Chukat (Statute or Decree)
Numbers 19:1–22:1; Judges 11:1–33; Hebrews 9:11–28; John 3:10–21
“Whatever comes out from the door of my home to meet me when I return to peace from the Ammonites, then to God will I offer it as a sacrifice.” (Judges 11:31)
Last week in Parasha Korach, the leadership of Moses and the calling of Aaron to the priesthood was challenged by a Levite named Korah, who claimed that all of Israel was holy, especially the 250 other leaders of the community.
In response, God confirmed the leadership of Moses and Aaron with three events: the earth swallowed those who joined Korah’s mutiny; fire consumed the leaders who presumed to offer incense; and Aaron’s staff miraculously blossomed.
In today’s Sedra (also called Parasha or weekly Torah portion), Moses is given the law of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer), the ashes of which purify those who have sinned or become ritually impure (tamei) through contact with a dead body (tumat met). (Numbers 19:17)
The Israelites also arrive in the wilderness of Zin, after journeying in the desert for 38 or 40 years (depending upon rabbinic interpretation). There, Moses strikes the rock to bring forth water for the thirsty Israelites, instead of speaking to the rock as God had commanded him. (Numbers 20)
The Torah portion ends with Israel battling the Amorites, who mustered an army against God’s people because they wanted to pass through Amorite territory as they continued their journey through the wilderness.
The Israelites defeated the Amorites and took possession of their cities up to the fortified borders of the Ammonites.
The Haftarah (prophetic portion) opens with the Israelites pleading with a mighty warrior named Yiftach (יפתח/Jephthah) to lead them in battle against the Ammonites, who had oppressed them for 18 years (circa 1128–1110 BC).
Yiftach came from a troubled family. He was the son of Gilead and a prostitute. His half-brothers were the sons of Gilead’s wife.
As soon as they were old enough, Gilead’s “legitimate” children expelled Yiftach from his father’s house so that he would not share in the inheritance. Yiftach fled to Tob, a region east of Jordan, and took up with scoundrels.
Later, however, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead asked Yiftach to lead them in battle against Ammon, telling him that if he led the battle, he would become the head over them.
The spirit of God came upon Yiftach and Israel did win the battle. (Judges 11:29)
“’Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” (Zachariah 4:6)
Humble Origins, Grand Destinies and Rash Vows
One of the lessons of this Haftarah is that when we serve God, our background or lineage does not keep us from success.
Even outside of serving God, many have risen from humble beginnings and questionable backgrounds to become successful people.
Nevertheless, in this Haftarah portion, Yiftach whose name means He will open, made a grave error on his way to victory.
He opened his mouth and uttered a reckless vow to God, promising that in exchange for success, he would sacrifice the first thing that came through his door when he returned home.
“If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30–31)
This rash and needless vow resulted in the death of his only child.
When Yiftach arrived home and saw that his daughter was the first to step out of the house to greet him, he tore his clothes and fell to his knees, expressing an ancient Jewish sign of mourning.
He cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” (Judges 11:35)
Imagine his horror.
It was customary at that time, for women to come out with timbrels and singing and dancing to greet their men returning victorious from battle.
Therefore, Yiftach’s daughter was only doing what was the norm for their time and culture—she was being an honorable, loving daughter.
Given this ancient Israelite custom, it would be reasonable to assume that Yiftach should have known his daughter or wife would come out to greet him. Why, then, would he make such a foolish vow?
We can’t really know.
While the terrible fate of Yiftach’s daughter is omitted in the synagogue readings, the end of the story reveals a second important lesson.
Our mouth can get us and our loved ones into a lot of trouble if we’re not careful.
Proverbs warns us to be watchful about what we say: “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction,” and “A fool’s mouth is his destruction.” (Proverbs 13:3 and 18:7)
Yeshua (Jesus) also revealed that what comes out of our mouths is the fruit of what is in our hearts:
“For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.… For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:34–37)
Indeed, Yiftach’s words revealed the unbelief in his heart. Although he seemed to understand that the battle was the Lord’s, he really did not trust that God would just give him the victory.
Perhaps because of his humble origins or the worthless company he kept, he thought that he needed to “hedge his bet” by offering an additional sacrifice.
We are sometimes also guilty of the same kind of thinking, bargaining with God, “If you do this for me then I will do that for you.”
This type of bargaining is especially unwarranted when God wants to do something just because it is His will.
For instance, we may think that we have to give God something for our salvation, but it is a free gift offered because He loves us.
We can’t bribe God to act on our behalf! Neither do we need to.
The Book of Judges does not mention the daughter of Yiftach by name, but only as bat-Yiftach (daughter of Yiftach). The Word makes it clear that she was his only daughter, his one and only child (y’chid).
This brings to mind Isaac, who in Genesis 22:2 was called Abraham’s only son. God asked Abraham to sacrifice him on the altar: “Take your son, your only son….”
The same word, y’chid, is used in both instances. Still, Isaac’s life was spared, whereas Yiftach’s daughter was not.
In the case of Yeshua, God Himself sacrificed His only son, His y’chid, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Just as the death of Yiftach’s daughter is not part of the traditional synagogue readings, neither is the Messianic Prophecy in Isaiah chapter 53, which foretells the atoning death of Yeshua.
“He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities… the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all… He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people He was punished… and though the Lord makes His life an offering for sin, He will see His offspring and prolong His days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in His hand.” (Isaiah 53:5–6, 8, 10)
Judaism abhors human, especially child sacrifice.
Indeed, even the sacrifice of bat-Yiftach is considered controversial. Some believe that she was simply dedicated to the Lord and remained a virgin the rest of her life.
This abhorrence of human sacrifice has proven to be one of the major objections that some Jewish people have when it comes to believing in Yeshua—that God, who hates human sacrifice, would never have authorized the sacrifice of a man to atone for people’s sins.
But the 53rd chapter of Isaiah tells us that it “pleased the Lord to bruise Him” and that He would indeed, die, sacrificed like a lamb led to the slaughter to atone for our transgressions.
However, Yeshua was not just an ordinary man; He was also the son of God—fully human and fully divine—in a way our limited minds cannot comprehend.
Yeshua’s death for the atonement of our sin was God’s will, but God’s grief was such that the veil (Parokhet) that the High Priest passed through once a year into the Holy of Holies was torn from the top to the bottom, from heaven to earth, at the moment of Yeshua’s death. (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45)
Only God the Father could have torn this veil from His place in Heaven.
In this way, He not only revealed that atonement had been made for sin, He also carried out the Jewish mourning custom of tearing one’s garment to express terrible grief at the death of a loved one.
Defending the Innocent
We can, perhaps, draw a third lesson from this Haftarah.
Yiftach had condemned his own child to die at his own hands. Bat-Yiftach did not protest but went away for two months to be with her friends to mourn.
We may wonder why she did not run to some safe place but instead returned only to be murdered by her own father. Was there such a safe place? Likely not. But even if there were, the cost of leaving may have been considered worse than death.
Furthermore, apparently no one came to her defense. Where were her friends? Where was the community? Why did they stand by in silence while her father “did to her as he vowed.” (Judges 11:39)
This scenario may remind us of the women who remain with men who abuse and mistreat them—even, perhaps, to their death.
Sometimes, that death is considered moral by the perpetrators. In many Muslim countries, women are murdered by their husbands or fathers in a practice called “honor killing” when they are suspected of any kind of immorality or breach of Islamic law.
How many anonymous women are killed while the community stands by in silence? While many of us find this topic extremely disturbing, we must not stand by in silence—we must oppose violence against the innocent.
Nullifying Unwise Vows
The rabbis join in condemning Yiftach’s vow; they agree that he should have annulled his vow, and there is such a process in modern-day Judaism.
Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) always begins with a famous service called Kol Nidre (all vows), in which is carried out an annulment of vows made during the past year that we may be unable to keep.
Kol Nidre likely originated in Spain when the Jewish People were forced to convert to Christianity or face death.
Some of the Jews chose to take the vow publicly. In their hearts, however, they remained Jewish. Kol Nidre gave them opportunity to renounce their vow.
It must be said here, however, that the first Jewish Believers would not have doubted for a second that they were still Jewish, nor do Jewish Believers today.
Over the centuries, though, the misconception that it is not Jewish to believe in Yeshua has firmly taken root, both among Gentiles and Jewish people.
We may, at times, make a rash vow that later proves to be a mistake, even a disaster.
Better to humble ourselves and admit we have made a terrible mistake than to go on to keep the vow and be destroyed or destroy others.
Proverbs seems to make such a provision:
“If you have shaken hands in pledge (vow) for a stranger, you are snared by the words of your mouth … deliver yourself … go and humble yourself, plead with your friend give no sleep to your eyes nor slumber to your eyelids. Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter and like a bird from the hand of the fowler.” (Proverbs 6:1–5)
While the above verse applies to the danger of co-signing for another person’s debt, the principle, perhaps, can be applied to situations where we have made an unwise promise.
Surely, we should do everything in our power to keep our word; however, may we also have the wisdom to seek to be released from any rash and harmful vows that we should not have made in the first place.
This is not to advocate breaking promises because they are inconvenient or painful.
As King David said, “LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless… who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind.” (Psalm 15:1–4)
In fact, Ecclesiastes advises us to not be hasty in making vows to God, saying, “It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it.” (Ecclesiastes 5:5)
Yeshua also warned against vows, advising us to use simple confirmations and declines such as yes and no instead. (Matthew 5:37)
May this account of Yiftach and his daughter serve to remind us to use wisdom and restraint when opening our mouth, especially when making a vow to God.
Making a Difference
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8–9)
When we read this section about Yiftach’s daughter, which has been omitted in the synagogue readings, may we remember to give a voice to the voiceless and stand in their defense for justice, righteousness, and mercy.
May we also remember that the vast majority of the Jewish People do not know that Yeshua fulfilled Isaiah 53 in His atoning death on the Roman execution stake.