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THE PROBLEMATIC ABSENCE OF YHWH IN JUDGES 11:29–40

Meredith Brown

“We sacrifice this girl in the theatre of war For the Lord your God is a jealous God We sacrifice this girl because she danced at the wrong moment Her filthiness was in her skirts We sacrifice this girl because she asked for it. For all his ways are justice.1

Exegetical writing surrounding the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11 is both wide and deep. From rabbinic midrash to feminist academia to the ponderings of internet bloggers, the story has inspired multitudes of men and women to tackle some pressing questions that arise from its reading. Much of the scholarship revolves around more technical, historical questions: did Jephthah actually kill

Meredith Brown is a Religious Studies Major at Alma College. Several pieces of her writing have appeared in school publications, such as See Spot Run, the Almanian, and the Pine River Anthology. She volunteers with the elderly population and at the Pine River Correctional Facility as a poetry workshop leader, and she hopes to go on to graduate school for an M.F.A in Creative Writing.

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his daughter, or is it to be taken metaphorically 2 ; what did Jephthah’s daughter and her female companions do during their two months in the mountains? 3

While these questions certainly do merit honest questioning, the presence (or really, the absence) of YHWH in the text is a much more theologically challenging and complex issue. God is present to send his spirit upon Jephthah, and to deliver the Ammonites into Jephthah’s hands, but then mysteriously disappears from the text. After YHWH’s disappearance, a horrific murder is committed in his name, and to his glory. What does God’s absence in the story indicate? One might wonder why an omniscient God would allow, and aid, Jephthah’s defeat of the Ammonites when could foresee that the fulfillment of Jephthah’s vow would mean the death of an innocent woman. YHWH does not stop Jephthah in any manner: not through direct communication, not through his daughter, and not even through the counsel of a person of authority. Does this mean that Jehovah accepts and desires human sacrifice? Another important aspect to question in this passage is the relationship between YHWH, Jepthah, and Jepthah’s daughter, in all possible pairings. By exploring some of these issues, it might be possible to state whose hands are ultimately stained by the blood of Jepthah’s daughter, and what the story is meant to teach those who read it. Is the story, as Barbara Miller tentatively suggests, written to show “that God is not involved in the minute events of human life or is it that humans are responsible for the consequences of their own actions?” 4 Is the story, as David Janzen suggests, a more or less natural happening in the context of the whole book of Judges, given that the Israelites had mixed with people of other religious backgrounds, 5 and therefore not so tragic or extraordinary as a modern audience might think? A solid grounding in literary, historical and social context will aid in the exploration of these possibilities.

The Context of Judges 11

The book of Judges, as a literary genre, is a book of history. It is not an objective account of historical occurrences, however, but

rather a historical account filtered through a series of very thick theological lenses. As Hebrew and Old Testament professor James

Martin points out, “[T]he books of the Old Testament are

written

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from a particular point of view, namely that all history is controlled and guided by God.” 6 This perspective on history is clear through the cycle Israel and God participate in throughout the book of Judges, which is summarized by J. Clinton McCann as follows:

1. The people do “evil” by worshiping Baal and other

gods;

2. God is angry at the people’s faithlessness and allows them to be oppressed by their enemies;

3. God raises up a judge/deliverer in response to the

people’s crying out for help

relieved, and there is stability as long as the judge

The oppression is

lives.

4. The judge dies; the people turn again to idolatry and

disobedience; and the cycle begins again. 7

It is important to keep in mind that the writers/editors of this book are clearly males, and therefore are writing from a male understanding of the relationship between YHWH and his creation. 8 It is also important to understand that the biblical narratives found in Judges have been passed down orally through generations of people (at least 400 years) 9 before being recorded on paper. As a consequence, these stories were “continually adapted to different audiences over time,” and so people sharing the narratives might add or subtract parts of the original story to maintain their own understanding, or to bring out certain themes of the tale. 10

One of the most pertinent questions to ask when we look at the story of Jephthah’s daughter, then, is where in the cycle of apostasy/forgiveness the story lies. By Judges 11:29, Jephthah has clearly become a judge (or leader) of the Israelites against their oppressors, the Ammonites. Indeed, the spirit of the LORD was upon him before he enters in to the battle against the Ammonites, a phrase used in Judges to signify “God’s power or inspiration that comes upon an individual and enables one to exhibit great courage or wisdom.” 11 Presumably, then, YHWH is intimately involved with Jephthah, and even if he did disapprove of the vow made by Jephthah before the battle began, he still allowed Jephthah to dominate his enemies, for Jephthah, “[I]nflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood

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of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim” (Judges 11:33). Furthermore, after the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:39, Jephthah goes on to be the judge of Israel for six years (Judges 12:7). This may indicate that Jephthah was not to be remembered as a great judge, as other judges were said to have ruled “forty years” after establishing peace, but nevertheless in the biblical text he was not taken down from his position nor explicitly punished for the murder. He is allowed to die a natural death, in contrast to the early unnatural death of his innocent daughter. In fact, no mention of the murder is made again in the book of Judges, or in the text of the greater Bible. It is almost as if it never happened.

Another question that is entrenched in the historical context of the book of Judges follows after this background information. Did YHWH ask for/accept human sacrifice? It is very clear that He did not. In the book of Leviticus, rules for correct animal sacrifice are spelled out, but human sacrifice is forbidden. 12 As Janzen writes, “Sacrifice, even sacrifice to YHWH rightly performed, is not what is most essential in Dtr. More important is understanding and doing the command of YHWH, and the question of child sacrifice is hardly a borderline issue.” 13 Did Jephthah actually have this piece of crucial information, though? If he did not, then in some way, is the blood not equally on the hands of YHWH, and on the hands of the religious community that failed to inform him, as it is on Jephthah’s? The rabbinic midrash, an ancient source of Jewish commentary on scripture, may help in answering these questions.

Midrashic Commentary: Avert Your Eyes

The midrash is a beautiful and rich part of the Jewish tradition, but one should not come to it with the expectation of easy, clear answers to the questions of YHWH’s role in Judges 11. The rabbis studying the story of Jepthah’s daughter realized it might encourage a negative view of God’s own morality—that it might cast doubt on the goodness of their deity, who is supposed to be the essence of justice. So, as Shullamit Valler writes, they “[T]ried very hard to impute wickedness to Jephthah and thus foil any possibility of placing the Holy One, Blessed be He, in any connection with the terrible deed of offering up the daughter as a sacrifice.” 14 So instead of dealing with the hard

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questions posed by the story about God’s goodness, the midrash Genesis Rabbah and the Tanhuma instead spend a great deal of time attributing the wrongful murder of Jephthah’s daughter to three sins of Jephthah, and then in explaining the cause of each sin. The first sin Jephthah committed was the way he formulated the vow, which was caused by Jephthah not comprehending what faith truly meant (for if Jephthah had understood this, he would have known that there was no need to “bargain” with YHWH for the military victory). The second sin was Jephthah’s “intent to redeem the vow literally.” The source of this sin was Jephthah’s ignorance towards the Levitical laws of his people. Lastly, Jephthah sinned in going through with his vow, which the midrash attributed to his “lust for power and honor.” 15

A defense for Jepthah is not being made here. He clearly made a violent error in sacrificing his daughter, and should not be portrayed as a hero for any reason—the blood of his daughter without a doubt stains his hands in part. However, the midrashic writings that blame Jephthah entirely for the event are missing some of the complexities hiding in the text.

Firstly, the writers of the midrash ignore Jephthah’s past. He was not a typical judge—he was not “risen up” by the LORD like the others, but instead was coerced into leadership by desperate Gileadite men (Judges 11:5–10). He did not come from a household where he would have been educated in Jewish history and law; instead, he was the son of a prostitute, and was chased out of his home by his half brothers (Judges 11:2). Presumably he became homeless, and he is reported to have surrounded himself with outlaws and gone on raids (Judges 11:3). For these reasons Jephthah would have had no deep understanding of the history and law of the Jewish people. He would not have known what the “proper” way was to construct a vow. He would not have necessarily even understood what he was experiencing when the “spirit of the Lord” came upon him: perhaps he thought he had to respond to it in some way. He would not have known the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his only son, Isaac, nor the detailed sacrificial laws in Leviticus. Furthermore, he would not have known that there were means of absolving his vow unto the Lord as later wre spelled out in the Mishnah. 16

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Secondly, Jephthah had been living in a society that was highly mixed with that of the Ammonites. The Ammonites, as Judges describes to us, worshipped “the Baals and the Astartes, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines” (Judges 10:6). These deities allowed religious cults that accepted human sacrifice as a legitimate means to placating or winning favor from the gods. 17 Steeped in a foreign culture’s morality, Jephthah is therefore even further distanced from grasping Jewish sacrificial law.

And so the question arises: if Jephthah clearly had no means of knowing that YHWH did not want human sacrifice, why did YHWH not send some word of prohibition directly to him, through a vision or through the guidance of a priest or other figure of authority? The midrash suggests that such a figure was available to provide this guidance: the high priest Phinehas. The midrash explains that Phinehas was too proud to go to Jephthah, and that Jephthah was too stubborn to seek Phinehas out, however, and so no warning was conveyed. 18 Jephthah’s pride, to some extent, finished off his daughter. There were two entire months between Jephthah’s return from war and the actual sacrifice. The fact that Jephthah actually goes through with the murder can, in part, be attributed to the stubbornness a human who has made up his or her mind embodies. But the explanation of Phinehas and Jephthah’s pride (and therefore inaction) is still unsatisfactory. The sacrifice involves the life of an innocent woman; would it not be worth YHWH’s effort to inspire some other person to address Jephthah? The justice of God so far, as Miller writes, seems elusive at best. 19 Or even if YHWH could not do so, could the entire community of people around Jephthah and his daughter not say that they found it distressing? There is no mention of Jephthah’s wife, so we have no way of knowing if she existed, nor if she tried to say or do anything. The same thing goes with all of the women who accompanied Jephthah’s daughter in the mountains. Did they not try to convince her to flee, to plead for her life, to attempt to reason with YHWH or with her father? It appears, in both the biblical text and in the midrash, that no one said or did a thing.

But the midrash does not stop there. The midrash goes on to say that God himself “prepared [Jephthah’s] daughter for him” to punish Jephthah for his sins. 20 The suggestion that YHWH

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purposefully sent Jephthah’s daughter out to greet him is shocking, though unfortunately, not out of the question. What does the midrash say is the moral of the story, the lesson to be learned from this punishment? “The purpose of the punishment, then, is to teach others that vows involving human life cannot be redeemed save by a value in money.” 21 If this is the truth of the story, then God is playing a cruel joke on Jephthah. Just because Jephthah ought to have known better does not make the story okay. It is more than “tough love” or severe discipline for God to accept Jepthah’s vow, passively look on as Jephthah’s daughter comes out of the house to greet him, and then permit her murder. In essence, YHWH is acting as an accomplice in the wrongful sacrifice of a young woman. It is with this chilling idea that we leave the rabbinic midrash, and turn to the Christian tradition to see what they have made of God’s role in the text of Judges 11.

Christian Rewritings of Jephthah’s Daughter

The Christian tradition’s rewriting of Judges 11 is deeply affected by St. Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. This doctrine states that when Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden, they made the choice to rebel against the will of God and thus separated humankind from its original intended state of unity with God. This sin is passed down from humans generation to generation; everything is seen through the looking glass of “the Fall,” with humans taking full responsibility for their own decisions and actions while still having the guidelines of God’s law to live by. 22 This perspective is important to keep in mind as background information as we explore some of the Christian devotional writing about Jephthah’s daughter.

One of the earliest Christian rewritings of the story comes from the letters of the monk Peter Abelard to his beloved Héloise during the 13 th century. Abelard praises Jephthah’s daughter for her courage to allow her father to follow through with his vow, and presents her, “[N]ot merely a virgin who died to fulfill her father’s vow but a model for monastic women who devote their lives to God, a sacrifice likened by Abelard to dying.” 23 Abelard blames Jephthah, on the other hand, for the rash vow and considers Jephthah to be insane. Not once in any of his letters do we see any support or reproach of the role of YHWH.

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Once again, then, we see that as the blame is placed solely on the shoulders of Jephthah, the question of YHWH’s role in the story is conveniently forgotten.

Another example of Christian devotional work on Jephthah’s daughter can be found in the short story of 19 th century writer A.G. Bruinses. In this short story, Jephthah is portrayed as a noble, selfless hero, who was not foolish for making the vow to God, but instead was humble and observant of his inability to conquer the Ammonites alone. Jephthah’s daughter is described as heroic as well, on account of her honorable obedience. 24 With Bruinses, we finally have a writer who is going to take, straight on, one of the hardest questions that arises from the story: if God is not interested in human sacrifice, why did he not stop the murder? To this Bruinses responds, “He could indeed have done so, much as He can prevent every evil deed. But what would have

happened to human moral freedom?

What God ordains is always

right.” 25 Biblical scholar Cornelis Houtman explains that this mix of “religious nationalism, emphasis on human responsibility and submission to the will of the all-wise God” is exemplary of devotional writing during the enlightened Protestant period when Bruinses wrote. 26 While YHWH’s role in the story is, at least, somewhat accounted for, it is still extremely difficult to see things from Bruinses’ point of view:

if God has ordained a murder, that does not make it justified. As Houtman writes, “In [Christian authors’] thinking there is no room for criticism of God, only for reverence and the recognition that the ways of the Lord are mysterious and wonderful.” 27

Other examples of Christian devotional literature researched mainly compare the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter to the death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. This not only ignores the pain and pointless violence found in Judges 11, but also completely ignores the separate context experienced by Jephthah’s daughter and Jesus. A comparison of these two deaths is unfair. Jesus’ death, at least in an orthodox Christian mindset, served a concrete purpose: salvation of the human race. The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, on the other hand, was an ignorant act of violence that neither helped nor saved a single person. Jesus came back from the dead, but Jephthah’s daughter stayed in the ground. Jesus lived in a time far different from the time of Judges 11. There was a centralized government (though it was Roman,

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not Jewish), a centralized Jewish belief system, as well as a commonly accepted written collection of sacred texts. None of these things were present during the time of Jephthah. 28 Having been frustrated by both the rabbinic midrash and Christian devotional rewriting, we now look to some feminist viewpoints for any answers they might provide.

Some Feminist Critiques

Feminist author Phyllis Trible is heralded for her pioneering book Texts of Terror, which addresses the stories of several women from the Old Testament who are, in some way, abused by the patriarchal system. One of the chapters in her book focuses on the daughter of Jephthah. Like Jewish midrash, Trible looks unfavorably on the figure of Jephthah, and remarks with frustration that, “Throughout centuries patriarchal hermeneutics has forgotten the daughter of Jephthah but remembered her father, indeed exalted him.” 29 Trible endeavors to show that the focus of Judges 11 needs to be moved to the character of Jephthah’s daughter. She comments on the absence of God from the text, but as her main goal is to show how, “From beginning to end, this faithless and foolish vow has been the subject,” 30 she fails to address the problem of God’s role in the narrative.

Another feminist writer who tackles the text of Judges 11 is Esther Fuchs. She is interested in the ambiguity present in the narrative, and argues that the multiple silences and the lack of detail present in the text are intentional. She suggests that their purpose is to distract the reader from feeling sympathy for the daughter of Jephthah. 31 She writes, “Had Jephthah’s daughter been shown to ask for pity, had she asked to be spared, had she turned to Yahweh with a plea for mercy, the narrative would have tipped the scales too much in her favor, so much so that Jephthah’s refusal to grant her freedom would have cast both him and Yahweh in a questionable role.” 32 Though the main point of Fuchs’ article deals with the literary components of Judges 11 and shows how Jephthah’s daughter is ignored, this quote finally starts to uncover something missing in the text, namely, that there is no mention of what goes on between YHWH and the daughter of Jephthah. In fact, there’s hardly any mention of God whatsoever, and this must be an intentional move by the writer of Judges to distract us from the complexities underneath the surface of the passage. As Miller points

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out, “[T]he most active engagement the LORD has in the narrative is to be the conveyor of the spirit,” 33 making it extremely easy to forget that God altogether.

Personal Interpretation of God’s Absence

God’s absence in the text cannot mean that he approved of Jephthah’s vow, or the killing of an innocent woman—that would be too contradictory to the explicit laws laid out in scripture, as well as to the story of Abraham and Isaac. The writer’s intention was to make us forget about God’s potential role in the story altogether. As Barbara Miller writes, “It appears that the narrator removes the LORD from the scene to enhance the human tragedy that follows.” 34 The narrator’s intention in the story does not explain the narrative’s entire significance, however. We must delve deeper. When we do explore God’s absence, we have two possible meanings to choose from. The story could signify that He was incapable of stopping the act, or that He was not willing to. If He was incapable, then we can excuse Him, and choose to focus on the idiotic words and actions of Jephthah as so many have before us (even though they did not, perhaps, consciously buy in to the idea that God was not omnipotent). We can lament the fact that Jephthah was not better versed in Jewish law and history, and that no one chose to stand up to him—not even his daughter—and then we can leave the story alone. It makes the most sense, however, to believe that the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter occurred because YHWH was unwilling to stop it. It is a painfully realistic perspective, given how YHWH is described in the rest of the book of Judges: an all-powerful God who punishes His people harshly when they do wrong, and yet also frequently acts on their behalf in national/political conflicts. Why should he be incapable of intervening in a smaller setting? He shouldn’t be. Did YHWH allow the sacrifice to teach Jephthah a lesson, or to punish him, as the midrash suggests, then? We cannot know the answer for sure, but logical reasoning follows that if God punishes his people collectively throughout the book of Judges, he would also punish them individually. This is upsetting. It paints a picture of a God who many might now walk away from. Nevertheless, perhaps for reasons unknown to the reader and perhaps even to the writer of the text, YHWH refuses to get actively involved in protecting Jepthah’s daughter.

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Conclusion

The multitude of questions that flood a reader’s mind upon exploring the text of Judges 11 are not easy to answer. They are challenging, painful, upsetting. They can rock our understanding of who God is, and how He interacts with creation. They must be examined carefully. Who is to take the blame in this “text of terror?” The blood of Jephthah’s daughter stains not only on the hands of Jephthah, but also the multiple hands of the religious community who did nothing to stop him. And yes, even on the hands of YHWH, Blessed Be He, the God to whom she was sacrificed.

Notes

1 Alicia Ostriker, “Jephthah’s Daughter: A Lament,” in On the Cutting Edge:

The Study of Women in Biblical Worlds, eds. Jane Schaberg, Alice Bach and Esther Fuchs (New York: Continuum 2003), 247.

2 See David Marcus, Jephthah and His Vow (Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1986), 50–55, for the summary of his thesis that that the narrative of the death of Jepthah’s daughter should be read as a metaphor.

3 See Peggy L. Day, “From the Child is Born the Woman: The Story of Jephthah’s Daughter,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, ed. Peggy L. Day (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 58–74, for an extremely interesting comparison of Greek goddess’ festivals and Jephthah’s daughter’s time in the mountains with her female companions.

4 Barbara Miller, Tell It on the Mountain: The Daughter of Jephthah in Judges 11, Interfaces (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2005), 18.

5 David Janzen, “Why the Deuteronomist told about the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29, no. 3 (2005): 340.

6 James D. Martin, The Book of Judges, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 1.

7 J. Clinton McCann, Judges, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002), 9–10. Though there is no room in this paper to delve deep into the issue, the idea of YHWH oppressing his own people as a form of re-education/punishment is, in itself, extremely disturbing and morally problematic.

8 See Adrien Janis Bledstein, “Is Judges a Woman’s Satire on Men who Play God?” in The Feminist Companion to Judges, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield:

Sheffield Academic Press, 1993) 34–54, for an extremely interesting, different look at the authorship of Judges.

9 Miller, Tell It on the Mountain, 2. 10 Ibid., 14. 11 Ibid., 3. 12 Ibid., 6. See Leviticus 18:21; 20:2–5, Genesis 22 (the story of Abraham and Isaac); Jeremiah 32:25

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13 Janzen, 345. 14 Shulamit Valler, “The Story of Jephthah’s Daughter in the Midrash,” in Judges: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, Second Series, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 49. 15 Ibid., 57. 16 Ibid., 56. 17 Implied in Janzen, 341. 18 Valler, “The Story of Jephthah’s Daughter in the Midrash,” 57. 19 Miller,Tell It on the Mountain, 98. 20 Valler, “The Story of Jephthah’s Daughter in the Midrash,” 54. 21 Ibid., 54. 22 William E. Mann, “Augustine on evil and original sin” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, eds. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzman, Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press 2001, 40–48. 23 Elisheva Baumgarten, “’Remember that glorious girl’: Jephthah’s Daughter in Medieval Jewish Culture,” Jewish Quarterly Review 97, no. 2 (Spring 2007), 187. 24 Cornelis Houtman, “Rewriting a dramatic Old Testament story: the story of Jephthah and his daughter in some examples of Christian devotional literature,” Biblical Interpretation 13, no. 2 (2005): 171. 25 Bruinses, as qtd. in Houtman, 174. 26 Ibid., 175. 27 Ibid., 189. 28 See K. Lawson Younger Jr., Judges and Ruth, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 267–270, for an example of such devotional writing. 29 Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 107. 30 Ibid., 106. 31 Esther Fuchs, “Marginalization, Ambiguity, Silencing: The Story of Jephthah’s Daughter,” in A Feminist Companion to Judges, 116–130. 32 Ibid., 126, emphasis mine. 33 Miller, Tell It on the Mountain, 21. 34 Ibid.

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