The Haftarah for our portion this week, Chukkat, is from Judges, chapter 11:1-33. It is the story of Jephtha, a mighty warrior whose dubious lineage as the son of a prostitute makes him an outsider in his father Gilead’s family. Blocked from his inheritance, he becomes a mercenary, but he is so respected as a man of war that he is enlisted as leader of the battle against the Ammonites. Becoming the leader, Jephtha first sends messengers in the hope of negotiating a peace with the Ammonites, but the Ammonite king rejects it, and Jephtha leads the Israelites in a defensive war against the Ammonites.
Our Haftarah concludes with Jephtha’s victory, and just prior to that, his vow that in exchange for victory, he will offer as a sacrifice whatever first comes out of his house to meet him when he returns home from victory over the Ammonites. Our sages left the rest of the story out of the Haftarah reading: the first person to come out of Jephtha’s house when he returned home was his beloved daughter. His daughter took his vow as seriously as he did, but asked for two months delay before this thing would happen; and Jephtha granted it. The story continues that Jephtha’s daughter bewailed her unmarried state, and then returned to her father, who did as he had vowed. Now the story becomes slightly ambiguous: there are conflicting interpretations as to what happened next, but most commentators believe that Jephtha did in fact sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering. And the text concludes that it became a custom that the daughters of Israel would go every year, for four days in the year, to lament her.
The rabbis find here a cautionary tale about the dangers of vows. But it is still a very uncomfortable story, which is likely why the Haftarah reading concludes before the consequences of Jephtha’s vow. And we can understand why this choice was made. The story of a bargain with God that begins with hubris and ends in a death and the ruination of a family is perhaps better excluded. It is depressing and, presumably, nothing more than an ancient story.
But this is more than an ancient story; this is a tale that speaks to us in very modern language. What we have here is a powerful man, only recently chosen as a leader, who needs victory in order to protect his hard won status. In support of this, he makes a hasty and over-enthusiastic commitment, grandstanding with little thought of the consequences. But the consequences are terrible, beyond anything he imagined or planned for. His life is now irrevocably changed for the worse, and not just his life, but other people’s lives as well. It sounds very modern; for we are living today in the immediate aftermath of a decision like Jephtha’s, and his story has become our story.
Jephtha’s hasty bargain would have been tragic if he had been nothing more than a private person making a terrible choice. But in fact Jephtha was more than just a private person; he was a leader of his people. A leader must look beyond his immediate advantage and realize that he may not be able to imagine every possible outcome of a rash decision, and so he should not make unnecessary policies or decisions for partisan advantage. And, since any decision can have unintended consequences, he must consider these possibilities and have a plan in place to ameliorate them.
Although most rabbinic commentators agree that Jephtha’s daughter was slaughtered as a sacrificial offering, several do not. The medieval commentator Rabbi David Kimchi discerned that a person cannot be suitable to be offered as a burnt offering, nor, he says, does close reading of the text support the idea that Jephtha did so. Rabbi Levi ben Gershon says, in support of this idea, that when a person is dedicated to God, that person is not slaughtered like a beast, but rather given to God’s service. Unlike a man who is dedicated in this way, a woman offered to God’s service must be forbidden to marry. In the era that this commentary was written, if she married, her husband would be her master, and she could no longer serve God to the exclusion of all others. This interpretation explains the odd mention of the Jephtha’s daughter’s unmarried state. It suggests that she was not put to death but rather sent to live in isolation, never marrying and having only the occasional companionship of the daughters of Israel. The story, which at first seems hopelessly awful, could have had a different ending; an unfortunate one, but not as catastrophic as it first appears. This possibility might give us today, against all odds, a reason to be hopeful.