"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Peculiar Bible Story: An explanation of Jephthah's vow

So in this post, I asked y'all about Jephthah's story as told in Judges 11.  The most troubling part was his rash vow to God that if God granted him military success (which equaled his being promoted to leader of the Gileadites who previously shunned him), he would return home and sacrifice whatever came out of the door of his house to meet him as a burnt offering!

This is incredibly troubling because it seems his only child - a daughter - would suffer for his selfishness!

Why would he even make such a vow? 

One author I read said Middle Easterners often kept animals on the lower levels of their houses.  This area was like a stable of sorts to shelter them from outside elements such as bad weather or wild animals or thieves. So Jephthah naturally assumed a goat or sheep would hear him and greet him first. 

This makes better sense than thinking a man would actually chance a wife or child being sacrificed.

And truly from his sorrow I can imagine he never thought a loved one would be the first to greet his return.

So I always thought growing up that God was serious about vows. He didn't require them, but if you made one, you had to keep it.  This made me take vows seriously.

I was reading
A Survey of Old Testament Introduction by Gleason L. Archer, Jr. the other day and he mentions this story. I was pleasantly surprised at his interpretation of it...which he actually got from Keil and Delitzsch's work. It was like a relief for me to not have to take this story literally. Now he may be wrong, but this interpretation was at least worth sharing.  Read it and then tell me if you think it has any merit.

The term for "burnt offering" is 'olah, which everywhere else signifies a blood sacrifice wholly consumed by the fire upon the altar.  But, as Keil and Delitzsch show, this interpretation as a literal human sacrifice cannot stand in the light of the context.

1. Human sacrifice was always understood, from the days of Abraham (for whose son, Isaac, a ram was substituted by God) to be an offense and an abomination to Jehovah, being expressly denounced and forbidden in Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10.  There is no evidence that any Israelite ever offered human sacrifice prior to the days of Ahaz (743-728 B.C.).  It is inconceivable that God-fearing Jephthah could have supposed he would please the Lord by perpetuating such a crime and abomination.

2.  His daughter was allowed two months of mourning, not to bewail her approaching loss of life, but only to bewail her virginity (betulim) (Judges 11:37-38).

3.  It is stated in verse 39 that after Jephthah had performed his vow and offered her as a "burnt offering," "she knew not a man." This would be a very pointless and inane remark if she had been put to death. But it has perfect relevance if she was devoted to the service of Jehovah at the door of the tabernacle the rest of her life.  (For references to the devoted women who performed service in connection with the national cultus, cf. Ex. 38:8 and I Sa. 2:22; also Anna in the days of Jesus -- Lk 2:36-37.)  The pathos of the situation in this instance did not lie in Jephthah's daughter devoting herself to divine service, but rather in the sure extinction of Jephthah's line, since she was his only child.  Hence, both he and she bewailed her virginity.  There was no human sacrifice here.

(pg. 278-279)

What do you think?   


Lat said...

Ver interesting! In Tamil movies one can hear silly bets being made.If so and so thing happens,one will either make a vow to shave half of his moustache off,shave his head or even parade in his birthday suit! A woman will not make such a vow of course!

Now in Jephthah's case,if animals are kept in a lower level of their house,are they then kept loose inside so that once they hear any noise they barge thru' the doorway or are they tied up which is normally the case? How can an animal be assumed to come out of it's own? Unless he's talking about his pets.In this case he's willing to give up something he cares for God for fulfilling his wish.I'm sure God knew what he intended for sacrifice and that surely must have taken place.

And I agree with your statement,
"He didn't require them, but if you made one, you had to keep it."

I liked the interpretation of his daughter being offered to God's service rather than get burned!

Amber said...

Interesting. His explanation does have it's own logic. So, he vowed to make a burnt offering, but when it turned out to be a human who came through the door, when he was maybe expecting a goat or something, since human sacrifice is actually outlawed in Judaism, it became devotion to God and life long service at the temple. I like it!

Unknown said...

That was the alternate interpretation I'd heard! I couldn't remember. Thanks for sharing that.

I like this interpretation. Not taking it literally, I take something from both interpretations and think both serve a purpose.

In a weird way I prefer the harsher interpretation, because it ties into some other stories in the Hebrew Bible that likewise end tragically for the women in the story. As a literary device, I like the repetition and and the emotional effect this should bring out in people. With the harsh ending, there seems to be more of a lesson to the story, and a warning not to take this sort of thing lightly. With this kinder ending, some of the weight of that lesson is taken away and the focus is on her virginity and purity, so that there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with Jephthah's vow and there's nothing said against the fact that he had total control over his daughter's life and treated her like an animal. Clearly, I'm coming at it from a modern feminist perspective and the women's rights frustration is a bit anachronistic. But I don't seem to be able to get rid of that bias.

But back when I took it more literally, this story horrified me and I would have loved to have known this alternate interpretation then. It does make a lot of sense and is easier to understand and accept that God would allow it to happen rather than intervene like with Isaac.

Susanne said...

Lat, I liked hearing about those Tamil movies and those silly bets. Ha! :)

Hmmm, I don't know if the animals are tied up. I was thinking of them kind of roaming on a lower level of the house...kind of like a stable area that has a way to go outside into a courtyard, but I might be imagining something too elaborate! Thanks for making me think...hmmm.

I enjoyed your comment. :)

Susanne said...

Amber, yes, I like this explanation better than his daughter being killed especially since that was against God's law. Who knows what really happened though.

Susanne said...

Sanil, hehehehe....your comments are always good and somewhat challenging. I like them! So that maybe is the Midrashic interpretation you had heard before?? I'd never heard it, but I like it better than her being killed.

Yeah, that whole purity/virginity thing boggles me. I read in a book that ancient cultures held their daughters' purity as their own....like it belonged to the family. And this was NOT just in Abrahamic religions, but in Hammurabi laws and such. This is why honor killing has a long history. It irks me to think of women and anything relating to us (including our purity) being the property of someone else. So I understand your frustration.

What are some other Hebrew Bible stories that you can think of that end tragically for the women? I'm curious about which ones take your attention. If you want to share here, that's fine or if it's too complicated, I'd love to see a blog post about it one day! :)

I agree that there are "lessons" from both interpretations. Thanks for your comment!

Enjoyed 'em all, Ladies - thanks!