Authors: Laurie King
: Jephtha is both a son of a man named Gilead, and a man born in the land of Gilead, a hilly tribal territory between the Ammonites and the Jordan River.
translates as “empty fellows” or “vain men,” that is, men with neither name nor property, whom Jephtha leads in raids on enemy territories.
There are several towns of this name in the Hebrew Bible, but from the name—“watch-tower”—one pictures a hill town with a view across long approaches.
Others have confronted the namelessness of the young woman. She is called “Seila” (“ask”) in the first- or second-century
Book of Biblical Antiquities
(known as “Pseudo-Philo”), then under the name of Adah (“ornament”) forms one point of the Freemason’s “Order of the Eastern Star”.
“Mourn my virginity”:
Less a reference to physical virginity than her unmarried state, with neither child nor promise of one.
The annual lament of the daughters of Israel:
This is probably an attempt to explain away the cultic fertility ritual seen in, for example, Ez. 8:14, where it is called “weeping for Tammuz” (or Dumuzi, known to the Greeks as Adonis). This annual lamentation by women not only marked the seasonal disappearance of the fertility god’s rains, but attempted to instigate his return, and was one of the rituals of goddess worship regarded as abominations in the eyes of the strict monotheists: there is only one God. Clearly, however, the people (especially women) clung to the deities of their ancestors.
Once upon a time I was an academic. I wrote things that required footnotes, that depended on more than one alphabet, that took the specific and narrowed it down still further.
Then I left the ways of Truth and walked into the life of crime: a while after finishing my Master’s Thesis on “Feminine Aspects of Yahweh,” I began to write mystery novels, abandoning the pure habits of the scholar.
Tale” was originally delivered to an audience at Hanover College, Indiana, where I spent a week as artist in residence. Hanover is a liberal arts college with long-standing links to the Presbyterian Church, and a dedication to intellectual curiosity and the exploration of personal responsibility. As a writer of fiction, it seemed to me appropriate to create a story for my Guest Lecture, since storytellers are those who dig meaning out of tradition.
One of the characteristics shared by
my past training and my current profession is the close attention to detail both require. When interpreting a Hebrew passage, one must not overlook even the smallest of details: verb endings, odd phrasings, repetitions with a slight variation must all be examined. Some of these peculiarities may be accidents of a scribe, or poetry for the sake of beauty—theological red herrings, as it were. But at other times, the meaning lies within those very oddities—in Scripture no less than in a whodunit.
At times, the tale itself is the oddity, when it reveals some dark aspect of a hero, a distressing truth about someone we are being urged to emulate.
Some of the more problematic tales in Scripture feel almost as if they’re put there, not despite, but
of the uncomfortable itch they cause. Why on earth did the compilers of the Hebrew Bible include such deeply troubling tales as Noah’s drunken sprawl, or Lot first throwing his daughters to his lust-filled neighbors, then fathering two sons on the young women? What about Elisha sending bears to tear apart some mocking boys—or the young woman, without so much as an identity to call her own, literally laid on the altar of her father’s ambitions? (Genesis 9:21; Genesis 19: 8, 33; 2 Kings 2: 23-24; Judges 11.)
Perhaps the Rabbis want us to wrestle a bit with the angels, or with our own demons.
Wrestling with demons is what fiction is all about. And wrestling to create a three-dimensional narrative out of naked clues and events is what crime fiction is about.
Thus, as a writer of mysteries, I began as every good detective must: by setting aside the commonly accepted story and looking at its
facts from a different point of view.
When I did that, the brief episode of the young woman in Judges began to t
ake on another meaning entirely. If one assumes that this is the story of a victim, a two-dimensional character with as little gumption as she had identity, then her fate looks like one thing. But what if we turn the story around a little? What if this girl actually
know what her father had done? What if she is the
here rather than the victim, going actively to meet her fate rather than succumbing in passive namelessness? That would mean… and then… and also….
The clues fell into place like the solution of a crime novel.
What I wrote was
, the rabbinical technique of storytelling that re-works a given text to explore its hidden meanings and encourage listeners to think about it anew.
Midrash is a sort of scholarly game, hugely respectful and loving of the original, yet at the same time refusing to allow the Canon to stand, monolithic and unmoving, until its feet have turned to stone and its mouth ceases to speak to us. Midrash is the sign of a living religion, an active and inventive means of applying received wisdom to the life of an ever-changing community. Midrash instructs, midrash (whisper it quietly) entertains, midrash makes
us look at the Divine with new eyes.
But because the rabbis were always and in all things bound to the word of God, precise scriptural references are found at the core of most midrashim. Aphorisms and human narratives are repeatedly grounded upon pithy quotes from Samuel or Genesis, lest we forget whereof we speak.
Rabbinical midrash, then, is the paradigm for “Mila’s Tale.” Stories are how we human beings speak to each other across the generations. Stories hold—stories
—wisdom and humor: the experience of the community, the wit of the individual, the reflections of society’s most thoughtful members. Stories clarify our place in the universe, stories explain us to ourselves.
I gave Jephtha’s daughter a name (because surely she had one) and I gave her a will (because the text most assuredly hints in that direction)
. After that, good organic writer that I am, I let her speak for herself.
The book of Judges, the seventh book in the Hebrew Bible
(or Old Testament), was compiled during the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE. It concerns the period between Joshua’s conquest of the Holy Land and the rise of the monarchy under kings Saul and David. The term “Judges,” conjuring to the modern eye an image of black robes in a dignified courtroom, is misleading. Judges were essentially war leaders, men (and one woman, Deborah) with great charisma and military ability, whose authority extended past the time of immediate crisis into peace-time rule. Some seem to have become virtual dictators—but since they reached their position by a competent defense of the people Israel, clearly with the help of God, who was going to argue with them?
Thirteen (some say fifteen) individuals are described as having judged Israel during this period, half of them too minor to account for much
apart from a name. Jephtha is seen as the last of the “major” judges, highly praised on into New Testament times.
The name Jephtha (somewhat ironic, in light of his story) can mean either “God opens [i.e.: the womb]” or “God frees [the captive]: his only descendent dies childless, captive to a father’s vow.
As his story begins, Jephtha heads an apparently sizeable gang of what the text calls “worthless men,” his own personal army. When Gilead is threatened, Jephtha’s ragtag band is the only force capable of meeting the threat posed by the Ammonites. Jephtha agrees to take on the battle, but only if the elders of Gilead agree to make him head over them if he is victorious. They may have little wish to be ruled by this shady character, illegitimate in more ways than the one; on the other hand, the Ammonites are coming. So they agree, and when negotiations with the Ammonites fail, battle is met; the spirit of Yahweh comes upon Jephtha.
And here we come to the tale’s first knotty problem: no sooner does the divine spirit come upon Jephtha than he makes a bargain with God. Note the order. Rather than accepting the inspiration of the Lord and proceeding with the trust that in-spiration should have given him (compare, for example, the attitude of young David going against Goliath in I Samuel 17:45-47) Jephtha moves to the bargaining table, offering Yahweh a sacrifice in exchange for absolute victory. Surely a true man of God—someone filled with the spirit of Yahweh—ought to know that you don’t take a gift, then turn around and bargain with the Giver for a better one?
Next comes the problem of the sacrifice itself. A
s the rabbis say (in
, a collection of remarks and sermons on the book of Leviticus), “Four asked improperly [Eliezer, Caleb, Saul, and Jephtha]. Three were granted their request in a fitting manner, and the fourth, in an unfitting manner.” What if Jephtha’s offer of sacrifice—
whatever comes out of the doors of my house when I return—
landed on some offensive, ritually unclean animal? The rabbis speculate, “Said the Holy One (blessed be He), ‘If a camel or an ass or a dog had come out first, would you have given that for a burnt offering?’ ”
(One Midrashic thread, woven around the statement in Judges 12:7 that when Jephtha died he was buried “in the cities [plural] of Gilead,” says that part of his punishment for this “unfit” behavior was to die of an illness that caused his limbs to fall off, hence his burial not in one place, but in several.)
Then, as if he had not offended God enough first by bargaining, then by chancing an unclean offering, Jephtha goes on to actually carry out the sacrifice—
he did with her according to the vow which he had made—
despite any number of prohibitions and alternatives.
Whether or not human sacrifice was permitted in early Judaism is a touchy and much-debated subject: Mosaic Law clearly forbids it when it has to do with the worship of idols, but nowhere is it flatly stated that human sacrifice itself is forbidden. (Abraham’s binding of Isaac—his willingness to offer his son, then the convenient substitution of a stray ram—can be taken either way: supportive of human sacrifice, or evidence of God’s disapproval.) Indeed, the first-born of all, man or beast, belongs to God:
All the male first-borns of your cattle shall be the Lord’s. Every first-born of an ass you will redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it, you will break its neck. Every first born of man among your sons you will redeem. (Ex 13: 12-13)
This was one area where daughters got a pass, requiring neither redemption nor a broken neck. Besides which, even if Jephtha’s daughter had been a first-born son, this was
a time when a perfectly acceptable legal alternative to sacrifice not only existed, but was widely used: a monetary ransom to the Temple in place of an actual sacrifice.
, then, didn’t Jephtha simply ransom his daughter? Rabbinical commentary goes to considerable lengths in wrestling with this problem, coming up with various explanations.
The rabbinical commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra (1093-1167 CE/AD) suggests that, although the text does not specifically go into the matter, everyone would have understood that any such vow only applied if the sacrifice was appropriate, and that since a young woman was hardly a suitable whole, burnt offering (“holocaust”), she was instead dedicated to God, locked away in virginal and holy seclusion for the rest of her days. (The time of Ibn Ezra was, it should be noted, a period in which women’s orders of the Church were rapidly expanding.) In the following generation of rabbis, the commentator known as Radak (David Kimche, 1160-1235) asserts that the text does in fact hold that understanding: that the final
in Jephtha’s vow, generally translated “and” (“
that shall belong to Yahweh
be offered up as a burnt offering”),
is here a grammatical variant best translated “or.”
rabbis point out that had Jephtha been at all familiar with Talmudic scholarship, he would have known that such a sacrifice was not only unnecessary, but unacceptable. This leads to a Midrashic theory that a long-standing feud lay between Jephtha and the high priest, with Jephtha standing on his dignity as Gilead’s new ruler while Phineas, high priest and son of a high priest, deemed it equally inappropriate to approach the father first with the alternative. And, the rabbis comment grimly (Midrash Tanhuma), “Between the two of them, the maiden perished.”
Jephtha’s only-begotten child, his nameless daughter
, who comes dancing out to meet him with a joyous tambourine, and meets her death instead.
The girl’s appearance at the gates is a
shock on all kinds of levels. She is as unexpected to us as she is to her father, and like him we want to push her back inside that womb-like compound, to drive out some nice clean lamb ahead of her, to whisper that she must wait, just a moment, until…