Feminist Musings on the story of Jephthah

Bored in Vernalfeminism, LDS lessons, Mormon, scripture, temple, theology, women 24 Comments

Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #19
You are going to talk about the Biblical Judges in this week’s Sunday School class, and the lesson’s got it pretty well covered (including a discussion of the Judge/Prophetess/Mother in Israel Deborah, yay!) You’ll have to let me know how your respective teachers covered her.  But some of the Judges are peripheral and didn’t make it into the lesson materials.  As is my wont to do, I’d like to investigate the marginal; the story that isn’t mentioned in the manual — that of Jephthah.

Whenever I come across an odd story in the Old Testament, I feel compelled pull it apart and try to make some sense out of it. Why is it there? Does it have some symbolic meaning of which we are unaware? Are we misinterpreting crucial aspects? Would it make more sense within the cultural milieu? Such is the story of this lesser-known Biblical judge.

This strange little story begins with an “unlikely hero,” Jephthah, the son of a prostitute. He was taken into his father’s family and raised there, but after the death of his father the legitimate children forced him to leave. He made some reputation for himself among a band of “vain men,” so that when his countrymen needed help against the Ammonites, they came to him. Jephthah agreed to captain an army against Ammon, in return for being named their titular head. His first military action was an attempt to negotiate with the enemy. When that did not work, he gathered together the men of Israel. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he went forth to battle, making a interesting vow to the Lord. If the Lord would help him win the battle, he would dedicate to the Lord and offer up for a burnt offering whatever should come forth from the doors of his house to meet him when he returned.

After a successful conquest, Jephthah returned home and was greeted by his daughter, his only child. That she was a precious and only child is pointed up by the fact that the judges immediately before and after him were Jair (who had thirty sons who rode on thirty ass colts), and Ibzan (who had thirty sons and thirty daughters). The number of children is the only fact we are told about these two judges, making it very likely that they are there solely for the reason of emphasizing Jephthah’ only begotten child. But she was a female.

Not only was human sacrifice forbidden by the Lord, (Deut. 18:10), but burnt offerings were to be firstborn males (Lev. 1:3). Nevertheless, Jephthah had made a vow, and intended to keep it. His daughter acquiesced, asking only for two months time to go up to the mountains with some friends and “bewail her virginity.” At the end of the two months, she returned to her father, and he “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed, and she knew no man.” Thereafter it became a custom for the daughters of Israel to go up four days in a year to lament the fate of the daughter of Jephthah.

The tradition of Biblical scholars is to interpret this vow of Jephthah’s as an impetuous and evil action which had disastrous consequences. That Latter-day Saints have followed in this tradition is clear from the chapter heading of Judges 11: “He makes a rash vow which leads to sacrifice of his only daughter.

This interpretation is problematic for at least two reasons. First, if this was a “rash vow,” why would the Lord be given credit for bringing about the victory of Jephthah’s army? In the Book of Judges, the people are punished with captivity and defeat when they forsake the Lord. Second, why would Jephthah make such a vow? Did he think perhaps an animal would be the first out the door to greet him? (In ancient Israel the animals were sometimes kept in the house.) What if the animal was an unclean one, such as a dog? To offer up such a sacrifice would be a great affront. But perhaps the greatest problem Biblical scholars face in the exegesis of this passage is the inclusion of Jephthah in Hebrews 11 — the “faith chapter.” Here Jephthah is included along with the great heroes of the Old Testament in obtaining “a good report through faith.”

I rather favor an interpretation that became popular in medieval times and has been revived recently — that Jephthah was promising only to dedicate his daughter to the Lord and not to kill her. This would parallel Jephthah’s daughter more to Samson and to Samuel than to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. But it would preserve the Messianic shadowing. Several points make this interpretation possible:

  1. The Hebrew “vav” usually translated “and” may also be translated as “or” rendering the reading in Judges 11:31: “whatsoever cometh forth…to meet me…shall surely be the Lord’s, or I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” Thus Jephthah’s method of sacrifice would depend upon what came forth out of his door.
  2. The daughter departed into the mountains to “bewail her virginity,” not her death. It is possible that she was being offered to some type of temple service which would necessitate her remaining unwed for the rest of her life. Note verse 39 which says that Jephthah kept “his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man.” This last clause would seem awkward and unnecessary if she were being put to death.
  3. Certain Hebrew scholars believe that for as long as she lived, the virgins of Israel went at different times, each for four days in the year, to provide comfort and encouragement to the daughter of Jephthah at the tent of meeting. This custom must have ended at her death, since there is no further reference to it in scripture or Jewish history.

You see that it is possible to fit this story quite nicely into our Latter-day Saint canon. Faithful Jephthah makes a promise to the Lord, and keeps his promise. Faithful Jephthah’s daughter yields herself to her father’s vow and becomes a type of Christ.  Handel uses a variation of this interpretation in his oratorio, Jephtha.  I’ll share with you a lovely aria from the oratorio below.  Here Jeptha is reconciled to the blood sacrifice of his daughter, and sings “Waft her, angels, through the skies,” before learning that her death is not required, and she shall instead be dedicated to God in a pure and virgin state for the rest of her life.

The story doesn’t fit quite so nicely into feminist thought, however…or does it? What was the name of this intriguing daughter? What was she like? Didn’t she deserve to make her own decisions? Why must her life be subject to her father’s vow? Here’s the other side of the question: if Samuel and Isaac were obedient to the vows of their parents, isn’t it equal treatment for a young woman in the scriptures to show the same dedication? Is submission not a principle that Christ modeled, and which males and females must all learn? In my search for spiritual submission, is it helpful to have a female role model? Or would this simply reinforce unrighteous patriarchal domination which tends to crop up in religious settings? Can it be possible to spin this story into a celebration of a strong woman character who makes her own decisions and chooses on her own to follow the Lord? And what of my own life? Is it conceivable to view the submission I have promised in the temple as a glorious principle even though the submission my husband covenants is to God, and mine is to a mere mortal? Is the surrender I give freely in this holy place simply that required of all Christian disciples? Or does God require of women an additional offering? Does Jephthah’s daughter hold the key? Am I to become a daughter on the pyre? I’m still wondering.

Comments 24

  1. I had not considered this story before in the detail you present here and appreciated your reading a great deal.

    I have a question about the lament of her virginity. It seems a strange lament in the context of what I would have considered a sexually repressed culture especially in regards to women. Moreover that other women would come and comfort her in that is suprising to me. Perhaps this reflects my own victorian sensibilities but I found that a point of sexual empowerment for women both for the woman who gave it up and those who came to her. Perhaps there are lessons here about sisterhood and sacrifice, or sisterhood through sacrifice.

  2. Yes, Aaron, these are things I am trying to explore, even though my knee-jerk reaction is that the “daughter of Jephthah” is being repressed by a patriarchal system.

    What happens when a woman tries to embrace submissiveness? Won’t it just encourage and abet abuses of patriarchy? I just read an article about a Saudi woman who actually broke out in a rage and beat up one of the religious police who was accosting her. I had mixed feelings upon reading this. I am against violence and I do not believe we should solve our world problems by fighting. Yet, how much of the repression of women in this country has continued because women have been submissive for centuries? Is it all worth it if we learn the meekness the Savior would have us embrace? How will the men learn to develop this quality as well?

    These are questions with which I struggle greatly.

  3. btw, I saw the saudi article all over the place (here, BCC and fb).

    ‘Won’t it just encourage and abet abuses of patriarchy?’ I think your last statement regarding men is key. I am currently writing a post on the process of sustaining in which I try and explore and situate some of what Kathleen Flake has written about leadership in a patriarchal church. She argues that we need to resist patriarchy by using the principles in D&C 121. Her point I think is that we resist unrighteous dominion by highlighting it but through unfeigned love and persuausiveness. Though her method is not perfect I suspect that it is Men that must repent and become submissive. The challenge is how this can be prompted. Though I agree Flake that using unrighteous dominion to fight unirghteous dominion is not the answer I also feel that working out our pain through these other avenues is sometimes more painful and also might still lack change.

    After this I remember that I am still a male and therefore still receive the patriarchal dividend despite my posturing.

    btw, I think the questions you raise here about this text are a very important model about how we can spiritually engaged with scriptures.

  4. Some interesting thoughts, meaning that perhaps she was dedicated like Samuel was, or John the Baptist.

    I’d always seen the story as a hold-over folk tale of the native population that got assimilated into the culture and was written into the record to explain a yearly four day woman’s event. You’ve done a lot more with it than I had been thinking about, which wasn’t much.

  5. Post

    Stephen, thank you, I think. ???

    My understanding is that the mention of the four-day women’s event is only found in Judges 11 and there is no evidence from historical sources that this was a folk tradition. Thus, there was no event “that was written into the record to explain.”

  6. #1—One thing to note is that if Jephthah’s daughter was truly an only child, and if she was dedicated to the temple as a virgin, Jephthah’s line ended with her.

    That is likely why she was mourning her virginity. It wasn’t necessarily because she missed the sexual experience, but could be that she missed the procreative one.

  7. I read this a long time ago (so my recollection might not be correct) and your interpretation matches with the Old Testament Student Manual for Institute from what I remember. In the student manual it doesn’t mention the sacrifice being physical death but more as what a nun would be.

  8. Post
  9. Bored in VErnal

    I have to tell you that even though I don’t attend church anymore, I always enjoy your post. Very thought provoking.
    Maybe she was “bewailing her virginity,” because she simply knew that she had no other choice. Did she even have a name. How demeaning, I mean really, When people don’t even have a name, how do they have a voice to even state what they want their wishes to be?

    I realize this is just my opinion, but woman without a name, usually have no voice and therefore, no authority, let alone autonomy over how they live their lives.

  10. Post

    Dblock, I often feel that I have no voice. So it’s painful for me as well — that she doesn’t have a name. Isn’t it interesting that Handel gave her a name in his oratorio? He calls her Iphis, after a figure from Greek mythology.

  11. So, I was doing some reading and here is what I found out and wanted to share with the rest of you.

    Iphis is a greek name meaning metamorphis, In literature a proper name has the potential to reflect what a character does, and for that matters suffers. As an former English major, that was really nothing new to me. We see this type of ‘behavior” for lack of better word all across literature, not just the Bible.

    Getting back to the Greek Mythology,Iphis, hides her sex, particularly because she knows her father wanted a boy, which is a ruse that almost works until she falls in love.

    So upon reading this little bit maybe she was hiding in the mountains for four days in order to figure out how she could make her father change his mind?

  12. Post

    Well, remember, that is just Handel’s name for her, it’s not found in the scriptural account. But it’s interesting to speculate why Handel would use this name. Surely he had to be aware of the mythology behind it.

  13. Did I miss the discussion on what Lot’s daughters did to preserve his family line? That doesn’t seem to be in the manual at all.

  14. Bored in Vernal — I was trying to say that compared to your thoughts, mine were not very much. I’ve really enjoyed the article and have been e-mailing copies to friends.

    Thanks for such great work.

  15. Well, our lesson was on saying “thank you” and using play-doh, but that’s cuz I’m in nursery. I definitely didn’t see Lot’s daughters in the manual for nursery! Nor Jephthah’s daughter’s story. I have heard these alternate readings (he killed her! no he didn’t!), yet I tend to think that whatever actually happened is lost in history along with her name. But the meaning we should derive? I think it is part submission (to the women) and part “don’t be a dumbass” (to the men). Hey, sounds familiar. Maybe we haven’t evolved that much after all!

  16. My best guess is that it was what Stephen M said in #4. That’s consistent, by the way, with a lot of mythic narrative: The ritual comes first; the backstory that explains why we’re all smearing ourselves with paint and jumping around or whatever gets filled in later.

    I know a couple of Bible translations have the passage the KJV renders as “and she knew no man” as “and she died a virgin.” That seems a little more supportive of the “Jephthah killed her” interpretation.

    Also, what if it had been a cow or something that came out to meet the victorious Jephthah, instead of his daughter? He couldn’t very well have held the cow to perpetual virginity thereafter (without keeping a very close eye on the bulls). It does seem that it was his plan to sacrifice — i.e., kill, bleed & burn — whatever came out of the house. As much as I’d like to think that Miss bar Jephthah lived, I think it’s more likely than not that the story means to express that she was killed.

    Not that it bothers me — because it’s a story. No good reason to think it’s anything more than a fable.

  17. Nice post BiV,

    The interpretation you gave makes far more sense than anything else I’ve heard. I read this story as a kid and was so disturbed it bothered me for weeks.

    I don’t think Jephthah’s daughter bewailing her virginity was about not having a husband. The way the OT is written (the dominant male perspective) makes it clear that the main thing women in that culture wanted from sexual relations was offspring. In fact, I even get the impression that the value of a woman (in the predominant culture) was directly related to the number (and possibly quality) of the sons she bore. The wives of Israel were definitely in competition here, as were Sarah and Hagar. I even get that impression reading the NT: “blessed are the paps that gave thee suck” the woman said to Jesus. So, if Jephthah’s daughter was bewailing her virginity, it was because she would never bear seed.

  18. Thomas, #16, you’re right, it doesn’t make as much sense if it had been a cow. Unless it was understood that “to sacrifice/dedicate” something meant blood in the case of animals, and sequestering in the case of young unmarried females? But that seems a real stretch, doesn’t it? Anyway, people told these stories and included them in the scriptural record to make a point. I just can’t always figure out what that point was.

    Also, the Hebrew in v. 39 is vehi (and she) lo (had not) yad’ah (known) ‘ish (man).

  19. I don’t know about all of you, but I would certainly bewail my virginity – especially when not my choice. Maybe she was in love with someone? What about not being able to have children? I guess that was already mentioned but I would have felt robbed on that account as well.

  20. #18 BiV — Thanks for the Hebrew. So “lo” is past-perfect tense? More evidence that Dad done her in…

  21. no… “lo” is just the negative — “not.” That is why “had” is in italics, it is just added so the sentence makes sense in English. The tense comes from the verb and the context.

  22. I know this post is from a while ago, but I came about it as I searched for information on this strange story that I came across while studying the scriptures today. I loved your interpretation, and it is the one that made sense to me as I studied, but I couldn’t reconcile it to the “and” you mentioned. A burnt sacrifice is a burnt sacrifice. I immediately assumed it would be a type, like that of Abraham and Isaac, but I couldn’t figure out how it all worked out in the end. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, especially those at the end of your post. I do think of Jephthah’s daughter as a strong believer, one willing to honor her father’s covenant with God, not as a weak follower. Sometimes I think it takes more faith to make the decision and covenant to obey a human, filled with human flaws (like Jephthah’s: making a promise that would change his only child’s entire future) than just to allow our obedience to be to God. Maybe it’s a further test of faith? I think this story has more for me to learn from it.

  23. I loved your views on this, “Bored in Vernal”. I read about 10 interpretations of this story on Biblehub, and yours was superior to any of these famed Bible scholars! 😃👍 I added your commentary to my scripture journal, but wasn’t able to locate your name … do you prefer to remain anonymous?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *