Best known for the disturbing story of his daughter, Jephthah’s life (Judges 11) reads like a biblical soap opera.
Having been born from a questionable relationship, Jephthah as a young man is thrown out of the house by his half-brothers and flees outside the borders of the land of Israel.
He gathers a band of young men in similar situations and they hone their fighting skills to such an extent that when the Jewish people are threatened by the Ammonites, they cast around for a warrior to lead them into battle and come up with Jephthah.
However, Jephthah (or, less tongue-twistingly in Hebrew, Yiftach) was not so eager to come back, observing that when he was under threat from his brothers the Jewish people had not helped him, so why should he help them now?
He agrees with the elders that, if God gives him success in battle, he will become their leader.
The commentators note approvingly that Jephthah recognises that success will come only through God’s hand. For those who know the story, this is a foreshadowing of disaster, highlighting Jephthah’s tendency to bargain to gain what he wants. Jephthah tries some unsuccessful diplomacy with the king of Ammon before waging a successful battle campaign against him.
It is at this point the familiar story begins – Jephthah vows if he is successful in war, he will offer as a sacrifice the first living thing that comes out of his house to greet him on his return.
The rabbis comment here that Jephthah is numbered among those making inappropriate vows.
In his enthusiasm, he failed to consider the consequences if a non-kosher animal were the first thing to greet him, let alone a family member.
Worse, when his only child, a daughter, dances out, rejoicing in his victory, instead of seeking to annul his vow, Jephthah stands on his pride and condemns her to her fate. (It is unlikely she was actually sacrificed – she probably became a hermit).
Jephthah and Pinchas, the high priest, are both censured by the rabbis for refusing to approach each other and resolve the situation.
The rabbinic commentators used this tragedy to urge people to think before they speak, take responsibility for their actions and be prepared to humble themselves, rather than sacrifice another’s wellbeing – lessons as relevant today as they were in the time of the Judges.
• Vicki Belovski is rebbetzin of Golders Green United Synagogue