Daughter of Jepthe

It encourages us to see the Torah as open to infinite possible interpretations as we continue. Rabbanit Nechama Goldman Barash discusses the story of the daughter of Jepthe. 

This week’s parashah, Hukkat, is an important one for the nation as it finally moves towards entry into the land of Israel. Miriam dies. There is a crisis over water which leads to the people complaining and Moses hits the rock. The rest, as they say, is history and Moses and Aaron, who also dies in this parashah, do not go into the land. There is one narrative in the parashah that often gets overlooked: Israel ask permission from Sihon the king of the Amorites to cross through their land to enter the land of Israel. When they are denied permission, the fledgling nation goes to war and with God’s help they win the land from the Arnon to the Yabbok

This week’s haftarah, chapter 11 in the book of Judges, brings us Jepthe who is forced to go to war with Ammon over the land won from Sihon. Jepthe is a complicated character. He is both a mighty warrior and the son of a prostitute who was ejected from his father’s home by his brothers. He is only called back to save his tribe from the Ammonite nation. The king of Ammon is planning to go to war to win back the land from the Arnon to the Yabok which they apparently lost to Sihon who then lost it to Israel. At first, Jepthe resists their pleas until they promise to appoint him commander of the tribe.

Jepthe is not thirsting for war. He first practices diplomacy, reminding the king of Ammon of the land’s history and how their god had already capitulated to Israel and granted them victory over the Amorites to take possession of the land. He cautioned that the God of Israel would again ensure victory just as He vanquished Egypt and Balak king of Moab in the days of old. When the king refuses to relent, Jepthe goes to war but not before he vows to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to God if he emerges victorious. Immediately, he is blessed with a resounding victory. He utterly routes the Ammonites and comes home to celebrate. This is where the haftarah ends.

However, I would like to fill in the rest of the chapter for the story that emerges is an important one and serves as a reminder of how far misplaced religious ideology can go. As Jepthah approaches his home, his daughter runs out to greet him with timbrels and dancing – reminiscent of Miriam’s dancing on the Red Sea. We are told that he has no other child save this one, which heightens the tragedy since we the readers know at this point what he has vowed although his innocent daughter does not.

In a particularly brutal turn of phrase, he blames his daughter for bringing him low and forcing him to fulfill his vow. The pious unnamed daughter bravely faces the consequence of the vow but asks for two months to go with her friends down on to the mountains. After two months she returns and he does to her what he vowed. Forever after, four days a year, the daughters of Israel go to wail over the daughter of Jepthe.

The tragic story challenges the rabbinic Midrash written over 1000 years after the events took place in unexpected ways when it uncovers a, daring theology aimed at proving God’s complicity in the event. In Genesis Rabbah 60:3, the Midrash notes that in three other cases men take unreasonable vows that challenge God’s ability to provide a happy end:  Eliezer, the servant of Abraham who is taxed with finding a bride for Isaac; Caleb as he promises his daughter to whoever captures the town of Kiryat Sefer; Saul who promises his daughter to whomever brings down Goliath. In all three cases, a heroine or hero emerges - Rebecca, Otniel ben Kenaz and the future King David.

In this story, however, the Midrash has God incensed and insulted over the idea that Jepthe would dare to consider sacrificing a camel or a donkey or a dog if it happened to exit the house first and thus, God sends the daughter of Jepthe to teach him a lesson. It is certainly a lesson but for whom? The Midrash goes on to suggest that while God was complicit in the tragedy, the true accountability lay with Jepthe and Pinchas, the high priest at the time. Neither would lay down their ego to try and salvage the situation by going to beg help one from the other.

It is a sobering story. One of gender, power and tragedy. A virginal girl is sacrificed on the altar of his father’s ignorance and ego and no one cares. There is no outcry from society.

Several hundred years later, a different ending to the story emerges. The medievalists, among them Ibn Ezra, Radak, Gersonides and Abarbanel use a model known to them in Christendom of the anchorite. The anchorite was a woman who pledged herself to the monastic life but unlike a nun who lived in a community, she was shut into the house, usually by her father, who provided for her until the end of her days and who spent her life in thanksgiving and prayers to God, acting as a holy vessel on behalf of the community.

So committed are these medievalist to this innovative interpretation, that they use classic exegetical tools to interpret the text accordingly. When Jepthe takes his vow he says “and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” with the Hebrew letter vav standing in for the word “and”. The commentators note that a “vav” can mean “or” as well as “and” and thus, it makes possible the reading that Jepthe will sacrifice something that is worthy of sacrifice or consecrates to God something that is not. In addition, the medievalists notice that the text tells us three times in different ways that she was a virgin when the vow took place as opposed to emphasizing the shortness of her life, and furthermore, nowhere does it specify what he did with her but states that he did to her what he vowed. Lastly, her friends actually go every year to visit with her for four days a year – to give her comfort and cry with her over her isolation, which makes more sense, they argue, then going to cry over a grave for four days a year.

Whether her fate was better off with sudden and instant death or with her father building her a house and putting her inside never to come out, is debatable. What is commendable and worth noting, is the interest of interpreters from the Midrash onwards, to delve into the text by using both traditional methods of interpretation through a careful and close reading of the text with contemporary milieus to read and reread a story in a way that best fits the message they fill is hidden within. It encourages us to see the Torah as open to infinite possible interpretations as we continue, in the words of Ben Bag Bag in Pirkei Avot to “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it”.