July 9, 2005
Jephtach\’s first action as leader was an attempt to avoid war with the Ammonites by means of negotiation. He sent emissaries to their king to ascertain their motives for war against Israel. Their response was quick in coming. They accused the children of Israel of usurping their land when they came up from Egyptian bondage. Jephtach immediately replied with Israel\’s position based on four substantive points: 1. The land in question was never an Ammonite possession since Israel had conquered it from Sihon, the king of the Amorites; 2. Israel\’s war with Sihon was justified because he had refused them the right to pass through his land to reach their own land; 3. Sihon\’s land was conquered with God\’s imprimatur; 4. Three hundred years had passed without a single claim to the land on the part of the Ammonites. (Y. Amit, Mikra b\’Yisrael, Shoftim, pp. 198-199) Once these \”rational\” arguments are raised, Jephtach resorted to a bit of religious rhetoric: \”Now then, the Lord, God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites before His people Israel; and should you [the Ammonites] possess their land? Do you not hold what Chemosh [their deity] gives you to possess? So we will hold on to everything that the Lord our God has given us to possess. (Judges 11:23-24)
This last point is theologically difficult since it appears from Jephtach\’s argument that he recognizes the existence of a deity other than God. Y. Kaufman apologetically asserted that Jephtach used this line of argument to reach out to the Ammonite king in a way that he would understand but that his statement does not reflect his own beliefs. This explanation seems to be in line with that of Rabbi David Kimche (Provance 12th century) who uses a similar approach to answer another question raised by the text. He notes that Chemosh was the god of the Moabites and not the Ammonites. He offers an ingenious resolution to this disparity: \”[Jephtach said to the Ammonites]: You ask for land that was the Moabites, that was already taken by the Amorites from the Moabites, Chemosh, their god, did not save them… so you expect him to save you.\” (Adapted and abridged translation)
Both of these explanations, however, do not seem tenable. Rather, it is more likely that Jephtach accepted the idea of territorial deities, an idea that is theologically indefensible in light of Deuteronomic teachings. (see Y. Amit, pp. 199-200)
Rabbi Meir Simcha from Dvinsk (Lithuania 19th century), author of the Torah commentary Meshech Hochmah, is profoundly disturbed by this religious deficiency in Jephtach. He denounces Jephtach for implying that there is any significance at all to foreign deities. For him, even the mention of their names is forbidden. To support his point, he cites a prohibition against taking vows or even mentioning the name of foreign gods found in the Shulchan Aruch. (Yoreh Deah 147:1) (see Meshech Hochmah Parshat Hukkat, end)
Why is the Meshech Hochmah so adamant in his reproach to Jephtach? It would appear that his concern goes beyond an attempt to defend God\’s honor. Perhaps it stems from his realization that Jews as a minority religious community have to be especially careful to defend their beliefs against syncretistic ideas and practices which might undermine their strongly held beliefs. This may or may not have reflected his reality. It certainly reflects ours.