On Sunday, Erica and I decided to start our day with a little worship. Naturally, we called Jose and asked him if he could read us a worship thought on speaker phone. He laughed a little. He was driving blue highways home from Kentucky and couldn’t read at the moment. So I dug around in the Old Testament a bit and came out with one of my favorite unsung stories…the story of Jephthah and his daughter! This story has it all…vows, killing, virginity, high waisted midgets, a sheepdog that looks like Bruce Villanch.
Jephthah was an Israelite judge who went to war with these people called the Ammonites. Jephthah really wanted to defeat them in battle so he prayed to the Lord to deliver a victory…in exchange Jephthah promised to sacrifice the first person/animal/whatever to come out and meet him when he returned from battle. Of course the Israelites won the battle and wouldn’t you know it…here comes Jephthah’s daughter to greet him! Well OBVIOUSLY Jephthah couldn’t back out on a promise to God so he was just going to have to sacrifice his daughter…so strong in his faith that man was! The girl is understandably a little irritated about the being burned on an altar thing, but what REALLY gets stuck in her craw is the fact that she’s going to her death without ever having had sex with a fella…teenage girls were the teenage boys of the ancient world. So she pleads with her father to allow her and her girlfriends two months to head into the hills where they may “bewail my virginity.” As it turns out, the old man has a bit of a soft spot for his daughter, and he puts the execution on hold for sixty days so the girls can go off and have their little sorority retreat. Then she comes home and….the end.
There’s a lot to be discussed here, even without getting into the absurdity of spending your final days on earth mourning your virginity…seems that time could be better spent getting laid or, you know, getting the hell out of Dodge. But obviously these are cultural norms and what have you. The real crazy part in this story is Jephthah…that man is straight bananas. First of all…he made a terrible promise to God…then he ACTUALLY FOLLOWED THROUGH ON IT. And this was the man the Israelites chose as their leader. Today’s theocratic regimes have NOTHING on this shit.
As with most Bible passages, theologians have spent the last few centuries wrangling over the wording in attempts to explain the madness within. One scholar argued that the passage should be read, “If it be a thing fit for a burnt-offering, it shall be made one; if fit for the service of God, it shall be consecrated to him.” Lots of people have jumped on this interpretation, claiming that she was not in fact sacrificed, but rather required to live in virginity for the remainder of her life (which, apparently in her mind, was roughly the same fate.) Proponents of this view cite the fact that human sacrifice was a clear violation of Jehovah’s commandments and that the Israelites never would have engaged in such an abomination.
I truly want to believe the toned down version of the story, but to me it just sounds like historical revisionism by people who have a difficult time justifying this story with their personal beliefs about God. Yes, Hebrew scripture clearly banned human sacrifice, but the Israelites at the time were doing all kinds of things their scriptures banned. One of the principal Old Testament themes is the Israelites forsaking their own God and following the customs of the tribes living around them…and nearly all the tribes living around them routinely performed human sacrifices. So I don’t find it so outrageous to believe that Jephthah could have gotten the idea this was a normal thing to do.
What I DO find outrageous is how Jephthah and other Biblical characters who make questionable (being generous there) decisions are seen as heroes I remember learning about how Jephthah was a man of great faith because he didn’t waiver on his promise to God. This may be an aberration….I don’t know it THAT many Christians honestly defend Jephthah in this story. But nearly EVERYONE defends Abraham who was seconds away from plunging a knife into his son’s heart…but that is probably a chat for another evening. My point is that I don’t think we need to defend some of the terrible things Old Testament Bible characters did. A good chunk of the Old Testament isn’t even all that religious…it is a collection of stories about major event’s in the nation’s history. The author of Judges isn’t proselytizing when he tells the story of Jephthah…he’s just telling you what happened. Our insistence with putting spiritual significance into each and every one of these stories is one of the factors responsible for the existence of people like Fred Phelps.
But for what it’s worth, I do think you can pull religious lessons from stories like this one. To me the story of Jephthah should be looked at as a cautionary tale. It is the story of a man who got all confused with his faith and CLEARLY did the wrong thing. This is a very important message, especially considering some of the religious wackiness going on in the world. But to take this message from the story you can’t simply rely on what the non-proselytizing chronicler tells you because he doesn’t tell you anything…you just need to read it with a little common sense. You know that killing your daughter is bad. That’s all you really need to know to realize the real moral of the story.