Saturday, 14 June 2008

Jeptha's Vow

Several weeks ago I was in Bournemouth and visited the eccentric, even bizarre, Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. Among the mostly ordinary works of art was a painting by Edwin Longsden Long recounting the story of Jeptha’s daughter.

Yesterday I read this story as part of the lectionary and it’s really got under my skin. Jeptha makes a vow to God, that if the Ammonites be given into his hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of his house to meet him when he returns victorious shall be the LORD’s, offered up as a burnt offering. And who should come out of the door upon his return but his daughter. Jeptha follows through his vow, giving his daughter two months grace to wander on the mountains bewailing her virginity.

This story is abhorrent. I know that there is a huge historical and cultural gap between then and now. I know that it was a primitive world in which this sort of practice was common. However, human sacrifice was never common practice for God’s people, and expressly forbidden. And what I find particularly challenging is that Jeptha is included as one of the heroes of faith in Heb. 11.

One has to say that on two previous occasions Jeptha opened his mouth with great effect. But the best that I can manage on this occasion is that he was struck with a bad attack of automatic mouth, and that though some may commend him for honouring his word to God, he is to be roundly condemned for what he did. He did the wrong thing arguably for the right reason but it was still wrong, very wrong. However, thankfully, the scriptures tell it as it is.

But then just to make it really interesting there is his daughter’s resignation and acceptance of the situation.

Ron Rolheiser, a writer I appreciate enormously, brings a creative approach. ‘There’s a rather nasty patriarchal character to this story (such were the times) and, of course, we are right to abhor the very idea of human sacrifice, but this particular story is not historical and is not meant literally. It’s archetype, metaphor, a poetry of the soul within which death and virginity are not meant in their literal sense. It’s meant to teach a profound truth, namely, all of us, no matter age or state in life, must, at some point, mourn what’s incomplete and not consummated in our lives.

We are all Jepthah’s daughters. In the end, like her, we all die virgins, having lived incomplete lives, not having achieved the intimacy we craved, and having yearned to create a lot more things than we were able to birth. In this life, nobody gets the full symphony. There’s a place inside us where we all bewail our virginity, and this is true too of married people, just as it is of celibates. At some deep level, this side of eternity, we all sleep alone. We need to mourn this, whatever form that might take.’

All very fascinating!


Catriona said...

Certainly very fascinating, especially as it comes from someone who has made/accepted a vow of celibacy and so to some degree speaks from 'inside' the story.

To be free lament/mourn our unfulfilled potential or broken dreams seems a 'good message' to take from a 'bad story'

I have used this passage in two ways in the past...

Once with an adults only congregation on the evening of 'Mothers Day' as a way into thinking about those for whom this is not a day to 'celebrate.'

Once as a way in to exploring questions about 'what do we do with the bits in the Bible we don't like' - ignore, rationalise or engage & struggle with?

I don't like it as a story, and I do wonder, with the feminist writers, why Isaac got a ram substitute and she didn't!

I'm not sure making it a parable (even if that's right, and I wouldn't have a clue) is enough, since the unfulfilled potential still comes down to someone else's foolish promise to God.

If I didn't have work to do it would be fascinating to ponder this a whole lot more!

Sarah said...

I went to that museum when I was adjudicating in Bournemouth. I found the building fascinating, and loved its position!

Sammy said...

That is a pretty weak interpretation of the Jeptha story. Fundamentalists always want to claim that every word of the Bible is true and to be taken at face value. When a story like this pops up it is suddenly just a parable but the six day creation is absolutely true and so is the fact that Jehovah hates homosexuality.

I would like to remind the fundamentalists and their kind that God shows himself as a mass murdering blood thirsty maniac several times in the bible. Let us not forget that the Bible tells us that God murdered all of humanity exept Noah and his wife in the great flood. God also murdered the first born sons of the Egyptians during Moses' day. Could he not just as easily killed the Pharoh or simply with his omnipotent will delivered his people from slavery instead of killing innocent children?

Kelsey Budd said...

There is actually some excellent teaching on Jephthah if you know where to look. At Plumbline Ministries, under the 7 curses series, there is an excellent teaching on God's favor, and how people do things, things they think will buy God's favor, and give them the payoff that He already wanted to give them, but they trust in their sacrifice and foolishly spoken vows to buy that favor, because of the wounds they suffered earlier in their lives. This is a book of broken people, exercising faith, even though they're so messed up...that's the Bible, it's not about heroes of perfection, but rather broken pots who sometimes could walk in the glory of God by faith.

Anonymous said...

Sammy, put God on trial if you want, but God never killed any person. Also, you take Pharaoh over God, and the Jews took Barnabas over Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Sammy I have to say that you may have the most bold statement. If I understand it right however, I don't think that the position you hold is Godly, but proud and evil. Please understand that I do not say this just for the sake of saying it. I absolutely agree that it was God's decree that the whole world should perish in the flood except for eight people and that He Himself sent the waters that destroyed all of civilazation! I absolutely agree that it was God who killed the countless Egyptian firstborns! Yet HE was JUST! HOW dare you call God a bloodthirsty maniac?! Sir I beg you do not do this thing to blaspheme the name of GOD. Do you not know that God has created all things and as a result owns all things, your life and my life, and it is His inherent right to both give and take away? Brother I say to you to say rather as Job said after God, to whom all glory is due, destroyed his children and house and all that he knew and seeing it, Job indeed said, "The LORD gives, the LORD takes away, blessed be the name of the LORD!"

Sir reading your comment there is a chance that we agree concerning many things, and I apologize if I have misunderstood you. I so appreciate that you have stated that as God says, He hates homosexuality and that you are not afraid to bear up the complete weight of the truth of Scripture, that truly "every word is tested."

May the GOD who created the heavens and the earth be glorified!
Oh even in this story that has so much controversy, whatever the fate of this girl was, may the name of the JUST GOD be exalted.
Woe to those of you who try to clean up after GOD! Do you think that He is in need of men's righteousness? Are you more holy than He? For the LORD has done it, let us fear Him. With the help of His Holy Spirit, let us discern the WORD of GOD! May GOD have mercy on me a sinner.

Let His name be exalted. Amen

Ralph said...

Did Jephthah have in mind human sacrifice when he vowed to present as a burnt offering the first one coming out of his house?
Some critics and scholars have condemned Jephthah for his vow, having the view that Jephthah followed the practice of other nations, offering up his daughter by fire as a human burnt offering. But this is not the case. It would be an insult to Jehovah, a disgusting thing in violation of his law, to make a literal human sacrifice. He strictly commanded Israel: “You must not learn to do according to the detestable things of those nations. There should not be found in you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire . . . For everybody doing these things is something detestable to Jehovah, and on account of these detestable things Jehovah your God is driving them away from before you.” (De 18:9-12) Jehovah would curse, not bless, such a person. The very ones Jephthah was fighting, the Ammonites, practiced human sacrifice to their god Molech.—Compare 2Ki 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; Jer 7:31, 32; 19:5, 6.
When Jephthah said: “It must also occur that the one coming out, who comes out of the doors of my house to meet me . . . must also become Jehovah’s,” he had reference to a person and not an animal, since animals suitable for sacrifice were not likely kept in Israelite homes, to have free run there. Besides, the offering of an animal would not show extraordinary devotion to God. Jephthah knew that it might well be his daughter who would come out to meet him. It must be borne in mind that Jehovah’s spirit was on Jephthah at the time; this would prevent any rash vow on Jephthah’s part. How, then, would the person coming out to meet Jephthah to congratulate him on his victory “become Jehovah’s” and be offered up “as a burnt offering”?—Jg 11:31.
Persons could be devoted to Jehovah’s exclusive service in connection with the sanctuary. It was a right that parents could exercise. Samuel was one such person, promised to tabernacle service by a vow of his mother Hannah before his birth. This vow was approved by her husband Elkanah. As soon as Samuel was weaned, Hannah offered him at the sanctuary. Along with him, Hannah brought an animal sacrifice. (1Sa 1:11, 22-28; 2:11) Samson was another child specially devoted to God’s service as a Nazirite.—Jg 13:2-5, 11-14; compare the father’s authority over a daughter as outlined in Nu 30:3-5, 16.

Ralph said...

When Jephthah brought his daughter to the sanctuary, which was in Shiloh at that time, he undoubtedly accompanied his presentation of her with an animal burnt offering. According to the Law, a burnt offering was slaughtered, skinned, and cut up; the intestines and shanks were washed; and its body, head and all, was burned on the altar. (Le 1:3-9) The wholeness of such offering represented full, unqualified, wholehearted dedication to Jehovah, and when it accompanied another offering (as, for example, when the burnt offering followed the sin offering on the Day of Atonement), it constituted an appeal to Jehovah to accept that other offering.—Le 16:3, 5, 6, 11, 15, 24.
It was a real sacrifice on the part of both Jephthah and his daughter, for he had no other child. (Jg 11:34) Therefore no descendant of his would carry on his name and his inheritance in Israel. Jephthah’s daughter was his only hope for this. She wept, not over her death, but over her “virginity,” for it was the desire of every Israelite man and woman to have children and to keep the family name and inheritance alive. (Jg 11:37, 38) Barrenness was a calamity. But Jephthah’s daughter “never had relations with a man.” Had these words applied only to the time prior to the carrying out of the vow, they would have been superfluous, for she is specifically said to have been a virgin. That the statement has reference to the fulfilling of the vow is shown in that it follows the expression, “He carried out his vow that he had made toward her.” Actually, the record is pointing out that also after the vow was carried out she maintained her virginity.—Jg 11:39; compare renderings in KJ; Dy; Yg; NW.
Moreover, Jephthah’s daughter was visited “from year to year” by her companions to ‘give her commendation.’ (Jg 11:40) The Hebrew word ta·nah′, used here, also occurs at Judges 5:11, and in that text is variously rendered “recount” (NW), “rehearse” (KJ), “recounted” (AT), “repeat” (RS). The word is defined in A Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (edited by B. Davies, 1957, p. 693) as “to repeat, to rehearse.” At Judges 11:40 the King James Version renders the term “lament,” but the margin reads “talk with.” As Jephthah’s daughter served at the sanctuary, doubtless like other Nethinim (“Given Ones” devoted to sanctuary service), there was much she could do. These persons served in gathering wood, drawing water, doing repair work, and undoubtedly performing many other tasks as assistants to the priests and Levites there.—Jos 9:21, 23, 27; Ezr 7:24; 8:20; Ne 3:26.

heidi Cuda said...

The story of Jeptha and his daughter is not an allegory, but historical truth. However, Jeptha did not burn his daughter; she was redeemed by the sacrifice of an animal, as all first born humans were redeemed in Israel at that time. On the mountain she bewailed her virginity; does it not occur to some of you outraged people, that if she were about to be burned to death, that her virginity would be the last thing she would bewail? Dig deeper and the answers you get always exhonerates our Creator.
PS: God threw the Canaanites out of their land and gave it to Israel because of the immorailty and the violence that was going on there. One of the misdeeds of the Canaanites was to offer their children up to a pagan god as a burnt sacrifice. God would hardly have welcomed Jephthas vow if it had meant that Jeptha's daughter were to be offered up in sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I am out of line here being an agnostic but from my knowledge of theology, in Christianity the New Testament totally abrogates the OT.
We only retain the OT as it was the book of Jesus of Nazareth.
So IMHO any "Christian" who quotes from the OT a justification for any act is not, by definition, a Christian.

The OT God was a quite bloodthirsty & nasty one if you read it thoroughly. He was vindictive & he was arrogant and in fact he and Allah are worthy bedmates (metaphorically).

So, this being the case, we are really pushing belief to actually see him being merciful and you can make all the allegorical or symbolic or metaphorical allusions that you like but I totally doubt that Iphis survived no matter how much I like a happy ending.

khallela said...

I agree with sammy and anonymous. It is said that the same "merciful" and "kind God you seak of did kill all those people. And in a way he is blood thirsty. oh and you don't have any right to say that they are not entitled to their opinion.

khallela said...

Nico can you stop preeching?

Brendan said...

I think Sammy has a fair point to make - albeit that the expression of the point was strongly put.
Firstly; here we have the LORD ultimately displaying His/Her power by deciding who should live or die at His/Her 'hand' or by the hand of others .Which may be fine if you are in GOD's favour and not so good if your not.
(I use both gender pronouns mainly due to theological evidence of GOD also being described in feminine terms within scripture, and to 'steer' the debate away from a possible 'gender' issue per se).
Secondly; Here we have a problem, because the Old Testement is littered with instances where lives are lost - for whatever reason - in GOD's name.(I don't think that this is unique to the Old Testement, because we have instances of GOD's wrath in the New Testement also - where people have been fatally punished).The problem could derive from our own presupositions of GOD, i.e.this may or may not have something to do with a Bronze Age, or a post-modern sociological perception of society, etc, etc. This may or may not be more to do with what we want GOD to be like,or what we want out of our relationship with GOD(?).
I'm positive that scholars are debating these issue as we ourselves blog.
Finally, the problem remains and will remain indefinately. The passage is not meant to be a parable or an allegory.
Scripture should be allowed to 'speak for itself' without our presupositions impressed upon it unecessarily.
The bottom line may inevitably result in, "Can you accept GOD in every facet of His/Her being?" We seek ultimate acceptance from GOD ourselves - in every dark or twisted desire that we own, within our collective or individual psyche - perhaps we should begin to consider the evidence that GOD has presented to us, that He/She is a "Jealous GOD", and that there will be the potentiality of discrimination thereof.
At least this is an honest disclosure, which should allow us to choose whether to accept the LORD or not.Are we that honest?

dominic said...

Mr.Sammy,d wisdom of God is beyond human comprehension. God spared Isaac and this case too God did not spare Jephta's daughter. Abraham neva promised God to sacrifice Isaac but God instructed him to test his faith. Also jephta made a vow to God and fulfilled it,bcos God granted his wish n also looked at his heart of not being cunning. Mr.Sammy on not account should u question the will of God. Man is to respect God and not God should respect man. Pls be guided n be thankful for is more merciful than man.

corvac said...

Agnostic, Christ appears throughout time, inclusive of OT writings. I haven't the time to post every instance. However a simple internet search of "Christ in the OT" will serve you well.

Travis Horine said...

First of all, God has the right as our Creator to destroy any one of us. I don't think the term 'murder' can be applied to God. Even a human mother or father that 'murders' his children can't claim that they created the child from nothing the way God created Adam. That said, it doesn't make a lot of sense for God to destroy something He Created out of anything akin to 'blood lust'. God is perfect remember, His work is perfect too and should exist forever. What is NOT perfect is what man does with God's creation. Man was created with freewill and that freewill was designed by God to operate in unison with God's perfect will. Ever since the first sin Man has been misusing his freewill to do other than what God intended it for. Freewill is God's greatest creation and Man has it much more so than any other creature. When men choose to misuse it, God gives grace, but when men do not respond to grace, the only thing left is God's wrath and that is why so many were lost in the flood.

Anonymous said...

Classic apologetics. The Bible is literal and the moment we don't like what it says it becomes interpreted as a metaphor. How do we or should we take scripture seriously? Given the brutality of the commands of God, is there really any reason to disbelieve that this was possible or even probable?

It was this story more than any other that converted me into an atheist. I was a regular church going Christian until I took the time to actually read the Bible.