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!