Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Rehabilitating Jephthah

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Rehabilitating Jephthah

Article excerpt

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The story of Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter is perhaps the most disturbing piece of literature in the Hebrew Bible. Josephus was the earliest to comment on it, explaining to his Roman audience in the late first century c.e. that Jephthah had made a sacrifice that "was neither conformable to the law nor acceptable to God" (Ant. 5.7.10 §§263-66). Christian fathers, rabbinic tradition, and modern biblical exegetes likewise condemn the act, evaluating Jephthah on a broad continuum of opinion ranging from (in the worst case) coldhearted scoundrel to (at best) faithless fool. Although each commentator has a unique take, most assessments boil down to some variation on the chutzpah and/or stupidity of a man who believed he could win God over by offering him a quid pro quo and was punished to disastrous effect for having made the attempt.

There are two problems with this view, however: (1) in the other two references to Jephthah in the Bible (1 Sam 12:11 and Heb 11:32) he receives high praise as an exemplary Israelite leader; and (2) it is difficult to reconcile these negative evaluations of his character with the rest of the Jephthah narrative, in which he is depicted as an able negotiator, accomplished statesman, and articulate defender of ethnic pride, as well as a bona fide deliverer and respected judge.1 As a result, there have also been some uneven evaluations in which Jephthah is simultaneously praised and maligned.2 All of this attests to the conundrum over which our predecessors truly and rightly agonized, and which contemporary scholars still face.

One problem is with the act itself. The notion of human sacrifice to YHWH has been so difficult to accept that certain scholars have proposed that the daughter, instead of being sacrificed, was consigned to a state of perpetual virginity, living out her life either in her father's house or in some sort of Hebrew convent.3 This solution has the advantage of absolving Jephthah of the act of killing his daughter, but founders on lack of evidence for such an institution or evidence that the Hebrew word 'ola in Judg 11:31 referred to anything other than a wholly consumed burnt offering. Therefore, others-and this is the mainstream view-accept the sacrifice as authorial "fact." However, this causes yet another problem: as many scholars, modern and ancient, were painfully aware, blame for the sacrifice must fall somewhere, and if it does not fall on Jephthah, then obviously and necessarily it must fall on God. Human sacrifice to YHWH-a concept hard enough to digest in itself. pales in comparison to the logical corollary that YHWH might actually want it and could conceivably want to select the victim himself. How does one deal with this? The solution is straightforward: denigrate Jephthah to exculpate God. Hence, Jephthah has been variously characterized as egocentric, impulsive, insecure, and faithless; and his vow stigmatized as foolish, hastily formulated, rash, and self-serving.4 All this mud, I would suggest, has been thrown at Jephthah in order to take God off the hook.

Yet archaeological evidence and reevaluations of pertinent biblical texts are causing the scholarly community to reassess its notion of traditional Israelite religious practice. As a result, what was once thought normative is now viewed as late monarchic reformist theology, and what was really the norm was virtually everything this reformist theology condemned.5 Among the "abominations" was the practice of child sacrifice, viewed by at least some traditional Israelites as a most efficacious means of disposing YHWH to grant an extremely important wish.6 Such an attitude dovetails perfectly with an observation Jon Levenson made in 1993 regarding the Jephthah narrative: "What's missing in this story," he says, "is any indication that child sacrifice, painful to father and offspring alike, was inappropriate from God's standpoint. Quite the opposite: Jephthah's actions are intelligible only on the assumption that his daughter-he had no son-could legitimately be sacrificed as a burnt offering to YHWH. …

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