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    Jephthah – the extra chapter

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in Festschrift III: Rabbi Dr Shalom Coleman, December 2018.


    My book, New Testament People: A Rabbi’s Notes, published by AuthorHouse in association with the Australian Council of Christians and Jews (2016), examines almost a hundred New Testament figures from a Jewish viewpoint.

    I have spent my life studying and teaching Judaism. I have been a Jewish spokesman on many platforms – the pulpit and classroom, the written and printed word, the audio-visual and social media, as well as universities, schools and seminaries – constantly urging the “undimmed eye and unabated natural force” (Deut. 34:7) of the teachings of Moses and the rabbis. I have generally been received with respect, even when I rather shocked my audience.

    Interfaith involvement has brought me many friendships, but I have also learnt, as Rav JB Soloveitchik says (“Confrontation”, Tradition 6:2, 1964), that it is impossible for a Jew to really get inside the mind of a Christian, and vice-versa. Still, I was moved by Paul van Buren’s view that our age of mutual respect has a radical significance in the long, often difficult story of Jewish-Christian encounter.

    Van Buren has said: “The church looked at the Jews from its own position and saw only a stubborn refusal to accept what the church preached as the truth. It seems never to have crossed Christian minds that what the church called Jewish stubbornness was, from Israel’s perspective, fidelity to Torah and Torah’s Author” (A Christian Theology of the People of Israel, NY: Seabury Press, 1983, p. 276).

    There are really two New Testaments – the Gospels which depict Jesus the human being, the Jew, who was more or less a Pharisee and did not intend to forsake Judaism, and the post-Gospel material which depicts the new faith which was built around and upon his figure and preaching.

    In the first New Testament, Jesus took part in debate, sometimes questioning the traditional view, becoming controversial when he spoke in the first person and claimed special status. No-one is certain how much of his teaching was preserved verbatim, how much was reworked by redactors. Nor can anyone explain why the quiet man of peace is sometimes aggressive and speaks with the robustness of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nobody can solve all the problems but we can delineate some of them.

    If we ask whether Jesus would have approved of the New Testament in its Gospel form, no-one can be sure of the answer. He would certainly not endorse the anti-Jewish animus of some Gospel writers or the horror unleashed in his name upon his fellow-Jews. Nor would he seek to escape the fate of the millions of Jews who were crucified in the Nazi Holocaust. Whether or not Martin Buber was right to call Jesus “my great brother”, Jesus himself would have said with the Biblical Joseph, “I go seeking my brethren” (Gen. 37:16).

    Jewishness is where he came from. His milieu was Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Isaiah, though he believed they had come alive again in him. He saw the upheavals of his time as the pangs of the Messiah and thought of himself in messianic terms. He diverged from tradition in his exegesis of Scripture but he probably had no intention of creating a new religion.

    In the second New Testament, the post-Jesus generation reconstructed his life, his teaching and status, so that Jesus the Jew became Jesus the Christ and Christianity became a gentile faith, incorporating other influences and interpreting Jesus in ways that radically departed from Judaism.

    The parting of the ways involved a set of paradoxes: universalism and particularism, faith and works, sin and atonement, death and rebirth, today and tomorrow, earthly man and ineffable God. Sometimes the new faith leant this way and sometimes that. Despite the Jewishness of Jesus, it is important to recognise the way he was re-shaped.

    Both sides are sure they are right; the question is whether they can live and let live, and both now have to face up to a new factor: a resurgent Islam which is not yet certain whether it can handle the independent spirit and ethos of the other two monotheistic faiths.

    That encounter must be within a climate of civilised discussion, robust without rancour, argumentative but not aggressive. That is the mood in which I wrote this book, and it is in this mood that I hope it will be read. I am not seeking to dismiss or defeat, but to respect and understand. I am not seeking to denigrate or destroy the other person but to know them. The world is big enough for us all.


    The Return of Jephthah, by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini c.1700

    My book presents two types of New Testament people – the cast of the NT narrative itself such as Jesus, Paul and the apostles, and a range of Old Testament personalities like Adam, Abraham, Moses and Aaron, whom the NT christianizes and regards as prefiguring NT personalities and events.

    I had to be selective in my choice of NT people (of both categories). Some had to be left for another time. The opportunity to write this article is the “other time”. The article focusses on one of the minor OT figures, Jephthah, on whom Judaism and Christianity part company, each interpreting him differently. What now follows is a Jephthah chapter which could have but did not figure in my book. The story appears in Judges 11 but the text is not as straightforward as it seems.

    The story is about a warrior chieftain called Jephthah whose Hebrew name Yiftach means “he will open”, maybe because he opened his mouth for a rash vow, maybe because he opened a way for Israel to be free. It is also possible that this a theophoric name with the meaning “God will open (the womb)”. He was the son of Gil’ad (though this may be a place, not a person) with a concubine. Jephthah was made unwelcome by his siblings because he was the son of “another woman”.

    As a warrior he tried to negotiate with the Ammonite enemy but could not avoid war. Despite his apparent piety he used the name of God to make a grandiloquent vow (11:30-31, Ta’an. 4a, Gen. R. 60;3) that if he came home victorious, “whatever comes out of my house to greet me… shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering”. One view is that “and” in this sentence means “or” (Kimchi on 11:31; cf. Ex. 21:15) so that if an unclean animal emerged it would be dedicated to God. Possibly Jephthah expected an animal or slave to be the one to emerge from the house. In the event the one who came out by chance was his only daughter (named by the Midrash as Se’ilah or She’ilah, “asked, demanded, borrowed”) who greeted him with song and dance as was the womanly custom (I Sam. 18:6).

    Surely Jephthah realised that his daughter might be the one to emerge from the house first (11:35). He cannot have discounted this possibility; nothing suggests that he lacked love for his daughter. (In Shakespeare, Polonius tells Hamlet, “If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter I love passing well”). Did he also not imagine that the one who emerged from the house might be his wife, whom he also presumably loved? He was distressed that it was his daughter who met him (11:35) and (if the text means what it says) he even told her she was to blame. Our question remains: does not a good strategist/tactician consider all the possibilities? It was not a new situation: apparently barbarous vows were not unknown in that era (Catholic Encyclopaedia, s.v. “Jephta”).

    The Midrash thinks God was angry and said, “What will Jephthah do if an unclean animal comes out to meet him?”, which implies that Jephthah has not completely thought out his situation. (Tanchuma Bechukkotai; Midrash HaGadol to Lev. 27:2). The Midrash also says that when Se’ilah came out to greet him she tried to argue that he had legal avenues to save her being immolated, but Jephthah did not concede her point. She went to the Sanhedrin to ask their support, but they were not sure of the law.

    Neither Judaism nor Christianity sees Jephthah as a major figure. Church teachers attach more theological significance to him and his daughter (Heb. 11:32). Judaism views them more in terms of human dynamics. It thought Jephthah was a bombastic fool who blurted out his vow in self-confidence. As a pious man (11:11) he should have asked God to save his daughter. This contrasts with the Binding of Isaac, where God Himself ordained the offering in the first place and later terminated it (Gen. 22:1,12). He could have annulled his own vow or substituted a money payment but he was too obstinate, though the Mishnah (Ned. 2:1) says that a vow to negate a Torah law is invalid. He could have asked the high priest to annul it but the priest too was stubborn.

    Did the daughter know of the vow or realise how it might impact her? She might have guessed it, as Isaac deduced from his father Abraham’s actions that there was an intention to sacrifice him (Rashi to Gen. 22:8). As a good daughter who presumably believed that vows had to be kept (11:36) she went along with it (ibid.), though not without protest, as we have seen. The people are likely to have thought that Jephthah would find a way out. What about the women? In later times they commemorated Se’ilah four days a year (11:40) but female views were probably not given great priority and women presumably went along with a status of inferiority.

    Judaism tends to focus on the father, and it says with regret that even an unworthy ruler like Jephthah must be respected in his generation as Samuel was in his. Several Midrashim describe the bodily or mental ailments that came upon him as a result of his vow. They also posit that the high priest lost his spiritual and moral status as a result of not exerting himself to save Se’ilah from the consequences of her father’s foolish vow.

    In the NT, Hebrews 11:32 has a high regard for Jephthah, calling him a man of faith like Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, Samuel and the prophets. The Christian Saint Ephraem sees him as a righteous priest who enhanced the service of God. Christian thinking deems the daughter as piously accepting of her fate and being privileged to lay down her life for the Almighty.

    There is no unanimity as to what happened to Se’ilah. There are two main lines of thinking, both found in Christianity. One approach affirms that she was offered as a burnt offering (II Kings 3:27), prefiguring the Christian notion of self-sacrifice as personified in Jesus, though Judaism is aghast at the notion of human sacrifice (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5, etc.).

    The second view (held by most Jewish exegetes and a minority of Christians such as Nicholas of Lyra) is that she survived and – perhaps temporarily – wandered the hills. Some exegetes (Jewish and Christian) believe she was isolated in a specially built edifice where her needs were provided by her father. This may be the origin of a convent or nunnery. Even the Jewish commentaries (Ibn Ezra, Abravanel etc.) know of such institutions being established by Christians. Judaism did not advocate the monastic life; the Jewish emphasis was on holiness within and not outside the community (rabbinic commentators on Lev. 19:2 et seqq., and see notes in JH Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs). Nicholas of Lyra believed one could be both “sacrificed to the Lord” and still be alive in monastic seclusion.

    If Se’ilah did live she remained in a state of virginity, never to marry or bear children (11:37-39). For Christianity this was holy virginity, though Judaism gives no support to any such notion and believes that a woman should not be denied or deny herself marriage and procreation (Gen. 1:28, 2:24). Judaism does not see Se’ilah as a heroine, spiritual or otherwise, but as a suffering victim. The story is then an isolated if horrendous incident.

    On the other hand, St. John Chrystostom claimed that God determined that Se’ilah should be immolated as a warning to human beings not to make rash vows or endanger innocent victims (Church Fathers, Homily 14). 11:39-40 implies that Israelite custom ensured that such events would never happen again.

    The Encyclopedia Judaica gives a detailed list of the many artistic and cultural depictions of the story, mostly by Christians. They range from Handel to Byron, from 20th century novelists to Yiddish story-tellers.


    new-testament-people-a-rabbis-notesNEW TESTAMENT PEOPLE: A RABBI’S NOTES

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.

    The softcover and ebook editions are available from Amazon, AuthorHouse, The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), and elsewhere online.

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