Exegetical Exercise (Judges 11:4-11, 29-31)

Jephthah's daughter Judges 11

Judges 11: Jephthah’s daughter looking a little less than the innocent victim …

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, June 18 is a section from Judges 11, the portion of the story of Jephthah where the elders of Gilead convince Jephthah to lead them in the fight against Ammon, and Jephthah’s vow.

Here’s the text:

4/ After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. 5/ And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. 6/ They said to Jephthah, “Come and be our commander, so that we may fight with the Ammonites.” 7/ But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house? So why do you come to me now when you are in in trouble?” 8/ The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “Nevertheless, we have now turned back to you, so that you may go with us and fight with the Ammonites, and become head over us, over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” 9/ Jephthah said to the elders off Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and YHWH gives them over to me, will I be your head?”* 10/ And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “YHWH will be witness between us; we will surely do as you say.” 11/ So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them, and Jephthah spoke all his words before YHWH at Mizpah. … 29/ Then the spirit of YHWH came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30/ And Jephthah vowed a vow to YHWH, and said “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31/ then who-or- whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the Ammonites, shall be to YHWH that I will raise it up as a burnt offering.”

Here are my notes:

Aside from this text being as horrible as anything in Judges, and being the run-up to one of the “texts of terror” and having the feel of hideous junior high school bullying hovering over it, it turns out to be even more complex and bottomless than I had remembered.

There is crucial background in Judges 10:6-18. As per the pattern in Judges, the Israelites “again did what was evil in the sight of YHWH” (Judges 10:6) so YHWH sells them “into the hand of the Philistines and into the hand of the Ammonites” (10:7), and there is a “return narrative” in vv. 10-16; the Israelites cry out to YHWH, turn back to YHWH, put away foreign gods, worship YHWH, and throw themselves on YHWH’s mercy, and YHWH “could no longer bear to see Israel suffer.” Then there are a couple of verses of introduction of the immediate military situation, as the Ammonites camp in Gilead and the Israelites take up a position in Mizpah, and the Israelites start casting around for a military commander.

Where are they??? Gilead is east of the Jordan, and basically north, that seems well-established. There seems to be more than one location identified as “Mizpah,” one of which may be in the territory east of the Jordan, “Mizpah of Gilead” as mentioned in v. 11:29. It doesn’t make very good geographical sense for the Israelites to be at the Mizpah in the hill country of Ephraim. Still … the better maps don’t seem to list this Mizpah of Gilead. Nor do they identify the land of “Tob,” where Jephthah hides out in v. 3-4, although tradition has this as possibly east of Gilead, further into the desert. Ammon by all accounts seems to be east of the eastern territories, and the disputed territory seems to be the area east of the Jordan, between the Jabbok and Arnon rivers, which according to the official Israelite account, which Jephthah reviews in his ill-fated attempt at diplomacy (Judges 11:12-28), the Israelites took over from the Amorites back in Numbers (Numbers 21:21-35).

There is a significant parallel between the narrative in Judges 10:10-16 and Judges 11:4-11. In both cases, the people are turning back to someone they have rejected and turned their backs on, at least temporarily in trouble and seeking help. From what we know, there are no guarantees things will turn out well anything like permanently. The way the people treat God is also the way the people treat Jephthah (God’s champion, maybe).

Family relationships play a prominent role in the text. Jephthah is the son of a zonah, which might mean a woman who has sex with men for money, or might not mean that. Since we know Gilead is Jephthah’s father, she might stand in some other relationship to Gilead, but not that of a wife. So Jephthah is a second-class son, and is driven away by the legitimate brothers/sons so as not to inherit/participate in the house (v. 2), and ultimately receives no protection from his own father – possibly an echo of the Israelites’ situation during the time they are being sold into the hand of the Philistines and Ammonites. However, this situation doesn’t continue indefinitely (10:16). The Ammonites have a family relationship to the Israelites, too; they are the descendants of Lot and Lot’s daughter, according to story (Genesis 19:38); the Israelites are not supposed to have any of their land, because of this distant family relationship; On the feminine side, Jephthah’s mother is a zonah, his wife is never mentioned, his daughter is a virgin. As Jephthah’s father ultimately fails to protect him vis-á-vis his brothers, so Jephthah ultimately fails to protect his daughter against him/his rash (if that’s the right word) vow. Do any other fathers fail to protect their [virgin] daughters in Biblical Israel? Well, aside from the father of the Levite’s concubine later on in Judges, maybe cf. Jeremiah 6 … for instance. So the parallels between Jephthah and God might not be entirely coincidental.

There’s an immediate doubling of the phrase “the Ammonites made war against Israel.” (vv. 4 & 5) – the situation is urgent.

The exchanges between “the elders of Gilead” (mentioned 6 times in that language) and Jephthah are fairly extreme; they come to “take” him from the land of Tob, and that verb might connote something on the more forcible side; we get the impression they’re prepared to drag him back to Gilead; he accuses them of having “hated” him and having driven him out (in the way someone would exterminate someone or something); it’s obvious their only motivation is self-serving – so why should he help them?

Jephthah’s statement in v. 9 is ambiguous; NRSV translates it “I will be your head,” as if he’s agreeing; another version renders it as a question: “will I be your head?” as if he doesn’t quite trust them (maybe wise on his part). That reading gets some support from the next sentence, where the elders of Gilead invoke YHWH as witness between them and Jephthah, which suggests that Jephthah does need some assurance that they will do what they seem to be saying they are going to do, namely actually make him their commander.

There is a lot of “returning”; v. 8 the elders of Gilead have “turned back” (returned) to Jephthah; they will “return” him to Gilead in v. 9; in v. 31 Jephthah anticipates “returning” in peace from the Ammonites. Return ought to be a positive thing, but for Jephthah it will be negative, as it turns out.

The vow Jephthah vows makes me think of something someone might come up with when they’ve been down so long … and suddenly it is starting to look like they are about to win, and they get carried away: Hey, I’m gonna win, and then I’m gonna do it up all right, have a big sacrifice, just like a regular general/leader, I’m gonna be somebody, a big man, a big leader, everybody’s gonna say “yeah, that Jephthah …” all respectable like … I feel like that’s where that vow comes from. From the same place a kid who has never been popular and then someone talks to them and then they decide to have a party … or a kid who’s pretty unathletic and then manages to do something right in gym one time and then thinks yeah, I’ll try out for the basketball team … that kind of thing is doomed to end badly, it’s an upsurge of fantasy; the underlying structure of fortune has not changed. Jephthah is not going to win. He’s going to beat the Ammonites, yes, but he’s not going to be a father in Israel, a patriarch; that was never going to happen; and in the wake of his vow, it’s really not going to happen, and the rebound effect is even worse than the status quo before.

Everyone (Jephthah, his daughter, others) seems to accept that the vow has to be honored and can’t be taken back or modified, but Rashi comments that the high priest would have been able to tell him the action vowed was prohibited under the circumstances … and that in the end it was wrong to fulfill the vow.

He returns, but Gilead never becomes a place of acceptance and peace for him. It’s always a place of family fracture, of loss, of things not being the way they are “supposed to be,” of exclusion and isolation. In his last gesture of trying to fit in, he guarantees that he never will, and he drags his daughter down with him.

Insofar as this is a “call narrative” – the Uniform Series is focusing on “call stories” this quarter – this is one where the callers are other human beings; although God’s spirit does eventually also participate in Jepththah’s story. (Judges 11:29) Presumably Jepththah is God’s designated champion in the situation with the Ammonites; somewhat characteristic for a divine choice – an oddball, with something amiss. That’s a pattern. Still … the people who bring the call are not exactly sympathetic figures, and there’s a part of me that wonders whether Jephthah (and his daughter) would have been better off if he’d not answered in the affirmative. How upset would God have been, if that had been the way it went?

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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