That guy from a daughter religion to Judaism may lay claim to being but a humble carpenter’s son, but we can do better. One of the Israelite Judges was the son of a prostitute.
In the haftarah for Chukkat we read the tale of Jepthah. Born of a liaison between his father and a hooker, he is ill-treated by the sons his father had with his wife, denied any inheritance because he is the son of an “other woman.” (The Hebrew here is somewhat open to interpretation. It could simply mean that Jepthah was the son of another women, or it could mean that Jepthah’s mother was not an Israelite, which I think is more likely. (The whole Jepthah story could really be in trouble if the Israelites has started practicing matrilineal descent. Unless, of course, Jepthah’s mother, the prostitute, was also an Israelite. Hmmm.)
What’s even more fun is that Jepthah (in Hebrew, Yiftakh) is Yiftach HaGiladi. Can you think of anyone else important in Judaism also from Gilead, and who is known as so-and-so HaGiladi? But I digress.
Jepthah leaves Gilead and becomes a brigand, surrounded by unsavory characters.(The text calls them anashim reikim, men of “emptiness,” often used metaphorically to mean men without principles or scruples. One could have a great deal of fun playing with possible meaning of “anashim reikim.”)
“Some time later” when the Ammonites attack the Israelites, the elders of Gilead seek out Jepthah, known as a skilled warrior, to lead them. Jepthah of course throws back in their faces how they treated him, and appears (or plays the game of being) incredulous of their request. The elders promise Jepthah that if he comes with them they shall make him their leader. It’s a deal!
Jepthah, despite his reputation as hanging with men of unsavory character, appears to be quite the diplomat warrior. He writes to the King of the Ammonites asking why they are attacking. The King responds that the Israelites took away land from his people. Here’s the connection to the parasha. In Chukkat we read of Moses’ requests to both the Edomites and the Amorites for permission to pass through their land. Both refuse. The Israelites pass by Edom, but the Amorites attack, and lose big.
In the haftarah, the Ammonites are making a claim on land that, at least in the parasha, was conquered by the Israelites from the Amorites. It’s not really clear that that Amorites have any claim to this land – perhaps the Amorites conquered it and took possession from the Ammonites, but asking for land back from someone who conquered land that had already been conquered by someone else seems dubious, and Jepthah refutes the Ammonite claims. Jepthah also wonders why, in the 300 or so years that the Israelites have occupied this land, why the Ammonites have not previously made a claim upon he. He suspects the Ammonites are just using the issue as a ploy, and excuse to war on the Israelites.
Jepthah pretty much tells the Amorites “this is our land, we conquered it fair and square, and we have no intetion of giving any of it back to you.” Interesting enough, Jepthah also says this:
23 "Now, then, the Lord, the God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites before His people Israel; and should you possess their land? 24 Do you not hold what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So we will hold on to everything that the Lord our God has given us to possess
If you want some evidence that the ancient Israelites were monolatrous rather than monotheists, there it is, plain as day. You keep what your G”d has given you and we’ll keep what our G”d has given us. Battle of the Titans?
Jepthah then becomes a man impassioned by G”d, marches into Ammonite country,and utterly destroys them. On his way he makes a vow top G”d that, should he win, he will offer to G”d that which first comes out of his house to greet him upon his successful return. Jepthah is victorious, and returns. Then he pays the price for his vow.
The rabbis decided to leave that part and the rest of the story out of the Haftarah. Jepthah has to sacrifice his own daughter in order to fulfill the vow.
I, however, cannot bring myself to simply overlook that bit of editing. The lesson is somewhat clear: be careful what you promise to G”d.
Stepping back a bit, while there seems to be some confusion about who conquered whom, and the haftarah seems to be referring to different people (the Moabites and Amorites) than those in the parasha. Scholars are a bit perplexed by that, but some point to a reference in the Book of Joshua which speaks of Israel conquering land belonging to the Amorites. (Joshua 13:25.)
It’s a sore and touchy subject, but some ardent supporters of the modern state of Israel call upon some of the same arguments made by Jepthah – that conquered land belongs to the conquerors, even if conquered multiple times. Imagine, after all, the mess that might ensue if a tribe or nation could make claim on land that had been subsequently conquered and rules by more than one other nation. (On the other hand, Judaism has solutions for similar situations – for example, the rule of the Jubilee year when land always returns to the original tribe’s ownership.) Jepthah’s solution is a simple and pragmatic one. What your G”d gives you is yours. As far as the current situation is Israel, I am not sure it is appropriate to take either the stance that “what G”d gives you is yours” or “it was ours, it has been conquered many times, and now we want it back.” I don’t want to get into this whole issue, frankly.
So the Amorites lose out (in the parasha,) the Ammonites lose out, and Jepthah pays a high price for his success in battle. Not a nice little story all wrapped up in a bow, is it? But then again, what fun would it be if it were?
Questions abound. Why did the Gileadites turn to Jepthah? In times of crisis do morals and such not matter as much? How did the Gileadites even have the temerity to ask Jepthah to help them after his treatment by them? What is it about Jepthah that made him worthy enough, despite his history, to be a champion for G”d, and to have G”d bestow the favor of victory upon him? Did the Ammonites have a legitimate claim, or were they just blowing smoke? Why did Jepthah, head of a band of brigands, choose the diplomatic approach first? Why did Jepthah refer to Moab and the Amorites when he knew he was talking with the Ammonites?
I think there is lots more to plumb in the depths of this haftarah. I intend to spend my Shabbat and other times doing that plumbing. I commend it to you as well.
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this parasha: (I’ve only included musings on Chukkat when it was read separately from Balak.)