Regarding Jephthah’s daughter

Regarding Jephthah’s daughter December 27, 2012

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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  • AnonymousSam

    Among other things. I never thought we’d find someone who made Chris Hadrick look like an intellectual giant, but…

    Achievement Fucking Unlocked.

  • Clearly the alignment of a lot of fundamentalists is basically Lawful Neutral.

    At best.  Some of them, like Fred Phelps, are essentially just sadists, whose primary use for laws is to define groups of people against whom their cruelty (the true purpose of which is simply their own pleasure) can be sanctioned — hence, their proper alignment would be Lawful Evil.

  • The_L1985

     There is more than one definition to that word, sir.

    Pagan: n. 1. Not Christian.  2. A member of any ancient religion that pre-dates Christianity, esp. in the period and region of the late Roman Empire.  3. Neopagan. A religious movement that seeks to re-awaken worship of various pre-Christian deities, with or without the corresponding pre-Christian rites and ceremonies, as appropriate.

    Derived from the Latin: paganus, “of the countryside.”

    Or to quote another of Shakespeare’s plays: “There is more on heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dream’t of in your philosophy.”

  • The_L1985

     Kali and Hecate are both goddesses, yes.  Hecate is, in fact, an aspect of one of the goddesses I worship.

    But Kali is a lot more complicated than that, and I don’t think She’d appreciate your rather crude description.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is not a documentary. ;)

  • The_L1985

     …Wow.  That’s one Hel of a persecution complex, buddy.  Someone agrees with you–on anything–and your immediate response is, “Stop lying.”

  • The_L1985

     Why on earth would we censor British cigarettes and bundles of firewood? :)

  • The_L1985

     I don’t know; he makes a rather nice chew toy.

    Maybe he’ll wise up and eventually pass the 5th grade, but then he won’t be as much fun anymore.

  • … or a 1980s BBS retread who thinks they’re bringing it back into style, /<-wr4d d00d.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, that’s an achievement I could have lived without.

  • Lunch Meat

    Please don’t even engage with this one. It’s a spammer, not even conversing on the level of a troll, and it’s making the comment section look like youtube.

  • Do the JWs even bother asserting copyright on anything they produce? ‘Cause they give away everything for free it seems.

  • Well, at least they’re hooking up actual words together into phrases and clauses now, rather than just spamming YouTube links. Sometimes complete sentences, even. Which on occasion relate to the post being replied to. Those are all steps in the direction of actually participating in a conversation, I suppose.

  • Yes. It’s a bit weird. They do give everything away for free individually. But not the CD-ROM with everything on it: that’s for Witnesses only, for some reason. (It honestly doesn’t contain anything not availably publicly, so I don’t know why they have this restriction.) And it’s all on the website too.

    But they do assert copyright. And they don’t like other people reprinting or republishing their stuff. Even if they did allow republication, of course, it should still be sourced and referenced, not passed off as your own words.

    I don’t know why so many online Witnesses are plagiarists, but it does seem to be a common problem.


  • Another Matt

    That is absolutely monstrous, but I understand completely where you’re coming from.

    I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven my parents for not being more vigilant about what I was being taught in that private school…

    For me it’s not so much a matter of forgiveness as it is a question of what to learn from it, although I do regret the slow start I feel I got on life as a result, and I believe a lot of my social anxiety was the result of fundamentalist upbringing. But I also have family that has turned out much worse off than I did in this regard, to the point that as grown adults they fear the world so much they won’t leave their parent’s home.

    I do wish there were a better way to handle discussions about the harm fundamentalism does without hurting the fundies I love. It’s the mirror image of “love the sinner, hate the sin,” which I think is a good enough policy but often fails to work with people who so strongly identify with their faith. It’s especially the case that I don’t want to say “you screwed me up,” but rather, “it’s the pernicious ideas,” and I don’t know how to engage that thought with loved ones without being hurtful. In the end I don’t feel screwed up at all, but just stunted and late to have meaningful relationships with others in the world. I count myself very lucky that physical violence was never part of the programme.

    Thanks, all, for the discussion here; it’s been useful for me.

  • The_L1985

    Well, in my case there were also times where I obediently parroted the stuff I’d learned in school, and my parents would ask me where the hell I’d learned that. Which only confused me more, because a conservative Christian paradigm was literally the only perspective I knew anything about, other than the usual straw men. I assumed that they believed all the way-out-there stuff I was being taught in school. After all, they were Christians too–and I knew even then that they were paying a lot of money for me and my brother to go to private school.

    I don’t think my father understands even now that it’s easy to talk about the importance of having an open mind, but unless you’ve had more than one kind of experience, other people have essentially closed your mind for you. He would tell me to keep an open mind about things–but I literally couldn’t yet, because I was unaware of any reasonable alternatives at all.

  • The_L1985

    And again, thugees were not the only worshippers of Kali-Durga, and the worship of Kali continued in its other, non-violent forms long after the thugee cult was banned. This is like saying that the Crusaders were the only medieval Christians, or that all modern Asatruar are members of Aryan Nations.

    As someone who claims to be pro-Hindu, you really should know better.

  • The_L1985

    Where, if you don’t mind my asking?

  • The_L1985

    I assure you, sir, you will never have any way of determining the veracity if that statement, as I would not consider copulation with you even were your private parts made of pure cacao.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I don’t suppose you’ve seen azurelunatic’s Saga of the Chocolate Penis? If not, Google ‘azurelunatic chocolate penis’, it ought to be right on top.

  • The_L1985

    I have now!! :D

  • EllieMurasaki

    I call Godwin.

  • Another Matt

    Interesting. My parents are of two completely different minds about this, which made things even weirder to negotiate. My dad and his family are all fundie, but not my mom, who is at most a “cultural Lutheran.”

    My siblings all went to public school. For my mom, this was to get us a good education (couldn’t afford private school, and neither of them was able to homeschool). For my dad, it was a chance to send disciples into the Godless public schools to challenge liberal teachers. I’m sure you’ve seen the old creationist comics where the student goes into the science class and flummoxes the poor science teacher? That’s what we were supposed to do. I was too shy to do it in class, but I got some bad grades through middle school because I didn’t feel like it was worth it to apply myself to studies that had a chance to endanger my soul.

    Mom was dismayed, but for my dad, “having an open mind” was one of the many possible first steps to a slope that ends in mass murder. Like I said before, he’s softened up a bunch as he’s gotten older, and I wonder if he remembers just how hard-core he and his side of the family was in those days. I just want to be kind to him now, but our religious differences make it difficult to even get close.

  • The_L1985

    My parents are both Catholic–Dad was raised Catholic, Mom was some variety of Southern Protestant who converted as an adult. They sent me to a private school run out of the local Church of God. They would have sent me to a Catholic school, but there weren’t any in the area, and AL’s public school system was agreed by both of them to be worse than A Beka’s (and in some areas, they appear to be right).

  • caryjamesbond

    I really don’t care if Muslims exterminate you.

    Honey poo, I’m gonna guess from your language of choice, use of pinhead avatar, and the handle “Winston Blake” (plus a few other things) that you’re based in some Northern Hemisphere western country.

    You do know, sugar pie, that if the meaaaaan ol’ Muzzies do take over, that being an atheist won’t really help?  Hell, the mass-murdering Muslims tend to kill OTHER MUSLIMS.  Heck, they kill Muslims of the same type that aren’t fervent enough. 

    I mean, basically- they get exterminated, WE get exterminated. But then, you know Silat. So you’ve got that going for you.



  • Tricksterson

    Speaking as a pagan, um no.  I’d go into more detail but it would be pointless.

  • Tricksterson

    Or Victor look coherent.

  • Cathy W

    Hypothesis: they know they’re supposed to spread the word, to the exclusion of almost everything else, but possibly lack the understanding and/or skill at writing to put things into their own words (most – not all, but most – of the Witnesses I’ve known have not been well-educated). Copy/pasting is easy, and you get to sound smarter than you are without worrying that you’re getting some fine point of doctrine wrong…

  • banancat

    Religiosity is actually a common symptom of OCD, although that boy’s case was especially severe. I’m sure that in the evangelical culture such a case would be handled exactly the same as any other mental health issue: with lots of guilt and prayer.

  • JustoneK

    Are you sure you’re not a bot?

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Can we ban this guy?  I know Fred doesn’t like doing that, but at least our earlier trolls generally pretended to engage, and… sort of made sense.  This guy has nothing but stupid, offensive comments to offer.

  • JustoneK

    You sure showed me.  I totally believe you’re not an average middle class white guy living in Murica with a Christian background.

  • The Guest Who Posts

    While I haven’t read that graphic novel yet, I think I read that Shanower based Agamemnon’s looks on the so-called “death mask of Agamemnon” that Schliemann excavated in Mycenae.

  • Dash1

     He has said as much. But he’s added some features. The character has long (Mycenaean) curly hair, and, for some reason, a triangular soul patch. And the overall look, for a late 20th century-early 21st century American, at least, reminds one of Captain Hook. The curly hair of the Mycenaean overlaps well with the curly locks of the pirate. And the moustache with upturned ends is a feature of both characters. (I’m thinking here of Hook as portrayed by actors, not the cartoon character.)

    The predatory look helps enormously, of course.

  • newenglandsun

    I like any interpretation of this other than the traditional way I was brought up which was Jephthah’s rash vow.

  • Brian Plummer

    This story is so abhorrent. How dare Jephthah make a vow that ruins the life of someone else. Too bad his daughter didnt have the freedoms women in America have. Children had to obey their parents back then or suffer the consequences. I believe Jephthah devoted his daughter to the temple to remain a virgin. His daughter had no choice but to comply. Both lacked wisdom on whether God would have wanted them to fulfill the vow this way.