I'd Like an Ugly, Violent Bible Story, Please

Jephthah's Daughter

The ugly, violent, and unjust stories can serve as an stepping stool to the throne of Grace when your own honest emotions and experience are reflected there.

I have been resonating with a Bible story lately--and not one of the "nice" ones. It is the story in Judges 11:29-40 of Jephthah's Daughter.

If you don't know it--it's ugly. It's one of the stories that make people hate the Bible. Jephthah is leading Israel into battle and swears an oath that if God will grant him victory he will sacrifice "whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me" when he goes home. Israel wins and Jephthah goes home. The first thing out of his door is his daughter, his only child. He tells her of his vow and (sad as he says he is) his intention to keep it.

The daughter responds with understanding and a simple request, "Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I." He lets her go and then, upon her return, he "did with her according to the vow he had made."

I have moved all my political comment and concern to Twitter (@revanner if you're interested), but if you have been with me for awhile, you know that I was devastated by the election, and nothing I've seen since has reassured me that today isn't the last day of our democracy. The news of Nov. 8 felt to me like Jephthah's daughter may have felt, hearing that her fate was sealed; and I wanted time to run to the mountains (or in my case to the ocean in another country) to grieve the coming loss.

The story of Jephthah's daughter is an awful story on many, many levels, but it's that very awfulness that gives me a point of connection. The daughter gets no name. Jephthah basically blames her for her fate for being the first one out of the house. There is no indication at all in the story that God either approved of the vow or had a hand in the victory, but still this dreadful sacrifice of a daughter goes forward under the watch of the same God who interfered with angelic force to prevent the sacrifice of Isaac. Welcome to the world of women and girls and the way many of us have felt lately. As a woman, I can put myself in that story.

The women of Israel understood it, too, and that story actually led to a tradition described in Judges 11:39-40, "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 women made sure Jephthah's daughter was remembered and would probably have been pleased that the story of her horror made it into Israel's history book. Jephthah's daughter should not be forgotten.

Their response also gives me hope. Jephthah ruled Israel for six years (and learned to spot the Israelites who didn't support him by their regional accents!). He shouldn't have had that privilege. He made rash, horrible promises and carried them out, claiming to be faithful to God in doing so. He divided Israel's tribes against each other and went to war with the ones that did not support him.

All of that is recorded in the Bible, and the legacy of his six years is his harsh tribal profiling (killing Israelites who pronounced the word "Shibboleth" differently) and claiming the murder of his daughter was really an act of faithfulness rather than a stupid, rash promise he never should have made and that God would have forgiven him for breaking. Jephthah is remembered now, not as a victorious leader of Israel, but as an ugly footnote, while his daughter became the icon that allowed women in Israel to ritually mourn both her injustice and theirs.

Sure, I like reading Psalm 23 or passages that remind me not to be anxious or afraid. I like the "nice" parts of the Bible better. But the ugly, violent, and unjust stories can serve as a stepping stool to the throne of Grace when your own honest emotions and experience are reflected there. On this day, as I mourn the enormous loss that tomorrow represents for me, I am glad for the story of Jephthah's daughter.

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