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Our Story, Too. Jephthah’s Vow Then and Now.

Jephthah’s Daughter, by William Blake

Those of you who were here last Sunday know that, today, I have the honor of preaching a Scripture passage chosen by one of you. At our last Mardi Gras party, we auctioned off a Sunday sermon on any passage from the Bible, no matter how difficult, scandalous, or disturbing, and the one I’m about to preach on today is all of those.

The winner of the auction was Phillip Martin, up here in the choir. (Phillip, could you stand up for a moment so we know whom to thank?) Phillip came to me last summer after narrowing his selections down to his final choice. The runner up was Paul’s instructions in the New Testament that women should not speak in church, which might have made this a very brief and easy sermon.

But here’s the one he chose, and maybe once you hear it you’ll understand why I’ve put this off for so long. It’s about a man named Jephthah and his young daughter, and it comes from the Old Testament book of Judges. Jephthah was a warrior and he was asked by the people of Israel to lead them in battle against their enemy, the Ammonites. The story is much longer, but I’ll start right where Jephthah is traveling toward and then reaches the enemy territory, the battlefield.

“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. 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 neighborhood 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 [been] 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.” The Word of the Lord.

One thought I had when I read this next to today’s regularly assigned Scripture readings was, How can this story be part of the same Bible as that beautiful section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read earlier? Love is patient, love is kind, it does not boast, or envy, or revel in wrongdoing.We could simply write this story off as an Old Testament thing. And this is what we do. We hear something like this from the Bible (albeit rarely) and we say Ah, that’s the Old Testament. That’s really not our God. You may not realize this but that’s a Christian heresy called Marcionism. Marcion was a scholar in the early Church who thought the New Testament replaced the Old Testament and that there was no need to keep it as part of our tradition moving forward. And isn’t that what most usually people think, on some level? It may be one of the heresies held by most Christians, unknowingly.

But according to official Christian doctrine, you can’t just say That isn’t our Scripture or our God. It fails to recognize, first, that there are many beautiful parts of the Old Testament, just as there are many ugly parts of the New. It isn’t all about love for us, or vengeance for them. To say so is basically to write off an entire religion’s God and its Holy Book, and I know we would never intend to do that.

Distancing ourselves from these stories also fails to acknowledge our complete dependence on the Jewish Scriptures and tradition. Without them our faith wouldn’t even exist. The Old Testament is as foundational to who we are as the New Testament. They are inseparably connected. But we also never want to distance ourselves from the humanity of the Old Testament, to say, well – those are their problems. This is not only part of our inheritance as Christians; it’s part of our inheritance (and heritage) as human beings. Everything that happened in the past is happening still. Or could happen still. And more likely will if we say “We’re past that.” Or, “That has nothing to do with us.”

Jephthah was one of the judges of Israel. The Book of Judges is the seventh book in the Old Testament. It tells of a period before the monarchy of Israel–King David, King Solomon. Right before there was a monarchy, Israel was a confederation of tribes loosely held together by whoever happened to be the strongest military leader of the time, called a judge (really more a warrior than a judge in our modern sense). Samson is the judge we know the best (of Samson and Delilah). There are twelve altogether in the Book of Judges.

Jephthah was another. His tribe was Gilead. The people of Gilead lived along the Jordan River, in what is today the Kingdom of Jordan. Gilead the name is associated with peace and happiness. There’s an old hymn you may know, There is a Balm in Gilead. The name itself means “happiness forever.” It is beautiful and was (at least then) a fairly fertile region.

Jephthah, however (and this all comes right before the part I read out loud) had no father, and his mother was a prostitute. He was rejected by his people, sent away from Gilead, only to be called back later because he had a reputation as a good fighter and they needed that to defeat their enemy.  So, when he comes in useful, then and only then do they recognize his worth.

A lot is at stake for Jephthah. If he wins this war against the enemy, the Ammonites, he is back in the tribe, forgiven for having no parents, vindicated, accepted on his merits. Part of what makes the story so wrenching is that you sympathize with this man, this orphan outcast. You want to see him prove himself and be welcomed into his tribe. And it has such a promising start. When the war begins, the first thing the narrator tells us is that the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah. In Old Testament battles, whenever the Spirit of the Lord is said to be upon someone, you know it’s going to go their way. So everything is looking up for Jephthah and for the reader rooting for him. And then… he makes this vow. As far as we can tell, this totally reckless, impulsive and unnecessary vow. “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.”

St Augustine in the fifth century said that Jephthah expected the first person to greet him to be his wife, whom he intended to kill. Augustine was not known for liking women. Even still, it’s hard to imagine Jephthah thinking this vow was a good idea. Gambling that something inconsequential, not his wife or his daughter, would greet him at his homecoming. And we’re made to think, He felt already the power of the Lord on him. Why do this unnecessary thing?

This story raises so many questions, and practically no answers. Why did Jephthah keep his vow? And why did he make it in the first place? Was there no way to annul a vow that forces you to commit a grave sin? (Later Jewish law would say yes, you should annul it.) Why does his daughter go along with it? Why doesn’t she resist? Why doesn’t she go to the mountains and run away, rather than return to be killed? Where is the mother in this story? And what on earth is it doing in the Bible, anyway?

This isn’t the only problematic story in the book of Judges. Here’s an excerpt from a short introduction to Judges that we read in our Bible study class last Wednesday:

“Sex, violence, rape and massacre, brutality and deceit do not seem to be congenial materials for use in developing a story of salvation. Given the Bible’s subject matter–God and salvation, living well and loving deeply–we quite naturally expect to find in its pages leaders for us who are good, noble, honorable men and women showing us the way. So it is always something of a shock to enter the pages of the book of Judges and find ourselves immersed in nearly unrelieved mayhem.”

There is a theory that this book was written by a woman, about 2600 years ago, perhaps a woman who wanted to show just how bad men could be at leading! I like that theory; it’s probably not true, though Judges does name and call out violence and particularly violence against women above any other book in the Bible. And the first thing we do to repair a problem (whoever wrote this, man or woman, knew) is to acknowledge it, name it out loud, and lament. Because if we forget and fail to do these things when we look at our past, then we’ll be right back there again.

When you think about it, we never really moved on from that ancient Israelite pyre 3000 years ago on which Jephthah’s daughter was slain. Our leaders today are still often blinded by self-regard. And women are sacrificed every day in our world. Sacrificed to domestic violence. The United Nations recently reported that 50,000 women last year were killed by a domestic partner or family member, the home being the likeliest place for a woman to die. That makes the Jephthah story very real, doesn’t it? Women are sacrificed in our world to human trafficking – girls, thousands of them every year. It was just reported that trafficking of girls is the highest its been in 13 years. Women are the sacrifices of war. I can’t bear to read about violence against women in the the many wars around the world, but I know that if I don’t, the problem isn’t going to budge. If I do make myself aware, I’ve taken at least the first step toward repairing it. So, too, when we read this passage and this horrible story of this poor, innocent girl and her father, himself a victim of cruelty by his peers.

The way this story ends gives me hope. After their friend was killed, the girls of Gilead went up to the hills every year for four days to remember her. To keep her memory alive and to do their part to keep this from ever happening again. Acknowledge it, name it out loud, lament, repair, and never repeat. That’s why we must read these stories and own them as our own.

So Phillip, I’m not mad at you for picking this passage. None of us wants to hear it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be heard. Amen.