Authors: Laurie King
to rule, it was true. But that was because men were free to roam and make connections, while women needed to focus on the house and the kitchen, and sometimes forgot the links that join each house to the next. Like—not a chain, but chain mail, each slender loop joined at several points with the others to form an impenetrable blanket of womanhood.
Men were strong, certainly. One rebellious woman, standing up to an angry husband all on her own, could expect to feel a fist, or even to be thrown onto the streets to starve. Mila knew that; it was one of the reasons she had refused to marry, because her father had yet to come up with a man she knew would not raise a hand to her.
But Mila also knew that one individual is like a seed, when planted on the right soil. When she had lived with her aunt in the city, Mila had read books about Gandhi in India, the skinny man in a white cloth who had attracted the eyes of the world and toppled an empire. And in a magazine, she had seen a photograph of a solitary figure in a white shirt, a man carrying a bag, standing before a line of tanks in China, refusing them passage. Everything about the man’s posture—chin raised, shopping bag swinging, shoulders resting easy—radiated calm confidence:
You can crush my body
, he seemed to say,
but you will never crush me
. The article said that no one knew who the man was or what had happened to him, but Mila knew: this was a man on his way home from the shops, taking home his vegetables home for the evening meal, whose path had taken him by the enormous square, who had chosen to make his stand. And she had no doubt what had happened to him: he had died. But he lived on in the photograph, a powerful symbol of everyday defiance.
A hand held out in peace can strike a heavier blow than a fist raised in
anger. A bag of shopping may halt more tanks than any mortar launcher. One person could be more powerful than a thousand. That was what her father did not know, would never understand.
But Mila knew.
The mountain path dipped, climbed, then fell steeply into the next village. It was, in truth, almost a town, with mud-brick walls most of the way around it and a small clinic by way of hospital. But the doctor had been killed a year earlier, and the nurse was in the capital city attending to a dying mother, and the midwife was on her own with the half-conscious woman, whose cries and groans had long since subsided into hopeless whimpers.
Mila washed her hands with the American soap and placed the buds of the stethoscope into her ears. The woman’s pulse was slow and erratic, her breathing that of an exhausted runner, her eyes sunken and focusing far away. Mila shifted the cool disc down to the woman’s belly, hearing the
of the infant heart within. Then the taut skin under her hands grew hard, and the quick heartbeat stuttered, slowed, and nearly halted altogether before the contraction eased off.
Mila stood up and looked at the half-dead woman, hearing the echo of the birdlike heartbeat in her ears. Her own mother had died in just these circumstances. It was why Mila had watched the Caesarean operation so closely, why she had learned the drugs and herbs that acted on the muscles of the womb, to slow or speed them, and on the heart of a woman in distress. The midwife waited, expecting Mila to shake her head and prepare to cut the child from the mother’s dying body. But the laboring woman’s eyes had begun to watch her, too, and they seemed to Mila to have some hidden strength there, if she could only nurture and kindle it.
She made her decision: She would do all she could to save this woman, that the child would not be born an orphan.
She turned to the midwife and the messenger, and told them what she wanted them to do.
The woman slept for two hours under the shelter of Mila’s drugs, while Mila listened without ceasing to the eased patter of the infant heart. When the laborer had rested, when Mila’s tools were ready and the area as sterile as it was going to get, she woke the woman and allowed the drugs to drip into the line leading into the back of her hand.
The woman labored again, this time with two women at her side to pour their strength into her. Outside, the flashes and rumbles grew ever nearer, but such was their concentration that the noise had less impact than the sounds the woman made, the vibration of the ground beneath their feet less important than the progress of an infant head through a birth canal. Mila wiped the grime from her patient’s sweaty face, unaware that the dust from the clinic roof was sifting down over them all. The battling army drew near, the mother’s breathing turned to panting and then caught as she pushed, and pushed again. The town’s defenders drew back inside their walls, and the forces outside prepared for morning’s terrible punishment.
A civil war, brother against brother, was always the most bloody. Jephtha, general to an army, was weary of the stench of blood. He had lost friends that night, killed at the hands of other relatives, the guns of childhood friends. In the still hours of the night, he had cradled in his arms the eighteen year-old son of his cowherd, a man he had grown up with, played with as a child, given the care of his cows to, a man who had in turn handed his only son over to Jephtha for the war. When the young man coughed and strangled his way into silence, the general felt as if his own son had died. All around him, he could feel the stir of men driven to the brink of rage, waiting for dawn. He knew what they wanted, knew what they would do to the town below. He wanted it too, the death, the destruction, the absolute flattening of this last town among dozens of others.
And yet, he was sick of the stench of blood, his own and his enemy’s. And to make matters worse, the man from the news corps, smelling an end to the war, had stuck like a burr with this colorful regiment of criminals. Unless the general did something, the cameras were going to record a slaughter.
So Jephtha laid down the dead boy in his arms, and stood tall. Raising his voice, he spoke to his men, wrapping them around his will as he had done since the days when he and they had done little more than smuggle butter across the border. He spoke first to his weary fighters, voice loud and absolutely firm, telling them what they would do, and what they would not do.
And then, facing directly into his reflection in the television camera, he repeated his vow in heavily accented but intelligible English: that if God would but give him this town, he would allow his men to punish it by killing the first creature that came out of its gates in morning light—and then the slaughter would stop. He would kill no more.
The baby girl was born with the new sun, her color bad and her cry weak, but determined. She was gathered to her mother’s chest, where her grey newborn eyes studied the bright new world. Mila slumped onto a chair, blood on her blouse, tears in her eyes, aware that she had never been happier in her life, and most likely never would be. Mother lived, daughter breathed, and the night was over.
Shockingly, the clinic door slammed back, revealing a man in the motley of combat, a rifle slung over his shoulder.
“You have to get out of here!” he shouted into the room, but the women could only stare at this figure from another universe. Get out? How could they possibly do that?
“We’re surrendering to the general, and you know what that army of his does. You have to leave and go hide in the hills.”
The midwife protested. It was not possible to move this mother and child, certainly not into the unprotected hills. The messenger turned pale, and after listening to the arguments for a minute, shook his head and ran. Mila got up to pour water into a basin and bathe her hands. When they were clean again, and her face cleansed of sweat and smears, she borrowed a fresh shirt from the midwife and left the clinic.
The town was in a panic, mothers bundling children and possessions in one direction, men running in the other, chickens flapping wildly for the roof-tops. Mila alone walked calmly, making her way through the chaos to the town gate. It was attended by a very nervous old man. He squinted up at her as if he had never seen such a creature before, and said he could not possibly open the gate for her to leave.
So she opened it herself, straining to lift the heavy bar with her tired muscles, allowing it to drop uselessly to the dust. The sun was coming up in the eyes of the invading army when she walked out of the gate onto the road, chin raised, a white-shirted figure with the sunlight dancing behind her.
Shots rang out, a volley of dedicated fury at this, their only permitted victim. At the same instant, a hoarse voice screamed for his men to stop, to hold their fire. The newsman’s video of the moment shudders, blurs, and then comes to a focus again on the running general. The sound of shots trails off, as an army watches a man fly up the road and gather up the crumpled figure.
General and victim hold for a moment, as he listens to a whisper or reads a message in her eyes. Then his figure folds in, as he pulls the limp figure to his chest.
The reporter’s story flashed around the world: the vow; the defeated village; the opening gate; the sun coming up behind smoking wreckage. It was a stunning image, with a story that caught at the mind and heart: a young girl who taught the women and healed the helpless; a night spent birthing a child; Mila coming out from the gates to receive her father’s sworn revenge; the father weeping into his daughter’s hair. In days, the world knew the name Mila, and knew what the young healer had died for.
One woman, walking out to meet a bullet, may in the end wield more power than all the world’s generals.
“Mila’s Tale” is a midrash (see below) based on Judges 11:1-40. The story there, known as “Jephtha’s Vow,” goes as follows:
Jephtha the Gileadite was a warrior. He was the son of a prostitute,
but Gilead was his father. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they grew up, they thrust Jephtha out and said, “You will not inherit in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” So Jephtha fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, where he gathered to himself worthless men and led them in raids.
When the Ammonites went to war with Israel, the leaders of Gilead said to Jephtha, “Come, be our leader.” And Jephtha said to the elders, “If you take me back in order to fight the Ammonites, and Yahweh gives them into my hand, then I shall be your ruler.” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephtha, “As Yahweh is our witness, we will do as you ask.”
[There follows lengthy negotiations with the Ammonites, but agreement is not reached.]
The spirit of Yahweh came over Jephtha, and he moved against the Ammonites. And he made a vow to Yahweh, saying, “If you will really give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatsoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me when I return victoriou
s, that shall belong to Yahweh and be offered up as a burnt offering.”
[After Yahweh gave him victory,] Jephtha came home to Mizpah, and there his daughter came out to meet him, dancing with
a tambourine. She was his only child; he had neither son nor daughter beside her, and when he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Ah, my daughter! You have brought me to my knees, for I have spoken to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”
So she said to him, “My father, if you have spoken to the Lord, do to me according to what has been said, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies the Ammonites.” But then she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: give me two months to go and wander on the mountains and mourn my virginity, I and my companions.” And he said, “Go.”
And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow which he had made. And it became a custom, that the daughters of Israel go for four days every year to lament the daughter of Jephtha the Gileadite.
(The above is my translation, and omits portions that have little to do with the daughter. For the full
story, I recommend the Revised Standard version.)
The episode takes place approximately 1100 BCE (Before the Common Era, also known as BC or Before Christ) when the Ammonites, longtime enemies of the people Israel, were pushing west. The kingdom of Ammon is now part of Jordan is now, their capital Rabbath Ammon, modern Amman. The Book of Judges itself was compiled as a written document some five centuries later, around 550 BCE.
The rabbinic term Midrash comes from the Hebrew root
, meaning to seek, to study, or to investigate. It is Biblical exegesis (that is, an interpretation based on critical techniques) but more specifically for our purpose, it is a traditional rabbinic sermon or interpretation in which a familiar passage is reinvented. Details are changed, material is added, the basic story rearranged and expanded in order to capture an essence or illuminate a hidden aspect: teasing out some subtle truth, that one’s audience might notice afresh the undying wisdom of Scripture.