Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Jephtha and his Daughter

In the last two hundred years there have been multiple scholarly responses to the story of Jephtha and his daughter found in the book of Judges.  In a nutshell, Jephtha, was a military leader among the Israelites in a period of time when they, "again did what was evil in the eyes of God...they abandoned God and did not worship him. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites ..." (Judges 10:6-7).
Jephthah lived in Tob, east of Gilead where he, "there gathered around him some worthless ["empty"] men, and they went out with him." (Judges 11:3) The elders of Gilead asked him to be their leader in the campaign against the Ammonites, but he held out for a more permanent and a broader position, and the elders agreed that, provided Jephthah succeeded in defeating Ammon, he would be their commander permanently. So, Jephthah challenged the Ammonites and after the campaign began to be successful and the Lord began to help him, he made an oath:
"Whatever/whoever emerges and comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be God’s, and I shall sacrifice him/her/it as a burnt offering
The victorious Jephthah was met on his return by his daughter, his only child. Jephthah tore his clothes and cried, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low!" but is bound by his vow: "I have given my word to God, and I cannot go back on it" (Judges 11:35). The girl asks for two months' grace, "... that I may go down on the mountains ... and bewail my virginity" (Judges 11:37). And then Jephthah "carried out his vow with her which he had vowed" (Judges 11:39). The story ends by recounting how "the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite" (Judges 11:40).
Contrary to popular understanding of many modern Christians of the inerrancy of the Bible, the accuracy of the Bible translations was frequently doubted by believing scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The most well known of these might be Benjamin Kennicott (1718-1783) perhaps the leading English Old Testament scholar of the period, who agreed with the deists, such as Voltaire who used the story of Jephtha as a catalyst for their arguments against the veracity of the Bible, that the Hebrew text was corrupt and unreliable, although he and the deists drew different conclusions from this shared realization.  His decades of work in collecting, translating and comparing ancient biblical texts to compare with modern translations was legend.
Scholars of the Christian tradition, both believers, and unbelievers, (as well as Jewish ones before them) have debated this story of Jephtha for centuries, mostly centering their arguments on the etymology and translation of the text.  Some declared that Jephtha actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering.  Others disagreed.   For example, there was much debate in the 17th and 18th centuries on what should be the translation of verse 31: “Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”
One key to the scholarly, believing revisionist reading was that “and” (in “and I will offer it up”) could be translated as“or.” Robert Jenkin (1656–1727) who was a Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, for instance, wrote that, “it is well known” that the word “which they translate and in the Text, often signifies or.”
Addressing the problem of why, if Jephtha’s daughter had not been killed, it should have become the custom to “lament” her, Jenkin suggests a better translation than “lament” would be “to rehearse or speak”: “From whence it has been supposed, that she was not put to Death, but was obliged to live in a State of Virginity and Solitude.”  She would have been required to live the life of a Nazarite.
Samuel Humphreys, similarly arguing against the sacrifice in "Sacred Books of the Old and New Testament" (pub. 1735–39), also suggests that “or” is a better translation than “and” in verse 31 and criticizes the Vulgate’s reading “whoever” as inferior to the King James’s “whatsoever.”
Humphreys concludes that if the creature greeting Jephtha is human, “he or she shall be consecrated to the service of God as some sort of Nazarites were; or if it prove a beast, it shall be offered up for a burnt-offering.”
Whichever translation is most accurate, however, and whatever the ultimate fate of Jephtha’s daughter, the story still feels problematic to many readers.  As a teenager, in my first encounter with the book of Judges my response was “What!!??”   What was I supposed to make of this book full of stories of people who were ostensibly of God’s chosen house of Israel but who continually undertook, what seemed to me at best, stupid, and at worst, depraved actions.  In the years of Sunday school and seminary that followed I heard Jephtha held up as an example of the virtue of being willing to sacrifice anything to the Lord as well as the explanations brought forth about mistranslations, stating that his daughter bewailed her virginity because she was about to commence a life of nazarite vows.  The former sounded barbaric and the latter like a senseless imposition of submissive though misguided obedience to parental authority.  Neither sounded like an example of enlightened Godly life to me.
I have come, however, to believe that the book of Judges is best approached as a fine example of what can happen to people in a culture that has a history of belief in God, but who have lost their sense of a direct connection to God and for whom their religious orientation has become, at most, a part of their tradition and culture (and in some cases, see the last couple of chapters for example, is totally abandoned), instead of a breathing, living, daily communication with God.  The stories of Samson, Gideon, and Jephtha all contain examples of this slide into a sense of God as a formula or tradition or a force to make bargains with instead of a divine, loving, intimate, personal daily guide.  As such it is good to look at elements in the story of Jephtha one by one and then look at our own modern culture and relationship with God to see if we find parallels to be wary of.
First, Jephtha’s desire for a powerful position.   The man is asked to assist in the war against the Ammonites.  He refuses, holding out for a more permanent position of power beyond the immediate task at hand before he will join in the war.  His interest is not in the completion of the task being asked of him, but instead in the power and career it will afford him if he participates.  My question:  what are my motives when deciding whether or not to assist in an undertaking?
Second, having procured a conditional bargain with the elders of Gilead (“if you are successful, then we will give you the position you want’) he is willing to sacrifice ANYTHING to be successful.  My question: am I making the mistake of becoming the sort of person who will sacrifice anything, no matter what, in order to become “successful” in the eyes of those in power or those who will determine the course of my career?
Third, the Lord inspires Jephtha once he undertakes the work (yes, God does help further causes even when the leaders thereof are stupid) (vs. 29) and Jeptha’s response is not humilty or gratitude, but rather, bargain-making.  My question:  Do I fail to recognize God as a loving, daily, helpful, awe-inspiring guide, but instead see him as another political ally that I can make intermittant powerful contractual bargains with in order to achieve the good things that I want to have happen?
Fourth, once Jephtha makes an oath, he keeps it even when he discovers that doing so will be destructive.  We see this sometimes masquerading in modern culture as “honor”.  My question: When I make a promise and I later discover that it would be destructive to keep it, does my traditional sense of pride and “honor” prevent me from being humble enough to admit my mistake and do what is kindest and best?  Does my sense of pride and honor take precidence over my commitment to charity and justice?  Does it prevent me from communicating with God about making a change in my declared course of action?
Fifth, (and I realize that some will take issue with this, because it concerns the victim in this case and the phrase in question can have layered meanings) when Jephtha’s daughter realizes that she faces being sacrificed (either literally killed or given over to a Nazarite life) and that there is no recourse for her, the focus of her mourning is her virginity. I guess that this part of the story particularly jumps out at me because of the increasing and erroneous notion expressed in media for young people that, of all things that it would be tragic to die (or to live) without experiencing, the most tragic would be to not have experienced sex.  My question: If I were facing a medical diagnosis with a short estimated time of life left, or if I came to realize that I would be single all of my life, what would I mourn not having the opportunity to do?   Would my sorrow be selfish or selfless?  And would my faith in the recompense and mercy of God carry me through that sorrow?  
Sixth, if we assume the interpretation that Jephtha did in fact sacrifice his daughter we realize that he has offered a sacrifice that is, according to the descriptions given by God, repugnant to God.  God’s descriptions of acceptable sacrifice are very clear in the book of Leviticus.  Human sacrifice of one’s children was forbidden.  Sacrifice of one’s child was, on the other hand, a type of sacrifice that was acceptable in the worship of the god Moloch, a Caananite god worshiped at the time.  Thus we find that Jephtha has dictated the bounds of the sacrifice he will make, using parameters set forth in an aspect of society that does not worship God, instead of following the direction of the Lord as to what an acceptable sacrifice is.   My question:  How often do I determine what is acceptable to the Lord by looking to what the society around me sees as most noble or heroic, rather than seeking to find what the Lord asks of me?
Whatever interpretation of the story of Jephtha and his daughter one takes as most accurate, the questions are good to ask.

The Holy Bible KJV
Susan Staves, "Jephtha's Vow Reconsidered", Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 71, No. 4, pp 651-669, University of California Press 2008.

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