Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) and the haftarah is Judges 11:1-33.
Why would a man who is clear-headed, cool, and careful with words suddenly make a vow that threatens his only child?
The haftarah from Judges introduces Yiftach as a man who is an outcast through no fault of his own.
Yiftach of Gilad was a capable warrior, and he was the son of a prostitute, and he was begotten by Gilad. Then the wife of Gilad bore him sons, and the sons of his wife grew up and they drove out Yiftach. They said to him: “You shall not inherit in our father’s household, because you are the son of another woman.” So Yiftach fled from his brothers, and he settled in the land of Tov, and men without means gathered around Yiftach and went out with him. (Judges 11:1-3)
Yiftach (יִפְתָּח) = he opened. “Jephthah” in English translations.
Gilad (גִּלְעָד) = “Gilead”, the region east of the Jordan River, settled by the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menashe in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar because it was good for cattle. Yiftach’s father is probably called “Gilad” because he is the chief or de facto king of the region; the Bible often refers to a king by the name of his country.
The oldest son of a chief does not automatically become the next chief, but all of a man’s sons are entitled to a share of his property. As a capable warrior, Yiftach could attack his half-brothers when they refuse to share with him. But he is too sensible to take this risk. Instead he accepts that he has been deprived of both his home and any of his father’s herds, and he flees to a remote part of east Gilad.
There he leads a band of landless men who “go out”—probably to raid villages for spoils, a common occupation in the ancient Near East.
Later, the Ammonites to the south attack the Giladites and capture some of their towns. Since Gilad has no war leader, a delegation of elders travels to Tov and asks Yiftach to take the job. He refuses on the grounds that he was disinherited and driven away. So the elders make him a better offer.
“You shall go with us and you shall battle against the Ammonites and you shall become our chief, for all the inhabitants of Gilad.” (Judges 11:8)
Yiftach, clever and careful, rephrases their offer to mean that he will be the permanent chief of Gilad, even after the Ammonites are defeated:
“If you are bringing me back to battle against the Ammonites, and God gives them up to me, it is I who will be your chief.” (Judges 11:9)
The elders agree, but as an extra precaution Yiftach repeats his words in front of God at the nearest high place, the mitzpah or lookout post of Gilad.
We can assume he brings his raiders with him and recruits and trains more soldiers. But his next recorded move is to send a message to the king of the Ammonites:
“What is between me and you, that you come to me to make war on my land?” (Judges 11:12)
Yiftach addresses the Ammonite ruler as one king to another, as if it were a personal quarrel. The king of the Ammonites replies that the Israelites took his ancestral land, between the Arnon and Yabok rivers east of the Jordan, when they came up from Egypt centuries ago. Yiftach replies by explaining that Amorites captured that land before the Israelites arrived, so the Ammonites have no legitimate grudge against the Israelites of Gilad. This time, the Ammonite king sends no return message.
Up to this point Yiftach has acted cautiously and reasonably. Then something happens to him.
And a ruach of God came over Yiftach. And he passed through the Gilad and Menasheh, and he passed the lookout of Gilad, and from the lookout of Gilad he passed ahead to the Ammonites. (Judges 11:29)
ruach (רוּחַ) when immediately followed by a name of God = prophetic inspiration or ecstasy; charisma; mood, motivating force, prevailing attitude.
The book of Judges tells of two war leaders before Yiftach who were overcome by a ruach of God: Othniel and Gideon, both of whom were motivated to go to war. After Yiftach, whenever Samson is overcome by the ruach of God he has a burst of superhuman strength and commits an impulsive act of violence. In the first book of Samuel, King Saul is overcome both by a ruach of prophetic ecstasy and by a ruach that plunges him into foul and suspicious moods—and both kinds of ruach come from God.
What kind of ruach of God comes over Yiftach? The first effect of the divine ruach is that he gathers his troops and goes to fight the Ammonites. But the ruach may have a second effect; immediately after the sentence quoted above, the haftarah continues:
And Yiftach vowed a vow to God, and he said: “If You definitely give the Ammonites into my hand, then it will be the one that goes out from my door of my house to meet me at my safe return from the Ammonites—[that one] will belong to God, veha-alitehu [as] an olah.” (Judges 11:30-31)
veha-alitehu (וְהאעֲלִיתְהוּ) = and I will make him/it go up. (From the root verb alah (עלה) = go up. The –hu ending can mean either a male human or an animal.)
olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (Also from the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah an entire slaughtered animal offering is burned up into smoke.
This is not the vow of someone who is thinking clearly. After all, he does not know who or what will come out the door of his house. The Midrash Rabbah for Leviticus/Vayikra imagines God wondering if Yiftach would offer up a non-kosher animal unsuitable for altar sacrifice, such as a camel, donkey, or dog, if it happened to come out the door first.
Yiftach, who is so well-versed in Israelite history, would know that human beings are also unacceptable as offerings on God’s altar. Yet his vow implies that not only will he give God ownership of the person or animal that comes out of his house, but that he will do so by burning up the man or animal in an olah offering.
Perhaps Yiftach is still under the influence of the ruach of God, and not thinking clearly.
I found three other if-then vows in the Bible, and all three are more practical about the object of the vow. Jacob vows that if God keeps him safe until he returns to his father’s house, then he will give a tithe of all his property to God (Genesis 29:20-22).
Hannah vows that if God gives her a son, she will give him to God as a lifelong servant—as a nazir, priest, and/or prophet. (1 Samuel 1:11)
In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites …vowed a vow to God and said: If You definitely give this people into my hand, then I will devote their towns to utter destruction for God. (Numbers/Bemidbar 21:2)
In each case, God fulfills the request, and the person who makes the vow gives what he or she promised to God. God also fulfills the request in this week’s haftarah:
And Yiftach passed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and God gave them into his hand. …twenty towns … a very great blow. And the Ammonites were subdued before the Israelites. (Judges 11:32-33)
So when Yiftach gets home, he must fulfill his unconsidered vow.
And Yiftach came to the lookout post, to his house, and hey!—his daughter was going out to meet him, with tambourines and with dancing. And she was an only child; he had no other son or daughter. (Judges 11:34)
Yiftach’s response shows that he has recovered from the ruach of God that gave him battle fever and led to his muddled vow.
As he saw her, he tore his clothes [in mourning] and he said: Ah! My daughter, I have certainly been knocked down to my knees! And you, you have become okherai. And I, I opened up my mouth to God, and I am not able to turn back. (Judges 11:35)
okherai (עֹכְרָי) = one who cuts me off from social life, one who makes trouble for me.
When Yiftach’s father died, his brothers cut off from his old life and subjected him to troubles. Now he blames his daughter for doing it again. He also blames himself for making the vow in the first place.
I know some people today who seek ecstatic experiences, who want to be overcome by the ruach of God. And I know people who are driven by a mission they consider sacred, one that has taken over their lives and muddled their thinking, as if they had been overcome by a ruach of God.
As for myself, I would rather keep my head clear and think before I speak. I would rather be like Yiftach before the ruach hit him.
What about you?
(Look for next week’s post (Haftarah for Balak) for an exploration of how Yiftach fulfills his vow, what actually happens to Yiftach’s daughter, and how this story informs next week’s haftarah from the book of Micah.)