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Yiftach’s Daughter At Stake

This condensed version of the Girls in Trouble curriculum, a project by Alicia Jo Rabins, is based on Alicia’s art-pop song cycle of the same name, and follows individual women through their stories in the Torah. In each lesson, students are encouraged to engage with both the Torah text and Alicia’s songs, to consider the story’s relevance to their own lives, and to generate their own creative interpretations. This curriculum brings Biblical women to life, demonstrating the power of these often under-studied stories, and highlighting the ways in which they can help us navigate our own complicated lives.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • Faith is a double-edged sword. It can be a powerful source of healing, meaning and beauty, but it can also blind us to the reality of the world around us, and even to the sanctity of human life.
  • The story of Yiftach’s daughter can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of fundamentalism
  • Creating art about women in Torah continues the millennia-old tradition of interpretation, while bringing female characters to the center of the process.

Essential Questions

  • Why is Bat Yiftach’s story important?
  • How can we work to reconcile the importance of faith and tradition with the necessity of critical thinking?
  • How does Alicia’s song contribute to our understanding of Bat Yiftach’s story?

Notes to Teacher

We encourage you to make this curriculum your own. For instance, if there isn’t time during your class period to have students sketch out their own creative interpretations, you can either leave this part out or treat it as an extension activity.

We also encourage you to include as much hevruta (partner) study as possible. If you are new to hevruta study, you can think of it as discussion between two partners who can help each other learn by challenging each other’s first impressions. Breaking the group into pairs and having them read texts out loud, rather than silently, is an essential part of hevruta study.

Lastly, when studying the Torah text, we find it helpful to have students identify every problem, difficulty, or moment of confusion they can find in the text, as if they were on a scavenger hunt. This opens up the door to midrash, the Jewish tradition of creative Torah interpretation, which imagines answers to those questions.

Introductory Essay(s)

Mountain/When My Father Came Back: Explanation of a Musical Midrash

by Alicia Jo Rabins

Violence, pathos, and biblical interconnectedness: there is plenty to focus on in this story.

The unrelenting tragedy and the violence at the heart of Yiftach’s daughter’s story is at once gripping and disturbing. On an intellectual and spiritual level, it’s fascinating to read an imagining of the Sacrifice of Isaac story in a world where God does not intervene directly, which is closer to our experience.

But what draws me to this story most profoundly is neither tragedy nor violence nor God, but the complexity of Yiftach’s daughter herself.

Despite the tragedy of her ending, Yiftach’s daughter is far from powerless. She is the one who informs her father his vow must be fulfilled. After leaving for two months with her friends before the act, she is the one who returns, seemingly willingly. Again and again I come back to this simple truth: anyone who is old enough to live on her own for two months is self-sufficient enough to run away.

What inside her would lead her to make this decision? I am haunted by this question, and by what I suspect to be the answer, which is: blind faith.

I read Yiftach’s daughter’s story as a cautionary tale about what can happen when faith departs entirely from reason, when the world is seen in black-and-white, when the law is enacted without flexibility, compassion, or wisdom.

Yiftach’s daughter believed a vow must always be carried out no matter what. And so she lost her life (either literally, or metaphorically) because of her inability to see a gray between the black and white. She was unable to think creatively about other solutions which might respect her faith in God while understanding that the world also requires compassion and flexibility.

To me, this seems to me to be the faith of fundamentalism. And although this story is ancient, it feels extremely relevant to our own times. Looking at the world around us, I see people of all religions who prioritize rules, beliefs, and a limited understanding of God above the sanctity of human life.

I have compassion for this way of life, as I have compassion for the character of Yiftach’s daughter. There is a pure beauty and simplicity in the fundamentalist dedication to a single truth. But I also think it is incredibly dangerous.

In my reading, Yiftach’s daughter is a cautionary tale: not about the dangers of vowing carelessly, but of interpreting texts and traditions literally. Not about Yiftach’s lack of faith, but of his daughter’s excess. To remind us that faith, like all human traits, is a double edged sword. It can be a powerful source of healing, meaning and beauty - or it can blind us to reality, to the world around us, and, most dangerously, to the sanctity of human life.

Lesson Plan

Intro

  • Invite participants to introduce themselves and share a time when they encountered a rule that seemed unfair or unjust.
  • Introduce useful things to know about Bat Yiftach (see “Helpful Things for Teachers to Know about Yiftach’s Daughter” in the Documents section).

Core Text

  • Introduce hevruta, divide class, pass out “core text” sheets
  • Hevrutas read core text to each other and explore discussion questions
  • Come back together to discuss what arose in hevruta. Begin by inviting students to share their most interesting questions and listing them on the board. Explain that finding unanswered questions in the text is the starting point of midrash; ask students to refrain from answering questions unless the questions address the basic plot of the story.

Song

  • Listen to “Mountain/When My Father Came Back” with lyrics
  • Discuss questions as a group

Create Your Own Midrash

  • Time for individual brainstorming/freewriting/drawing with “Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations”
  • If time, opportunity to share creative responses. Students should resist the temptation to critique others’ responses.
  • Share students’ midrashim by adding them to the Gallery of Biblical Women on the Girls in Trouble website

Document Studies

Song Recording

Song Recording

Mountain/When My Father Came Back

Full image
Audio recording of Alicia Jo Rabins' song, "Mountain/When My Father Came Back."

Helpful Things to Know about Yiftach's Daughter

Helpful Things to Know about Yiftach's Daughter

Helpful Things to Know about Yiftach's Daughter

  • Pronunciation: In Hebrew, “Bat” (“daughter”) as in “bat mitzvah,” “Yeef-tach”, with “ch” as in “challah”. In English, “Jeff-thuh.”
  • Yiftach is portrayed in the previous chapter as a sort of loser or outsider figure, who also happens to be very strong, and finds himself appointed to lead the charge against the enemy Ammonites.
  • There is a tradition among Ancient Near Eastern cultures that women and girls would come out with cymbals, drums, and dances to greet victorious warriors as they returned from battle. So Yiftach should have had some inkling that this might happen.
  • The book of Judges, in which we read the story of Yiftach and his daughter, is largely a series of battles between warring nations; this story is told in a context of general violence.

Biblical text with discussion questions

Biblical text with discussion questions

Judges 11:29-40

92 וַתְּהִי עַל־פְתָּח רוּחַ יְהוָה וַיַּעֲבֹר אֶת־הַגִּלְעָד וְאֶת־מְנַשֶּׁה וַיַּעֲבֹר, אֶת־מִצְפֵּה גִלְעָד וּמִמִּצְפֵּה גִלְעָד עָבַר בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן. 03 וַיִּדַּר יִפְתָּח נֶדֶר לַיהוָה וַיֹּאמַר: אִם-נָתוֹן תִּתֵּן אֶת־בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן בְּיָדִי 13 וְהָיָה הַיּוֹצֵא אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִדַּלְתֵי בֵיתִי לִקְרָאתִי בְּשׁוּבִי בְשָׁלוֹם מִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן וְהָיָה לַיהוָה וְהַעֲלִיתִיהוּ עֹלָה. 23 וַיַּעֲבֹר יִפְתָּח אֶל־בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן, לְהִלָּחֶם בָּם וַיִּתְּנֵם יְהוָה, בְּיָדוֹ. 33 וַיַּכֵּם מֵעֲרוֹעֵר וְעַד־בֹּאֲךָ מִנִּית עֶשְׂרִים עִיר וְעַד אָבֵל כְּרָמִים מַכָּה גְּדוֹלָה מְאֹד וַיִּכָּנְעוּ בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן מִפְּנֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. 43 וַיָּבֹא יִפְתָּח הַמִּצְפָּה אֶל־בֵּיתוֹ וְהִנֵּה בִתּוֹ יֹצֵאת לִקְרָאתוֹ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלוֹת: וְרַק הִיא יְחִידָה אֵין־לוֹ מִמֶּנּוּ בֵּן אוֹ־בַת. 53 וַיְהִי כִרְאוֹתוֹ אוֹתָהּ וַיִּקְרַע אֶת-בְּגָדָיו וַיֹּאמֶר אֲהָהּ בִּתִּי הַכְרֵעַ הִכְרַעְתִּנִי וְאַתְּ הָיִית בְּעֹכְרָי וְאָנֹכִי פָּצִיתִי פִי אֶל-יְהוָה וְלֹא אוּכַל לָשׁוּב. 63 וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אָבִי פָּצִיתָה אֶת־פִּיךָ אֶל־יְהוָה עֲשֵׂה לִי כַּאֲשֶׁר יָצָא מִפִּיךָ: אַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ יְהוָה נְקָמוֹת מֵאֹיְבֶיךָ מִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן. 73 וַתֹּאמֶר אֶל־אָבִיהָ יֵעָשֶׂה לִּי הַדָּבָר הַזֶּה: הַרְפֵּה מִמֶּנִּי שְׁנַיִם חֳדָשִׁים וְאֵלְכָה וְיָרַדְתִּי עַל־הֶהָרִים וְאֶבְכֶּה עַל־בְּתוּלַי אָנֹכִי ורעיתי (וְרֵעוֹתָי). 83 וַיֹּאמֶר לֵכִי וַיִּשְׁלַח אוֹתָהּ שְׁנֵי חֳדָשִׁים וַתֵּלֶךְ הִיא וְרֵעוֹתֶיהָ וַתֵּבְךְּ עַל־בְּתוּלֶיהָ עַל־הֶהָרִים. 93 וַיְהִי מִקֵּץ שְׁנַיִם חֳדָשִׁים וַתָּשָׁב אֶל-אָבִיהָ וַיַּעַשׂ לָהּ אֶת-נִדְרוֹ אֲשֶׁר נָדָר וְהִיא לֹא־יָדְעָה אִישׁ וַתְּהִי־חֹק בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. 04 מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה תֵּלַכְנָה בְּנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְתַנּוֹת לְבַת־יִפְתָּח הַגִּלְעָדִי אַרְבַּעַת יָמִים בַּשָּׁנָה.

29 Then the Spirit of G-D came on Jephthah, and...he passed over to the children of Ammon. 30 Jephthah vowed a vow to G-D, and said, "If you will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it shall be, that whatever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be G-D'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering." 32 So Jephthah passed over to the children of Ammon to fight against them; and G-D delivered them into his hand. 33 He struck them from Aroer until you come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and to Abelcheramim, with a very great slaughter. So the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

34 Jephthah came to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances: and she was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 It happened, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are one of those who trouble me; for I have opened my mouth to G-D, and I can't go back." 36 She said to him, "My father, you have opened your mouth to G-D; do to me according to that which has proceeded out of your mouth, because G-D has taken vengeance for you on your enemies, even on the children of Ammon." 37 She said to her father, "Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may depart and go down on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions." 38 He said, "Go." He sent her away for two months: and she departed, she and her companions, and mourned her virginity on the mountains. 39 It happened at the end of two months, that she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she was a virgin. It was a custom in Israel, 40 that the daughters of Israel went yearly to celebrate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year. --JPS Translation

Questions for discussion

  1. Go back into the story and underline the sentences in which Yiftach’s daughter speaks or acts. Then read these sentences out loud. Do you think Yiftach’s daughter had no control over her fate, some control, or complete control?
  2. Some commentators understand this story to mean that Yiftach’s daughter was literally sacrificed, while others believe that she remained alive, but was “offered to God” as a sort of nun and never allowed to marry.
    • What evidence in the text can you find to support each of these readings?
    • How does the story change depending on which interpretation you follow?
  3. A challenge: can you think of any contemporary analog for this story, or a modern example of a person who acts like Yiftach’s daughter?

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Mountain/When My Father Came Back

when my father came back from the war
I knew he would want to see me first
so I ran out to greet him
but he fell to his knees in the dirt

he told me daughter
I have promised God to offer
the first creature that I saw

father the vow you have made
is one you cannot escape
but first let me go with my sisters
down to the shores of the lake

I lived two months with them
my sisters in the forest
and then I returned back home

the night he took me to the mountain
neither of us spoke
we reached the peak together
just as sunrise broke

I could have run from him
I almost thought he wished it
but I could not run from God

it was the last day of my life
the sun had never shone so bright
my father held the knife
I kept my eyes open wide

then angels came to me
with faces of my sisters
and they filled my eyes with tears

Questions for discussion

  1. Unlike the original text and interpretations we have seen, this song is written from the perspective of Yiftach’s daughter herself. How does hearing “her voice” change our experience of the story?
  2. The artist struggles with the question, “Why would Yiftach’s daughter return to her father to be offered up?” How does the song answer this question? Do you agree or disagree?
  3. Optional: listen to the rock version of this song. How does the artist’s decision to tell the story with these sounds affect her interpretation of the story?

Note: While the version of this song included with the curriculum is in a quieter, folk ballad style, there is also a rock version of the song recorded by Girls in Trouble. If you think it will interest the class, you can download or stream the rock version here and have them discuss question #3.

Footnoted song lyrics

Footnoted song lyrics

Mountain/When My Father Came Back, annotated

by Alicia Jo Rabins/Girls in Trouble

when my father came back from the war
I knew he would want to see me first1
so I ran out to greet him
but he fell to his knees in the dirt

he told me daughter
I have promised God to offer
the first creature that I saw

father the vow you have made
is one you cannot escape2
but first let me go with my sisters3
down to the shores of the lake4

I lived two months with them
my sisters in the forest
and then I returned back home

the night he took me to the mountain5
neither of us spoke
we reached the peak together
just as sunrise broke

I could have run from him
I almost thought he wished it
but I could not run from God

it was the last day of my life6
the sun had never shone so bright
my father held the knife
I kept my eyes open wide

then angels came to me
with faces of my sisters
and they filled my eyes with tears7

1 I imagined a close relationship between Yiftach and his daughter, based on the fact that they do not seem to have other family. This is in addition to the historical fact that returning warriors were greeted by their tribeswomen women dancing and playing timbrels.

2 This echoes the text’s understanding that Bat Yiftach herself insists on the sanctity of the vow and the impossibility of cancelling out a vow made in error.

3 “Sisters” here is meant figuratively, as her close friends.

4 As you may have noticed, there’s no lake in the text, and in fact she bewails her virginity on the mountains; but for some reason I wanted to imagine them camping out by a lake in the forest.

5 The text does not say Yiftach brought his daughter up a mountain; this is another detail I imagined since this story echoes the Akeidah, the sacrifice of Isaac, which occurs on a mountain.

6 I went with the more tragic interpretation: that Yiftach literally sacrifices his daughter, rather than the more forgiving interpretation that she is consecrated as a nun. I appreciate the ambiguity of the story, but also find the literal interpretation more convincing given that his vow uses the word “olah,” a burnt offering.

7 These angels are borrowed from a midrash about the sacrifice of Isaac, a compassionate addition to the story in which angels cry into his eyes, blinding him to his father holding the knife above him. (For the rabbis, this explains the vision problems that afflicted Isaac for the rest of his eyes.) I felt Yiftach’s daughter could use some of this ancient anesthetic as well, and that the most comforting faces for those angels would be her best friends. Here is the midrash:

Bereshit Rabbah 65:10

ד"א מראות מכח אותה ראיה שבשעה שעקד אברהם אבינו את בנו על גבי המזבח בכו מלאכי
השרת, ... ונשרו דמעות מעיניהם לתוך עיניו והיו
,’רשומות בתוך עיניו וכיון שהזקין כהו עיניו הה"ד ויהי כי זקן יצחק וגו

At the moment when our father Abraham bound his son Isaac on the altar, the ministering angels wept...Tears dropped from their eyes into his, and left their mark upon his eyes, and so when he became old his eyes dimmed.

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Some Ideas to Jump-start your own Creative Interpretations

Choose one of these verses and write, draw, dance or sing about it:

  • And Jephthah came to Mizpah unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter (Verse 34)
  • And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said: ‘Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art become my troubler; for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.’  (Verse 35)
  • And she said unto him: ‘My father, thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD; do unto me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth (Verse 36)
  • 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 (Verse 39)
  • And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year (Verse 39-30)
  • Or try one of these:

    Visual

    Retell this story in images by representing the objects that seem most important, either drawing or in collage (Some examples: veil, knife, mountain, fire, hut, hands)

    Choose a scene from the story, use any available materials to stage or build a sculpture of this scene, and photograph it with your phone camera

    Music

    Write a mourning melody for Yiftach’s daughter, to be sung by the girls each year

    Write a song in Yiftach’s daughter’s voice describing how you think she might have experienced the story

    Movement

    Create a series of positions or tableaux describing Yiftach’s daughter’s feelings at different moments in the story

    Make a dance in which you go back and forth between being Yiftach and his daughter

    Writing

    Write a letter from Yiftach’s daughter explaining why she returned after two months away

    Write about a personal experience you had that feels connected to the story of Yiftach’s daughter

    Create a ritual memorializing Yiftach’s daughter to be observed in her memory each year

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Cover Art for "Yiftach's Daughter at Stake"
Full image
Cover art by Uri Berkowitz for "Yiftach's Daughter at Stake," a lesson plan from the "Girls in Trouble" curriculum by Alicia Jo Rabins.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Yiftach’s Daughter At Stake." (Viewed on December 18, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/girlsintrouble/yiftachs-daughter-at-stake>.

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