The Daughter of Jephthah: Remembering the Unnamed

Daughter of Jephthah

This post was originally published on Young Mormon Feminists and is reposted as part of Exponent II’s series on Women in the Scriptures

In an oft-forgotten story, lost within the violent passages of the Book of Judges, lies that of Jephthah’s daughter. The illegitimate son of Gilead, Jephthah had been cast out of his father’s house. Disinherited and disowned, he made a name for himself as a fearless and successful chief of robbers. After finding themselves in conflict with the Ammonites, Jephthah’s half-brothers sought him out to lead the armies of Israel in battle. Seeing an incredible opportunity to regain a place in his father’s house, Jephthah agreed to lead the army with the condition he be made the leader of his father’s house upon victory.

Jephthah prayed that God will be on his side. He promised to offer a sacrifice of gratitude should he be victorious–a burnt offering of whatever first met him upon his return. He likely anticipated a lamb or even, terribly enough, a slave. However, tragically, it was his only child, a daughter, who met him at the gate, dancing to celebrate his triumphant return.

When Jephthah told his daughter of his vow, she willingly accepted her fate. She requested two months to spend roaming the mountains with her friends to lament a life cut too short. She returned, as promised, and her father fulfilled the sacrifice.

Unnamed and seemingly insignificant, Jephthah’s daughter reminds us that sometimes there is no dew from heaven or ram in the thicket. Sometimes, being valiant to the God of Abraham does not have a happy ending. Sometimes we lose our precious ones.

Her fate also reminds us that we must not forget these stories,the hard ones. After the sacrifice was performed, we learn that “it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year (Judges 11: 39-40).” Powerless in a deeply patriarchal culture, these women could not control the outcome, but they refused to allow the story and memory of the unnamed daughter die with her.

Just as the daughters of Israel would gather together to lament and remember the daughter of Jephthah–a human sacrifice performed under the Law of Moses which forbade human sacrifice. A sacrifice that never should have happened in the first place–we must tell the hard stories. We must celebrate the victims. We must remember those who have been sacrificed: the hurt, the abused, the mistreated. We must not sacrifice their stories upon the altar of smiling faces and “all is well in Zion.”

For many years, I harboured the stories of the hurt ones within my heart. I did not utter them to others. I thought it unwise and unfaithful to talk about the problems of inequality within the Church. I thought it disobedient to question how we treat our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I thought it wrong to ask questions about our racist past.

I questioned my own standing in the community. I wanted to be loved and accepted. I wanted to be faithful. I wanted to be wanted. I fought off the dissonance. When I heard others’ difficult stories, it was much easier to dismiss them as mountains out of molehills or to question their faithfulness than it was to question my worldview. Surely there was nothing wrong.

And then came Susan. I greatly revered Susan. She was one of the great examples of my youth, someone whose faithfulness I never questioned. Shortly after stumbling upon a mammoth of information that required me to reframe my faith, I started to listen to bits and pieces of Susan’s story. My mind was ripe to put aside preconceived notions. Her stories of abuse at the hands of her fellow saints broke my heart.

Next came Katie. I knew Katie left the Church some time ago, but I presumed it was for the “standard” reasons–she didn’t want to put forth the effort, she simply put other worldly things ahead of her salvation, etc. Pity her soul for not wanting the happiness of the Gospel. But after hearing Susan’s story, I was able to hear Katie’s, and it too made my heart weep for one who could no longer fight the battle of inequality.

And then came Rebecca. And Sonja. And hundreds more. Some of them dear to me, some new acquaintances, some total strangers, but the theme was the same–pain, disillusionment, and a break from the circle of my faith community. Their stories forced me to recognize that all is not well in Zion. There are abuses. There are inequalities that need to be addressed and wrongs that need to be righted.

However, I cannot fix the problem, try as I might. I often cry in frustration that I am too small, too powerless, and too insignificant to affect change. I cannot control the outcomes.

But I can tell the not-so-happy stories.  I can raise my voice. I can talk about the hard things. While the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter may or may not have been necessary in God’s eyes, to stop telling her story is a tragedy. It leaves us with the false notion that, like Abraham and Isaac, all is right in the end for the faithful.

Let us not forget the story of the unnamed daughter. Let her sacrifice and her memory move us forward. And let us not be afraid to raise our voices, to gather together, and to mourn those who have lived the hard stories.

Amy

Mother, writer, dreamer, hopeless romantic, opera singer, reader, researcher, lover of Jesus, Mormon and a feminist. I spend my days taming toddler tantrums and kissing boo boos. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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8 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    Thank you so much for this wise analysis of the unnamed daughter; she does teach us a powerful point, one that I had not previously considered before this post. Thank you.

  2. Katie says:

    So much to think about here. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Quimby says:

    I don’t think Jephthah was following God’s command in killing his daughter. I don’t think his actions were righteous or ordained of God. I think this is an example of patriarchy run amock; and of the folly of making vows to God (you know the type – “God, if you help me find my car keys I promise I’ll never eat another potato chip as long as I live!”)

    Years ago I heard Eli Weisel speak. He coined the term “holocaust” to describe what had happened to the European Jews in WWII. He spoke of his regret at using that term. A holocaust is a sacred burnt offering. He said, There was nothing sacred about what happened to us. God didn’t want it. God didn’t ask for it. God didn’t demand it of us. That’s how I feel about Jephthah’s sacrifice too. It wasn’t righteous or holy or sacred. Jephthah was a fool; I am sure he has been condemned for his actions.

    • Amy says:

      I fully agree with you, Quimby. I don’t think it was necessary and Jephthah failed. But, I also think Abraham failed in offering up Isaac as sacrifice. I do think it’s important to note how we talk about “Abrahamic sacrifices” in an LDS setting. Too many people shrug off the story of Abraham because it has a (somewhat) happy ending. But what happens when those sacrifices DON’T have a happy ending? And why is it that we shrug off the stories of women’s bodies being sacrificed while holding strong to the narrative that God will deliver, but it always happens to be men that are delivered? More than anything, I think the story of Jephthah’s daughter is in the Bible to make us think long and hard about our easy answers about obedience and sacrifice.

      • Quimby says:

        Yes – I agree that Abraham failed. I think there are a great many people in the Old Testament who failed. What strikes me as I read it this year is that God is infinitely patient, because honestly? I would’ve just smitten the lot of them. Lightening strikes all around! Even the people who are held out as heroes – Abraham; Jacob; Moses – they’re really terrible human beings.

        I don’t think we should shrug off these stories. But I also don’t find anything particularly righteous or faith-promoting in them. I’m reading the story of Elijah now. I’ve always liked Elijah, especially the story of the widow’s faith, which saved her family. But it’s taken me 500 pages of crap to get to maybe 5 pages of goodness.

    • Andrew R. says:

      I had a very wise Stake President who in stake conference cautioned the members that the “could not” make a covenant with God of their own making. A covenant is a two-way street. If you tell God what the covenant is – His part in it, and yours – then it is not a covenant. It could be a promise from you, but He is not bound by it at all.

      Jephthah was a fool. The Lord was already on his side, and had already guided him. Yet, just to be sure he makes a “rash vow” (BRM’s words in the chapter synopsis). The Lord doesn’t ask for the vow, He does not accept the vow. He is already on their side, and they win.

      Jephthah then compounds his foolishness. However, I don’t think he did this because of the “highly patriarchal” nature of the time. I think he would have done the same if it had been a son. I am sure he loved his daughter deeply – are we really to believe that being patriarchal means you don’t love your female offspring? You might treat them differently due to different beliefs, but that doesn’t mean you love them less. He may well, in his foolishness, have believed not sacrificing her would be worse for her.

      It is easy with the latter-day scriptures, and the higher law, to look down on this foolishness. But we make similar mistakes in relation to our understanding of God’s will, albeit with less severe consequences for others.

  4. Catherine S says:

    Thank you for highlighting this story. I stumbled across it two years ago when teaching the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine and was completely blown away with sadness. Jephthah’s daughter is an excellent reminder of the important hard stories, both in the scriptures and in our lives.

  1. September 27, 2016

    […] examples we can learn from, like the Woman with an issue of Blood, the Widow of Zarephath, and the Daughter of Jephthah.  Surely these women are “no less serviceable” because their names were not preserved […]

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