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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  • frazer

    Your experience reminds me of that wonderful passage in Huckleberry Finn when Huck decides to go to hell rather than rat out Jim.  And of course, Jesus on quite a few occasions broke the Law in order to do good.

  • Lori

    It’s all well and good to say that god didn’t say anything, but that doesn’t change what he did and didn’t do. Jephthah got his victory. That may have had nothing to do with his oath, but if it didn’t that creates some other issues with the way fundies read the Bible. Jephthah was not prevented from killing his daughter.

    It’s  pretty easy to let god off the hook for this particular mess if one is so inclined. After all, the oath was clearly not his idea. However, the means for doing so creates implications that no fundamentalist I’ve ever known was comfortable with.

  • christopher_y

    Variations on this device are really common in classic fairy tales. 

    Also in Greek mythology, in the story of Idomeneus. It must trigger something pretty universal.

  • Lori

    Why would God want me to give up coffee?  

    The way I was taught growing up, god doesn’t give a crap about you drinking coffee. He does however care when you love a thing too much and “make an idol” of it. So, if your coffee addiction is OOC it could make theoretically make a good bargaining chip.

    And then of course there’s Lent and other similar ideas about abstaining from something you care about/enjoy in order to facilitate focusing on god.

  • vsm

    There seem to be lots of interesting parallels to the Iphigenia story. In Euripides’ take, Artemis takes her as a priestess as in the less murderous reading discussed above, while providing a non-human replacement sacrifice, as in the Isaac story.

  • Dash1

    The importance of punctuation:

    Lord Randal does seem a bit slow on the uptake

    “Lord! Randal does seem a bit slow on the uptake!”
    versus what I suppose would be a prayer:
    “Lord, Randal does seem a bit slow on the uptake.”

  • Tricksterson

    Because He’s a Mormon

  • Dash1

    Eric Shanower, in his graphic novel series, Age of Bronze, does that part of it nicely: after the sacrifice, Agamemnon comes back to Clytemnestra to announce that Iphigenia wasn’t killed after all, but was carried off by the goddess in a cloud, so their daughter has been chosen as a servant to no less than Artemis, and it’s all good.

    And Clytemnestra, who isn’t having any of it, gives him this look that does not bode at all well.

    Shanower’s Agamemnon looks a lot, IMO, like Captain Hook.

    And, sort of not entirely unrelatedly, if you haven’t seen the movie Iphigenia (which doesn’t include that ending), it’s excellent. And Irene Pappas as Clytemnestra is wonderful.

  • Tricksterson

    He’s like an evil Victor.

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

    In a related field, this stance is known as phenomenology.

  • Tofu_Killer

     Yes, phenomenology too, but I meant a Staussian Grounded Theory methodology inflected with a historical context and a sensitive coding around “rash promises”.

    My education and $10 will get ya a vente latte at Starbucks (c).

  • caryjamesbond

    Also in Greek mythology, in the story of Idomeneus. It must trigger something pretty universal.

    Well, that makes sense. Remember, even though the cultures passing these stories on are remembered as highly literate, at the time the stories originated, they weren’t.  There was no system of contracts or courts like we count on- if you were doing business, pretty much all you had was the other person’s word.  Consider two guys agreeing to sell a certain field.  Chances are its going to be a handshake and a promise made in a field with just the two of them around.  Real easy to screw the other person over.

    Stories like this are both about the importance of keeping your word, and the importance of not being a dumbass about giving it. 

  • Lorehead

    Good point.  Now that I think about it, the theme of tricking powerful men into making oaths that they aren’t allowed to take back when they become ironic occurs often in the more folkloric parts of the Hebrew Bible.  It’s subtle, and at its most effective, when Nathan floors David with, “Thou art the man!”  But it also happens to Isaac, Belshazzar, Darius, and Haman, and probably to others I’m forgetting.  The similar device of a Persian royal decree that cannot be altered appears in both Daniel and Esther as well.

  • AnonymousSam

    Kind of like in Exodus, where Moses concludes that God aids the Hebrews in their battle against the Amalekites when (and only when) he raises his stave in the air, so he lifts it as high as he can until his arms get tired, then enlists two people to help hold his arms up.

    In reality: if God had a preference for which bloodthirsty tribe killed the other, why would it hinge upon holding a stick in the air?

    (EDIT: Formatting, Disqus, do you know this word?)

  • Lorehead

    I think I follow.  But I’m also interested in what the rabbis thought it meant.  My very unauthoritative impression: these ancient theologians weren’t stupid.  They really did enjoy a kind of discourse I’ve called snarky, where they establish their intellectual superiority by pointing out the reductio ad absurdum of other people’s arguments.  They could see, just as well as anyone else who’s ever read Scripture, that it’s frequently bizarre, contradictory, or just inscrutable, but they came from a background and an environment where they couldn’t very well say, “This is pointless and we’ve all wasted our lives.”  Or at least, anyone who had would not be one of the  sages whose commentaries are recorded in the Talmud.

    But this is a story in which Jephthah is already, by the standards of the second century CE, indisputably in the wrong.  And there’s no theological problem with saying that he’s a selfish, entitled idiot.  So, out come the knives, and some very sarcastic stories in which the young daughter whom he killed shows him up, or God himself points out how stupid that vow was even if he had meant animals, and no, that’s not why he won the battle.

  • Lorehead

    I don’t have the impression that Fundamentalists think that, if you make a promise to God, and then get what you asked for, that proves you made it happen.  Maybe someone who took the lesson that Jephthah was bold enough to kill his daughter would believe that?

  • Launcifer

    Because it wasn’t a stick: it was obviously a Les Paul and God wanted to see Moses’ power chord stance. They just cut that bit out of the story so that people wouldn’t go around believing that rock music was somehow godly.

    In all seriousness, though, this is one of those bits of the Bible that actively creeps me the hell out noce people start talking about the books of the Bible being somehow literally true, especially when considered alongside Isaac and whatnot. I mean, if nothing else, the Devil sticks to the letter of the bargain. God just seems to do whatever God wants at any given moment, possibly based on whether or not enough people have given up coffee for Lent in order for God to nick it for the pupose of satisfying the craving.

  •  Well, it’s just as plausible (he says, struggling to keep a straight face) that God had a preference for Moses raising his staff in the air, and differentially aided the Hebrews as a way of conditioning Moses to do so.

  • AnonymousSam

    Next, he teaches Moses to salivate whenever he hears a bell…

  • Tofu_Killer

    Exactly right. Jephthah was a moral idiot and is recognized as a monster by pretty much everyone outside of the literalists.
    My comment was about how the current RTC perspective on the story runs headlong into the traditions that have grown up around it and are current today, so no conflict.

  • The_L1985

    I’m trying to figure out how that works given the scenario set out in the song “Friends in Low Places”.

    It’s probably sad that my initial response to that was, “Jimmy Buffett counts as a British folk singer now?’

  • EllieMurasaki

    Jimmy Buffett did a version? It’s a Garth Brooks song, though I admit I was thinking of the cover by Celtic Thunder. British Isles, right? *flees enraged Irish ancestor ghosts*

  • The_L1985

    “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?'”

     …Wow.  That is all levels of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, right there.  Another Matt, your fundie upbringing has just made my fundie upbringing look sane by comparison.  Hel, you made my fundie upbringing look like a left-wing hippie commune by comparison!

  • The_L1985

     Been there, done that, have the mental-scarring. *hugs*

    I was deeply fortunate that my mother never once tried to dissuade me from feeling compassion–that alone helped me to get my head on straight (or at least, somewhat less crooked) later on.

  • The_L1985

     I always figured it was because it fits into the backstory.  That, and I thought the idea of having a hair-based superpower like Samson was pretty cool.  (This was before I really understood much about the story of Samson.)

  • The_L1985

     “God doesn’t say a hell of a lot in Judges.”

    Given the hell that’s going on because of the Judges, I can’t really blame Him all that much.

  • The_L1985

     From his mother’s womb/Untimely ripp’d.

    At least, that’s what I learned from Shakespeare. :)

  • The_L1985

    I hate to break this to you, but female rapists exist.

  • Hee, I just did a post on that yesterday on Facebook, pointing out the importance of punctuation when it’s been asking lately, “[h]ow are you feeling, Randy?”
    “That comma makes all the difference.”  (Yes, capitalization & word order, too.)

    (For those who don’t Facebook, they recently changed the text in the box where you type your status update, to rotate a few more allegedly friendly questions like that.)

  • Lorehead

    This reminds me of the discussion from a few weeks ago that the literalists aren’t really reading the text literally; they’re trying to maintain the dogma of inerrancy.  Pointing out that this story was set after the Law of Moses, which provides a way to annul careless oaths to God, was written, and therefore Jephthah should have been able to get out of it, is actually a more literal reading than trying to find a moral to the story that twenty-first century Evangelicals can agree with.  There’s nothing less literal about the reading that this is the tragic story of a bunch of crazy people, or that there used to be some bizarre cultural attitude in ancient Gilead that a man would lose face if he broke a vow, but not if he murdered his daughter.  Or perhaps imprisoned her in solitary confinement for life against her will, because that makes the story so much more uplifting, particularly when you consider that his father blames her for not staying passive and indoors.

    One pattern you see over and over again with the Evangelicals is blame as a substitute for solving the problem.  The way you respond to a tragedy is to look for some way the person who got hurt broke a rule, or just made a mistake.  Then, you conclude that it was all his or her fault, and stop.  So, Jephthah broke a rule by making an oath.  So it’s all his fault, and he got punished.  If he hadn’t broken any rules, there would have been no problem; therefore, the rules are perfect.  For that matter, Fred Clark’s counterargument is mainly that the girl who doesn’t even get a name is the real victim here, and she did nothing wrong, not that the story fundamentally makes no sense.

    This discussion also reminds me of a case I read about in which a Jewish teenager with obsessive-compulsive disorder would invent all kinds of new rules, going far beyond even Orthodox observance, and was convinced, he said 100% certain, that God would punish him if he ever broke one.  His therapist went and spoke to his rabbi, and found out that there is actually a formal ceremony in the Talmud, replacing the one in the Bible that involves animal sacrifice in the Temple, to nullify a vow to God.  He and two other rabbis got together and went through the ceremony with the boy, and it gave him some peace of mind: he no longer believed that he had to keep all of the vows that his mental illness had led him to make.

    I wonder if there’s ever been a similar case in the Evangelical community, and how a pastor would handle it, although I’m sure it would be with care and compassion.

  • everstar

    I first heard this story as a little girl when my grandmother was telling me about the women represented in the emblem of the Order of the Eastern Star.  The blue ray with the veil-wrapped sword is Adah, Jephthah’s daughter.  I think I asked my grandmother why this was a good story for women to emulate and she told me something to the effect of “because she put her father’s not being forsworn above her own life.”  All I remember getting out of the story is that when my parents got home, I did not go out to meet them.  (I don’t remember if I asked my father if he’d made any promises I needed to know about, but I was certainly wondering about it.)  I’m still a bit bewildered by it being held up as an example of feminine virtue.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If obedience is the supreme feminine virtue…

    (note the ‘if’. the really big ‘if’. the ‘if’ the size of the fucking sun.)

  • vsm

    I’m not familiar with either of those works, but I’ll definitely add them to the list. Thank you for the recommendations.

    Right now I’m reading The Odyssey for the first time. I like how Homer seems to have thought that Odysseus having dinners and getting presents was at least as interesting if not more than the parts with the cyclops and the sea monsters.

  • EllieMurasaki

    On the one hand, you’re right that it’s utterly ridiculous for rape to be accounted a women’s problem when the perpetrators are overwhelmingly men. (The victims are overwhelmingly women, yes, but not as overwhelming.)

    On the other hand, you’re Winston Blake.

  • Lorehead

    Let me guess; you took a rash vow to respond to the next poster you saw?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Not one I remember, though it would certainly explain my response to Ginny Bain Allen.

  • Another Matt

     …Wow.  That is all levels of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, right there.  Another Matt, your fundie upbringing has just made my fundie upbringing look sane by comparison.  Hel, you made my fundie upbringing look like a left-wing hippie commune by comparison!

    So here’s the deal — it’s really easy to teach children this stuff if you’ve never actually been in the position to have to “give up everything you love to serve God.” It’s an obviously absurd standard nobody can uphold, and so it guarantees that you feel guilty for one reason or another.

    Fred Clark has many times referred to the value fundamentalist evangelicals seem to place on having the proper stance on some issue. I think this was one of those things — you pay lip service to the idea that God wants us to give up everything we love to serve Him, acknowledge that we’re all too weak or evil or whatever to do it, remind each other of our guilt in the matter, and then repeat ad infinitum. The only cure is to beg forgiveness from the god who holds you to this impossible-to-achieve standard.It’s a clever, self-perpetuating trick: it’s terrifying to go through childhood thinking that you’ve just done something that will not be forgiven because you didn’t realize it involved the thing or person you loved that God wanted you to give up, so you have to ask for forgiveness for every potential slight. The irony is, rather than establishing an Absolute Morality, it causes a kind of extreme moral paralysis or even a vague superstition: “wow, did my dad suffer this injury because of something I did and God wants to show me how wrong I was? I better try harder to not do anything wrong just in case. Or was it because I accidentally loved my dad more than I loved God?”And because it’s a deadly sin to even think about stepping outside of this loop, it’s just really hard to escape, as a child at least. I think some of the grown-up insiders understand the trick, but there’s the stance to uphold, after all, and in any case you risk losing your children to Satan if they aren’t afraid of God, so it’s your job to make sure they feel the fear. Sometimes I have suspected that I exaggerated the craziness of this when I describe it to others, but I have to remember that what is just lip service and stance maintenance to adults is often taken very seriously by children.

  • everstar

     Oh, I know.  I understood very quickly that I’d never make a good Jephthah’s daughter because sorry, Dad, if you make a promise like this, I am booking it into those hills and not coming back.  Honestly, if I learned anything from this story, it’s that people, especially men, feel perfectly entitled to make promises binding on me without my consent.  If I don’t abide by said promise because nobody asked me, it means I’m faithless and a traitor, but if I do abide by said promise, the promiser is awesome.  Also, I’m dead.

  • everstar

    I feel like we ought to send screenshots of Mr. Blake’s yammerings to Disqus as evidence that please God, they really need to support a killfile.


    it causes a kind of extreme moral paralysis or even a vague superstition

    Yes, this.
    Of course, this is not unique to fundamentalism, or evangelical fundamentalism, or to children.
    In this vein, I will never forget my Orthodox Jewish mom explaining to me, a few weeks after my stroke, that she was trying to figure out what it was she’d done wrong that had caused God to punish her in this fashion.

  • The_L1985

    How the fucking hell does acknowledging the existence of female rapists in any way excuse male rapists?  I’m just saying it’s not as easy as you seem to believe.  Also, I’m a feminist, and as I mentioned before, I am rather proudly female.

    Not that it matters.  Your clear lack of knowledge on this subject doesn’t surprise me, as you’ve demonstrated nothing but ignorance from the moment you first posted here.  Why don’t you go play in the sandbox or something while the grownups are talking, hmm?

  • The_L1985

    *shockgasp* No, really?  Wow, and all this time I thought that characters in plays didn’t actually say the lines therein!  What a novel concept!  &lt /sarcasm &gt

    Seriously, you’re not clever.

  • The_L1985

    That is absolutely monstrous, but I understand completely where you’re coming from.  As a kid, I was terrified that our family was cursed, because for a couple years, our home phone number had three 6’s in a row.  Combine this with a presentation on Mike Warnke’s version of “Satanism,” a showing of A Thief In The Night, and a love of peace signs…before, and you have a recipe for Instant Neurosis.

    I couldn’t understand why nobody else in my class was as terrified as I was, or why my teachers were trying to calm me down, or why nobody was doing anything about any of it.  If the world was about to end, why weren’t we out saving more sinners and feeding more hungry people?  Why weren’t we ending abortion and homosexuality and fortune-telling and burning all the rock music and stuff if it was all that dangerous?

    I had next to no exposure to any of this darker side of Christianity until I was about 9 or 10, and then it was like it was all dumped on me pretty much all at once: pre-millenial dispensationalism, pro-life propaganda, the existence of gay people, etc.  It was like suddenly the world had become scary and dangerous all at once, and the most horrifying part was the inaction in the face of all these things that were supposed to be scary.  At least when I was 4 and people told me scary stories about vampires, they always made it abundantly clear that the monsters in those stories were make-believe.  Without that explicit, “this is just a story, it can’t hurt you,” kids don’t have a buffer.

  • The_L1985

     Actually, I’m a Neopagan.  As long as Christians and Muslims aren’t out trying to exterminate each other or infringe upon general freedom of religion, I could care less what their sexual practices are.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Leaving aside all the absurdities, all the inanities, and the misgendering:
    We do not censor the word ‘fuck’ here. Mispelling it just makes you look like a dolt.

  • The_L1985

    I am a woman.  I was born with a vagina.  I have told you that I am a woman more than once.

    Also…isn’t Winston a man’s name? ;)

  • I hang out sometimes on a Christianity Q&A website: Christianity Stack Exchange. And all the Jehovah’s Witness contributors we have, answering any questions asked about the beliefs of the Witnesses, are plagiarists. You can tell from the writing style, and from the distinctive abbreviations used by the Watchtower Society.

    mickey4727 in the first post on the second page of comments is a plagiarist. The text plagiarised is probably the Inisight book. (The Witnesses have two forms of Bible book name abbreviations, and that text uses the shorter form, so it’s probably taken from a text intended for internal Witness consumption, not the Watchtower magazine.)


    P.S., also, the text mentions NW, that is, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. A non-Witness source would be unlikely to rely on this translation as a source, even in comparison with others, as it has been much-criticised. (I am not qualified to judge how valid those criticisms are, and it’s not really relevant anyway.)

  • The_L1985

     “First they came for the Goddess-worshippers,” eh?

  • The_L1985

    No.  I was born female.  I am still female.  For the remainder of this life, I will remain biologically female.

    However, YOUR username is pretty unambiguously male, which raises some questions. Spambot, maybe?

  • The_L1985

     So how are you feeling Randy?  And did you at least take him out to dinner first? :P