Monday, June 29, 2015

The daughter of Jeptath in Rabbinic Literature

On the Saturday when we read Parshas Chukas, the haftorah is the story of Jephthah and his unfortunate daughter from Judges 11. Here's the most interesting passage:
And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. 33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”
36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”
38 “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.
According to the story, Jephthah is trapped by his own words. Before leaving for battle, he vows that the thing that greets him upon returning home from a successful campaign will be delivered to the Lord as a sacrifice. After the the Lord keeps his end of the deal and allows Jephthah to exterminate 20 towns, He pulls a little prank on our hero. Jephthah comes home after the bloodbath and is greeted by his own daughter.

What happens next? According to the story, Jeptath keeps his word and slaughters his daughter. Our Sages, in the Tanchuma, read the story this way, too:


וכן אתה מוצא ביפתח הגלעדי, מפני שלא היה בן תורה - איבד את בתו. 
We find that Jephthah lost his daughter because he was an ignoramus [who made a stupid vow]

ושניהם (=יפתח ופינחס) נתחייבו בדמיה
And both of them [ie Jephthah and Pinchas] were responsible for her death [due to the pride which made them refuse to consult with each other]

וכל הדברים האלה אמרה לו ולא שמע לה... עלה ושחטה לפני הקב"ה. ורוח הקודש צווחת: נפשות הייתי מבקש שתקריב לפני?!
And all of these arguments [which the girl made to save her life] were ignored and he brought her and slaughtered her before God. And the Holy Spirit screamed "Do I desire that you sacrifice  [human] souls before me?



Later interpreters disagreed, and provided readings in which the daughter survived. Here's the RaDaK

דעת רבותינו בזה ידועה. ואדוני אבי ז"ל פירש: "והעלתיהו" הויו במקום 'או' ופירש: והיה לה' הקדש, אם אינו ראוי לעולה, או העליתיהו לעולה. אם ראוי לעולה. וכמו זה הוי"ו של (שמות כ"א) "ומכה אביו ואמו מות יומת" – או אמו. ויפה פירש. וכן נראה מן הפסוק שלא המיתה, שאמרה ואבכה על נפשי. לאות כי לא המיתה... ...כי פרושה היתה... כך נראה לפי פשוטי הפסוקים. ודברי חז"ל - אם קַבָּלָה היא בידם, עלינו לְקַבְּלָהּ.

The view of our Rabbis is well known, but my father interpreted it this way: the conjunction in the word "and I will sacrifice it" should be read as "or I will sacrifice it" so that the verse reads: whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, OR I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering If its something that can't be sacrificed (eg a camel or my daughter) it will belong to the Lord, but if it can be sacrificed (eg a sheep or a goat) I will sacrifice it. The conjunction (ie the vav) in this verse is just like the vav in [Exodus 21] where it says a man who strikes his mother OR his father will die. And this is a really nice reading as we see from the passage that she doesn't die... rather she was sequestered, and this is the plain meaning of the text. As for the words of our Sages if they had a Kabalah, we should accept it, too.

(1) Radak rejects the interpretation of the Sages, telling us that the girl was not slaughtered.
(2) He also rejects the view of the Sages that Jepthath was unlettered. In this account, the Chieftain knows the diffidence between valid and invalid offerings
(3) He grounds this reading in pshat; however the interpretation of the Sages is also pshat based. The difference is that Radak is reading far more closely than the Sages are. However, both are taking the verses at face value.
(4) At the end Radak makes a feint toward piety, likely to satisfy his fundamentalist neighbors, but its a very limited feint. Only if the sages had a Kabbalah, [ie, a person-to-person tradition dating back to the event itself] that the girls was slaughtered are we required to accept their reading. But if the Sages were merely reading and interpreting on their own, just as Radak is reading and interpreting on his own, we aren't required to accept their point of view. Eyewitness testimony in the form of a valid tradition that began with people who knew what actually occurred is binding; a guess based on your best reading is not.

See more Rishonim disagree with Chazal on this passage here >

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