Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘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.’ So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and 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.’ She said to him, ‘My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.’ And she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.’ ‘Go,’ he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
This story comes from the Hebrew scripture, in the book of Judges, chapter 11, verses 29-40. It’s a tough story, isn’t it? Taken literally, this is the story of a man who made a promise to God and followed through on that promise, even though it meant killing his only beloved daughter. Unfortunately, unlike the story of Abraham and Isaac, where God provides an animal for sacrifice at the last minute, there is no replacement here. We rarely talk about texts like this one, because we don’t know what to do with it. Theologian Phyllis Trible calls this a “Text of Terror.” And it is. It is terrifying to consider a father who would promise God the life of another in return for a military victory. Indeed, it is terrifying to imagine a God who would demand such a thing. In fact, an angel intervened in the sacrifice of Isaac and gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead. I believe this illustrates that God does not want the sacrifice of children. And yet, here we have this story. The daughter of Jephthah is the only human sacrifice by an Israelite recorded in the texts. What can it mean?
The story of Isaac is often interpreted to reinforce the idea that one’s faith in God should be so strong as to do whatever God asks of us, no matter how painful it might be. This story has been interpreted by some in similar fashion. The problem with this interpretation is that nowhere in the scripture does God demand the sacrifice of this young girl. In fact, according to the story, before he was led into the battle against the Ammonites, the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah. In other words, he was already poised to win the battle. He didn’t have enough faith in his own abilities, even strengthened by the Spirit, so he tried to make a deal with God. He didn’t think through the consequences of his rash promise. Among the Israelites, it was customary for the women to meet the victorious warriors with dancing and singing. Some commentaries point out that other animals that might have run out the door to meet him, such as a dog, would be unclean and unacceptable as a sacrifice. It seems as though he should have known his daughter would be the one to meet him, doesn’t it? Did he think God wanted him to sacrifice his daughter? If God didn’t desire such sacrifice, why didn’t someone intervene, like the angel in the story of Isaac?
Some look at this story and see in it a warning about being careful what one promises to God. …Could be. Others look at this story and ask, “What does it tell us about God?” Many see foreshadowing of God the Father’s sacrifice of His Son Jesus. From that, they get a message that we should be willing to give God at least as much as God would give us, no matter the cost to us. …Hmmm …Maybe. I would say, however, that this story tells us nothing about God and everything about humanity. It tells us about the way we can we can tell ourselves stories to support our own behavior – or lack thereof.
Jephthah’s lack of faith in God and in his own abilities leads him to imagine that God would like him to make a sacrifice in order to maintain his reputation as a warrior and his position as a Judge of the Israelite people. What a bitter irony. He leads his warriors into battle against the Ammonites – a people who sacrifice their infants to the god Molech, returning to sacrifice his own child. Why would he do this? I think Jephthah is more concerned about himself than he is about his daughter. He loves her, but only as much as she is worth to bring him success. I think this is a story of abuse and irresponsibility. Karla Bohmbach, writing for the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia, points out that nobody in the community even tries to intervene for this young girl. It seems that nobody wants to interfere. Natalio Fernández Marcos of the Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales in Madrid did an in-depth study of this text in the ancient Greek. This text records the Aramaic Targumim, or Rabbinic tales, that expand the Hebrew texts and written down in the first century AD. In this book, Marcos found a tradition that says that the daughter, who they called Seila, or “the one who is demanded,” went to the priests at the temple and begged them to release her from this fate. They refused. It seems, however, that her father could have gone to them and paid a ransom, thus releasing himself from having to sacrifice his child. However, he never went to them for help. I repeat. I believe that this is a story of abuse. It is the abuse of a father against his daughter. It is the abuse of a community against a child. It is the kind of abuse that continues to this day.
Oh, I am not suggesting that there are many who promise God they will kill their children and follow through with that promise, although in the past 10 years, I can think of at least three instances where parents killed their children in dramatic and grisly ways because they believed that God told them to. No, most abuse is much less dramatic and has nothing to do with God. Scratch that. No abuse has anything to do with God. It has to do with us; and we are all accountable. I said earlier that I think this scripture says nothing about God and everything about humanity. What I mean is that as humans, we are prone to believing that we are doing God’s bidding when in reality we are only behaving in a way that will benefit us. We will go so far as to finding scripture that we believe supports our behavior. We do this individually and corporately. Think of some of these scriptural statements, taken out of context: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live;” “wives submit to your husbands,” […pause…] “spare the rod and spoil the child.”
Each of these texts from the Hebrew Bible has been used to commit heinous crimes against others. You might note that in Christian history, the first two have been specifically used to support violence against women. I mention this because March is Women’s History Month, and this past Friday was International Women’s Day, and while it is true that family violence is perpetrated against men by women, the instance of violence against women is statistically much higher. Most so-called “witches” who were killed during the inquisition were women and most domestic violence cases are perpetrated against women. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is a story about an abused woman. It is also the story of an abused child.
I was given this text from Judges as an assignment – to tell the story that I told you earlier – and I have to tell you that it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Stories like this are much easier to ignore than to face head-on. It’s difficult to deal with, because if we look close enough, we can see ourselves in the story. We can see where we have made promises we can’t possibly keep, where we’ve bargained with God using pawns we have no business trading. We see ourselves sending our children off to war, sacrificing them not for the protection of our homes, but for our status and way of life. And we see ourselves neglecting to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Perhaps we see ourselves as the one abused, remembering our own pasts and the many who did not speak on our behalf. We’d rather turn our eyes away, pretend it never happened. But unless we speak up, we allow others to be hurt. For you see, many can learn from our experience. We can help those who seek understanding.
We are to be God’s hands and feet in this world. We are to be the voice of those who cannot speak. God didn’t intervene in the story of Jephthah’s daughter, because the people around her did not take responsibility. John Paddison, a friend of mine, co-wrote a book called “The Brothers’ Keepers.” It’s the true story of a family of young boys in depression era North Dakota who were abused and neglected by their single mother and ignored by their community. When the boys ended up disfigured and maladjusted, whose fault was it? …The mother’s? …God’s? …Or was it the fault of the community, who saw the neglect and said, “It’s none of our business?” We are complicit in the abuse when we don’t speak up. And we are part of the dawn of hope when we do.
In 1864 a little girl named Mary Ellen was born in New York. Mary Ellen’s father died when she was a baby and by the time she was two, her mother had boarded her with someone else so she could work. As times got harder, her mother got behind on payments for Mary Ellen’s care, and the care giver turned the little girl over to the Department of Charities, which in turn housed her with a couple without any proper paperwork. The foster father died soon after, and the foster mother remarried. The foster mother was extremely abusive, leaving the little girl disfigured, keeping her locked in a room most of her life. Eventually, a neighbor asked Etta Angell Wheeler, a caring Methodist mission worker who visited the impoverished residents of the tenements regularly to check on the child. Etta went next door pretending to seek help for the neighbor and saw Mary Ellen herself. She was badly beaten and broken. Etta went to the authorities, but nobody wanted to intervene. After awhile, and at her niece’s suggestion, Etta turned to Henry Bergh, a leader of the animal humane movement in the United States and founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Finally, Etta found several neighbors who were willing to testify about the way Mary Ellen was treated. In the end, it was the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that rescued Mary Ellen and started the movement for a formalized child protection system.
Mary Ellen went to live with Etta’s mother in northern New York. When Etta’s mother died, her sister and her husband took Mary Ellen in. When Mary Ellen was 24, she got married, had two daughters of her own, and fostered a third girl. Mary Ellen died in 1956 at the age of 92. Because of the intervention of neighbors and the persistence of one social worker, Mary Ellen lived a long and productive life. Her story was the beginning of the movement to protect children throughout the world.
Now, we might not be in a position where we can intervene in the life of someone who is in an abusive situation. Maybe we can’t stop our leadership from making decisions that send our youth off to dangerous places. Maybe it is our place to help those who are in poverty or addiction. Maybe we can sit beside someone who is ill or someone who is having a bad day. Maybe our part is to pray for those who are in dark places of depression, suicidal, or in pain. Or maybe, it is for us to pass on the stories of those whose lives have been short circuited or ended because of violence or disease. Maybe it is up to us to simply remember, like the daughters of Israel once did for the daughter of Jephthah. Maybe it is up to us to dance. For if we do not remember – who will?