Thursday, October 26, 2017

Jephthah’s daughter then and now

The other day, after grading a set of Intro to Old Testament Studies papers, I posted on Facebook, “It’s a good day when you learn new things about how to read well known texts from your students.” This post by ESR M.Div. Access student Nikki Holland is one of the papers I learned from. The assignment was to write about what you would say about one of the women from Joshua and Judges for an adult Bible Study group. Nikki chose to write on Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:29-40). I invite you to read what Nikki’s response. I hope you find it as illuminating as I did.
 - Nancy R. Bowen (Professor of Old Testament)

From the surface, the story in Judges 11:29-40 seems foreign and weird to us. A man makes a foolish vow and keeps it, though it results in the death of his daughter; and what is maybe more astonishing, she participates. But with a close examination of this story, we can see several themes that echo through our lives today.

1)      Victim blaming
   Upon realizing that he has vowed to sacrifice his own daughter (hereafter called “Daughter”), Jephthah lays the blame immediately on her head. “You have brought me very low,” he says. “You have become the cause of great trouble to me” (Judges 11:35). He explains that he has made a vow, but the emphasis is on her culpability. Never mind that he made a foolish vow and she was simply fulfilling her role as a faithful daughter in celebrating his victory.[1] Jephthah deflects blame from himself onto Daughter. I hear echoes of his words in my own generation, “Look what you made me do…” and “Well, you shouldn’t have been in that place anyways."

2) Internalized misogyny
   Daughter’s response when she hears that her father has made a vow to kill her is, “Do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth.” She cares more about her father’s honor than her own life. Contrast this to Jonathan’s response to a similar vow made by Saul in 1 Sam 14:43. In the NRSV, Jonathan’s response is a statement, but in the CEB and most Spanish translations, it’s a question: “‘I only took a very small taste of honey on the end of my staff,’ he said. ‘And now I’m supposed to die?’” Jonathan has the self-assurance to protest Saul’s foolish vow (see 1 Sam 14:29-30), whereas Daughter understands herself to be her father’s, to do with what he will.
   We read this and we feel superior (we would fight – we would run away) – but how many of us have been violated and rather than protesting, have been more concerned about the feelings of the violator? How many of us have soothed his guilt or laughed it off so as not to appear rude? How many of us have chosen to be polite rather than fierce when our boundaries are crossed? How many of us have excused men’s exploitation of women by saying something like, “Oh men.” How many of us have let doctors do things to our bodies that we didn’t actually want done? And then thanked them for it? Like Daughter, we are still vulnerable to the belief that our bodies are here for other people to do with what they will.

3) Solidarity of women
   The one request Daughter makes for herself is that she and her friends be allowed to mourn her virginity for 2 months (Judges 14:37). After her death, “the daughters of Israel would go out to lament” Daughter (Judges 14:40). These women are linked in sorrow by their belief that nothing can be done for the women. They lament her fate. It is what it is, it’s horrible, but there’s nothing at all we can do about it. [2]  
   Each generation of feminists builds on the previous generations. I wonder if this lament is the very first women’s rights protest in western history. As we know, the first step to a solution is recognizing the problem. Although these women could not imagine a different world, they are recognizing and bringing attention to a problem – and that is Something.
   This story is a cautionary tale, from which we can learn to hold people in power accountable for their choices; to maintain a strong sense of self – and the awareness that our bodies are our own and no one may violate us with impunity; and to gather with other women in solidarity with the full knowledge in our hearts of a different world and the hope that we can change the injustice we see.

Nikki Holland lives in Merida, Mexico with her clan, including her husband Brian, their three boys, and their kitten Ellie. She enjoys meeting for worship in her sister’s house (and occasionally on the beach), and loves all that she’s learning as a seminarian at Earlham School of Religion. Click on the link to check out more of Nikki's writing on her blog:

[1] Karla G. Bohmbach, "Daughter of Jephthah." In Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the HebrewBible, the Apochryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament, ed. Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross S Kraemer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 8359.

[2] Again contrast the women’s response with the men’s response in Jonathan’s situation – in 1 Sam 14:45 – the men join in solidarity with Jonathan in opposition to Saul, confidently imagining a world in which Jonathan is not at the mercy of his father. And they succeed.

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