There are smart, and there are polemical, ways to think about religiously-motivated violence. As someone who spent his seminary years thinking about Christian anti-Semitism, I was taken aback by the simplistic account of religious violence offered by Sam Harris some years back:
“Religion is the one area of our discourse in which people are systematically protected from the demand to give good evidence and valid arguments in defense of their strongly held beliefs. And yet these beliefs regularly determine what they live for, what they will die for and—all too often—what they will kill for. Consequently, we are living in a world in which millions of grown men and women can rationalize the violent sacrifice of their own children by recourse to fairy tales” (The Case Against Faith). In response, I’d like to explore some reasons I continue to engage with violent biblical stories, taking Judges 11:29-40, the story of Jephthah, who sacrifices his daughter in fulfillment of a vow, as an example.
No one has an innocent history
As the grandchild of a member of Hitler’s SS, I am painfully aware of the fact that innocent histories are not to be found. I owe my existence to a man who was an active supporter of what has become one of the greatest icons of human evil. But while this basic familial connection to a violent history is something I can’t shake, all of our ideological or religious commitments share in this embeddedness in the violence of human history. Christians have the sorry history of the Inquisition to own. Robbespierre should give secularists pause when they optimistically assert that the demise of religion is inherently a force for social improvement. American ideals of democracy can not be seen apart from the history of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. To ask of a sacred text that it not lay bare the contours of human violence is to ask for it to be dissociated from human experience, which would render it useless as a religious text, insofar as religion is an inherently communal endeavor.
We can not fight an injustice until we name it
The Bible preserves a passionate understanding of justice as integral to any spirituality. It is primarily on this basis that I maintain an allegiance to a biblical faith. Yet, from the perspective of Jephthah’s daughter, the biblical faith in question is supremely unjust. In a minute, I’ll raise some questions about how the story functions within the Book of Judges; there are a number of ways to read the relation of the story to its literary and historical context. However, in the New Testament, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews cites Jephthah as an example of great faith, without critical reflection on the meaning of his daughter’s death. From the perspective of seeking a just world, we see the Epistle to the Hebrews papering over the text, the sort of thing people do to pretend that everything is fine.
But there are other ways to engage the text that allow injustices to be named and struggled against. At one church I attended some years back, I co-led a study of this story as part of a Lenten reflection group, followed by a report by a church member who was active in combating child labor around the world. And he proposed some very concrete political solutions for combating child labor, including noting that the Indian state of Kerala has a much better record on child labor than the rest of the country because they’ve elected Communists to the government. In this case, the story helped sharpen our analysis of the dynamics at play in the use of child labor. What the story did not do in that setting was give anyone the idea that religiously motivated violence is acceptable.
It is not entirely clear that the narrative approves Jephthah’s action
According to one way of reading the story, one could rest on the fact that Jephthah is victorious in battle as a kind of divine approval of the vow Jephthah makes to sacrifice the first thing he sees. And as noted above, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks positively of Jephthah. That there are ways of reading this text that at the very least do not treat child sacrifice as a problem is why I can’t say without qualification “the narrative disapproves of Jephthah’s action.” Still, there are other defensible approaches to the story.
The Book of Judges tells a story in which the inability of the people to live under direct rule of God sets up the beginning of the monarchy in 1 Samuel. Over the course of the Book of Judges, the stories of women generally get worse. The first story is of Achsah, who makes sure to secure real estate with wells for herself as part of her marriage. The last, deeply gruesome, story is of an unnamed woman who is raped, murdered, and dismembered. In between these stories of a woman who has a great deal of agency and a woman who has none, we have Jephthah’s daughter, who is able to seize what little agency is left her in determining the terms of her death. This escalation of violence over the course of Judges describes a problem needing a solution. In this limited sense, to read the story in the spirit of “naming an injustice in order to fight it” is perfectly consistent with the overall sense of Judges as a whole. Beyond that, there are another set of issues we might open for interrogation. The problem the Book of Judges proposes is the failure of the Israelite people to adhere to a rigid henotheism as prescribed in Deuteronomy, and the solution is the establishment of the monarchy. These are diagnoses of both the problem and the solution progressives might well resist.
The story gives us access to womens’ protests in history
Archangela Tarabotti was a Venetian nun in the seventeenth century who had close ties to the Accademia di Incogniti, a kind of intellectual salon. One of the great social problems Tarabotti encountered was forced monachization. This involved the families forcing their daughters into convents as a response to dowry inflation in the Venetian Republic. For the many women who did not have a calling to the monastic life, this practice was the equivalent of life imprisonment. In one of her books, Paternal Tyranny, Tarabotti cited Jephthah as an example of someone who abused his authority as a parent. Here the Bible is not simply an instrument of control by clerics, but a tool Tarabotti turns back on the collusion of patriarchal and ecclesial power to denounce an unholy practice.
Elisabeth Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was a prominent French composer at the turn of the eighteenth century. She composed a number of cantatas on biblical themes, a large number of which focus on stories with tense sexual politics. In her rendition of the story, the narrators interrupt the flow of the story to denounce Jephthah’s actions. There isn’t a performance of her cantatas on YouTube, but there’s a selection with the apposite title “Cruel Gods” from her opera “Cephale et Procris”:
Both Tarabotti and Jacquet de la Guerre recast the immediate framing of the story in Judges, performing what the feminist literary critic Judith Fetterley called “resistant reading.” These examples furthermore show that reading against the grain is something people have been doing for centuries; looking closely at the ways in which wo/men have read the Bible subversively is a genuine alternative to simply setting the Bible aside and making generalizations about the collusion of biblical and clerical authority to stifle the human spirit.
This article was originally published in a longer version on Daily Kos.
Dirk von der Horst is a Visiting Scholar at Graduate Theological Union. He earned his doctorate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University. His dissertation focused on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century musical renditions of David’s Lament over Jonathan as source for rethinking contemporary gay theological usage of their friendship.