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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Jephthath's Daughter

The reading from Judges 11:29-40, from today's readings, was naturally shocking. I have three children myself and my first impression was that I would rather break that vow than commit murder and sacrifice my children. In the first place, both murder and human sacrifice are shunned by God, so what gives? The Spirit of Yahweh came upon Jephthah that day, but it immediately follows: He went through Gilead .. and then entered the territory of the Ammonites. Then the foolish judge made the vow, should God enable his victory in battle, to sacrifice .. whoever first comes out of my house .. and I shall offer him up through the fire. Of course, it is his own daughter who greets him as he comes home victorious. Horrified as he was, Jephthah nevertheless fulfilled the vow he had made and sacrificed his daughter.

There are some rabbinic traditions that speak of this sacrifice as simply that of the daughter as becoming a consecrated virgin for all her life, but the more ancient tradition seems ot be that the foolish judge truly did offer his daughter as a holocaust. My Bible (Christian Community Bible: Catholic Pastoral Edition), says simply:

  The Bible relates Jephthah's vow without commentary. It is considered as the lamentable error of a hero.
I think this is the best explanation. It is quite possible that the holocaust was indeed carried out on the poor girl, simply because her father was foolish enough, not only in making the vow, but in carrying out what should have been known to be an invalid vow, for the notion of human sacrifice is repugnant to the Lord who commands "thou shall not kill" (murder). On the other hand, it appears that human sacrifice was practiced in the other kingdoms around Israel.

While the Spirit of Yahweh may indeed have come upon this valiant warrior-judge, it was in inspiring him to battle. Actually, even had the Spirit inspired the vow (unlikely), it is by no means an endorsement to carry out such a foolish vow. It should have been enough of a lesson that unjust, thoughtless vows should not be carried out, and should not be made at all. The vow sounds a lot like putting the Lord to the test, for some reason that I cannot now explain. May I be spared from making such foolish vows, given that I can be very foolish, too!

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