Jephthah, the Bandit Judge


by Rabbi Jeffrey Adler

Very often, the people Adonai chooses would not make our list of acceptable candidates. Judges 11 tells us of one such individual.

In the 10th chapter, Israel had, again, fallen into idolatry. 10:6 begins, “Then B’nei-Yisrael again did what was evil in Adonai’s eyes. They worshipped the Baalim, the Ashtaroth, gods of Aram, gods of Zidon, gods of Moab, gods of the children of Ammon, and gods of the Philistines. They abandoned Adonai and did not worship Him. (Verse 7) So Adonai’s anger burned against Israel, and He sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the children of Ammon. (Verse 8) They shattered and crushed B’nei-Yisrael that year- for 18 years all B’nei-Yisrael who were beyond the Jordan in the land of the Amorites, which is in Gilead. Then the children of Ammon crossed over the Jordan to fight against Judah, Benjamin, and the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was greatly distressed.”

Finally, B’nei-Yisrael cried out to Adonai for help in verse 10: “Chatanu l’ka v’ki azavnu et-Eloheynu v’naavod et-habaalim.” “We have sinned against You, for we have forsaken our God and have worshipped the Baalim.”

Adonai responded by urging them to ask the idols for help, but, in verse 16, His soft heart shone through: “Tiqtzar naphsho baamal Yisrael”, ”His soul could not bear the misery of Israel.” “Tiqtzar” is the imperfect tense of “Qatzar”, “to become small, tight…” In an anthropomorphic analogy, it was as if Adonai were having chest pains from distress over Israel’s plight. His mercy is unfathomable.

Against this backdrop we are introduced to Jephthah. His father, Gilead, had sinned by having sexual relations with a prostitute, resulting in the birth of this son. Gilead’s other children resented their half brother’s illegitimacy and refused to share their inheritance with him, driving him away from their home. Jephthah wandered into Tob, attracting a band of thugs, apparently forming a notable gang.

When the elders of Gilead decided to resist the Ammonite hordes, they sought out Jephthah, the toughest guy on the block. His first reaction was that they had rejected him before and shouldn’t cry to him now. Their response was to offer him the position of their chieftain, their “rosh”.

Beginning in chapter 11:10, Jephthah begins negotiations with the king of Ammon, asking why his incursions into Israeli territory. The king responds by accusing Israel of stealing Ammonite and Moabite land. (Where have we heard that before?) When Jephthah gives the king a more accurate history lesson, the Ammonites invade Israel.

11:29 relates: “Vatt’hi al-Yiphtach Ruach Adonai…,” Then the Spirit of Adonai came upon Jephthah.” Inspired and strengthened, he marched through massive amounts of territory to confront the invaders. Verses 32-33 tell us: “So Jephthah crossed over to the children of Ammon to fight against them, and Adonai gave them into his hand. So he utterly defeated them from Aroer until you come to Minnith- 20 towns- and as far as Abel-cheramin. So the children of Ammon were subdued before B’nei-Yisrael.”

Verses 34f describe Jephthah’s return home in triumph. His earlier disgrace seemed to be replaced by ecstatic victory and honor. However, in verse 30 he had made what turned out to be an impulsive and, ultimately foolish vow to Adonai: “If You will indeed give the children of Ammon into my hand, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me whan I return safely from the children of Ammon, it will be Adonai’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” Because we so often feel unworthy of God’s assistance, many feel the need to negotiate a deal with Him to “sweeten the pot”. We have nothing that God needs and His love for us is so great that He aids us out of His own pleasure. There is no need for playing “let’s make a deal”.

Imagine Jephthah’s dismay when the first to greet him was his daughter, his only child. “Alas, my daughter! You made me bow down in grief- you’ve made me miserable! For I have opened my mouth to Adonai, and I cannot take it back.”

Opinions vary here. Torah says that vows had to be carried out unless someone with higher authority voided them. Yet, Torah also forbids human sacrifice. Some say the daughter merely remained unmarried for the rest of her life, but, Jephthah had vowed an “olah”, a burnt offering, and the text says that after allowing her 2 months to grieve her virginity, Jephthah “did with her according to the vow he had made…” I believe he sacrificed her, though I’m also convinced that Adonai would have forgiven the foolish vow.

In this account we find some sterling conclusions:
1. God does judge sin.
2. God actively looks to forgive and show mercy.
3. A tawdry past does not have to preclude future favor.
4. God can empower to save and deliver.
5. Knowledge of Adonai’s true character can prevent foolish vows.

Rabbi Jeffrey Adler is president of the Board of HaShomer and also Rabbi of Sha’arey Yeshua in Indianapolis, IN.