The story of Jephthah’s daughter has been on my heart for the last several years. I have thought about it often and wondered what this story can teach us. This story, which is told in Judges 11, is about Jephthah, a commander in the Israelite army, and his unnamed daughter. Before a battle with the Ammonites, Jephthah makes a vow to God. He says, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31). He won the battle against the Ammonites, and when he returns home, Jephthah’s daughter is the first to meet him at the door playing the trembles and dancing. Jephthah is distraught and tears his clothes saying, “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” (11: 35). Jephthah’s daughter, his only child, replies by saying, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I” (Judges 11: 36). Jephthah grants his daughter’s last request. After the two months, Jephthah kept his vow. Every year following this, Israelite women would spend four days away from men lamenting Jephthah’s daughter.
This is a horrific story; a story of filicide in the name of God. Whenever I read this story I am dismayed. I wonder, is this really the whole story? I find myself asking lots of questions.
Why did Jephthah make the vow in the first place? Why didn’t he just trust God? Did Jephthah’s daughter know about the vow? If she did why did she come out first? Wouldn’t Jephthah know his daughter and think that she might be the first to greet him? Why does Jephthah keep this promise? Why does Jephthah’s daughter not fight back? What did Jephthah’s daughter and her companions do for two months in the mountains? How did she grieve? Why do women spend four days a year lamenting Jephthah’s daughter? What did these four days mean to the women honoring them? How did they lament? There are so many more questions we could ask.
Even though there are many questions and many ways to look at this story I keep returning to one particular aspect: the interaction between Jephthah and his daughter when he first returns. When Jephthah arrives at his home and his daughter is the first to come out and greet him, Jephthah says, “You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me” (11:35). Even though Jephthah is the one who made the vow, he blames his daughter: “you have brought me low; you have become great trouble for me.” This is a story of scapegoating.[i]
Even though Jephthah does name that he made the vow, he does not take responsibility for it (11: 35). Jephthah does not admit that he did not trust God and as a result made the vow; instead he puts the responsibility on his daughter for being the first to come and greet him with joy. When Jephthah sees his daughter coming to greet him, I want him to say, “Oh my daughter, I have made a mistake. I did not trust God so I made a foolish vow. I am sorry.” But this is not what Jephthah says. He does not take responsibility for his part in the death of his daughter.
When I read this story and think about Jephthah’s scapegoating of his daughter I become angry at Jephthah. But then I realize that all of us, at times, want to blame others for our mistakes, particularly when first faced with them. So often when our mistakes are manifested we become defensive. We can easily see other people’s part in the current problem, but it can be harder to see our own role. If we accept our mistakes it can affect the image we hold of ourselves. Our pride can be hurt and the uncomfortable feeling of shame can ensue. Instead it is emotionally easier for us to blame others for our mistakes.
Reading this story I also find myself wondering why Jephthah’s daughter did not fight back. Why didn’t she resist this injustice done to her? When I have been scapegoated or blamed for something that I didn’t do I initially want to lash back and set the story straight. I want to stand up and say, “No! This is not right!” Reading the story of Jephthah’s daughter, I don’t understand why she didn’t fight back. Intellectually I understand that resisting at this time in history would have been extremely challenging, but I can’t help but think she surely could have done something.
Instead the story tells us that Jephthah’s daughter accepts her current situation. We don’t hear her trying to dissuade Jephthah. We don’t see her trying to hatch a plan to escape her father’s foolishness. We don’t even see her longing for an apology from her father. What she does instead is accept the consequences of being scapegoated on her own terms. She asks for two months with her friends wandering the mountains in grief: “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I” (11:36). Jephthah’s daughter requests that she have the last two months of her life with her friends and community. I image this time in the mountains as a time being surrounded by women she loves and trusts. A time for connection and being able to grieve honestly. I imagine that Jephthah’s daughter was wise enough to know that what she really needed was her community of trusted friends.
It is the image of Jephthah’s daughter and her friends roaming the mountainside that inspired this art quilt. Taking the two months with her friends and community is to me Jephthah’s daughter’s way of accepting the situation on her own terms. It is her and her friend’s courage to be a community of solidarity and support in the face of such awful treatment that gives me hope.
Queries for reflection
In what ways have you blamed others for your mistakes?
When you notice yourself scapegoating others, what unpalatable truths about yourself are you avoiding?
If you are scapegoated what do you need to heal? Jephthah’s daughter had her community of trusted friends. What is your real or metaphorical community of friends?
Judges 11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
29 Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” 32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33 He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “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.” 36 She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” 37 And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander[b] on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” 38 “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39 At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40 for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
[i] The term scapegoating comes from the tradition, described in Leviticus 16, where the collective sins of the Israeli people are put onto a goat who is then sent out into the wilderness to die to appease God. Jephthah’s sin of not trusting God is placed on his daughter who is given as a burnt offering to God.