Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead (Judges 11)

Judges 11 gives us the very odd tale of Jephthah the Gileadite, a man whose life carries a few oddities that those like the SAB who like to find problems with the Bible are hardly going to overlook. Perhaps oddly, the SAB does not draw attention to the very first item of interest about Jephthah, the fact that apparently, he's a bastard. The fact that he is mentioned first and the following fact that apparently his half-brothers are afraid he will inherit from Gilead suggests that Jephthah is the eldest son, and may have some claim in being the rightful heir of Gilead. However, there is certainly a history (especially among the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) of firstborns not inheriting. Anyway, his family gets into some hot water with the Ammonites, and they come to him for help for some reason. He agrees to help in return for being made their leader.

The first thing he does as leader is send a message to the Ammonites looking for peace. I'm always looking for a hopeful suggestion where I can find it of a place where the SAB might add a "Good Stuff" icon; might there be one here? Certainly this is a much nicer approach than most guys in this book take. They argue back and forth a bit about whose land it is. Apparently, according to Jephthah, the land was won in battle from the Amorites (the SAB marks this fact as being bad for various reasons, but really, this is old news from back in Numbers 21, where Moses also tried to settle things peaceably, asking permission to pass through, and getting attacked in return, as we see briefly reviewed here in Judges. Sure, it's not all that nice that Sihon was destroyed by the Israelites, but this is largely a clear case of destroying a city in self-defense, oddly enough. Later in Jephthah's remarks, he points out that if indeed they think this particular part of the land belonged to them, it's odd they let the Israelites live there for 300 years without ever rectifying the situation. The SAB itself points out (although it calls it a contradiction) that the Israelites were ordered by God not to attack the Ammonites. Actually, they were ordered not to attack the land of the Ammonites, but this is the Ammonites attacking them.

Jephthah makes a remark that is much more thought-provoking to the SAB than it is to me, giving an apprent nod to the Ammonite god Chemosh. Does this statement imply that Chemosh exists, or that at least Jephthah thinks he does? I don't think so. I think this is an ironic statement on the part of Jephthah, although it certainly may have been stated in a manner that was meant to sound more polite, as in you serve your god in your land, we'll serve our god in ours, okay? As for the issue of the Bible containing statements that other gods might exist, I have formerly addressed that here. (Steve, if you don't mind, can you add a link on that page? I keep meaning to help you clean up the links between us, but I'm a terrible procrastinator.)

And now with all the pleasantries finished up, the battle begins, and the big issue of this story comes up. The "spirit of the Lord" comes upon Jephthah, (I was reading recently that this expression is often used in contexts such as this meaning not that the person becomes closer to God or anything like that, but that God gives them the power and wisdom to be a great military leader) and he goes to war. Early into the battle, he makes a rash and foolish gesture: he vows to kill the first thing that comes out his front door as a sacrifice to God when he returns victorious. When he wins, and he does return, the first thing out the door is his young daughter. Ouch.

The first thing to note is that nowhere does it say that God asked for this, so it is not proper to say that God approves. This was stupidity on the part of Jephthah to make the vow, and also to carry it out. There is more to say, though, in an odd musing that I myself have had with this passage. What was Jephthah really expecting? Does he often come home from work and find himself greeted at the door by...I don't know...a pair of turtledoves? What kind of stupid vow was that? I find myself wondering if he was expecting not so much a more proper sacrifice, but if he expected someone else to be at the door. I've never heard anyone else suggest this as a possibility, but the implications seem pretty staggering. Perhaps Jephthah was having domestic problems and hoped for an easy divorce?

Anyway, he comes home, and out comes his daughter, dancing with joy. He's not happy, of course, but feels he has to keep his vow. He gives her time to mourn her situation, and then sacrifices her. (Some have suggested that verse 39 is implying that rather than dying, she remained a virgin all of her life. This is definitely a possibility, but the verse is far from clear on the matter.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the Catholic answer is that as was a rich man, at the dawn of the Iron Age, he was expecting to be met by a slave.