From the May, 2002 issue of Touchstone

The Tragedy of Jephthah by Patrick Henry Reardon

The Tragedy of Jephthah

By way of preparing us for the establishment of Israel’s monarchy near the end of the eleventh century B.C., the Book of Judges ends with a discouraging analysis of the moral climate of the period prior to that of the kings: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). Since the identical words appear earlier, at the beginning of the account of Micah and the Danites (17:6), we are likely correct in thinking that this melancholy assessment pertains especially to the wild and, frankly, disedifying stories that lie between those two verses: the migration of the Danites and their kidnapping of Micah, the gory account of Gibeah and the Levite’s concubine, Israel’s war with Benjamin, and the abduction of the virgins of Jabesh Gilead. Indeed, the startling similarity between this last narrative and the Roman legend of the rape of the Sabines tends to strengthen one’s impression of raw paganism in these stories. Truly, they are among the harshest and most disheartening pages in Holy Scripture.

Earlier accounts in the Book of Judges, however, also indicate a considerable lack of moral direction throughout Israel during that early period. The stories of Jephthah, for example. Did the Bible not explicitly tell us that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), some of us might really wonder. Even so, quite a number of students of Holy Scripture, over the years, must have shaken their heads in bewilderment at the behavior of Jephthah.

Most conspicuous in this respect, surely, is the story of Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter (11:29–40). Although various commentators have endeavored to “explain away” the obvious meaning of this story, such explanations will not stand up to literary and historical scrutiny. However uncomfortable it makes us, Jephthah really did offer his daughter in sacrifice.

Other writers, perhaps taking their cue from the story of Herod Antipas and John the Baptist (cf. Mark 6:22–29), have spoken of a “rash oath” on the part of Jephthah. Dante, for example, read the text this way (cf. Paradiso 5:64–68). However, there is nothing in the account of Jephthah to suggest that the vow was incautious on his part, except in its unexpected result. It is portrayed, rather, as his deliberate pledge to sacrifice a human life, an oath that Jephthah apparently believed he would fulfill by sacrificing a slave or some other person less significant than his own daughter. The literal meaning of the narrative is very plain.

It is also conspicuous for its lack of moral comment, the author using a restraint markedly in contrast to other places where the Holy Scripture speaks of human sacrifice (cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; Jeremiah 7:31; Micah 6:7). Likewise, the tragedy of Jephthah and his daughter is told in the starkest terms, with emphasis on his own grief and on the daughter’s bravery in accepting her allotted fate and her compassion for the dereliction of her father. There is no doubt or hesitation in the mind of either of them. Unlike the case of Abraham, God does not intervene to save the situation. Nor would Jephthah be long in following his daughter in death (Judges 12:7). A great sense of irony and doom hangs over this whole story, told as an unmitigated tragedy.

The oath of Jephthah, once he makes it, seems to carry an iron-like inevitability that, from a purely literary perspective, may put one in mind of the Greek tragedies. Indeed, readers have often remarked on the thematic similarity between the stories of Jephthah and Agamemnon, who also sacrificed a daughter in connection with a military operation. Dante (Paradiso 5:64–72), for instance, believed that the stories would always be remembered together. Arguably more prominent, however, are the ways in which these two accounts stand in contrast. First, unlike Jephthah, Agamemnon is not struck by a misfortune unforeseen; his sacrifice of Iphigenia is planned and very deliberate. Second, unlike the bloody details in Aeschylus’s portrayal of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, the Bible’s narrative is very sober and subdued; there is no direct mention of the sacrifice itself. Indeed, from a strictly dramatic (as distinct from theological) point of view, it may be argued that the sense of inevitable doom in the biblical story of Jephthah is even more “Greek” than the Greek tragedy.

Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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