A Vow for Victory
Though the Yiftach narrative extends over two full chapters (Shofetim 11-12), only one scene remains etched in most readers' memories, that of Yiftach's vow and the fate of his daughter. Before leaving to fight the Ammonites, Yiftach makes a deal with Hashem:
(ל) וַיִּדַּר יִפְתָּח נֶדֶר לַי"י וַיֹּאמַר אִם נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן בְּיָדִי. (לא) וְהָיָה הַיּוֹצֵא אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִדַּלְתֵי בֵיתִי לִקְרָאתִי בְּשׁוּבִי בְשָׁלוֹם מִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן וְהָיָה לַי"י וְהַעֲלִיתִיהוּ עֹלָה.
Yiftach's intentions in making the oath are unclear. Was he expecting a human or animal to emerge? If the former, why did he not anticipate that it might be his beloved daughter who would be the first to greet him? More troubling, how could he have vowed to offer a person as a sacrifice to Hashem at all?
Yiftach's Daughter: A Willing Sacrifice?
Upon returning home, Yiftach is devastated to see his only daughter emerge from the house. She, however, appears less troubled by her father's vow:
(לז) וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל אָבִיהָ יֵעָשֶׂה לִּי הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה הַרְפֵּה מִמֶּנִּי שְׁנַיִם חֳדָשִׁים וְאֵלְכָה וְיָרַדְתִּי עַל הֶהָרִים וְאֶבְכֶּה עַל בְּתוּלַי אָנֹכִי [וְרֵעוֹתָי] (ורעיתי). (לח) וַיֹּאמֶר לֵכִי וַיִּשְׁלַח אוֹתָהּ שְׁנֵי חֳדָשִׁים וַתֵּלֶךְ הִיא וְרֵעוֹתֶיהָ וַתֵּבְךְּ עַל בְּתוּלֶיהָ עַל הֶהָרִים. (לט) וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ שְׁנַיִם חֳדָשִׁים וַתָּשׇׁב אֶל אָבִיהָ וַיַּעַשׂ לָהּ אֶת נִדְרוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָדָר וְהִיא לֹא יָדְעָה אִישׁ וַתְּהִי חֹק בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.
(37) And she said unto her father: 'Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may depart and go down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.' (38) And he said: 'Go.' And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. (39) And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed; and she had not known man. And it was a custom in Israel,
These verses raise a number of questions:
- "עֲשֵׂה לִי כַּאֲשֶׁר יָצָא מִפִּיךָ" – Why is Yiftach's daughter so complacent about her father's vow? How can she calmly tell him to do as he vowed, rather than attempt to sway him to annul it? Moreover, why did Yiftach himself not void the vow? As human sacrifice is not only prohibited but considered an abomination, the vow should never have had any validity!
- "וְאֶבְכֶּה עַל בְּתוּלַי" – Yiftach's daughter requests a stay of two months so that she can cry over her maidenhood. Should she not be crying, instead, over her approaching death? Later, the verses again emphasize that she was chaste ("וְהִיא לֹא יָדְעָה אִישׁ"). Why is this fact so important that it is highlighted?
- "וַתְּהִי חֹק בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה תֵּלַכְנָה בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְתַנּוֹת לְבַת יִפְתָּח אַרְבַּעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה" – What did this custom of lamenting Yiftach's daughter entail? Why was the tragedy marked in such a manner?
- "וַיַּעַשׂ לָהּ אֶת נִדְרוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָדָר" – The verses never say explicitly that Yiftach's daughter was sacrificed, only that "Yiftach did to her as he had vowed". Is this more vague formulation significant?
The space which the text allots to Yiftach's vow seems disproportionate. While the entire battle against Ammon is recounted in but two verses, a full eight verses are devoted to the vow and its aftermath. As the story has no national significance, it is not clear why it needed to be recorded at all. What message is the reader meant to take away from the tragedy? How does it connect to the themes of the rest of Sefer Shofetim?