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Stories of Jesus

Chapter 4: The Stories


Part Two: Easter Jesus in old stories

Jephthah’s daughter

The next story about a death in the Older Testament focuses our attention very strongly on the victim of a sacrifice. The ability to see the point of view of the victim is part of the genius of Hebrew Scripture, but it’s sometimes there and sometimes not. God punishes Cain for the murder of Abel, but God also sympathizes with Cain, giving him a mark so that no one will dare kill him. God doesn’t want a second victim after Abel’s death. But in another story God saves a victimized people—the Hebrew slaves in Egypt—and in the process creates another large group of victims, the Egyptians, who suffer and die; and not all of the ones who suffered were guilty. The account in Exodus shows not the slightest sympathy for them. (There’ is, however, this custom in the Jewish Seder celebration: “During the course of the Passover meal, wine is ritually spilled in compassion for, and solidarity with, the suffering caused to the Egyptians by God’s deliverance of Israel at the exodus.” The quote is from J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be, p. 93.) The story of the plagues upon Egypt is another that I can’t see taking literally as history and still believing in that god.

The next story is special just for the intense sympathy it makes us feel for a victim. It’s another Bible story about human sacrifice, and it doesn’t get an editorial makeover like the one about Abraham. The human sacrifice goes through to the end. But the story shows a great deal of sympathy for the victim. Here it is just as the Book of Judges presents it:

Jephthah, a judge of Israel, is worried about an upcoming military campaign. As insurance, he promises God that, if he wins the battle, he will sacrifice the first individual who comes out the door of his house to greet him on his return.


You can see where this is going. He wins the battle, and the first person out the door to greet him is no slave but his beloved daughter. There’s no divine intervention this time, and the unnamed daughter says, “Father, you have made a vow to the Lord. Do with me as you have vowed, because the Lord has wrought vengeance for you on your enemies the Ammonites.” She does request, and is granted, two months reprieve to go off and “mourn her virginity” with her girlfriends—no boyfriends allowed. (Judges 11:29-40)

We can see the rashness of Jephthah’s vow, and there’s that moment of sympathy for the daughter at the end. This way the story makes it clear again that God does not approve of human sacrifice. But the victim is the lasting interest of the story:

It then became a custom in Israel for Israelite women to go yearly to mourn the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite for four days of the year (verse 40).

There’s something about the daughter’s willingness to accept her role in fulfillment of her father’s impious vow that is especially touching. The connection with Jesus is impossible to miss.

The strangest part is God’s honoring Jephthah’s vow. If I had written this story, I would have cut it off half-way through. Jephthah would have lost the battle for making such a stupid vow. My story would have spoken against human sacrifice, but the Bible’s story helps to undermine the whole ideology of the sacrificial system. Jephthah gets what he asked for even though his promised sacrifice is completely inappropriate. And was the ensuing murder of the child a sacrifice made to God? Not at all! It was a sacrifice to Jephthah—not to secure his victory because that was already won, but to safeguard his honor. He could have broken his vow, but only if he admitted he was wrong and stupid to have made it.

Thinking about the main point: If this story is one that Jesus would have used to tell about himself, then Jesus is Jephthah’s daughter, sacrificed to a human ego. Is that something like Jesus’ death? We can easily imagine the system that controlled the world of first-century Judea needing Jesus’ death to keep itself going.  Can we imagine Jesus willingly going along with that and somehow subverting the system in the process? Maybe so, especially as we observe that in the long run, in Israel’s memory, Jephthah’s daughter without a name triumphs over her father.

On to King David. Everything is Holy Now