Authors: Laurie King
The Bible is a document that serves many purposes. It explains, it reassures, it
illustrates the development of a people’s faith. It is not, generally speaking, either a scrupulous historical document or one of carefully composed theological theory; it is storytelling, pure and complex. It explores, it contradicts itself, it confuses the reader—and sometimes it challenges. The story of Jephtha’s daughter is one of those challenging places, as the dismay of her appearance makes us—even “us” as Medieval rabbis—want to change it, to find some way of replacing the dancing innocent with, at the very least, a non-human substitute.
And as with any
difficult story, the more it is studied, the richer and more problematic it becomes.
To the feminist, the tale is a stark example of man’s inhumanity to woman, telling of a young woman forsaken not only by the father who should protect her, but by
the God who (in the words of the rabbis) ‘answers Jephtha’s vow by bringing him his daughter,’ reaching past the inevitable assortment of creatures that wander through a Palestinian compound to pull her forward, fulfillment of a father’s rash promise.
To the faithful, the story is an uncomfortable illustration of what happens w
hen one lacks faith. Yes, the moral of the story is there to be read—a bargain with the Almighty will come back to bite you—but surely a Judge over Israel should be above this? What are we to think when a man given authority over God’s chosen people begins by being unable to accept the simple, direct, profound gift of God’s presence? A man who trusts not in God, even as he stands filled with God’s spirit? Who questions and dickers at the very moment of fulfillment?
Even the rabbis find the story frankly incomprehensible, and are driven to the speculative re-tellings of midrash in their attempts to make sense of the episode. Clearly this is one of Scripture’s more difficult stories, one where
the closer one looks, the less one knows.
Take a small detail that is noteworthy only because of its absence: the girl’s namelessness. Why does this young woman, daughter of a Judge of Israel, cause of much troubling speculation, source of an annual four-day lamentation, have no name? The most obvious assumption is that “Jephtha’s daughter” lacks a name because she lacks an identity, that she is regarded as so unimportant in the patriarchal scheme of things that she shimmers into invisibility.
Yet, the Bible is a book built on details, those storytelling devices that shape both the tales themselves and their deeper content. In the centuries-long process of recording oral tradition into canonical documents, minutiae have been left scattered in all directions—cities never again seen, the number of camels owned, a dozen generations of descendents who are little more than a name. Does this particular young woman lack detail because she is insignificant beside the actions of her father? Or is it rather that she is beyond mere naming? That she has taken on a larger identity than herself, as she leads her young women into the mountains? Is she perhaps now imbued with a mythic identity, the energy behind a yearly ritual of womankind, as the young women go up into the mountains to mourn her? (Although, as noted above, there is also a strong element here of painting a pagan ritual with a slightly less offensive tint: better to show the young women of Israel mourning one of their own, than participating in a dangerous fertility cult.)
Behind this conundrum lies an even more profound question. Was the young woman who proceeded the rest of the household through the gates of the compound, singing and dancing to greet the victor, truly ignorant of her father’s deadly vow? This is another place where the storytellers of the Hebrew Bible, despite their general habit of including
the most unimportant of facts, are oddly silent—even the rabbis of the Talmud do not argue here.
Which causes the thoughtful reader to reflect:
perhaps Jephtha’s vow was indeed a private declaration, between him and his God. But what if it was made in public? That would have been natural enough—a way for a charismatic leader to focus and bring together a band of unruly men on the brink of a major battle. Would not the news of the vow have flown back to the general’s home, even before the results of the battle were known? Was his daughter indeed blithely oblivious when she came out of the gates? Was she a mere pawn, first pledged by a faithless thug of a father, then sacrificed unransomed because of his political maneuverings?
did the young woman know full well what she was doing? Was
the one who made the choice here, stepping forward—nay: dancing—as a willing and deliberate self-offering, a young woman whose faith became both a rebuke to her faithless father, and a claim to her own immortality?
Perhaps the only way to
answer this question is to frame it in a different manner, through a shift of time and place. To create midrash out of it, looking at the story through a storyteller’s eyes.
To give the girl a name, and see what she tells us.
Tools for Further Reading:
One of the more frustrating aspects of scholarship for both amateur enthusiast and serious student is that the ideas and
interpretations that excite the most enthusiasm often bear the heaviest burden of suspicion: If an idea is too enticing, it’s probably either a figment of some translator’s imagination, or a scribe’s typo or margin commentary that was drawn into the original text somewhere along the centuries. The general reader is particularly vulnerable to abuse, marooned in a sea of scholarship without the necessary tools to turn his desert isle’s stand of palm trees into a secure vessel. A person can hack and cobble, but how to test his vessel without getting in and sailing away? How to know if the book in hand is a piece of sound scholarship, or if its author is just another fantasist—or worse, someone intent on grinding an axe on the dull wits of unsuspecting readers?
Generally speaking, the more outlandish and elaborate the theory, the less likely it is to be true, the more likely to be the work of an axe-grinder, but how does one know? When an art historian writes a book (supposedly
non-fiction) that gives a hard feminist twist to archaeological finds, how much trust are we to have in her conclusions that God was once a woman? When a huge best-seller of a novel dredges up a load of the more unlikely heresies of Christendom and presents them as a composite of Hidden Truths, how much hair is the serious historian required to tear out before she abandons any attempt to clear the record?
On the other hand, just because a theory is beautiful, is it necessarily wrong? And if a tale is told by a popularizer, must it be classed as pap? Short of enrolling in a ten-year program of archaeology and arcane languages, what’s an amateur to do?
If only novels had footnotes! If only we could take the author by the collar and demand,
Where did this piece of information come from?
Fiction writers invent things; real scholars are generally required to work within the boundaries of the material given. A scholar who in
vents data—why, plagiarism is nothing compared to outright academic fraud. But a fiction writer who wears the mask of academia yet practices not the skills? The sea of confusion rises up and overcomes us.
Thus, the commentary portion
of “Mila’s Tale.” I am a storyteller, first and foremost. I earn a living by making things up; I believe in the power of fiction, to teach, transform, and—yes—to entertain. However, I am also a vestigial scholar, who has more than once thrown a best-seller across the room (albeit gently—my mother was once a librarian) at the growing awareness that I was being had. More profound than my dislike of being duped, however, is my respect for the originals: Because I cherish the texts themselves and believe them worth knowing by everyone, I wish to make clear where the lines are between text and midrash.
Textual scholarship is a science, and the stories of the past are best served by recognizing its requirements. However, it is also an art, and a joy: it is Midrash. A story tells us many things, of the past and of the present, of oth
er peoples and of ourselves.
A good starting place for the amateur scholar is
: Don’t believe your translation. There is really no such thing as an “accurate” translation, of the Bible or any other document—any rendering from one language into another owes as much to the art of interpretation as the science of grammar. If you are stimulated into investigating the Hebrew or Ugaritic originals, more power to you, but you’ll have to take your research a little farther than I can go here. I only wish to tantalize, to make you suspect that the author is hiding something from you…
And as you suspect your translation, similarly you should beware of the idea that a story is simple just because you’ve heard it a hundred times; there are shadows to every tale, wherein lie hidden meanings.
But most of all, I beg you, don’t trust what I do with the material. After all, I’m a storyteller.
lie for a living.
For Jephtha’s complete story, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible combines a dignity of language with accurate translation—or as accurate as any translation can be. For an illustration of the problems inherent in Biblical translations, the site “Bible Hub” is a useful tool that gathers the major translations together on one page, shows the Interlinear Hebrew/English, gives a very basic lexicon, and offers comments.
For explanations and the background of topics such as “Sacrifice,” “Judges,” and “Jephthah” himself, look under those articles in the Abingdon Press
Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.
For a wider explanation of the book of Judges as a whole, Robert G. Boling’s Anchor Bible series translation and commentary
, despite leaving out most of the issues discussed above, is intended for use by lay readers.
the original Biblical commentary came from the endlessly inquisitive minds of Talmudic scholars, continually striving to understand the will of their God in the vastly changed world of the Diaspora. Heated debates (insults and name-calling are not unknown) between brilliant, and brilliantly trained, minds are recorded, spanning the centuries, on topics as diverse as planting seeds and the status of women. The Babylonian Talmud is huge, and all but impenetrable to the uninitiated, but Jacob Neusner’s classic
Invitation to the Talmud
is not only useful and accessible to the beginner, but captures something of the joyous, argumentative spirit of rabbinic debate.
For a sternly feminist interpretation of Jephtha’s vow, see Phyllis Trible’s
Texts of Terror.
Trible, however, fails to address a fundamental issue of the story, namely, why is it there? If it is nothing but a description of offense and a condemnation of patriarchies, why on earth did the patriarchal compilers of the Book of Judges include it?
Laurie R. King is a
New York Times
bestselling author of crime novels, whose background in theology and religious studies permeates her work. For more information, go to