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When Rashi looks back on the life of Jephthah, he notes:

Jephthah was afflicted with boils and dismemberment as it is stated, (below 12:7) “And he was buried in the cities [pl.] of Gilead.” (His limbs were buried in the various cities.)

Looking at the NET Bible notes, "cities" is indeed plural in the Hebrew:

The Hebrew text has “in the cities of Gilead.” The present translation has support from some ancient Greek textual witnesses.

The NJPS rendering is typical of modern English translations:

Jephthah led Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and he was buried in one of the towns of Gilead.

I don't see any evidence for Jephthah having boils and the reasoning for him being dismembered turns on a relatively insignificant choice of phrase. Is there anything I'm missing in the text that would make Rashi's reading be better supported than it seems?

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2 Answers 2

Rashi is the "great compiler" among the rabbis. Most of what he writes came from earlier sources, not his own innovation. In this case, the rabbis who preceded Rashi are starting from the text of 12:7, which clearly says "cities", and asking the question: how could one man be buried in more than one city? That the text is of divine origin, and thus perfect, is not in question for Rashi (or the earlier rabbis), so it can't be a typo -- it must mean something. One explanation for that plural would be if the man's parts weren't all together. And how would that happen?

Rashi is drawing on Vayikra Rabbah 37:4 (and others), which I couldn't find online in English. This lesson from the Virtual Beit Midrash provides this rendition:

Said Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachmani in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Four Biblical figures initiated vows. Three of them asked inappropriately but God nevertheless responded appropriately, while the fourth asked inappropriately and God responded in kind. [...]

The fourth was Yiftach, for he stated "that which shall go forth from the portals of my house to greet me when I return in peace from Benei Amon will be for God, and I shall offer it as a burnt offering!." And what if it would have been a camel, a donkey or a dog? Would he still have offered it? This time, however, God responded by bringing about that it was his own daughter!

(Cited with variations in Talmud Bavli Tractate Ta'anit 4a, Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 37:4, Yalkut Shim'oni Yehoshua 25)

Vayikra Rabbah continues (this is from the Soncino translation):

But surely he could have had his vow disallowed by going to Phinehas? He thought: I am a king! Shall I go to Phinehas? And Phinehas argued: I am a High Priest and the son of a High Priest! Shall I go to that ignoramus? Between the two of them the poor maiden perished, and both of them incurred responsibility for her blood.

It then goes on to describe the punishments of Phinehas and Jephthah, as recounted in the link from the question, and cites the use of the plural "cities" as justification. Vayikra Rabbah doesn't say anything about boils. I don't know where Rashi got that.

An important note about midrashic method: the rabbis attempt to address problems and gaps in the text. They do not believe that they are "making things up"; rather, midrash is a received tradition originally passed down orally. We can imagine other ways to resolve this problematic plural; this is the explanation that the rabbis understood to be true, based on the textual problem, the problems of Jephthah's behavior, and other factors. You can't prove midrash.


The only textual support I could find for Rashi's interpretation is the use of the plural "cities". The anomaly in the text must be explained because the text can't be wrong in Rashi's (and the rabbis') view. Rashi here is repeating an earlier rabbinic writing that explains that Jephthah's vow was improper, yet he had a chance to get out of it, yet he didn't (apparently due to pride). The rabbis therefore see an alignment of Jephthah's punishment with the use of "cities", reconciling the problem in the text. There could well be other ways to reconcile that textual problem, but this is the one that the early rabbis understood to be correct, and Rashi is reporting that tradition in his comments.

Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Rashi comments on textual problems, he never gives general information that an astute reader could otherwise independently infer.

The textual problem in Judges 12:7 is the place name of Jephtah's burial. The problem is that the place name ערי גלעד "Arei Gilaad" is not otherwise known to us from the OT, and that the form of the name looks like a plural in the construct state (סמיכות), "cities of Gilaad". How then could one person be buried in several places?

Note that the problem hinges on a single Hebrew letter, a yod, the smallest Hebrew letter in the post-exilic or Assyrian Hebrew alphabet used in OT manuscripts, at the end of ער (city).

There are three ways to solve the problem:

  1. Assume that ערי גלעד "cities of Gilaad" is a proper place name
  2. Assume that the Masoratic text has a copyist mistake
  3. Cite extra-OT sources such as the Midrash that deal with the problem

Since Rashi is (usually) a compiler of precedent, and there was no prior opinion that "Cities of the Gilaad" is itself a proper name of a particular place, Rashi rejects the first way.

The second way is not open to Rashi for obvious theological reasons, so Rashi is left with the third way.

Remember that Rashi only cites Midrashic sources (the "drash" level of interpretation) when other explanations of the simple meaning (the "pshat" level of interpretation) are not fully satisfactory, or are simply missing, as in this case. The citing of the Midrash without other explanations could be an implicit admission by Rashi that he is not completely satisfied with this answer.

The interpretation of "Cities of Gilaad" in the current verse as a proper name in itself was proposed in 1870 by Meir Friedman in his commentary on the Mechilta, "Meir Ayin" ("Illuminate the Eye[s]"). He bases this interpretation on the similarity to other names in the Gilaad such as "Ar" (e.g. Numbers 21:28 et al.) and "Aroer".

The LXX apparently has "his city Gilaad" rather than "cities of Gilaad". This would indicate that the original text might have had a vav instead of a yod. This is one of the most common and likeliest transmission errors, as the two letters are difficult to distinguish unless the handwriting is good and the manuscript is well preserved, the vav being actually only a slightly elongated yod. This vav-yod error is commonly recorded in the Masoretic notes and is called a "kree-u-ktiv", that is, a word that is written one way but read the other way. In the case of Judges 12:7 there is no Masoretic "kree-u-ktiv" note, so we are left wondering. We must be careful though, as the LXX base might have had a yod and the reading "his city" is just the LXX's way of explaining the problem. Unfortunately there is no Qumran text to compare. teku

To answer the OP more explicitly, there is no internal OT support for the midrash (Breishit [Genesis] Rabba section 60 para 3) that Rashi cites regarding the dismemberment of Jephtah. Outside information and traditions are required to reach Rashi's conclusion.

The midrash states "Jephtah died limb by limb. Everywhere he went, an arm or a leg would fall off and he would bury it." There is further background in the Tosefta (appendix of Mishnaic material) to tractate Ohalot (tents or awnings) page 15 side A, and in tractate Ketubot (marriage contracts) page 2 side B that state that near the cities of the Gilaad there are mounds of earth that are suspect as having impurity from corpses because it was told that these mounds were used by women to bury stillborn babies and by lepers to bury limbs. The lepers would cut off a dying limb and bury it so that they could purify themselves to take part in the annual Passover sacrifice (Mishnah tractate Kritot chapter 3, mishnah 8).

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