Shofetim Chapter 12

Sefer Shofetim Chapter 12

The tribe of Ephraim complains to Yiftah that he neglected to summon them to join him in battle against Ammon. Yiftah turns the blame around on them, accusing the Ephramites of failing to come to his aid to save the Jewish people in their time of need. Yiftah explains that this lack of support on their part was his basis for not including them amongst his troops. These aggressive comments exacerbate tensions between the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe (from which Yiftah hails) and the situation escalates into a full-blown civil war.

The men of Gilad controlled the river-crossings along the Jordan and would not permit members of Ephraim to cross. Anyone who wished to pass through would have to demonstrate that he was not of the tribe of Ephraim. People suspected of lying were subjected to a special test – Ephramites could not pronounce the “sh” sound and would therefore say “shibboleth” as “sibboleth”. Those who failed the exam, unwittingly revealing their Ephramite heritage, would be killed on the spot; forty-two thousand members of the tribe perished.

Yiftah led the nation for six years. After him arose three “minor” judges who are only described by the sizes of their families and estates – Ivtzan of Bet Lehem, Elon HaZevuloni and Avdon Ben Hillel the Pirathoni. We are not provided with any details about their deeds, regimes or the specific challenges they faced during their respective tenures.

There is an obvious comparison to be made between Gideon and Yiftah. Both were assailed by the tribe of Ephraim for having excluded them from a military operation. Gideon assuaged their concerns calmly and diplomatically, settling the issue without further incident. Yiftah, by contrast, fans the flames of discord by arguing with the tribe of Ephraim and claiming that they are the ones at fault.

It is tempting to infer from this that Gideon was a more skilled and savvy politician than Yiftah, who exhibits hot-headedness and impulsiveness in his dealings with other tribes. However, this would be a hasty conclusion to reach. After all, Yiftah attempted to neutralize the initial conflict between Israel and Ammon with sophisticated diplomacy before opting for war. What happened to Yiftah’s political acumen in the meantime? Why didn’t he utilize it in his exchange with the tribe of Ephraim?

I would like to suggest the following explanation for Yiftah’s conduct. His dream was to become the leader of the nation of Israel – for all intents and purposes, to become the king. He imagined that as a result of winning this crucial battle with Ammon, he would move on to establish a monarchy in his own name. However, the incident with his daughter rendered all of those hopes null and void. Whether she was actually killed or merely kept celibate is irrelevant – either way, she was no longer able to serve as Yiftah’s heir or to provide him with a grandson who could do so. Thus, after her “demise” (however it is interpreted), Yiftah’s hopes are dashed.

Political acumen is a powerful tool in the hands of an ambitious leader with aspirations to greatness. But someone who is hopeless and has nothing to lose has no use for such niceties. Once Yiftah saw that he had no future as the founder of a dynasty in Israel, he threw caution to the wind, preferring to keep himself busy with civil war and endless conflict over simply waiting for his time to expire and his career to reach its inevitable but premature conclusion.