In Remembrance of Bat-Jiftah: Judges 11:29-40

Guest post from…Leo Hartshorne is an Anabaptist minister, preacher, peacemaker, songwriter, musician, drummer and artist from Portland, Oregon. This article was originally preched on June 3, 2012 at Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Oregon. You can check out this sermon and other writings from Leo on his own blog, A Different Drummer.

This post is the 5th in a series of posts reflecting on sexual violence and the church.

If you read my sermon title you may be wondering, “Who is Bat-jiftah?” I’ve never seen her name in the Bible. In reality there is no one by that name in the Bible. I use this name to identify an anonymous person. She is a victim of domestic violence, as well as anonymity. We may know the name of Nicole Brown Simpson only because her batterer was a celebrity. But, the victim in our text goes unnamed, like the women abused every fifteen seconds, the more than 4,000 women killed annually by domestic violence, or the estimated 2 to 4 million women physically abused each year. They have become mere statistics to be recited; nameless persons, victims of domestic violence. So, I give this victim a name. Bat-Jiftah in Hebrew would be translated “daughter of Jephthah.” By giving her a name and remembering her story we may help to break the silence of abuse. And by remembering the unnamed victims of abuse today we may move toward their healing.

The story of Bat-Jiftah begins with a violent male. This is true of most stories of domestic violence. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators of domestic violence are male. Studies have shown that a larger percentage of males than females display aggressive and violent behavior. 89% of all violent crimes are committed by men. Males, in general, seem to be socialized toward aggressive behavior. So, we begin with the male in this particular Biblical story, whose name is Jephthah. He was the son of a prostitute, a “mighty warrior.” He was skilled in the art of violence. Driven out of his home by his half-brothers he fled to the land of Tob, where he gathered around himself a band of outlaws.

Jephthah was invited to return to Gilead and command the military forces in a war against the Ammonites. This society practiced

Jephthah by John Everett Millais

human sacrifice to the god Molech. The crux of the story centers around a vow he made. Before Jephthah goes into battle, he bargains with God by making a vow. Strangely enough, the text says that he made the vow while “in the spirit of the Lord.” Jephthah said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” This was a man driven by power. Jephthah desperately needed a military victory to legitimate himself in the eyes of his people. And his victory was to be sealed with the offering of a sacrifice. When the battle was won, Jephthah returned home to Mizpah.

At this point in the story the writer intends to create in the story a sense of anticipation, even anxiety, as Jephthah makes his way home. Who will come out to meet him? Jephthah himself doesn’t seem to know. When he was some distance from his home his daughter, his only child, came out to meet him. Like Miriam at the Red Sea, she came with timbrels and dancing in joyful celebration of the victory of her father and her people. Jephthah appears to be genuinely surprised and falls into deep sorrow on account of the outcome of his vow to God. Knowing the place of sons in such an ancient, patriarchal society, I wonder if the one who came out to meet him were a son, would his sorrow have been even greater? Might he have reconsidered his foolish vow? Nevertheless, it is his daughter who will be sacrificed on the altar of male egotism and blind faith.

First, Jephthah rends his garments in an act of mourning. But, then he places the blame of his forthcoming violence upon his daughter. He says, “Ah, my daughter you have brought me low and you have become the source of my trouble.” Blaming the victim is the classic justification perpetrators use to excuse their violence. The batterer says to the victim, “If you wouldn’t make me so angry, then I wouldn’t hit you,” As one battered wife said: “I was blamed for just about everything and got so that I accepted that blame. Once he threw a brush at me and accused me of breaking it.” This tactic of blaming the victim is seen in the title of one “pro-family” tract: Wives: 90% of the Fault. A battered woman may be blamed by her family, counselor, the church, or clergy when they tell her that she shouldn’t have provoked her partner to anger. The victim will even blame themselves for their abuse. She may say to herself, “I should have cleaned the house and had dinner ready” or “I shouldn’t have said anything about the bills.” By blaming the victim the whole system of male domination is protected from its need to change. “Ah, my daughter, you have brought me low… ”

As strange as it may sound to us, Bat-Jiftah responded to her father’s rash vow in complete submission. The Lord had fulfilled his part of the agreement, her father could do no less. In no way did Bat-Jiftah challenge paternal authority. She is portrayed as the perfectly submissive daughter. We may want to question whether teaching children an unqualified obedience and honor of parents may set some of them up for accepting parental abuse. Like her father, she accepted the vow as irrevocable. So, she submitted to the vow. We may not know whether to praise her or feel sorry for her. Some interpreters of this text have lauded Bat-Jiftah for her submissiveness to her father’s vow to God. I read a sermon on Jephthah’s daughter that compared her “noble” self-sacrifice to the “sacrifice of God’s Son.” The preacher said, “An oath has been made to God and she will do her duty.” One modern poet would have us remember Bat-Jiftah’s submission by putting these words in her mouth to her father:

When this blood of thy giving hath gushed,
When the voice that thou lovest is hushed,
Let my memory still be thy pride,
And forget not I smiled as I died!

The Daughter of Jephthah by Edouard Bernard Debat-Ponsan

Hogwash! One may wonder whether this portrayal of unquestioned submissiveness to paternal authority is rather the narrator’s male-oriented interpretation of what happened. Some interpreters would read in Bat-Jiftah’s words a tone of ironic judgment upon Jephthah. Others consider that she even may have already known about Jephthah’s vow, which seems to be indicated in the text, and intentionally took the place of someone her father considered more expendable, maybe a servant, thus challenging his senseless vow. Even if this were a case of humble submission to such an act of violence, it can in no way be used to legitimize a woman’s submission to domestic violence, even if it is done “in the name of the Lord.” Jephthah was ready to commit an act of domestic violence in God’s name.

Some of us may be saying to ourselves, “They sure were brutal back in those days. I’m awful glad that in our modem times people don’t do such things in the name of religion.” And yet, even today acts of domestic violence are perpetrated in the name of God and religion, or at times with religious justification and sanction. I am reminded of the criminal case of John List, who considered by many around him to be a devout man of faith. The bodies of his wife, Helen, their three teenage children, Patricia, John Jr., and Frederick, as well as his 85 year old mother, Alma, were all found in List’s New Jersey home shot in the head. One could point to List’s enormous debts, the loss of his job, and pressure from his wife’s illness as triggering events. But, List was also frustrated with the unchristian attitudes of his family. He told his daughter, who rebelled against his rigid religion, that her interests were interfering with her continuing to be a Christian. His wife, also frustrated with his dogmatism and its negative effects on their lives, asked to have her name removed from the church roll. That incident with his wife happened right before the murders. List decided instead of removing his wife from the church rolls he would remove his whole family from the roll of the living.

He left a note for his pastor at the murder scene. List later professed a positive spiritual benefit in the murders saying, “At least I’m certain they’ve all gone to heaven now.” Following the murders he even returned to regular church attendance under another name in another place.

Truly, this is an extreme case. But, religion, even Christianity, has often been used in many ways to justify, sanction, or indirectly support committing or submitting to domestic violence. In a 15th Century Christian publication called Rules of Marriage we read:

Scold your wife sharply, bully and terrify her. If this does not work, take a stick and beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul than to damage the soul and spare the body. .. Then readily beat her, not in rage but out of charity and concern for her soul so that the beating will rebound to your merit and her good.

As appalling as this may sound, theological justification is still being used to condone or ignore violence within the family. Are we not condoning Jephthah’s act when confronted with a situation of marital violence we advocate the sanctity of vows made to God over the sanctity of human life? Clergy, Christians, and friends have advised battered women to respect their marriage vows, be submissive to their battering husbands, as the will of God, with little or no admonition to the husband to end the violence. By no means does everyone who believes in a divine plan of male headship over women and wives abuse or approve of abuse. And yet, there appears to be a direct correlation between the theological viewpoint of male domination and authority over women and abuse. Research has shown that men who batter embrace the traditional view of male supremacy.

Our theology can, when misused, reinforce domestic violence. The Christian virtues of self-denial, self-sacrifice, suffering for the sake of others, and taking up one’s cross have been literally applied in the situations of domestic violence trapping the victim in the deadly cycle of violence. In the light of our knowledge and experience of domestic violence should we not reconsider perpetuating one traditional formulation of the doctrine of redemption, more particularly the doctrine of “substitutionary atonement”? In this portrayal of redemption the Father is all-powerful and the children are all-guilty. There is nothing the children can do to earn mercy, no moral basis upon which appeal to the love of the Father. The Father’s rage is justified because of the sinfulness of the children. No matter how they are treated by the Father, it is their fault and they have to carry the blame for whatever the Father might do to them. The children’s guilt is exacerbated by the presence of a perfect child. Out of love for his children, the Father takes out his wrath upon his blameless Son through a violent; and by divine necessity, bloody death. Thus, the perfect Son accepts the punishment that the Father’s hopelessly sinful children rightly deserve, so that they can be saved and go to live forever in the home of the all-powerful Father. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a nightmare to me! Imagine how it might sound to the millions of victims of domestic violence.

It is not hard to see how this doctrinal construct could be used to give divine legitimization to domestic violence. As one who has heard many horror stories of abuse and has personally experienced the deep pain, trauma, and permanent emotional damage left in the wake of domestic violence, I would have to say that I would find it extremely difficult to worship a God who would in any way condone or justify domestic violence, or violence of any sort. The God that I worship is a God of love and compassion. The God of our Jesus Christ is a God of healing and hope, who defends the abused and oppressed.

Some might well be saying, “Yeah, but all that stuff about domestic violence may be true for others, but we Mennonites, with our peace theology, don’t have to deal with the problem of domestic violence.” Sad but true, one recent study done by Isaac Block of Mennonite families in Winnepeg revealed that sexual and domestic violence occurred as frequently in Mennonite families as it did in the general population. Some believe that a Mennonite theology of Gelassenheit, or humble submission to God’s will, self-denial, self-sacrifice, suffering love, following the way of the cross, turning the other cheek in passive nonresistance, and quick and easy forgiveness, have contributed to the further victimization of women in situations of abuse. On the other hand, I am encouraged by Mennonite women and men theologians and ethicists who are applying our peace theology in new ways to the issue of domestic violence by advocating that we work for social justice and practice active, nonviolent resistance. We can follow the way of Jephthah and without question literally and woodenly apply our beliefs in situations that can only further victimize people. Or, by the healing grace of God, we can discover alternative ways to be faithful to our covenant vows with God.

In the end Jephthah carried through with his vow. Frozen in my mind is a painting I came across on the internet, a 17th century painting by Venetian artist Pietro della Vecchia entitled The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. It captures the moment right before Jephthah robs his daughter’s life in human sacrifice. The figures of Jephthah and his daughter fill the canvas. The bottom of the canvas is strewn with the shadowed heads of bystanders looking on as if at a peep show. The figures of father and daughter are set against a brooding sky. Their heads touch in the center. In one hand Jephthah tenderly holds the back of the neck of his daughter. The muscles of his other arm bulge with his hand holding a steely knife reflecting light in the shadows. Light falls bright on the bare flesh of Bar-Jiftah, with only her legs draped with a cloth and her hands protecting her uncovered breasts. To our modem sensibilities there is something almost pornographic in this mixture of subtle sexual titillation and misogynist violence. Bat-Jiftah’s head is bowed in quiet submission waiting for the inevitable plunge of the knife blade.

Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible has rightly called this story a “text of terror.” There is no word in the text that condemns the sacrifice. Nowhere do we read anything in the book of Judges like, “And Jephthah did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord.” As a matter of fact, our story begins “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” He is even listed among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. And within the book of Judges God did not stay the hand of Jephthah as God did with Isaac as Abraham lifted high the knife to plunge it into the Isaac’s breast. There was no one in the community to hold back the hand of a violent father, as in the case of Saul, who was kept from doing violence to his son Jonathan on account of a rash oath that he made.

Besides that, you have the problem of modern biblical interpreters who justify Jephthah’s act of violence. As recently as 1962, C. F. Kraft commends Jephthah: “it was not a rash vow, but deliberate . . . he was expecting great things, and he promised his best in return.” Kraft praises the daughter as one willing to die for her father’s integrity. Baloney! Some modern interpreters even go so far as to say the Jephthah really didn’t sacrifice his daughter, but made her keep her own vow…. of virginity. And yet, the biblical text says clearly that Jephthah “did with her according to the vow he had made” (vs. 39b).

Some of the ambiguities, silences, and word construction of the text make Jephthah into a tragic victim of circumstance. If the narrator had Bat-Jiftah question her father’s vow, plead for mercy from her father or God, then he might have tipped the scales too much in her favor and brought into question her father’s vow and God’s silence. The story may very well be a reflection of the sexual politics of the narrator. The narrator implicates Bat-Jiftah in her own demise being a willing subject of her father horrible vow and protects Jephthah from responsibility for his violent behavior, or should I say bluntly, the murder of his own daughter.

Even though we may find human sacrifice condemned elsewhere in the Bible, there is no direct indication in the text that God was displeased that Jephthah followed through with his vow. On the other hand, it may be simply assumed by the narrator that human sacrifice is not God’s will and Jephthah’s vow is rash and should not have been kept. “Obedience is better than sacrifice,” says God. Could it be that the death of the daughter through human sacrifice, the silence of God, the absence of moral critique by the narrator, and the lack of anyone in the community to protest such violence are but signs that something is rotten and evil in their midst? This might be the case. This story may be a reflection of the repeated mantra in Judges, “There was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Before Jephthah offered his daughter as a human sacrifice she asked only one small favor. Within the limits of her own patriarchal culture, Bat-Jiftah assumed some responsibility in her dire situation by bargaining for herself. She asked that she might go into the mountains for two months with her female companions to “bewail her virginity.” Her women sisters would be the only ones who could truly understand her plight in a male-dominated society.

The narrator notes that Bat-Jiftah “had never known a man,” as if that makes her fate more tragic than it already was. One might reply that she had known a man, at least one and all too well, and that is at the heart of her tragedy. But, her pilgrimage to the mountains with her female companions was not to bemoan the fact that she had never had sex with a man. First, this is primarily a comment in view of Jephthah’s interests, more so than his daughter’s. It means that there will be no progeny for Jephthah. It was his loss, more than hers. In the narrator’s eye this is tragedy more for Jephthah than it is for his daughter.

Secondarily, Bat-Jiftah was mourning the fact that she would not make the transition to adulthood. From textual and cultural analysis, we may conjecture that this pilgrimage involved a rite of passage from puberty, a common ritual depicting the death of adolescence and the emergence of adulthood. The ritual became associated with the premature death of Bat-Jiftah. It is interesting to note that in her book In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan presents a study of female moral development from an adolescent stage of self-sacrifice to a woman’s mature recognition of responsibility for her own well-being in moral decision making. For women to appropriate Bat-Jiftah’s story today it may mean that they move beyond the stage of adolescent self-sacrifice in solving moral dilemmas to a mature recognition of the need to care for their own well-being. Anyway, we do know from the text that there existed some kind of ritual reenacted for four days each year, in which the daughters of Israel would go out to lament Bat-Jiftah. These women kept her memory alive in a ritual of remembrance.

In Africa there is still a belief that a person does not really die until the last one who remembers that person dies. Let us keep the memory of Bat-Jiftah alive, like the women who for four days each year remembered her in an annual ceremony. Even more so, let us remember the countless Bat-Jiftah’s, unnamed women, daughters, and sons sacrificed on the familial pyres. And let us remember them not merely by the ritual of listening to a sermon or observing Domestic Violence Awareness month. Let us remember by working for the healing of bleeding women and children, as Jesus healed the woman with a menstrual hemorrhage. Let us in remembering work to break the silence of abuse, advocate a zero-tolerance attitude toward any form of family abuse, support organizations, like Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and Clackamas Women’s Services in Oregon City, that educate the public, support and shelter battered women and children. Let us remember the contemporary Bat-Jiftahs by dismantling oppressive patriarchal structures and ideologies and tearing down the walls of a theology that condones, justifies, or supports domestic violence.

Let us also remember to listen to the liberating Biblical stories of the healing of women, children, and men that can transform our

Celie from The Color Purple, by Alice Walker

personal and social consciousness and moral vision. Let us remember stories of the triumph of the human spirit, like the Alice Walker’s fictional story of Celie in The Color Purple, a survivor of domestic abuse. Let us remember the real life stories of those around us who have, by the grace of God, experienced a measure of healing from abuse. Let us remember Bat-Jiftah. For those who do not remember history are bound to repeat it. By remembering the unnamed victims of domestic violence, we can hopefully avoid repeating a history of abuse. By remembering, we all may continue to live.

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Filed under Sacred Texts, Sexual Violence

One response to “In Remembrance of Bat-Jiftah: Judges 11:29-40

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