews just one of the many momentous events reported in Parashat Chukkat (Num 19–22:1): the clash between Israel (Moses) and Edom (Sichon and Og), resulting in conquest of their land.
Stopping Before the End of the Story
In choosing Judg 11:1-33, the rabbis wished to stress the power of memory to invigorate eternal compacts between God and Israel for, in this haftara, Jephthah rehearses events that according to the biblical text had occurred three hundred years earlier (Judg 11:26). Yet the rabbis proved equally selective in their haftara parallelism. While they have us read verses about Jephthah’s rise to power (vs 1-11), themselves tangential to the substance of theparasha, they chose not to include the final verses (34-40), with their emotive confrontation between Jephthah and his doomed daughter. Given the pedagogic purpose of this haftara, the rabbis were right to trim the reading from Judg 11. Still it is a pity, for by doing so they robbed us of the opportunity to draw contrastive lessons about the use and misuse of God’s restorative powers.
The Story of Jephthah
Jephthah’s story covers less than two full chapters (11 and 12) in the Book of Judges and divides neatly into four tableaus:
- His selection as a champion of Israel;
- His challenge to Ammon;
- His fulfillment of a sordid vow;
- His murder of thousands among Ephraim (Judg 12:6).
His career opens on alienation, builds on opportunism, and closes on fratricidal warfare, with the tragic episode clipped from the haftara becoming emblematic of him, his personality, and his career as a Judge of Israel.
The Context of the Jephthah’s story
The background is set in Judg 10 when, once again, Israel had lapsed in its commitment to God. The normal pattern of events described in Judges is that, angered by Israel’s obtuseness, God brings enemies into the sinners’ gates and they torment Israel for a generation or so. Israel then sheds copious tears and promises eternal loyalty. God falls for their piety—he tends to be hopeful—and, arming Israel with a shofet (שופט), he turns the tables on Israel’s enemy. A brief period of concord ensues, before the cycle rewinds.
Just before Jephthah, however, despite Israel’s whining and pleading, God cannot be placated. “No. I will not deliver you again,” he says, “Go cry to the gods you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress!” (10:13–14). The narrator offers a comment (10:16), וַתִּקְצַר נַפְשׁוֹ בַּעֲמַל יִשְׂרָאֵל, which cannot be (as commonly translated) “He could no longer bear Israel’s misery.” Quite the opposite: “[God] loses patience with Israel’s behavior.”
At this point in effect, God pulls out from the rescue business and the consequences are dire. With no judge (שופט) or savior (מושיע) forthcoming and the enemy already within sight, the leaders of Gilead pledge to take as chief (ראש) anyone who fights Ammon (10:18). The offer falls on failing hearts, forcing the leaders to turn to Jephthah. He proves a tougher negotiator than they had expected.
Jephthah’s Background and Rise to Power
The haftara, following the chapter in Judges, begins by filling us in about Jephthah. Well-born on his father’s side, but a child of a harlot, he is driven out of the clan by brothers who would not share inheritance with him. Whether or not their action was sanctioned by legal traditions is debatable; but the ensuing events replay a theme from lore and from real life: men with little future create it elsewhere by collecting about them equally dislocated riffraff.
The elders offer Jephthah to be a קצין, a military leader (11:6), with a term of command that likely ceased at the end of combat. Interested but playing hard to get, Jephthah has them agree to appoint him also as chief (ראש), so forcing them to treat him as they might have “proper” a Gileadite. The pact is endorsed by popular acclamation and sanctioned by oaths before God at Mizpah. As a result, Jephthah is charged with both civil and military responsibilities; in effect he is a shofet albeit not by God’s choosing.
What Jephthah lacks is the charisma that God attaches to his chosen by settling a divine spirit (רוח י-הוה) on them. By arguing with the king of Ammon, Jephthah finds a way to have that done as well.
Jephthah’s Justification for Israel’s Rightful Control of the Territory
Jephthah promptly takes up the fight with Ammon, personalizing it by conjuring it as an invasion of his territory. Ammon argues that as it made its way from Egypt Israel, in fact, had conquered Ammonite land. Jephthah then issues a classic declaration of war, a fine example of which comes to us from 18th century BCE Mari.
The declaration contains the expected elements: reviewing Israel’s case for rightful control of territory, issuing a grievance, and calling on God to judge the dispute (“The Lord is the judge [שופט] to decide now between the people of Israel and the people of Ammon”). The last point is crucial for, with it, Jephthah is harking back to events that transpired as the Hebrews were making their way to promised land, an episode told in Parashat Chukkat.
Moses had petitioned Sihon, king of the Amorites, to let Israel pass through its territory, promising absolute respect for land and people. Sihon answered with arms but is defeated (Exod 21:21-31). A parallel passage in Deuteronomy (2:26-37) enlarges on the event: Moses issues his petition, but God hardens the heart of Sihon, setting him on his foolish drive to destroy Israel. God assures Moses of victory. The victory is complete. Israel possesses the land and thoroughly empties it of everything but cattle.
Jephthah reviews these events (attaching to them his own decorations), reaching a conclusion that means to be manifest (Judg 11:23): “Therefore, now that the Lord, the God of Israel, displaced the Amorites on behalf of his people Israel, are you to occupy it?” Here, Jephthah is also addressing God, whose support he needs. So he adds one more point (11.24): “Whatever your god Chemosh displaces for you, you must surely occupy. So too, whatever the Lord our god has displaced on our behalf, we must occupy.”
Discrepancies between Jephthah’s Survey and the Torah
It is true that Jephthah may have erred in citing Chemosh (god of Moab), when the god Milkom would have better applied to the Ammonites. The matter has exercised scholarship for centuries, with many (unsatisfying) suggestions, among them the notice that Sihon’s power included Moabite territory.
But Jephthah indulged in yet one more discrepancy. He tells Sihon about a king of Moab, Balak (of Balaam infamy, Numb 22-24), who resisted warring against Israel. In fact, Balak had taken the fight to Israel, at least according to Josh 24:9. What to make of these glitches poses dilemmas; but it might well be that by these means, the narrator is hinting that the truth conveyed by Jephthah’s message is much more trustworthy than the facts embedded in it.
Jephthah Manipulates God into the Fight
What is crucial for us to realize that by recalling victories that God himself orchestrated, by appealing to divine justice, and by setting the confrontations as between a true god and a false one, Jephthah effectively pushed God into entering the fray on Israel’s behalf—that is, also on Jephthah’s. The argument is not that Ammon is being despicable now—after all, it is God who incited its troops in Gilead—but that Ammon is threatening to annul divinely guided results achieved in Moses’ days. If there is any validity to Moses’s conquests, God had better take Jephthah’s side.
This obligation, more than any agreement Jephthah has had with his brethren, is what will lead God to bestow רוח י-הוה on him. With this third and most crucial component of judgeship, Jephthah has managed to manipulate men and God to achieve what had not been destined for him.
Jephthah might have stopped at that; but compulsively calculating, Jephthah takes the matter one more step. God may well confer victory to Israel, if only to deny reversal of a divinely sanctioned conquest; but what of Jephthah’s own personal safety, as leaders are known to die in battle. As he moves his troops onward, he makes a double vow (Judg 11:30-31): If God (1) gives him victory, the first person who comes to meet him as (2) he comes back safely, he will not only (1) consecrate him/her to God, but (2) also devote the unlucky greeter as a burnt offering. In effect, Jephthah is promising a life for a life.
The haftarah of Chukkat ends on a high note, with Jephthah’s success. But the story as recounted by the book of Judges has a different message about Jephthah. He might have imagined that linking promises so cleverly would guarantee him a promising future as leader in Israel. But success cannot be reached by deception, and certainly not by manipulating God. In the segment from Judges that Haftarat Chukkat omits, we learn about the horrid price Jephthah pays for his chutzpah and selfishness and the terrible cost Israel pays for circumventing God by turning to Jephthah.
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June 22, 2015
May 15, 2020
Prof. Jack M. Sasson is the Mary Jane Werthan Professor (Emeritus) of Jewish Studies and Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt University as well as Kenan Professor (Emeritus) of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He holds a Ph.D. in Mediterranean Studies from Brandeis University. Sasson’s publications include commentaries on the Biblical books of Ruth(1979), Jonah(1991), Judges 1-12(2014), and Judges 13-21 (in preparation). His most recent monograph is From the Mari Archives: An Anthology of Old Babylonian Letters(Eisenbrauns, 2015).
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