Friday, April 11, 2014

Fucked Up (Judges 11:30-32,34-37, 39-40)

      Jephthah made this vow to the Lord: "If You will hand over the Ammonites to me, whatever come out of the doors of my house to greet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites will belong to the Lord, and I will offer it as a burnt offering."
     Jephthah crossed to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord handed them over to him…
     When Jephthah went to his home in Mizpah there was his daughter coming out to meet him with tambourines and dancing! She was his only child… When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, "No! Not my daughter! You have devastated me! You have brought great misery on me. I have given my word to the Lord can cannot take it back.
     Then she said to him, "My father, you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me as you have said for the Lord brought vengeance on your enemies, the Ammonites… Let me do this one thing: Let me wander two months through the mountains with my friends and mourn my virginity…"
     At the end of the two months she returned to her father and he kept the vow he had made about her. And she had never been intimate with a man. Now it became a custom in Israel that four days each year the young women of Israel would commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Judges 11:30-32, 34-37, 39-40 HCSB

With Jephthah we encounter one of the more enigmatic narratives of the bible. Jephthah is the son of a prostitute. We are told his father is "Gilead" which may relate to a biological kinship or be a metaphor for "the men of Gilead" who used his mother. Jephthah is shunned from society and becomes a desert bandit. Then the Gileadites come and recruit him as their "judge" or warlord in order to rid themselves of the marauding Ammonites. In the midst of this aggrandizement of power through brute strength Jephthah makes a pledge of holocaust - of burnt offering - to God if victory is given to Jephthah. The holocaust sacrifice is to be the first thing that comes out of the door to greet him when he returns home. That "thing" is his only child, his daughter. 

The passage now moves from being strange to being a tale of horror. Jephthah does not seek to rescind his oath, God does not intervene as with Abraham and Isaac (Sick Religion), nor does the daughter's friends make plans for an escape during the two month reprieve. Everyone seems to be in agreement that an oath is an oath and the only thing really worth grieving here is an unused womb. 

Let us not deceive ourselves for in the end this is a "fucked up" story, to use the vernacular. The narrative which gives credence about keeping oaths to a male divinity cannot and does not excuse reducing an unnamed daughter to a willing victim, stripping her self-determination. 

Looking into the passage for clues as to why this story now stands as "scripture" we can gain some sense from its telling.  Imagine setting around a campfire at night with bawdy tales on the tongue of those gathered. In the light of the notion of "ribald" we gain an understanding of irony: the man born of a prostitute buries his virginal daughter, the outcast bandit becomes the praised warlord, the man who makes a vow to God enacts a sacrifice that, as far as other parts of the bible are concerned, is in direct contradiction to God's vision for humanity. Setting around the fire we might understand the story as a gleaning of wisdom: "Don't make silly oaths to God." "Beware of leaders who win battles but see you as expendable" (see the full ending of Jephthah's narrative). "Those of low birth might be used for great things." "This is why your sisters and our daughters spend four days a year…"

These learnings though, do not excuse an underlying assumption of the passage which is formed around the notion of "successful masculinity." David Clines coined the phrase "play the man" as a way to understand the masculine imperative of the Hebrew scriptures. According to Clines the notion of "play" indicates that masculinity is a role, while the notion of "imperative" indicates "the force of the social constraints upon biological males to exhibit prescribed male behavior." In the story of Jephthah the constraint to play the man subjugates all relationships so that the daughter and her friends are also playing the man. This story reinforces the notion of successful masculinity by having all involved act out the prescribed male role. Even God becomes the man by accepting the brutish vow and expecting payment, regardless the victim.

When I encounter Jephthah and the assumption that playing the man is the vision of God for humanity, I wonder if there isn't a correlative biblical assumption for "playing the straight" that might give us some insights into the handful of sexual narratives in the bible. Using Clines' notion we begin to understand that to "play" means that heterosexuality is a role which is played out through the social constraints upon people to exhibit prescribed straight behavior. We might also ask, given the emergence of "queer" as a social signifier, if there is not a dynamic already at work to "play the queer" in which role assignment is taking place within constraints to exhibit prescribed (stereotypical) queer behavior.

While Jephthah's story is fucked up, it turns out it is a narrative we cannot escape. We are all playing a prescribed role to one degree or another. Even our concepts of God are subjected to such roles. The continuing horror of Jephthah is the ugly truth to which his virginal daughter's sacrifice points - as long as we remain unaware of the roles society hands us we remain vulnerable to the hideous consequences of the constraints of these roles. How much do I live as my own person? How much do I live as others demand? The answers may indeed cause us to mourn. 


  1. I've always hated this passage and I still do. You have given me a way to bring this horrid tale into a larger conversation. Many Thanks!