June 30, 2001
The beginning and the end of the story of Jephtah are tragic. Born into awkward circumstances, he was cruelly forced to leave his family and community and to live the life of a brigand in the wilderness. These events shaped Jephtah’s character and hardened him into a fierce warrior and a shrewd strategist. He was the appropriate leader to save the Israelites from the hands of the Ammonite army. Yet the same qualities which brought him to his position of leadership ultimately led to his downfall.
Before going to battle with the Ammonites, Jephtah made the following vow to God: “If You surely deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon shall be the Lord’s and I shall offer it up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)
This reckless vow had tragic consequences when Jephtah’s only daughter was the first to greet him upon his return from battle. The following midrash attempts to recount the events leading up to the tragic ending found in the Haftarah and to explain why Jephtah did not annul this terrible vow.
Shouldn’t Jephtah have gone to Pinchas the High Priest to annul his vow and save his daughter from the terrible fate that he had brought upon her? What happened? Jephtah said to himself: “I am the chief and leader of the Israelites so why should I go to Pinchas.” Pinchas said to himself: “I am the High Priest, the son of the High Priest, so why should I go to that boor.” Because of the arrogance of these two leaders, the poor girl perished. Both of them bear the responsibility for her loss… In time each of them was punished. (Adapted from Koheleth Rabbah 10,15)
Jephtah’s vow was a serious mistake but the arrogance that kept him from correcting it was a much more serious transgression. This shrewd negotiator and talented soldier was incapable of lowering himself to seek the assistance of another person lest his honor be diminished. His overbidding sense of self importance led to the death of his daughter and was ultimately self destructive as well.