Above: Pietro Vecchia, Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter (c. 1650-1660)
Some friends of mine have been discussing Jephthah’s daughter. I regret that I have loaned out my copy of Jon Levenson’s masterful Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. I will consult it next month when I get it back next month. In the meantime, here are some thoughts:
Judges 11:31 says that Jephthah promised to “cause to ascend” (העליתהו) as “an ascension” (עולה) “the comer-forth that came forth from the doors of his house.” Some people, hoping to avoid finding a human sacrifice in the passage, say that this means only that she “went up” to the tabernacle to be a perpetual servant of YHWH there. But this is fanciful. We may ask, is the installation of any other perpetual tabernacle-servants of YHWH described in such words? The Gibeonites in Joshua 10, perhaps? Samuel in 1 Samuel 1? The answer is, no, they are not. Hannah merely “brings” or “causes Samuel to go” (והבאתיו). While it is true that we have a hiphil ותעלהו in 1:24, it is not accompanied by the cognate noun עולה, and thus it is unlikely to differ from the use of the same verb when it is used (in the qal) of the entire family of Elkanah, including, of course, those who do not remain perpetually at the tabernacle. It thus denotes only the pilgramage for the purpose of worship; after the young Samuel has made this journey, his mother still has to “bring him” into the tabernacle and “loan him” to YHWH in fulfillment of her vow.
The Gibeonites likewise are not spoken of in terms appropriate for a sacrifice. Joshua 9:27 says that Joshua “gave” or “appointed” them (ויתנם) as woodcutters and water-drawers for the tabernacle. Thus, we have some Hebrew idioms for expressing the act of conveying someone into perpetual service to YHWH, and these idioms are not at work in Judges 11, which instead uses the apparently sacrificial העליתהו with the cognate direct object עולה.
Is there any parallel to this construction? Why, yes there is. It is Genesis 22:2: “Take now your only son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and cause him to ascend (והעלהו) there as an ascension (לעלה).” Exactly the same construction. Shall we now be told that there was an otherwise unknown shrine to YHWH where Isaac was to be enrolled? Or is the mention of the knife and the command of the angel sufficient to compel us to the conclusion that this is the language of actual sacrifice?
But was Jephthah a righteous man or not? Surely he knew the commandment of God against human sacrifice, didn’t he? How then could he be so wicked? Once again, theology without philology drives exegetes to wrong conclusions: in this case, the assumption that such a sacrifice would certainly have violated the Law. Here’s a helpful comment from Lauren Monroe:
“The term עולה never occurs in biblical prohibitions against child sacrifice (e.g. Lev. 18:21, Lev. 20:2-5, Deut. 12:31; 18:17; 2 Kgs 23:10), setting the practice represented in the narrative texts of Genesis 22; Judges 11; and 2 Kings 3 apart from the legal prohibitions. Many interpreters take the tension between Jephthah’s actions and the legal prohibitions as evidence that he acts in violation of biblical law, but this assumes that the type of sacrifice Jephthah makes is the same as that prohibited in the legal texts. Given YHWH’s willingness to accept Jephthah’s offering, and that the offering of an heir as an עולה specifically is attested elsewhere in the Bible, I would suggest that although certain types of child sacrifice were widely rejected by the biblical authors, namely, MLK offerings and other sacrifices made at the Tophet in the Hinnom Valley, under the right circumstances a human עולה constituted a viable sacrifice…
“Many have noted parallels between this text [sc. Judges 11] and the story of the binding of Isaac… Among these are the identification of Jephthah’s daughter as his only child (יהידה היא) [This is a powerful, perhaps even conclusive point, when seen in the light of the evidence which Levenson adduces in the case of other child sacrifices in Scripture and elsewhere. – MC], her reference to her father as אבי, “my father,” and her resignation to her fate. By modeling her on Isaac, who is remembered in postbiblical Judaism as the quintessential martyr, the biblical authors redeem Bat-Jephthah’s death.” (- Lauren A.S. Monroe, “Disembodied Women: Sacrificial Language and the Deaths of Bat-Jephthah, Cozbi, and the Bethlehemite Concubine”)
A desperate alternative has been urged by some: it is alleged that Jephthah’s daughter was devoted to a life of perpetual virginity. Rabbi Moshe Reiss has some choice words for this idea:
“In the Middle Ages, many highly respected Jewish commentators were unwilling to tolerate the concept of a human sacrifice in the holy Scripture and they struggled to find an acceptable alternative. Many accepted a refashioning and re-sculpting of the text to conclude that Jephthah in fact consecrated his daughter as a perpetual virgin and anchorite rather than take her life as a sacrifice. This was considered a preferable alternative, despite the fact that this ideal of perpetual virginity and asceticism had never previously appeared in Jewish texts and in fact lay outside the Jewish belief system and cultural milieu.”
R. Reiss goes on to note that the “vow of perpetual virginity” interpretation was put forward by Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1184), David Kimche (1160-1235), and Gersonides (1288-1344). He notes that “the period 1080-1170 was the time of greatest growth of monastic life for women in Spain, England, France and Italy” and suggests that “The cultural adoption of a Christian idea by these Medieval-Renaissance Jewish commentators is remarkable. All were and remain leading exegetes. To extol a celibate woman appears nowhere in the Tanakh… Given that these Jewish commentators lived in areas where women’s convents were established, it is difficult to believe that they were not influenced by Christian women’s monastic ideals.”