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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 11
Yiftach's Fatal Mistake

The final verses of Chapter 10 described how the people of Gilad were surrounded by the enemy armies of Ammon. In Chapter 11, the Jewish people search for a strong leader to lead the fight against this enemy. They choose Yiftach, the first-born son of one of the leader’s of the tribe of Menashe. However, Yiftach’s lineage is not as noble as it appears. The verse refers to his mother as a harlot. Commentators provide varying explanations to this, including that she was a concubine and that she was from a different tribe. His brothers drove him away as they did not want him to inherit when he was “the son of another woman” (11:1-2). He went to live in the wilderness and gathered a group of bandits together.


The new leader’s lowly background hints to the ever-decreasing standard of the leaders as we progress through the period of the Shoftim. Alternatively, it also shows that God can provide deliverance from even those of the most unlikely and humble backgrounds.


Yiftach sent messengers to Ammon to find out what their reason was for waging war. The Ammonites claimed that the Jewish people had taken land from them when they left Egypt. Yiftach replied with a history lesson: the Jewish people did not take land from Ammon. The land, which had once been part of Ammonite territory, had been conquered previously by the Amorite king Sichon. According to the Sages of the Talmud: "these territories of Amon and Moav were purified (made permissible to the Israelites) by Sichon" (Gittin 38a, Chullin 60b).


Following this exchange, Yiftach leads the tribes into battle with Ammon where they enjoy a resounding victory. Prior to battle, Yiftach made a vow, that if victorious, on his return home, he would sacrifice the first thing to emerge from his house. Unfortunately, this turned out to be his daughter. She nobly accepts that her father needs to fulfil his vow, although she does also bemoan her fate. The text states that Yiftach “carried out the vow that he had vowed” (11:39). According to Yehuda Elitzur in his Da’at Mikra commentary, this means he sacrificed her to God. He explains the text does not say it explicitly due to human sacrifice being an abominable act to God. Alternatively, other medieval commentators explain she was not killed but instead never married and led a life devoted to prayer.


Certainly, Yiftach’s actions here were wrong. Even if we accept that he did not kill her, he should not have obligated her to a certain course of behaviour due to his misplaced vow. He is strongly criticized by Rashi (11th century French biblical commentator) for not annulling the vow through the prophet Pinchas. Due to excessive pride as the leader of the people, Yiftach refused to go to see Pinchas. In turn, Pinchas, as the prophet and priest, refused to go to Yiftach. Their mutual failure led to the downfall of an innocent girl, and they are both punished for this.


Whilst Yiftach wins the battle, his actions show that he was far from being an ideal leader for the Jewish people.

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