In Israel: July 5, 2003
Was Jephthah a prophet? This man, who had such military and political savvy, but was a societal outcast and somewhat of a brigand seems the least likely person to be chosen as a prophet. Yet when it comes time to secure Israel from the clutches of the nation of Moab, God calls upon Jephthah: “Then the spirit of the Lord (ruah hashem) came upon Jephthah.” (Judges 11:29)
How are we to understand the expression – “the spirit of the Lord”? Targum Yonathan, the 7th century Aramaic translation, modifies the language of this sentence: “Then a heroic spirit came upon Jephthah from before God” since this “spirit” comes to Jephthah before he led the people successfully in battle against the nation’s enemy. This interpretation distinguishes between the inspiration offered by God to Jephthah and prophecy. Jephthah was given a special strength to carry out his mission.
Maimonides builds upon this idea. He identifies different levels of prophecy. He notes that the prophetic spirit which inspired Jephthah was on a different level than that of Moses. Jephthah’s type of prophecy, according to Maimonides, constitutes the lowest form of prophecy: “The first degree of prophecy consists in the fact that a person receives a divine help that moves and activates him to a great righteous and important action – such as the deliverance of a community of virtuous people from a community of wicked people or the deliverance of a virtuous man or the conferring of benefits on numerous people. The individual in question finds in himself something that moves and incites him to action and that is called “the spirit of the Lord”… This is the grade of prophecy of all of the judges of Israel… Such a “spirit of the Lord” by no means caused one of these judges to speak of anything; rather its object was to move the one strengthened by it to a certain action: not any chance action but to an action that succors a wronged one…and just as not everyone who has experienced a truthful dream is a prophet not everyone who has received divine help in some chance matter is a prophet…. (adapted from Guide to the Perplexed 2:45 – Pines translation)
Prophecy comes in many forms. Jephthah was not a prophet on the level of Moses. On some levels Jephthah was even less than ordinary but when there was need, he “received” the inspiration to save his people. This kind of prophetic spirit can inspire each of us.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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