18 August 2011

"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." (v. 35)


The book of Judges reads more like legend than narrative history; many of its stories have the character of aetiology (a tale that explains how something we can now observe came to be), and this famously troubling story is one of these. At the end of the story in verse 40 we see that it is the legend that underlies a practice that Israelite woman apparently had, of going out into the mountains to bewail the death of the young virgin who was Jephthah's daughter. This observation (ritual women-only rites in the mountains) and the story itself are much closer to Greek religion and mythology than most other biblical narratives.

Jephthah's unwise vow after his victories results in the unintended consequence of sacrificing his beloved and only daughter, who was only the first to greet him at his homecoming precisely because he had been victorious in battle. This has the inevitable feel of tragedy, rather like the story of Oedipus; and there are also echoes of Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia at the start of the Trojan wars. But although the reader is encouraged to feel the poignancy of the coincidence, the horror of sacrificing an only child, and the noble altruism and piety of the young woman herself, there is nothing here to criticise some of the basic assumptions of the characters in the story.

Jephthah clearly intended to commit human sacrifice of some kind (verse 31); he no doubt thought a slave would greet him - was this not a wicked intent? Should not such an evil vow be forsworn in any case? Yet no-one in the story challenges the stubborn belief that a vow to the Lord must be kept; they simply mourn the fact that the child went to her death unmarried.

The story is in very marked contrast to that of Abraham, who believed that he was called to sacrifice his only son Isaac, and set forth to do so (Genesis 22). But this story ends in the angel of the Lord deflecting the sacrificial knife; it has become the archetypal story about the testing of faith, but also of a new awareness of the God of Israel as one who abominates child sacrifice.

To Ponder

Have you ever come to the conclusion that a vow you have made is doing more harm than good? What did you do about this insight?

What are the ways in which the lives or wellbeing of children are sometimes sacrificed today in the interests of other things which adults consider to be more important?

Bible notes author: Janet Morley

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