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07.11.2017 11:25    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  chayei sarah  

"The Vows of Abrahams Servant and of Jephthah: A Comparative View"

This week's reading tells of Abraham's steward appealing in prayer to his Maker, saying:

O Lord, G-d of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham:  Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, "Please, lower your jar that I may drink," and who replies, "Drink, and I will also water your camels"—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac.  Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master. (Gen. 24:12-14)

This prayer, phrased as it was, could have been ruinous for Isaac; for it was quite possible that a maiden would appear with the noble personality traits described by the steward in his prayer, but in her body she might be deformed, lame or blind.  What was the steward to have done then?  Should he bring her to Isaac, as he undertook (for she would be the one "whom You have decreed"), or should he forego her, thus making his words a prayer in vain?

Rabbi Samuel b. Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Jonathan:  Three [men] made haphazard requests, two of them were fortunate in the reply they received and one was not, namely, Eliezer, the servant of Abraham; Saul, the son of Kish; and Jephthah the Gileadite.  (Ta`anit 4a)

These three men slipped up in what they said and were likely to regret their words, but the Holy One, blessed be He, came to the aid of two of them, preventing them from failing, whereas the third, Jephthah, He did not help, and indeed Jephthah failed.

As we observed, Abraham's steward could have found himself in a predicament with a blind or lame maiden, but the Holy One, blessed be He, prevented him from being thus disappointed, and brought Rivkah his way.  Saul was heading for a fall, promising to give his daughter to the man who would succeed in defeating Goliath (I Sam. 17:25).  What would he have done if the man who slew Goliath turned out to be a servant or a bastard?  Would he still have kept his promise and given his daughter in marriage to a man whom the Torah forbade entry to the community?  Or would he have abrogated his promise and thus violated his own words?  In this case, too, the Holy One, blessed be He, stood at his side and sent him David.

Jephthah, however, did not have the good fortune to be thus aided, and fell into a predicament.  Before setting out to fight the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord:  "If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:30-31).  After his victory in battle he returned home and was aghast at what he saw.

When Jephthah arrived at his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance!  She was an only child; he had no other son or daughter.  On seeing her, he rent his clothes and said, "Alas, daughter!  You have brought me low; you have become my troubler!  For I have uttered a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract."  (Judges 11:34-35).

Ultimately, "he did to her as he had vowed" (Judges 11:39).

We have no intention of discussing the commentaries on whether Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord, or whether he only dedicated her to the Lord and she spent the rest of her life in isolation as a nezirah.[1] It is appropriate, however, to discuss why this discrimination against Jephthah.  Why did the Lord not come to his aid and prevent him from this failing?  Surely it was not beyond the Lord's capabilities to have an animal fit for sacrifice—a bull or a lamb—come out towards Jephthah, and he offer it to the Lord as a burnt offering!  Why was Jephthah punished so tragically?

Of course one could point to the difference in personality between Jephthah and the other two figures.  The latter may have been righteous men who worshipped the Lord and did His bidding, while Jephthah was an uncommendable character (see, for example, his behavior towards the Ephraimites, Judges 12:1-7), and therefore was not favored with help from Heaven.  Below, however, we shall examine the question from a different angle, not treated by the biblical exegetes.

Jephthah did not make a general vow that could be interpreted ambiguously.  The formulation of his vow did not imply the possibility that if an animal came towards him, he would sacrifice it to the Lord.  Had that been the implication, perhaps the Lord would have come to his aid and had a bull or lamb come out.  Rather, Jephthah wished to make a human offering, and only a human offering, and this desire of his found expression in the way he phrased his vow, a formulation that blocked all possibility of helping him get out of the hole into which he put himself.

In his vow, Jephthah said:  "Whoever comes out of the door of my house to meet me," using the Hebrew expression, ha-yotze…likrati [lit. "that which comes to meet me," not specifying animal or human].  This expression appears in the Bible dozens of times, but not once in the context of animals coming towards a human being.  Hence, when Jephthah says, "that will come to meet me," he meant the person who will come to greet him, not the animal; for in Scripture animals do not come "to meet" someone.

Also, the choice of words, "out of the door of my house," leaves no room for doubt:  out of someone's house only come people who live in the house or who are to be found in the house; not animals that live in a sheep pen, enclosure, or barn.  Although in a poor agrarian society animals might "live" with their owners in the house, eating with them, drinking from their glass and lying down with them (see II Sam. 12:3), are we to assume that Jephthah treated his livestock in the manner of poor farmers?

When he returned from battle, crowned in victory, and "there was his daughter coming out to meet him, with timbrel and dance," he was dumbstruck.  He probably imagined that one of his servants, attendants or domestics, would be the person to come out to greet him, and not his only child.  No wonder his spontaneous reaction was to rend his clothes, to cry out, "Alas, daughter!" and mumble, "You have brought me low; you have become my troubler."

This solves a question that has perplexed many:  why was Jephthah so astounded, and why did he react with the misery of mourning?  Could he not have said that he had not had a human being in mind?  Was there no one around to make it clear to him that there was a way out of the hole into which he had fallen?  These difficulties are removed by what we have said about:  Jephthah wanted to make a human sacrifice but had not taken his only daughter in account.  His lament was not that a human being had come out to meet him, rather, that the person who came to meet him turned out to be his daughter.  There is no getting out of this unexpected development, no way out of this hole.  As he himself said, "For I have uttered a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract."

Hence we must say that Jephthah knew very well that one should not follow the ways of other religions that include human sacrifice in their rituals.  However he considered that the Torah grants leaders leave to sacrifice a human being in the wake of victory.  He interpreted the verse, "But of all that anyone owns, be it man or beast or land of his holding, nothing that he has proscribed for the Lord may be sold or redeemed; every proscribed thing is totally consecrated to the Lord," as permitting the leader to sacrifice a person, as Nahmanides explains (loc. cit., 27:29):

This was the mistake that Jephthah made regarding his daughter, for he thought that when a leader in Israel vows to proscribe, [the vow] is valid and in force, to put human beings to death; and that whoever violates his proscription is liable to the death penalty.  So he thought that if he took an oath in wartime to make a sacrifice of a person or persons, that oath was valid.  He did not know that proscriptions of the king or the Sanhedrin applied to [proscribing] rebels, to wiping them out, or to those who transgressed their decrees and regulations; but heaven forfend that a vow be taken to give a burnt offering of something which is not fit to be offered to the Lord.

This mistake was not one made by Jephthah alone, but also made by courts and men of halakhah in his time; for his daughter appealed to all such institutions, seeking to get her father's vow annulled.  But her efforts were to no avail, and her father had to fulfill what he had sworn.[2]

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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