Bernard P. Robinson, «The Story of Jephthah and his Daughter: Then and Now», Vol. 85 (2004) 331-348
In Judges 11 Jephthah is an anti-hero, his rash vow and its implementation being for the Book of Judges symptoms of the defects of pre-monarchical Israel. The daughter is probably sacrificed; the alternative view, that she is consigned to perpetual virginity, has insufficient support in the text. The story speaks still to present-day readers, challenging them not to make ill-considered judgments that may have disastrous consequences; inviting them too to detect a divine purpose working through human beings in their failings as well as their strengths.
See more by the same author
334 Bernard P. Robinson
to congratulate him after a success; grief-stricken he then hurled
himself into a river, which was consequently named after him (9).
Stories that remind us of Judg 11 are thus not uncommon outside
Israel. Our story may be called a â€œtype-sceneâ€, a genre first identified
in Homer by Walter Arend (10). Robert Alter, among others, has written
illuminatingly on the prevalence of this literary genre in the Old
Testament (11). To what extent, if at all, conscious borrowing was
involved, is unclear. A more fruitful question, I suggest, is: What was
the appeal of the rash-vow motif that led to its frequent occurrence
over national and cultural boundaries? To this point I shall return later.
a) 11,29-33: The Swearing of the Vow.
On his return from Mizpah in order to do battle with the
Ammonites, the spirit of YHWH comes upon Jephthah and he swears
axy rÃ§a axwyh, whatever/whoever emerges and comes out (12) of the
doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people
of Ammon, hwhyl hyhw, shall surely be YHWHâ€™s, hlw[ whtyl[hw, and I
shall sacrifice him/her/it as a holocaust (?) (11,31).
A vow has functioned as an important element in an earlier
episode (11,10, the eldersâ€™ vow to Jephthah). The text, as Augustine
notes, neither praises nor condemns this oath, leaving us to exercise
our intellect on the matter (13). This â€œauthorial restraintâ€ is indeed, as
Webb notes, characteristic of Judges as a whole:
Meaning is conveyed throughout by implicit, indirect means: through
narrated events, through irony, and above all through dialogue(14).
The sense of 11,31 is unclear. There are at least four ways of
(i) The commonest is to suppose that a literal sacrifice of an
animal or human being is meant throughout. It must be allowed,
(9) W.W. GOODWIN (ed.), Plutarchâ€™s Morals (Boston 1871) V, 477-509, 488-
489: â€œOn the Names of Rivers and Mountains and of Such Things as Are to be
(10) W. AREND, Die typischen Szenen bei Homer (Berlin 1933).
(11) R. ALTER, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York 1981) 47-62.
(12) axy rÃ§a axwyh is tautologous; it is possible that one of the two expressions
is a gloss (cf. the Versions). It is surprising that the pronoun awh is not used.
(13) PL 34.812.
(14) WEBB, Judges, 77. Cf. R. ALTER, The World of Biblical Literature
(London 1992) 64-65.