JEPHTAH'S DAUGHTER
 
THE STORY OF JEPHTAH'S DAUGHTER

The young woman in the story is nameless. People without a name seem less real, so leaving the girl without a name minimized the horror of Jephthah's act, and made him more acceptable as a hero of Israel.

Jephthah means ‘he opens’; the name may refer to Jephthah’s fatal habit of speaking without thinking  -  he opened his mouth to make the vow when it would have been better if he had remained silent.   

 

The Daughter on the Pyre, engraving by Barry Moser

 What the story is about:

The story of Jephtah’s daughter is an epic tragedy describing the flaw in an otherwise outstanding man, a flaw that leads inexorably to loss of the thing he most values.

It has two purposes:

  • to explain the origins of the annual festival that young Israelite women celebrated
  • to record events about the sacrifice of Jephtah’s daughter.

The story of Jephtah’s daughter contains two different episodes:

1 The vow of Jephtah, Judges 11:1-11, 29-33.
In return for victory in battle, Jephtah vowed to God that he would sacrifice the first thing he saw on his return home. In the early part of Israelite history, the leader of the clan had extraordinary powers, and under certain circumstances he had the power of life or death over members of his clan.

2  The consequences of the vow, Judges 11:34-40.
Jephtah won the battle and returned home. As he approached his house, his beloved only daughter ran out to meet him, which meant he had to sacrifice her to fulfill his promise. When she was told about the promise, she courageously accepted the fact that she must die. For two months before her death she went up into the mountains with her companions, where she lamented that she would never know married love, and never hold her children in her arms. She returned, and the vow was carried out.

THE VOW OF JEPHTAH
Judges 11:1-11, 29-33

Jephtah was a man from Giliad. His family background was not what it could have been – he was the illegitimate son of a prostitute. On two counts, therefore, he was a social outcast. The problem was made worse by his half-brothers, who ejected him from the family home. This meant he did not even have membership of the clan of his father.  
Read Judges 1:1-11

In ancient Israel, belonging to a family clan was essential, since it was a person's main protection from danger. In times of trouble, the members of a clan could usually be depended on to stand by each other. The clan also acted as an economic unit, providing the food, clothing and shelter a person needed to survive. When Jephtah's brothers ejected him from their clan, they were effectively giving him something close to a death sentence.

Jephtah, however, was not beaten. He may have been an outcast, but he had exceptional talents as a leader and a fighter. Other outcasts gathered round him, so that in time he became the leader of a sizable group of men who were also without a clan. They lived outside the law, robbing trade caravans and raiding the herds of more law-abiding people.     

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Reconstruction of an Altar for Burnt Offerings

When war broke out with the Ammonites, the leaders of Gilead went to Jephtah and his men and asked for help. They believed Jephtah had the skills to lead their army successfully against the Ammonites. Jephtah agreed to fight, because winning would make him a hero. It would wipe out the stain of his illegitimacy and give him full acceptance among the Israelites. It was this desire for acceptance that fueled his ambition, and under its influence he made a stupid and cruel vow.  

‘And Jephtah made a vow to the Lord, and said “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”.’

Read Judges 11:29-33  

In later times, the Israelites were horrified by the idea of human sacrifice and had strict teachings against it. However, it may have existed in the early period of Jewish history. Examples include the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jephtah’s daughter, and the king of Moab’s son in 2 Kings 3:27. Leviticus 20:2-5 has a stern injunction against child sacrifice. It may be that the death of Jephtah’s daughter resulted in the banning of this practice.  

THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE VOW
Judges 11:34-36

When Jephtah returned victorious from the battle, he was greeted by women singers who went out to welcome him. They were led by his daughter.   

Then Jephtah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing.’

This was a normal custom of the time, and Jephtah should have foreseen it. Women normally went out to greet returning military heroes with songs and poems. We know of this from other examples, including Miriam (Exodus 15:20) and the women who praised King David (1 Samuel 18:6). Deborah’s epic poem is an example of the type of song they sang.

When Jephtah saw his daughter and realized what he had done, he was distraught with grief, but immediately ‘blamed the victim’, reproaching his daughter for being the one whom he saw first, rather than blaming himself for the vow he had made.
‘She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 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”.
Blaming the victim is a common phenomenon in cases of domestic violence. Often too a woman who has been raped is blamed for 'bringing it on herself' or 'asking for it’.

When Jephtah’s daughter heard of her father’s vow, she responded with dignity and restrained anger. She accepted her fate, but on her own terms.  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”.’

Modern writers object to the daughter’s passive acceptance of her death, wishing she had objected to her father’s vow. But in the context of the times Jephtah had to sacrifice her, and she had to accept her fate. Her father made a promise on behalf of his people and he believed that God had accepted the promise, giving him victory in return. Now the promise had to be honored despite the terrible cost, and the daughter knew this too and accepted it.  

But here's a thought: is it possible she knew in advance about her father's vow, and deliberately come out of the house first, thus bringing the vow onto herself rather than on someone whom her father considered expendable, for example a servant? Could the girl have taken the place intended for someone else in order to show her father the terrible injustice of his action?

The daughter’s real reaction to her fate is shown by what she did, not what she said. ‘And she said to her father “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”.’ She preferred to spend the last days of her life with her friends, not with the father whose ambition and foolish vow would cause her death. In these last days of her life, she wanted the company of those she could trust. With them, she mourned the fact that she would never achieve the goal of all Jewish women: to hold her own child in her arms.  
Read Judges 11:37-40.  

 The exact method of her death is not known. If she was a burnt offering, she would have been first killed with a knife, and then her body burnt.    

                                                                     Ishtar,  'Mother of the Fruitful Breast',
goddess of nourishment and fertility

An annual festival for young women commemorated the death of Jephtah’s daughter – ‘for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephtah the Gileadite’. This annual festival may in fact have been a very ancient Canaanite festival which became incorporated into early Judaism. It may have been a rite of passage for young girls as they entered adult life. Possibly it was related to the Canaanite god Tammuz, mentioned in Ezekial 8:14. Tammuz controlled the cycle of human life. He was the son of the lunar goddess Ishtar, who died and descended to the underworld in autumn/winter, then came alive again in spring/summer.

Summary

The story of Jephtah and his daughter is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. It tells of a man of outstanding military ability and personal initiative, a man who rose from despised beginnings to become a leader of Israel. He had an only daughter - the text emphasizes that she was his only child, and that he loved her deeply. But through his own folly, Jephtah lost her. She accepted her death with courage and dignity. But in the end she allied herself with the friends she trusted, rather than the father who was responsible for her death.   

The story is about people who blindly submit to their human perception of religious obligation, without using their  intellect and wisdom.

THE SETTLEMENT OF CANAAN

Until the period of settlement in Canaan, the people of the Bible were called ‘Hebrews’. After settlement they were called ‘Israelites’.


The story of Jephtah's daughter is described in the Book of Judges. This Book covers the years between the death of Joshua who succeeded Moses as leader of the Israelites, and the beginning of the kingships of Saul, David and Solomon.

It was a time of social turmoil. All over the Mediterranean and the Middle East, people and nations were on the move and the Hebrew tribes, coming up from Egypt, were among these migratory groups.

The land  they entered was already occupied by Canaanites, who held the area now covered by Israel and Lebanon. The Canaanites governed the land, particularly the fertile plains, through a sophisticated system of city-states. The Israelite tribes attempted to gain a foothold in the sparsely populated, less fertile hill territories of Canaan.

Archaeological research shows that their occupation of Canaan happened not by sudden conquest, as the Bible describes, but by gradual infiltration. The Canaanites naturally resisted this intrusion, as the stories of Jephtah and his unnamed daughter show only too well. They were more technologically advanced than the Israelites, who for a long time had only a precarious hold on the territory.

But over a period of time the Israelites gained control of the extreme north and south of the country. Jerusalem and the fertile plain of Esdraelon still remained under the control of the Canaanites, and the Philistines controlled the coastal area.

A wooden plough, and an iron one: the iron
plough was easier to use and more efficient

As they put down roots, the Israelites gave up their nomadic life. Instead of being wanderers, they became farmers and herders of animals. At this time (the beginning of the Early Iron Age), the following advances in technology were made:

  • iron was introduced for household and farm tools, which was a major technological breakthrough; iron was harder, less likely to break than bronze, and blades would keep sharp for a longer time
  •  stone-lined tanks or cisterns were built to conserve water during dry periods; this made agriculture and life in general more predictable
  • terracing made it possible to farm hillsides that had previously been unsuitable for farming; it also solved problems of land erosion and soil loss.        

Canaanite bronze weapons like these were being superceded by iron weapons

 
 
 
 

All of this meant that

  • land previously used for grazing of flocks became available for farming

  • with improved farming techniques more food could be produced

  • with more food, a larger population could be supported

  • forests and scrub had to be cut down

  • houses, barns and villages had to be built.

  WOMEN’S LIVES IN THIS ERA

Developments in technology and the demand for labor meant that

  • more people were needed; land could not be held if it was not populated

  • so women had to channel their energies into producing and looking after children.

As well as having large families, Israelite women made a substantial contribution to the economy. They planted, weeded and harvested crops. They processed grain, olives and fruit for storage - archaeological evidence (ancient jars, vats and silos) tells us that large quantities of food were stored each year. This storage was largely the responsibility of women.

The religious beliefs of the Israelite women reflected, in part, their growing reliance on agriculture as a way of life. They were attracted to the beliefs and practices of the Canaanites, which centered on the power of Nature and the fertility of all living things. Canaanite myths explained the cycle of annual seasons and the vagaries of water, sun, rain and wind.

It was natural that the forces of Nature should figure in their worship. Matters relating to fertility in Nature and in people were of major importance to the women, engrossed as they were with feeding and keeping their families safe. At this stage, the worship of Yahweh and of the Nature gods seems to have co-existed fairly peacefully. Only later would the prophets, proponents of the worship of a single god, speak angrily against veneration of any other deities.