Jephthah’s Daughter (Judges 11)

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I used to think that being a Christian meant you had to find all the answers, be able to go toe-to-toe with the bits of the Bible that seem to contradict science or that portray acts of horrific brutality. I used to think there were clues hidden away, in the translations, in the culture of the times, that would make these difficult passages a lot more palatable. A part of me still does – you can see that throughout this blog.

There comes a point though when you’ve got to accept that some parts of the Bible are never going to be easy, will never mystically become comfortable; wrestling with them is going to hurt, so much do that it’s easier to run away. And this post is one I was running from. A post about Jephthah’s daughter.

In some ways I’ve tried to make it easier to deal with. I picture Jephthah as Clint Eastwood, the whole story as some messed up Spaghetti Western. Maybe that creates distance from the whole thing, I don’t know.

The heart of the story: Jephthah is a mercenary who, on the eve of battle, vows to sacrifice to God the first living being to leave his house upon his victorious return. Almost inevitably, the first person out the door is his daughter.

A parent sacrificing their child? Immediately we think of Abraham and Isaac, but that story has a happy ending. Not so here – Jephthah carries out his vow, no matter how loudly you scream at God to send a ram, to send an angel, to descend with chariots of fire to whisk the poor doomed girl to safety. Those words on the page obstinately refuse to change.

Why? Why did Jephthah go through with it? Why did God allow him to go through with it? Why was Isaac saved but not an innocent, nameless girl? Was Isaac fundamentally more important? Would this have happened had Jephthah had a son who eagerly ran out the front door to meet his father, relieved that he survived the battle? Would Jephthah have won the battle without the vow? If not, why did God honour such a stupid attempt to curry favour?

And yet, although he wins the battle and saves his people, this sacrifice renders Jephthah an anti-hero at best. He’s not remembered for his military prowess, he’s remembered for infanticide. The real hero of the story is his daughter. An innocent who meekly becomes a sacrifice for the same of others, does she in some way become a forerunner of Jesus? That doesn’t make everything okay, not at all, but it’s Jephthah’s daughter who remember, we honour, we weep for.

In her book, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans talks about a forgotten tradition in which the young woman of Israel would take to the hills and remember Jephthah’s daughter. Evans revisits this tradition, holding a quiet ceremony to remember all the biblical women who were victims of violence and of malice.

That doesn’t end with the Bible – Jephthah’s daughter is every victim of honour killing, of rape, of forced marriage and FGM and domestic violence. We remember a horrific sacrifice; we also need to remember all the other women who receive repressive treatment at the hands of their families, of anonymous strangers, of society as a whole.

I still don’t know where God is in all those. On the side of the oppressed, I have to believe, but Judges 11 doesn’t make that easy. And yet me struggling with a chunk of the Bible isn’t a patch on the struggles faced by millions of women every day. And maybe, in a strange way, Jephthah’s daughter gives voice to them all, could maybe force other Jephthahs to rethink their actions, their lifestyles, their brutality.

There are questions, there are theories and their are possibilities. But there are no answers. Sometimes the Bible’s like that.

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3 thoughts on “Jephthah’s Daughter (Judges 11)

  1. I remember hearing about this story in a class in college and thinking, “That can’t possibly be in the Bible!” But there it is.

    I wonder what would happen if the church brought back some of these “remembrance ceremonies.” What would it do to a) our appreciation for the complexity of Scripture and b) our compassion for the women around the world who experience things similar to Jephthah’s daughter?

    • I think remembrance ceremonies are a great idea. I don’t know about in the US, but in the UK churches I grew up, we always celebrated the anniversary of the church, missions, harvest, etc. however, I think the trick is to adapt this calendar to help build the kingdom – making a conscious effort to, say, remember Jephthah’s daughter and all the other abused woman we need to try to help.

  2. I think perhaps there is something unstated, a piece of the story not described about Jephthah’s daughter. Jephthah is listed in Hebrews Chapter 11, the Hall of Faith. That is very significant. Jepthah had apparently no family except his daughter; certainly she must have dearly loved her father given that she is first out of the house to greet him. The story does not indicate that he killed her. He may have or perhaps she simply departed his home forever(dead to him) but the significance of Jepthah is that he knew he was made in God’s image. God keeps His word. Jepthah meant to keep his word, no matter how much it hurt, even to giving up his beloved daughter.

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