Jephthah’s Daughter: The Dangers of Patriarchy

After her death, Jephthah’s daughter is remembered by the daughters of Israel, but does the biblical narrative of her death attempt to praise her for simply being an obedient daughter? If so, should one be satisfied with celebrating adherence to patriarchal values, especially when it had disastrous results? Is justice served to this daughter of Israel by stripping her of all but her identity as a daughter? Judges 11 is the account of Jephthah’s appointment to lead the Israelites in a battle against the sons of Ammon and his subsequent vow, which results in sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord. There are many unanswered questions that are raised in this narrative that ought to be considered.

The Sacrificial Vow

Jephthah’s vow is the first of several issues that readers have with this narrative. Why did Jephthah feel the need to make a vow when the text states that the Spirit of the Lord had come upon him (Judg. 11:29-31)? Additionally, who or what does Jephthah think will the be first to meet him when he returns home since later in the narrative it seems apparent that he was not expecting that it would be his daughter (Judg. 11:34-35)?

Scripture states, “Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering (Judg. 11:30-31).’” Prior to Jephthah’s vow there is evidence of Jephthah’s lack of knowledge of God and of Israel’s history. Before the battle against the Ammonites, Jephthah repeats a version of Israel’s history that is inaccurate (Judg. 11:14-28). Additionally, he is identified as a son of a harlot and was driven out by the sons of Gilead, forced to live as an outsider (Judg. 11:1-3). Klein comments that his lack of a father and being an outsider of the Gileadites would explain why he is ignorant; there would have been no one to pass on the history to Jephthah.[1]

While one might suppose that Jephthah makes a vow to show his commitment to God, Jephthah is using the vow as an attempt to bargain with God, “to exert control over the god—a practice familiar to non-Yahwists.”[2] This further illustrates Jephthah’s lack of knowledge regarding faith in God. Finally, the fact that Jephthah follows through and offers his daughter as a burnt offering to God confirms his ignorance of the ways of God (Judg. 11:39). God does not require human sacrifice, even the first-born children of Israel who are to be dedicated to the Lord are to be redeemed, not given to God as burnt offerings (Exod. 34:19-20; Lev 27:1-2). It is apparent that Jephthah was not aware that God condemns human sacrifices and Jephthah must be drawing his understanding of sacrifices from other cultic practices.

The Silent Solidarity

A second issue readers question when reading the account of Jephthah and his daughter is the lack of anyone protesting or questioning Jephthah’s vow or his following through with it. There is not one voice of dissent within the narrative. Even Jephthah’s daughter immediately agrees that she must be sacrificed according to her father’s vow (Judg. 11:36). Why the total compliance and silence? Are we to believe not one person in the vicinity was aware that God would not desire a human sacrifice? While Jephthah’s ignorance has already been discussed, this does not explain the silence of those who were aware and knowledgeable of God’s law. Why then did no one speak?

Was Jephthah’s new position as “head and chief” over the people of Gilead a reason he was not questioned (Judg. 11:11 NASB)? Perhaps so. This story seems to illustrate an idealized patriarchy where a male leader is obeyed without question. This is further highlighted by the blind obedience of a daughter who does not raise one objection to her life being forfeited in order to comply with her father’s vow. This narrative paints a false image of glorifying God through adherence to patriarchal structures. Silence in the face of injustice and blind obedience to male leaders does not glorify God, instead it leads to unnecessary death.

The Support of Patriarchy Leads to Deadly Obedience

This solidarity of silence is a lesson for us today on the travesty that can occur when we do not speak out regarding injustice, particularly when we do not question those in authority, simply because of their position. While there are no outcries of protest in the narrative, the reader is protesting, and asking someone to stand up for the life of Jephthah’s daughter. Solidarity calls us to stand up for what is just and right, even if it means standing up to those who have power and authority. Additionally, it points out that those in position of power do not always know God’s law and therefore, should not blindly be given authority to speak on God’s behalf. Patriarchy is not God’s plan.

Could part of the purpose of this story be a warning regarding the dangers of patriarchy, and the crime of remaining silent? Lilian R. Klein asserts, “The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter has typically been considered ‘an attempt to explain, by means of a legend about the sacrifice of a virgin, an annual four-day festival in Israel.’ The festival is alluded to, but the purpose of the narrative is not to explain a tradition; it is to forbid its recurrence.”[3] While Klein is not addressing the problems of patriarchy and silence, she does affirm that the passage is shared so that no one else would make the mistake of offering a human sacrifice, therefore, this is a narrative told for the purpose of instruction in what not to do. While Jephthah’s ignorance about God and Israel’s history plays a part in his vow-making and its fulfillment, does not the culture of patriarchy and silence aid in allowing this horrific event to take place? How many more daughters are will willing to sacrifice on the altar of patriarchy?

[1] Lillian R. Klein, The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges (Sheffield, England: Almond Press, 1989), 88-90.

[2] Klein, 91.

[3] Klein, 92.

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