October 12, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Biblical women: Jephthah kills his daughter

John F. Fink(Eleventh in a series of columns)

If there is any episode in the Book of Judges that should shock us, it has to be the story of Jephthah and his daughter. The story clearly indicates the power and authority that men had over women and children during these days of the Israelites.

Jephthah led the Israelites in a battle against the Ammonites, who lived in modern Jordan. He was the son of Gilead and a harlot, and Gilead’s wife insisted that he would inherit nothing from Gilead. So he fled from Palestine.

Later, though, when the Ammonites were warring against the Israelites, the elders of Gilead persuaded Jephthah to lead them in battle. Jephthah first tried to make peace with the Ammonites, but to no avail, so he prepared for battle.

As his army was marching toward the battle, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord that, if God would deliver the Ammonites into his power, he would offer up as a holocaust whoever came out of the doors of his home to meet him when he returned in triumph. He clearly vowed to make a human sacrifice to God according to the custom of his pagan neighbors.

Naturally, his forces were successful and inflicted a severe defeat on the Ammonites. When he returned to his home, his beloved daughter was the first one to come running out of his house, happily playing the tambourine and dancing in celebration. She was his only child.

Alas, he had made a vow to God. He told his daughter about the vow and said that he couldn’t retract it. Then, improbably, his daughter agreed that he had made a vow and would have to keep it.

She asked only that she be permitted to go away with her girl friends for two months “to mourn my virginity.” For Israelite women, bearing children was a woman’s greatest pride and responsibility, and Jephthah’s daughter asked to mourn the fact that she would have to die without bearing children.

Jephthah agreed and his daughter and her friends went away for two months. They returned and Jephthah killed her as a sacri­fice to God. The Bible doesn’t tell us how.

As we read this passage, my first question is always, “Where was her mother?” Is it possible that any mother would permit her husband to kill their daughter, whether or not he had made a vow to God? But this was a patriarchal society and a father had complete control over his wife and children.

A footnote in the New American Bible tells us that the inspired author of this book merely recorded the facts in this story; he didn’t approve of the action. Even the God of the Old Testament didn’t require human sacrifice to him, and it was wrong for Jephthah to make the vow.

The Book of Judges closes this episode by telling us that it became a custom in Israel for Israelite women to go yearly to mourn the daughter of Jephthah for four days of the year. †

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