Updated: Jan 20, 2022
by: Shmuel ben Shlomi
In Judges Chapter 11, could you please explain Jephthah's vow and Jewish thought on how it was honored?
Jephthah’s story is a sad one but is also a cautionary tale. First a little background on the life of Jephthah. His father was Gilead who was likely the son of one of the Shofetim in the formative years of Israel and probably settled in the hill country of what we now know as the East Bank, just East of the Jordan River (modern day Jordan). Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute and after the death of his father was cast out of the family by his brothers from the legal wife of Gilead.
Jephthah wandered throughout the hill country and over time became a mercenary for hire and was rather successful at routing many of Israel’s enemies still inhabiting the land. Eventually, the leaders of the various communities throughout Israel asked him to become their commander and chief to combat the growing number of enemies surrounding them, particularly the Ammonites led by their king. Showing some skill at negotiation he finally agreed to become Israel’s military commander.
He tried those same political maneuvering and negotiation skills with the Ammonite king but his sound and reasoned argument fell on deaf ears, in fact 15 full verses are dedicated to this great debate between him and the Ammonite king. Now, this is where the foolishness of Jephthah comes into play. Regardless of the fact that he was a great commander he lacked the spiritual wisdom needed to lead Israel. He certainly had the chutzpah and zeal but he lacked any kind of wisdom that would be displayed in two of Israel’s future leaders, King David and King Solomon. In verse 30 he makes one of the most foolish and totally unnecessary vows any person could ever make before HaShem:
”And Jephthah made the following vow to Adonai: ‘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 shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30)
One has to ask: Why did he make such an offer when in just the verse preceding this it states that the spirit of Adonai came upon him and gave him his marching orders? He should have been fully aware at this point that HaShem was with him and had anointed him to be victorious in the battle to come. It reveals the flaws in the character of this otherwise great man, his lack of trust in HaShem and his foolish vow knowing that the only other person living in his home beside himself was his only daughter. If he had just thought it through he would have realized that and would have never made such a ridiculous and heretical vow. Also, why did he carry out such a vow? Did he really expect HaShem, the merciful and righteous judge of the universe to accept a human, especially his only child as a burnt offering? How ludicrous!
So then, what lesson can we take from this story that HaShem obviously allowed to be part of his Tanakh? Never make a hasty vow before the Almighty without giving it some real serious contemplation. Jephthah should have never made such a cursory and foolish vow; and after doing such, he should of quickly repented, sought the counsel of the elders and Levites as to the proper payment required to redeem his daughter and expiate his own transgression. He should have fully well known that a human sacrifice is never acceptable before HaShem. It is the one thing He loathes most of all.
"...beware of being lured into their ways after they (the nations surrounding Israel) have been wiped out before you! Do not inquire about their gods, saying, 'How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices.' You shall not act thus toward Adonai your G-d, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that Adonai detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods. Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it." (Devarim-Deuteronomy 12:30-!3:1)
HaShem was not pleased with the vow or the method of payment Jephthah or his daughter chose to make nor did He ever honor such a vow. Not all our old shofetim were the sharpest tools in the shed; Jephthah is a prime example of that.