Thursday of week 20 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Judg 11:29-39

If anyone was looking forward to the story of Samson and his betrayal by his girlfriend, Delilah, during our readings from the Book of Judges, they are going to be disappointed.
Our last reading from the book is, in many ways, a very disturbing one and one wonders why it was chosen. It reflects a rather primitive and superstitious society where life, especially that of women, comes cheap. It is a society, too, where – at least among the non-Hebrew religions – human sacrifice was not unknown.
The spirit of Yahweh was on Jephthah, who crossed Gilead and Manasseh, by way of Mizpah in Gilead into the territory of the Ammonites. Jephthah is one of the ‘lesser’ Judges. In the Old Testament the unique empowering of the Spirit was given to an individual primarily to enable him to carry out the special responsibilities God had given him.
He made a vow to Yahweh, “If you deliver the Ammonites into my grasp, the first thing to come out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in triumph shall belong to Yahweh, and I shall sacrifice it as a burnt offering (holocaust).” What or who he expected to greet him is not certain but it would very likely be a human person.
Making vows was a common practice among the Israelites and they were not to be broken. While Jephthah clearly worships Yahweh he seems to share some of the thinking of his non-Hebrew contemporaries. The text clearly implies that Jephthah was prepared to vow a human sacrifice, according to the custom of his pagan neighbours. Human sacrifice was forbidden by the Law but made its way into Israel through Canaanite influence. The author merely records the fact but was not likely to have approved the action.
Jephthah did enter the Ammonite territory and was victorious. “It was a very severe defeat, and the Ammonites were humbled by the Israelites.”
As he returned to his house at Mizpah, his daughter came out to meet him, dancing to the music of tambourines. It was customary for women to greet armies returning victoriously from battle in this way. So Miriam, the sister of Moses, together with the other women danced and played tambourines to celebrate the defeat of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds (Exod 15:20). Similarly when David came back after defeating the Philistines (1 Sam 18:6).
Now this girl was Jepthtah’s only child – he had no other son or daughter. On seeing her, he tore his clothes and cried out: “Oh my daughter, what misery you have brought on me! You have joined those who bring misery into my life! I have a promise to Yahweh which I cannot retract.”
Tearing the clothes was a common practice for expressing extreme grief. His vow, too, even in this situation he sees as irrevocable.
The daughter replied with extraordinary equanimity: “Father, you have made a promise to Yahweh. Treat me as the promise you have made requires, since Yahweh has granted you vengeance on your enemies, the Ammonites.” She puts her life on a lower level than his vow and his military victory. We need, of course, to remember that in such societies, the individual counted for very little as would also be the case in Communist societies in much later times.

She then made a request to her father: “Let me be free for two months. I shall go and wander in the mountains, and with my companions bewail my virginity.” In other words, that she will never be a mother. To be childless was considered a misfortune and, for a woman, a disgrace. A man married a woman for the primary purpose of having children, especially sons. And a woman existed to become the mother of children, preferably sons. To be kept from marrying and rearing children was a bitter prospect for an Israelite girl. Hence Jephthah’s daughter now asks permission to spend two months mourning the fact that she will be put to death before she can bear children. The very reason of her existence is to be denied.
The father granted his daughter’s request. And, when the two months were over she went back to her father and – as the reading euphemistically expresses it – he treated her as the vow had required him to do. In other words, she was burnt to death as a sacrificial victim.
The words of the next sentence (not in our reading) are poignant: “She had remained a virgin.” In the case of many Christian and Hebrew martyrs this was often a matter of glory but here it is full of pain and tragedy. Jephthah’s daughter never became a mother. And perhaps there is in this comment a criticism of the whole story by the author. There was probably no greater contribution that could be made for the nation of Israel than to produce sons for it. That contribution had been denied here.
The story of Jephthah’s vow was apparently intended to explain an annual festival celebrated in Gilead, the real significance of which was unknown. It was observed by the daughters of Israel each year over a period of four days mourning the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
In plain terms, Jephthah immolates his daughter rather than break the vow he has made. Human sacrifice was always regarded with abhorrence in Israel. This is expressed in the scene where Abraham is prevented by God from sacrificing his son Isaac (Gen 22), but this story is told without any expression of blame, the emphasis apparently falling on the importance of fulfilling a vow once made.
In the Gospel, Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount, teaches us not to make any vows or oaths of this kind. The disciple of Christ will be a person of such transparent integrity and reliability that his ‘Yes’ always means ‘Yes’ and his ‘No’ always means ‘No’. With such a person, a Jephthah situation will never arise.

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