Regarding Jephthah’s daughter

I linked yesterday to Rachel Barenblatt’s poem on “the nameless daughter of Yiftach (in English, his name is usually rendered Jephthah).”

The story of Jephthah is told in Judges 11, with the fate of his daughter described in Judges 11:34-40. Before going to battle with the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow to God:

“If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.”

He defeats the enemy and returns home, and then:

There was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”

Barenblatt teaches me something I hadn’t known about this story, and about the winter holy days we celebrate in December:

Tekufat tevet, the winter solstice, is regarded as the date when Yiftach’s [Jephthah’s] daughter was killed.

The darkest day of the year seems appropriate for such a dark story. Note that this tradition assumes that Jephthat’s daughter “was killed.” That is undeniably what this story suggests — a sacrifice to God “as a burnt-offering.” Barenblatt’s powerful poem reflects on this. Read the whole thing, but here is the final stanza:

when he burned her bones
no prophet spoke God’s anger
and the maidens mourned alone

She also points us to Alicia Ostriker’s long poem/ritual script/cantata “Jephthah’s Daughter: A Lament.” Ostriker begins with the final verse in the story of Jephthah and his daughter as the basis for this ritual:

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.

This is in the Bible, so for Christians, this story is part of our story.

Narcisse Diaz de la Pena, “Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter,” 1846.

And we don’t even know her name.

Some interpreters of this story have latched onto a slightly less horrifying reading, suggesting that Jephthah’s daughter was not killed as a sacrifice, but was instead dedicated to God, set apart in seclusion as a perpetual virgin.

I certainly prefer that reading to the plainer one, but as much as I’d prefer to read this story that way, I don’t find the case for this reading very persuasive. This is the book of Judges — a relentlessly bloody collection of tales of slaughter, rape, terror and even a suicide bombing. There’s little in the chapters preceding or in the chapters following the story of Jephthah that suggests we should look for a less horrifying way of spinning this story.

The entry on Jephthah in the Jewish Encyclopedia mentions this alternative interpretation, but dismisses it:

According to some commentators … Jephthah only kept his daughter in seclusion. But in Targ. Yer. to Judges xi. 39 and the Midrash it is taken for granted that Jephthah immolated his daughter on the altar, which is regarded as a criminal act; for he might have applied to Phinehas to absolve him from his vow. But Jephthah was proud: “I, a judge of Israel, will not humiliate myself to my inferior.” Neither was Phinehas, the high priest, willing to go to Jephthah. Both were punished. …

The rabbinical commentary on the story is fascinating:

The Rabbis concluded also that Jephthah was an ignorant man, else he would have known that a vow of that kind is not valid; according to R. Johanan, Jephthah had merely to pay a certain sum to the sacred treasury of the Temple in order to be freed from the vow; according to R. Simeon ben Laḳish, he was free even without such a payment (Gen. R. l.c.; comp. Lev. R. xxxvii. 3). According to Tan., Beḥuḳḳotai, 7, and Midrash Haggadah to Lev. xxvii. 2, even when Jephthah made the vow God was irritated against him: “What will Jephthah do if an unclean animal comes out to meet him?”

Later, when he was on the point of immolating his daughter, she inquired, “Is it written in the Torah that human beings should be brought as burnt offerings?” He replied, “My daughter, my vow was, ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house.'” She answered, “But Jacob, too, vowed that he would give to Yhwh the tenth part of all that Yhwh gave him (Gen. xxviii. 22); did he sacrifice any of his sons?” But Jephthah remained inflexible.

What impresses me in this commentary is the rabbis’ condemnation of Jephthah’s vow as “not valid.” That’s quite different from the way I was taught this story in my own evangelical/fundamentalist Christian tradition, in which this story is almost always referred to as that of “Jephthah’s Rash Vow.”

That word — “rash” — is treated as the key point of this story, which is presented as a cautionary tale against imprudent or reckless promises. I don’t recall ever hearing a Sunday sermon on the story of Jephthah, but I probably heard a half-dozen Sunday school or Bible class lessons, and all of them pointed to this as the moral of this immoral story: Don’t make rash vows, because you will be bound by them just like Jephthah was.

And that’s monstrous — almost as horrifying as the original story. Those well-meaning Sunday school teachers all assumed, as Jephthah did, that he was absolutely bound by his vow, no matter what. And thus they all repeated Jephthah’s error — assuming that such vows and rules might somehow matter more than the life of Jephthah’s daughter.

That seems to me to be precisely the opposite of what this brutal little story actually illustrates. It shows us the lethal ignorance and sinful pride of remaining “inflexible.” The story of Jephthah is the story of everyone who decides that vows and codes and rules must be absolute. That way of thinking always ends in death.



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  • Lorehead

    I won’t pretend to know Hebrew that well, but the phrase in question is:

    אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִדַּלְתֵי בֵיתִי לִקְרָאתִי

    The pronoun אֲשֶׁר can refer to any subject of a relative clause.  For example, in the first two chapters of Genesis, the word refers to waters, plants, every thing that creepeth, all the work that God made, and the man he had formed.  The sentence in Hebrew is therefore ambiguous in exactly the way you would infer from the commentaries.

  • Good point. That said, the fact that the guy went ahead with the sacrifice and his daughter went along with it really suggests a level of unhealthiness in his thinking and in her attachment to him. :(

  • Lorehead

    It’s ancient foefic; meta-Hattie, as it were, pointing out to the despicable main character that the story makes no sense, yet being powerless to change it.

  • Lorehead

    Given how surprised and unhappy he is when it happens, I think the more likely interpretation is that he was expecting to see an animal first.  That’s definitely how the ancient rabbis read it, when for example they pointed out that he had no reason to expect to see a kosher animal first.

  •  This sounds like an extended quote from the Watchtower magazine.  Citation, please?

  • Lorehead

    If by problem, you mean a doctrinal difference between Judaism and Christianity, then almost.  The procedure for getting God to release you from a vow was more formalized than that.  The rabbis are, I think, snarkily pointing out that this story makes no sense.  They don’t have available to them what seems like the obvious explanation to us: that the Torah was written after Judges, so the people in the stories are following a different set of rules.  If Leviticus 5, which was set earlier, had been written earlier, then Jephthah should just have followed what it says to do “if anyone thoughtlessly takes an oath to do anything, whether good or evil (in any matter one might carelessly swear about) even though they are unaware of it, but then they learn of it and realize their guilt[.]”

  • Lorehead

    That’s actually the spelling the King James Bible uses.

  • Is it really “sacrifice” if you don’t like or value the thing or person you’re “sacrificing”?  I think it’s kind of cheating to make offerings of someone you would have killed anyway for your own personal gain even if you had no interest in sacrifice or religion.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What do you make of sacrificing an animal you were raising for slaughter, then throwing a feast where the main course is the meat of that animal?

  • Well, presumably the culture in question values livestock and cattle. They can be a source of income, or a sign of wealth, or something like that, right? You’re supposed to be giving something up (I remember something about Prometheus and Zeus divvying up the meat and the fat or the bones and the fat or something about cattle sacrifices in Greek legends) that makes it different from just cooking and eating a meal just for its own sake.

    But sacrificing someone you were planning to rob and kill anyway, for purposes other than religion (that is, you would have robbed and killed this person anyway even if you did not have a religious belief that involved offerings like that) just seems like cheating.

  • Anton_Mates

     The Lambton Worm, perhaps.  To avoid a curse being placed on his family after he kills the Worm, John Lambton has to kill the first thing he sees when he returns; he asks his father to release a dog, but his father’s so happy he forgets and runs out himself.  John, not being entirely evil, can’t bring himself to go through with it and the curse is established after all.

  • Some people just don’t like to make waves. I’m sure the daughter had better things to do that day than to be immolated, but sometimes we have to make sacrifices to get along with our family. 

    It’s like Thanksgiving or some other family event dinner when your cousin who is a strident obnoxious ideologue shows up and tries to start arguments with everyone at the table. You might loathe her but you’ll keep the peace at least until your grandmother falls asleep at the table. 

    This is roughly the same concept, except the white-hot anger is on the outside, not the inside. 

  • Lorehead

    Some people just don’t like to make waves. I’m sure the daughter had better things to do that day than to be immolated, but sometimes we have to make sacrifices to get along with our family.

    I’m pretty sure she’d much rather have been the one making the sacrifice.

  • Or not being a sacrifice at all.

  • I mean, I’m sure she didn’t enjoy the experience. But sometimes you just have to walk it off, take a knee, suck it up, whatever.

  • Lorehead

    Take two months to roam the hills and weep with your friends, if you need it.

  • Another Matt

    Wow, in my fundamentalist upbringing the Jephtah story wasn’t even supposed to be a warning against making rash vows. It was taken as a bold vow, Jephtah knowing the stakes, which God rewarded. It was followed with, “who among you is prepared to give up everything you love to serve God?” Then some study from Luke 14:

    25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

  • EllieMurasaki

    What happened to ‘love your neighbor’?

  • Another Matt

    Sigh. I know. There were basically two ways to address this. The first was to say that Jephtah and his daughter were to be very glad that the battle went well on behalf of the people, and so she was to take her sacrifice as the greatest showing of love possible — hating life itself to give glory to and victory to God’s army. The second was similar, which was to say that fallible humans are incapable of knowing what really constitutes love and hate, so we have to look at what the Bible says about it. In the case of the Luke passage, the point was supposed to be that if you weren’t prepared to sever all ties with your family for your faith (say, if your brother were gay or Catholic), you couldn’t be a true Christian, and that no matter what your conscience said, it was really an act of love to disown your family or even die for your faith. And of course, woe upon those who put their family in the situation of having to make that choice.

  • EllieMurasaki

    …I bet that works well for keeping people inside the boundaries, but as part of a code of ethics with which to deal with people including those outside the boundaries, it’s worth approximately fuck all. Which realization is a really good way to end up outside the boundaries and thus cut off from everyone inside whether one wants the people inside to cut one off or not.

  • AnonymousSam

    That’s because it is from the Watchtower. The article, word for word, can be found in — the Watchtower Online Library.

  • Lori

    The tribal elders eventually get sick 0f these self-appointed adventurer heroes, go to God’s representative, and demand a real government.  

    Jephthah wasn’t self-appointed. Quite the opposite. He had left his family & tribe because they treated him poorly and was making his own way in the world, successfully leading outlaws. The tribe came to him and insisted that he save their asses because he could fight. He initially declined, owing to the treating like crap and all, but they talked him into it. Arguably he made the vow in exchange for victory because failing would have carried a very high cost.

    So if Israel got fed up with self-appointed adventurer heroes they didn’t mean Jephthah, or they were remembering events in a self-serving BS way. Obviously that 2nd one is not out of the question.

  • Another Matt

    It’s also a great way to keep insiders’ consciences bruised one way or the other. I remember as a child behaving in a way I felt was right, but “knowing” it was wrong — and vice versa; I felt that I was wrong to have those pangs of conscience in the first place. Having compassion (or, dear God, sympathy) for the wrong person was a good example of doing something I “knew was wrong” but felt was right. My dad was always quick to point out that impure sympathies was “how Charles Manson got started.”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    And, of course, Jesus was well known for railing against having compassion for the wrong people.

  • Lori


    But there was no last-minute save for Jephthah’s daughter.    

    Yeah,  God saved the son, but let the daughter die without even the dignity of having her name recorded. Of course, who needs to know her name? It’s not like she was a person or anything. We know the only 2 things about her that mattered—she was a virgin and she did as she was told.

  • Another Matt

    And, of course, Jesus was well known for railing against having compassion for the wrong people.

    If I remember right from my childhood, this was only permissible because Jesus was divine and he knew what to do with His compassion so that it wouldn’t be sinful. He thought the “WWJD?” question was really dangerous, because there were things only Jesus could do, like die for sins.If you found yourself in a situation where there was no Biblical command available to guide you, you were not to imitate Jesus because you could do something that was reserved for Him. Instead, you were supposed to pray for guidance and then do what God told you. I never once heard from God, so I was always terrified that I was so far gone that God wouldn’t tell me what to do.

    And again, commands which seem simple, e.g. to “love your neighbor” or “love your enemy,” required further Biblical interpretation because if you just went with your human intuitions about “love,” you would most likely get it wrong (funny how intuitions about “hate” needed no interpretation…).If you had compassion for the wrong person, you weren’t loving them — you were giving them up to their lack of faith. If you really wanted to love them you would try to do something about whatever it was that demanded your righteous disdain — if you could get them to give up their special sin and accept Christ, that was showing your love. Compassion would more often than not take you down the wrong path.

  • Another Matt

    If I remember right from my childhood, this was only permissible because Jesus was divine and he knew what to do with His compassion so that it wouldn’t be sinful. He thought the “WWJD?” question was really dangerous, because there were things only Jesus could do, like die for sins.

    I meant my dad thought “WWJD?” was dangerous.

  • I have to admit, of all of Charles Manson’s character flaws, I would have never picked “sympathy for others” as being the root of them all. I do have to wonder about any religious tradition that degrades concepts like sympathy, empathy, mercy, and compassion. Are there other important virtues? Sure — sometimes you have to “harden your heart” against some people, but compassion shouldn’t really be viewed as evil as a general concept…

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    If you found yourself in a situation where there was no Biblical command available to guide you, you were not to imitate Jesus because you could do something that was reserved for Him.

    How does that square with injunctions in the bible, such as 1 Corinthians 11, to imitate Christ?

  • Another Matt

    Right, well. It was about purity of faith. Compassion wasn’t inherently evil; just inherently dangerous. I think the Charles Manson thing was supposed to deter the slippery slope: yeah, today it’s merely a misplaced sympathy for the gays, but once you let yourself on that path, it’s not that far to orgies, opening yourself to other religions, styling yourself a guru, starting a cult, and finally to mass murder. If we can’t rely on the Bible to tell us what is unequivocally right and wrong, then anything goes. As Fred has said before many times, it’s the all-or-nothing stance combined with inerrancy that makes this happen.

    I should mention that my family has moderated itself quite a bit since my childhood, but I’m still recovering from their previous hardline fundamentalist positions. We’re all healing, I think, so there’s hope yet. I’m the oldest of my siblings, so I was steeped in it the longest.

  • Another Matt

    How does that square with injunctions in the bible, such as 1 Corinthians 11, to imitate Christ?

    Look, I don’t want to defend the beliefs I was raised with because it gets me agitated — this Jephtah thing seems to have struck a raw nerve in me. In any case, I don’t specifically remember what I was taught about this verse, but if I had to guess according to the general spirit of those beliefs, this was not supposed to be a general injunction, but rather a command to follow the example of Christ on the next 15 verses regarding head covering (and Paul would have known what Jesus thought about these matters, whether or not Jesus said anything in the Gospels about it, and anyway the Holy Spirit wrote the whole thing and by definition He couldn’t have gotten anything wrong).

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    It’s making a lot of sense to me why Catholics are seen as practically Satanic by hard core fundy Protestants. This conversation immediately brought to mind two of our greatest spiritual classics (which are not in the bible, so I guess that’s already terrible):

    1. The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis. Obviously dangerous.

    2.St Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises–which are all about discerning “God’s voice”, if you like, so the equivalent of “pray to God and he will tell you what to do”. Except that Ignatius points out how often and easily we mistake our own spirit for God’s, leading us to conclude that what God wants you to do is what you wanted to do anyway (like invade Iraq, for example). So he (Ignatius) details at length the various things you should do to make sure you’re not deceiving yourself–or being deceived by someone else. It’s great stuff, and if taken seriously doesn’t lend itself well to being manipulated the same way as the simplistic “God will tell you what to do (and if it conflicts with what someone in power reckons then you got it wrong)”.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Oh, if I was unclear–definitely get that you’re not defending those beliefs. Just wondered if that particular internal contradiction had come up.

    My own denomination is not into bibliolatry so if something that is taught contradicts some verse in the bible (a) it wouldn’t be a huge issue and (b) most of us wouldn’t notice!

  • Another Matt

    Oh, if I was unclear–definitely get that you’re not defending those beliefs. Just wondered if that particular internal contradiction had come up.

    Thanks — this is a complicated thing. Here’s more what I meant, rather than “I don’t want to defend these beliefs.”

    We were all expected to be good apologists for the Lord, and I happened to have been the most skilled apologist in my immediate family, even though I had never “heard God’s voice” (something I was scared to death to ever admit). I thought that if I could just do this right then the Lord would show me the same grace He showed everyone else.

    So now that I’ve discarded those beliefs (I don’t mind saying I’m basically an atheist, though for about 5 minutes a week I can convince myself to be a deist :) ), it can put me in a bad mood to relive my prior role as a defender of that brand of faith. I’m astounded sometimes just how easy it still is to “slip into character,” as it were.

    However, I think I have special empathy for fundies, and I really know what it’s like to be a terrified insider.

  • PatBannon

    Ah, Judges.


    Remind me why this malevolent, blood-soaked tome is part of the holy canon again?

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I get what you’re saying, and I’m glad you’re not a terrified insider any more. That whole idea that God will speak to you in a obvious, unambiguous way and that there’s something wrong with you if he doesn’t is pretty insidious. If God does speak to you like that, or you can convince yourself that he does, I guess it’s easier than the idea that discernment is hard, and that you may experience long periods of feeling disconnected from God despite doing “nothing wrong”. But I have to wonder how many people are pretending to everyone else while internally worrying why they don’t experience what they say they do.

    I was into apologetics and intellectual theology in my early days as a Christian, but I’ve since tired of it. These days I have little time for “I believe X because” and prefer to focus on “I believe X therefore”.

  • Elizabeth2000

    So interesting! This is a new idea to me – most of the discussion I’ve heard on this topic was about what she was doing during the two months that she “lamented her virginity”…

  • Lord Randal does seem a bit slow on the uptake :)

    Hey!  I resemble that remark!
    (Yes, “Randy”‘s short for “Randall”.)

  • Makabit

    Which god apparently agrees to the deal because he gives Jephthah the victory he was bargaining for and then lets him kill his daughter.

    God is silent in the text. There is no reason to believe that Yiftach’s vow is accepted in exchange for victory, except that Yiftach thinks so. God doesn’t say a hell of a lot in Judges.

  • Lorehead

    Well, first, one of my ancestors, probably a priest, decided to write down the history of his people, either as he remembered it or as he’d heard about it.  And what people remembered and talked about was predominantly lurid and scandalous.  It’s impossible to say today how accurate the history is, but it’s a lot more plausible than the story in Joshua.

    Centuries later, the Babylonians are sacking Jerusalem, and another of my ancestors decides, instead of the gold or the ritual objects, to preserve that book.  It does have a healthy dose of cynicism.  Probably sometime after this, someone adds the prologue about how the nation of Israel keeps sinning, so God allows their enemies to defeat them, but each time, he sends a leader who will lead them to victory once again.  It’s impossible to tell today to what degree the stories themselves might have been re-written to fit that thesis, so deeply important to the Babylonian Captivity, but the text we have has been worked into the Deuteronomist’s narrative, between Joshua and Samuel.

    After that, Cyrus the Great allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem, and Ezra and Nehemiah put together that and many other writings into a canon of sacred texts.  Note that Judaism has never believed that every single passage of that canon is the literally-true Word of God, nor that all of it is equally holy.  At least by the first century, the books in that corpus were regarded as falling into three categories, usually translated as the Law, the Prophets and the Writings, except when Jesus talks about them in the Gospels, in which case his words are usually translated, “the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms.“  Judges would be in the second category.

    Sometime after that, Christianity incorporated that whole corpus into its own canon, calling it “the Old Testament,” and deciding that what it demonstrated was that people who aren’t Christian are morally inferior.  Later yet, that interpretation went out of favor, and one branch of it came to believe that every word in “The Bible” must be the perfect, literally-true Word of God, intended as moral instruction for us today, which to them meant fables about reward and punishment.  Now, Jephthah got rewarded in the story (although the rabbis of the Talmud assert that he must have been punished off-camera, somehow), so it becomes necessary to interpret the story in some way such that it somehow becomes exemplary.

    That, unfortunately, has led to a backlash in which some people are more concerned with pointing out how Judges is not what the Fundies say it is than about reading it for what it is.

  • Makabit

    At least the modern “oh God, save my butt” prayers generally involve the prayer giving up something.  “Oh, God, please let me ace this test and I promise to give up coffee.”

    Why would God want me to give up coffee?

  • Lorehead

    Except in chapter 20, the one time when you’d think he should have kept his mouth shut.

  • Makabit

    True, Not Helping, although the telegraphese of the comments makes me think that what we’re getting there is probably being interpreted from omens, not spoken, shall we say, directly.

  • Beau Quilter

    Shakespeare saw the same lesson that you do.

    In Henry VI, part 3, the Duke of Clarence regrets what he considers a treacherous oath made to Warwick to turn against his brother, the king. Returning to his brother, he denounces Warwick, saying:

    Perhaps thou wilt object my holy oath; To keep that oath were more impiety Than Jephtha’s when he sacrific’d his daughter. 

  • Did you know when you posted that worse-than-TVTropes link to Making Light that they actually refer to the story of Jephthah around comments #440-443?  It wasn’t actually relevant to the specific context of your link, so I’m wondering if it’s just that much of a coincidence.

  • P J Evans

    [ Cites needed]

  • P J Evans

     And your point, if you actually have one, is?

  • Wow, in my fundamentalist upbringing the Jephtah story wasn’t even supposed to be a warning against making rash vows. It was taken as a bold vow, Jephtah knowing the stakes, which God rewarded.

    What is it about the word “bold” and fundamentalism?  I swear (though I do now vow), I hear than damn word about 32,000 times per week on Christian talk radio.  Most recently, it was the guy preaching the pre-Christmas sermon about how Jesus was the only way out of Hell.  “I’m sure some people in the audience are offended by my bold preaching on this subject.”

    Dude, it is not actually all that bold of you to say something that the majority of Americans believe.  Calm down and get over yourself: you’re not nearly the brave, righteous truth-teller you think you are.

  • Tofu_Killer

    “If by problem, you mean a doctrinal difference between Judaism and Christianity, then almost.” 

    This is an excellent point, and interesting, but it is not exactly the problem I was thinking of, and I have betrayed my social science training.

    My interest is how 3000 +/- years of biblical exposure have made their way into the everyday, where it effects how people act and think. The Rabbinical tradition is one very important path for how these stories arrived in the mainstream, as the fairy tale echoes of Jepthah’s Vow demonstrate. Given the high levels of illiteracy and the intellectual isolation of most communities until very recently, I would argue that the Lambeth Worm and Beauty and the Beast are better representations of how people understood this story for most of the past two thousand years than a close reading of the original text.

    So the problem I refer to is how this traditional understanding of the story collides with expanding literacy and the newly available source texts, and how biblical literalism and fundamentalism are made possible by these developments. Tradition carries a lot of inertia, especially where that tradition always creates the context for the fundamentalism.

    So, shorter: I am more interested in what people THINK the stories mean, rather than what the stories ARE , if that makes sense.

  • Dash1

    Late to the party as always, but the folk tale of the “rash vow” appears in more than just Hebrew culture. (It’s given as one of the reasons for Agamemnon’s obligation to sacrifice Iphigenia, for example, and another Greek/Roman version thereof is the basis for Mozart’s “Idomeneo.” And there’s a bridge in Regensburg, Germany, that was supposedly built because the builder made a vow to give the devil the first thing that crossed the bridge. Vow resolved, if memory serves, with the involuntary help of a cock and a dog.)

    Some years back, I taught a course on ancient literature in English, and we read Judges after reading some Greek stories. IANAR (I am not a rabbi, nor am I a Hebrew scholar, so deploy salt-cellars before reading further.). However, one of the things that stood out to the students is that the Jephthah story is nearly unique in that the deity, as Makebit has pointed out, is entirely silent. In the other stories, the person makes a vow and then tries to ignore it, and the deity forces the fulfillment of the vow. In the Jephthah story, the deity is silent. Jephthah makes the decision about what the deity requires and carries it out, true religious fanatic style, without really thinking about what this particular deity is about. (This is consistent with the points made above about the rabbinic commentaries on the story.)

    And that led the class to think about the structure of the book of Judges: it begins with four “good” judges: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah and Gideon as main characters. Then there’s the thoroughly unpleasant Abimelech and an interregnum, so to speak, during which God, at one point, tells the people he’s sick and tired of being asked to pull their chestnuts out of the fire after they’ve forgotten him. But OK, they want some more judges, he’ll give them some more judges and they can see how they like them.

    And there follow two judges taken directly from well-known pagan folklore: the general who makes the famous rash vow, and the strongman with a head full of rocks and a heart full of some more rocks.

    I don’t claim any particular authority for this reading of the book as a unit, but I toss it into the mix for those who are interested. FWIW, it does appear from the archeological evidence that the chronological/sequential presentation of events in the book of Judges is not an accurate representation of whatever was likely happening on the ground (e.g., some of the stories seem to represent synchronous, rather than sequential, events), but is an after-the-fact imposition of a certain structure on the Hebrew stories. So a point was being made.

    And I’m sorry for the wall o’ text.