Friday, February 18, 2011

Consequences of a Vow

   Many of us, especially those of us who are either married or members of a religious community have taken a vow. A married couple makes a vow in the presence of others to live their lives together as husband and wife and eventually begin a family.  A religious professes a vow in the presence of his or her community to live his or her life in accordance with the rule which the community follows for the remainder of their natural life. The story of Jephthah in the Book of Judges (11:1-12:40) tells us about a different kind of vow. 
   Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was Jephthah’s father.  Gilead’s wife bore him a son and when his wife’s sons grew up they drove Jephthah away saying, “You shall not inherit anything in your father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.”  Then Jephthah felt from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, a Syrian town.  Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him. This son of a prostitute who was chased from his home by his half-brother has now become a mercenary. 
   After a while the Ammonites began waging war against Israel.  The men of Gilead went to Tob to see Jephthah and said, “Come and be our commander, so that we may fight with the Ammonites.”  Jephthah asked them, “Are you not the same ones who rejected me and drove me from my father’s house?  So why do you come to me now when you are in trouble?”  Jephthah could easily have told them, “Get lost!  You didn’t want to be bothered with me before, but now you need me so you come running back!”  Instead, he says, “If you bring me home to fight with the Ammonites and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.”  He returned and became commander over them.
   Jephthah sent word to the king of the Ammonites, “What is there between you and me that you have come to me to fight against my land?”  The king sent messengers who told Jephthah, “Because Israel, on coming from Egypt, took my land from Arnon to the Jabbok, now therefore restore it peaceably.”   After their exile from Egypt, the Jewish people took land belonging to the Ammonites and now the king wants his land back.   That sounds reasonable to most of us!  However, Jephthah informs the king that he is mistaken and tells him that his people did not take the land belonging to the Ammonites, but were given land belonging to Sihon, king of the Amonites because he would not let them pass through his land on their way from Egypt.  He then says to the king that it is not he who has sinned against the Ammonites, but it is they who are wrong for making war against Jephthah and his people.  Not surprisingly, the king of the Ammonites did not accept this.
   The spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah and he passed through Gilead and Manassah straight toward the Ammonites.  Jephthah then made a vow to the Lord saying, “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 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.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hands.  The Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. 
    Why did Jephthah make that vow?  It seems likely that he felt that he had something to prove to the people of Gilead since they had driven him away from their town and then returned begging him to be their commander, but where did that vow come from?  There is no precedence for such a vow anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Was he so unsure of God assistance that he needed to make such a bizarre agreement with God that he would offer “whoever” came out of the doors of his house first?  He does not say “whatever”, but whoever.  We could understand if he returned home and saw one his livestock and offered it to God in thanksgiving for his victory, but this would be a human sacrifice.  Such actions would not have been unknown to Jephthah since many of the people of the neighboring areas would have engaged in human sacrifice, but this was not done among the Jewish people.
   Jephthah came home to Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing.  She was his only child.  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 for me.  For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”  She said to him, “Father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out from your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” (Judges 11:36)  Then she said, “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.”  He sent her, and her companions, away as she had requested. After two months, she returned to her father, and he did with her according to the vow he had made.  She had never slept with a man, so there arose in Israel the custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. 
   Jephthah did not anticipate the fact that his daughter would be the first person that he met?  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. 
   His words to his daughter that she has become a source of great trouble for him almost give the impression that he is blaming her for this situation. 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’.     
   The daughter’s passivity regarding the acceptance of her fate with regard to the vow her father made is very unnerving for modern readers.  Why did she not protest?  The promise had to be honored, since it was a vow made to God.  She understood this 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? 1
   What about the daughter’s only request?  That she be given two months to spend in the mountains with her friends and bewail her virginity?  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. 2
   The fact that the daughter remained nameless throughout the story is also significant.  She becomes a tangential character rather than one which the reader is inspired to relate to.  Other examples of this would be Samson’s mother (Judge 13:1-25), the wife of Potiphar (Gen. 39:1-23), and Jephthah’s own mother who is simply referred to as “a prostitute”. 
   Another question to be raised is: Why is there no condemnation of Jephthah for offering a human sacrifice?  This was not an acceptable practice in Israel.
   Jephthah is depicted in the entire chapter as a true follower of Yahweh (verse 9); he wages war on behalf of Yahweh, and calls upon Yahweh to judge between Israel and Ammon (verse 27); the spirit of Yahweh 'comes upon him (verse 29), and he makes his vow to Yahweh (verse 30). He is extolled as one of Yahweh's saviors in the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 12:11), alongside Gideon, Bedan (possibly Barak or Samson), and Samuel himself.
   Is it likely, then, say the non-sacrificialists, that Jephthah, a true Yahwist, would have presented an offering which was anathema to Yahweh, and that this fact would not be commented on by the narrator?
   The usual answer to this question is that absence of condemnation has little significance. Firstly, it may point to the fact that human sacrifice was in fact current in Jephthah's day. Secondly, even if this is not the case, there are other heroes in the Bible whose errant behavior is not condemned. But if, as is generally agreed, the stories of Jephthah fit into the redactional framework of the Deuteronomist, then one would expect unlawful acts to be somehow condemned, either overtly or obliquely, in accord with the didactic outlook of the Deuteronomistic school. It will be recalled that the narrator castigated Gideon for a much lesser crime with the Ephod (Judges 8:27). Absence of condemnation is therefore significant in judging a character's action. Jephthah is not only not condemned but referred to by the same Deuteronomist as a "savior of Israel," which is hardly an appellation to be applied to one guilty of such a crime.
The proponents of the sacrificial point of view believe that Jephthah's act is to be considered an example, like that of Mesha and his son, of human sacrifice offered up in an emergency. To offset the objection that such a vow and execution would have been against the law, some proponents maintain that a vow to offer human sacrifice was not against the law, and if it was, Jephthah was unaware of it. A possible reason offered for Jephthah's ignorance of the law is that he had lived outside Israel and was subject to foreign influences. The absence of condemnation of Jephthah by the narrator is pointed to by non-sacrificialists as proof that the vow and its fulfillment were not contrary to the laws of Yahweh in Jephthah's time. The sacrificialists, on the other hand, point to the absence of condemnation as proof that human sacrifice was acceptable in Jephthah's time. 3
   While Bible scholars have come up with a sacrificialist vs. a non-sacrificialist explanation for why Jephthah is not condemned, the fact still remains that vows do have consequences.  We should also keep in mind that the name “Jephthah” means “he opens”.  Was this name given to him because he opened his mouth before thinking?  
   There is even speculation on the part of some people that Jephthah may have offered God an animal as a substitute sacrifice in order to spare his daughter’s life.  This would have been acceptable in Israel as long as Jephthah had said, “Now I offer this animal in place of my daughter”; however, the text gives no indication of any such substitution. 
   This story has intrigued and confounded people for many years.  I invite you to read the story for yourself and draw your own conclusions.  This story was added to the canon of Scripture for a reason.  What was the reason for making reference to Jephthah’s vow and the sacrifice of his only child?
                                                  End Notes

1-3) “Jephthah’s Daughter” CONSEQUENCES OF THE VOW

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