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.
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342 Bernard P. Robinson
tried to bribe God himself (42). He had looked forward to coming
home from the Ammonite campaign in peace (v. 31), but peace has
fled from him. One is reminded of the Gideon story. When told that
he is to defeat Midian, Gideon asks for a sign and YHWH agrees
(6,13-18). Then the spirit comes upon him, and he again wants a sign
(6,36-40). â€œGideon sounds like a child, and the deity responds with
parental patienceâ€ (43). The giving of a sign is a regular part of a call
narrative (cf. 1 Sam 10; Jer 1); only Gideon and Moses (Exod 3) ask
for the sign, showing lack of confidence in themselves and/or
YHWH. Their behaviour, however, is venial; that of Jephthah is not.
Jephthah has no choice, he claims: â€œâ€˜I have given my word to
YHWH, and I cannot go back on itâ€™â€. He could have got the vow
annulled, said some of the Jewish commentators (either Jephthah
should have gone to Phineas the high priest for this purpose, or Phineas
himself should have taken the initiative) (44). I suspect, as I have made
clear, that they are right: one is expected to believe that, having made
such a vow, Jephthah should have broken it (if he could not get it
annulled or commuted) rather than slaughter his daughter (45). (In 1
Sam 14, when Jonathan has incurred the penalty of death by breaking
his fast, he is spared death and the people redeem him [v. 35]).
The daughter now gives her response. She accepts the inevitability
of her fate (11,36), but asks a favour: â€œâ€˜â€¦ that I may go down (46) on
the mountainsâ€¦â€™â€ (11,37). Marcus thinks that if she were facing
death, Jephthahâ€™s daughter would wish to spend her last days with her
father rather than with than her female friends (47). That, I suspect,
would depend on her view of her father: the fact that she says that her
(42) WEBB, Judges, 64.
(43) M. Oâ€˜CONNOR, â€œJudgesâ€, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (ed.
R.E. BROWN et al.) (London 1990) 139.
(44) GenR 60,3, LevR 37,4, QohR 10,15. Also Kimchi (see COHEN â€“
ROSENBERG, Joshua, Judges, 258).
(45) As Cicero (De Officiis II.25.371) says of Agamemnon: â€œHe ought to have
broken his vow rather than commit so horrible a crimeâ€ (promissum potius non
faciendum, quam tam taetrum facinus admittendum fuit).
(46) â€œGo downâ€ strikes one as odd. Perhaps going southwards is intended (cf
â€œGo down country to the mountainsâ€: NEBm). Or perhaps the verb is not from
dry, â€œgo downâ€ but from a root dwr = â€œwanderâ€, â€œroamâ€.
(47) MARCUS, Jephthah and his Vow, 30-31, 51.
(48) This gives some colour to the speculation that in an earlier version of the
story the girl was destined not to death but to life as a temple prostitute. So G.
BÃ¶strum, cited by MARCUS, Jephthah and His Vow, 31. BÃ¶strum takes twntl to
mean â€œto prostituteâ€ [hnt I, â€œto hireâ€] (MARCUS, Jephthah and His Vow, 36).