Jephthah’s slain daughter, and the God of life
One of my son’s favourite picture books is ‘The Paper Bag Princess’. I think he mainly likes it because of the dragon in it, but I like it because of the way it messes with traditional gender roles. It’s the prince who needs rescuing, by a princess. Rather than stepping into a ‘knight in shining armor’ role, she defeats the dragon with her wits. And then she ditches the prince anyway because he just wants her to be pretty and wear dresses.
When we read a book like this, we know it’s messing with the normal story, and the main way we know that is because the genders are switched. A princess rescuing a prince is not a normal folktale.
The Bible has a story which does something very similar. Jephthah’s daughter is a little known Bible woman, and fair enough too. Her story is squashed in the middle of Judges (11:29-40) and it’s horrifying. She is sacrificed by her father to fulfil a vow he made to God. Her father is the judge, the leader and hero of Israel, and there’s no editorial comment made about the story. Judges has a refrain that goes through it, about everyone doing what was right in their own eyes; it’s a way of pointing out how far from God’s will the people of Israel often are in Judges. As we read the story of Jephthah’s daughter, everything within us cries out for that condemnation of Jephthah, yet it’s not there. What does that say about the God of the Bible? One scholar has asked, ‘My God my God, why hast thou forsaken her?’, and isn’t that what we all cry when we read this story?
Child sacrifice comes up a bit in the Old Testament but we only have one other story where it’s narrated in detail. In Genesis 22, we have the story of Abraham (almost) sacrificing Isaac. Like Jephthah’s daughter, Isaac is an only child. Like Jephthah’s daughter, it is his father who is to sacrifice him. And like Jephthah’s daughter, it’s because of an obligation to God. The thing is, Genesis comes before Judges in the Bible. The Genesis 22 story with Abraham and Isaac is the ‘original’. When we read Judges 11, we’re meant to think, ‘hang on, I know this story, except isn’t the girl meant to be a boy?’
The gender switch is meant to tip us off to something; things are going to turn out differently in this story. Indeed, Isaac is saved by none other than the angel of the Lord. That’s how the story should end. But in the topsy turvy world of Judges, it’s not how it ends. No such salvation is offered to Jephthah’s daughter whose slaughter is curtly narrated in only five Hebrew words, ‘and he did to her his vow which he had vowed.’ There is something very wrong with this world.
When you look at the fathers, it quickly becomes clear what is wrong with the world. Abraham is being tested by God, following his command (Gen 22:1-2) If he has faith that God will provide a sacrificial lamb (22:8), it is entirely warranted from what he knows of God’s character.
Jephthah on the other hand, makes a vow to God that he will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he gets home if God gives him victory over the Ammonites (Judges 11:30-31). There are several things that are troubling about this. First, the vow is completely unnecessary. The Spirit of God is already resting on Jephthah (Judges 11:29). In other words, he has assurance of victory. Second, the vow describes human sacrifice. Various attempts have been made over the years to make Jephthah sound like he was expecting a chicken or sheep to come out of his house first, not a human being. However, it was traditional for women to come out to meet victorious warriors singing and dancing, and the word Jephthah uses is that verb. He knew what he was doing. Thirdly, this vow is the kind that pagan people made to their pagan gods. It’s human sacrifice, meant to cajole a god into giving them what they want.
Far from being warranted by God’s character, Jephthah’s vow (and the subsequent carrying out of it) treats God like one of the pagan gods. It shows corrupted Jephthah’s view of him is. A wrong view of God leads Jephthah to vow a horrific vow and then commit an atrocious act. It creates a world that is not just topsy turvy, but almost dystopian.
Indeed, throughout the book of Judges, the way women are treated is a manifestation of the people’s unfaithfulness to God. Each generation does evil in God’s eyes, is given into the hands of oppressors, and when they cry out to God and return to him, he raises up a judge who rescues them. But each generation is a little bit worse than the last, and over the book of Judges, things deteriorate significantly for women. Heroines like Deborah and Jael appear at the start of the book (Judges 4), but by the end, women are little more than pieces of meat to be traded (see the story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19, and wives for the Benjaminites in Judges 20-21.)
What does this story arc tell us about the God of the Bible? It tells us that if we think he is OK with cruelty to women, we have drastically misunderstood him, as Jephthah did and as the Israelites in the time of Judges did. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is deplorable, and it plays out how it does because Jephthah’s picture of God is so warped. This is not our God.
Our God is the God of Abraham and Isaac, the God who gives freely out of his own grace, not because he’s forced to by some vow. It’s in Jesus that we see Isaac’s story find its greatest meaning, as God himself steps in to be the sacrifice. But its also in Jesus that we find the answer to Jephthah’s daughter, because we see how wrong her story is, for it’s only in the upside down version that anyone could think of God as one who gleefully takes or demands life. After all, Jesus not only saw the woman with the stones aimed at her, but turned away her attackers and raised her up to a new life. Our God is a saving God, and it's in knowing him rightly that we learn to be outraged by violence against women, and to pursue their wholeness. Tamie hails from Adelaide and lives inTanzania with her husband and son. In partnership with CMS Australia,they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). Read more from Tamie on her blog