“And Jephthah vowed a vow to the Lord”
Judges 11:30

One of the Bible’s most tragic incidents is recounted in this week’s haftarah. Jephthah, a judge, makes a vow promising God that if He surrenders the Ammonite enemy into his hands, whatever comes out of his house to welcome him on his return shall be sacrificed to Him as a burnt-offering.

Jephthah’s only daughter greets his triumphant return from battle. And, astonishingly, he carries out this vow. The commentaries discuss whether  she is actually sacrificed or shut away in isolation for the rest of her life. Surely we can assume he was expecting an animal to run out, not his own child. But animals are not kept inside homes; people are. Rabbi Mordechai Hattin suggests that the surrounding pagan culture, where human sacrifice was commonplace, had become so entrenched among the Israelites that Jephthah knew his daughter might have to be sacrificed as an appropriate means of thanksgiving.

Jephthah does not seek to retract his vow. Why does he not take advantage  of several legal loopholes to save his only daughter? Perhaps he felt his  God-given victory might be invalidated without the fulfilment of the vow. 

Rabbinic tradition accuses Jepththah of two flaws: ignorance and pride. Ignorance in making such a rash vow, and pride which prevents him from going to the High Priest for its annulment. The priests are also blamed by some commentators for knowing the situation but not approaching Jephthah because they felt that he should come to them.

While we may continue to  debate the faults of her father, the text mourns the true victim of this sorry tale: this terrible chapter ends with a moving  tribute from the women: “And it was a custom in Israel that the daughters of  Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days a year.”

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