Sefer Shofetim Chapter 11
Yiftah was the illegitimate son of a man named Gilad and was banished from his father’s home by his father’s legitimate children who did not want to share the inheritance of their father’s estate with him. Yiftah leaves home and establishes himself as the ancient equivalent of a successful mob boss.
Ammon threatens to attack the Jewish people and recapture from them the territory they occupy on the Eastern side of the Jordan River. Faced with this crisis, the Elders of Gilad approach Yiftah to put his organizational and management skills to work and lead them in battle. Yiftah is hesitant to accept the job, but agrees to do so on the condition that, if he is successful, he will be permanently appointed leader over all of Israel. A solemn agreement to these terms is made in the presence of Hashem at Mitzpah.
Before engaging in battle, Yiftah attempts to resolve the problem through diplomacy. He questions the motive of Ammon in laying siege to Israel, reminding them of the history of the disputed territory. The Jews had never conquered any Ammonite territory and were, in fact, forbidden to do so. However, Sihon, King of the Emori, had captured some land that originally belonged to Ammon.
When Sihon attacked the Jewish people in the times of Moshe Rabbenu, the Jews overpowered his forces on the battlefield and annexed that territory. While it was true that it had once belonged to Emorites, it was not directly taken from them by Israel. The Jews had never committed any wrongdoing to Ammon and did not deserve to be treated harshly or for war to be declared on them.
The King of Ammon is not impressed with these diplomatic overtures and proceeds to attack anyway. Before leaving for battle, Yiftah makes the fateful oath to Hashem that, if he returns in peace, the first thing to exit his home will be offered as a sacrifice. Yiftah successfully routs Ammon and joyfully heads home, only to be greeted by his only daughter, who is now “condemned”, as a result of the vow, to become an offering to the Almighty!
Yiftah’s daughter insists that her father fulfill his promise but asks that she be allowed to go to the mountains with her friends and “cry over her virginity for two months.” After this grace period, he fulfills his vow; however, it became an annual tradition for Jewish women to mourn for the daughter of Yiftah four days per year.
It is interesting to consider how the social status of the judges of Israel continues to decline; from Gideon, a reformed idolater, to Avimelekh, his illegitimate offspring, to Yiftah, who is the son of a prostitute (not even a concubine) and is a gang leader who was rejected by his family because of the circumstances of his birth. This certainly reflects the general spiritual decline of the Jewish people. Hashem, so to speak, “begrudgingly” provides the nation with the salvation they seek, and by sending them a “dishonorable” leader, He conveys the message that He continues to harbor reservations about their worthiness of providential assistance.
The oath of Yiftah is also a fascinating subject that is widely debated among the commentators. Some take it literally and understand that Yiftah offered his daughter as a sacrifice to God. It is difficult to accept this view, since such a ritual would contradict every tenet of Judaism; moreover, the text would be expected to detail the horror of such an act more explicitly if it had indeed taken place.
More appealing is the view that “giving her to God” in this context meant that, to honor her father’s vow, she had to commit to a lifetime of celibacy. This would explain her decision to mourn over her virginity. She would never be able to marry or have children and in this sense sacrificed herself to the Almighty.
In the next chapter, we will further explore the implications of this fateful choice for Yiftah’s political future. For now, it suffices to note what an unusual relationship Yiftah has with religion. On one hand, he invokes the name of Hashem quite a bit, and seems to be sincere, even going so far as to honor his outrageous vow. On the other hand, his conception of religion seems to be distorted.
Yiftah sees no contradiction between his excessive ambition, seedy past or inclination to human sacrifice (of one kind or another) and authentic Judaism. His Judaism seems to be somewhat tainted or at least heavily influenced by idolatrous religious ideas. This suggests a further decline in the level of Torah knowledge even among the leadership of Israel, and does not bode well for the population as a whole.