Judges 11: 30 – 40 And Jephthah 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.’ So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
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. 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.’ 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.’ 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.’ ‘Go,’ he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 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 for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Reflection Jephthah was the son of Gilead and a prostitute. Rejected by his half brothers, he had no claim on his father’s wealth and had to make his own way in the world. Jephthah gathered other economic outcasts around him, engaged in raiding parties against the pagans, and won the support of the elders of the people. He showed himself skilled at negotiation with the Ammonites but was ready to fight for land when this did not work.
Clearly Jephthah believed in his own abilities and negotiated with God for victory. The Hebrew text could imply that he expected an animal to come out of the courtyard when he arrived back – but he would have known that the women cooked in the courtyard too. He would have known women welcomed victors home from battle.
Jephthah’s hubris led to his unnamed daughter’s tragedy. She lamented what could have been, but submitted herself to her father’s deluded religiosity. Jephthah chose to blame his daughter for her own misfortune naming her as the cause of his trouble. Like men who blame the women they beat for their anger, Jephthah hid his own culpability. Like clergy who abuse and blame their victims, Jephthah used God as the reason why things are. Jephthah believed he couldn’t break his vow – the passage is set against a back story of the people of Israel breaking their vows and then turning back to God.
This is a horrific story of a repugnant man and his daughter both trapped in a perverse theology which causes pain, trauma and death. The God who intervened to save Isaac from Abraham’s knife is silent here; just as the Church has been silent for too long about abusive clergy. If only Jephthah’s self awareness and theology were more in tune with the Most High; if only the Church had learned to put the broken victims above its own institutional needs.
Prayer Crucified One, You hold all who are in pain, all who are wounded by religion, all who are abused. Give us all self awareness. Give Your Church the courage to truly turn around. Let Your loving kindness bring healing and justice. Amen
The Rev’d Andy Braunston is the URC’s Minister for Digital Worship and member of the Peedie Kirk URC in Orkney.