A Horrific Bible Story – and Why I Read It By Dirk von der Horst

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.

Categories: Bible, Christianity, Scripture

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16 replies

  1. I suspect the number who read aganist the grain is tiny compared to the legions who accept holy scripture as the word of God.


    • Still, I want to honor the legacy of those who did voice alternatives.

      Both Tarabotti and de la Guerre were highly esteemed in their own time. Despite being a nun, Tarabotti corresponded extensively with members of a Venetian academy that advanced skeptical philosophies, and which extended its cultural influence into the popular realm through opera. Jacquet de la Guerre was the main rival to the most well-known composer of her time, Francois Couperin. She was recently re-erased in a major scholarly survey of Baroque music by George Buelow (though he did include reference to Francesca Caccini and Barbara Strozzi, two seventeenth-century composers).


    • Those who “read against the grain” _are_ taking Holy Scripture as testament to the Word of God, or they wouldn’t bother reading it. However, they also assume that the Bible reveals “good news,” so messages of oppression have to be rejected. Or, they assert that God (being good and just) cannot condone evil, so texts that appear to do so must be object lessons of what _not_ to do. Or they use Jesus as a touchstone and evaluate other biblical claims for how well they fit this measure (or not). One needn’t (oughtn’t!) turn off one’s brain to “accept holy scripture as the word of God.”


  2. What do think of Phyllis Trible’s “Texts of Terror” view of this text?


    • I love the way Trible looks at the form of the text, as well as the surface content, to mine new meanings.

      I have some reservations about her reclaiming the “suffering Christ” as the theological paradigm for the women she describes. I think Mieke Bal does a better job of really shifting the paradigm more fundamentally. Here book’s “Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges.”


  3. I saw a Catholic priest on CBS last weekend once again making the argument that the sexual predation of children wasn’t really connected to the church because, you know, everyone is doing it. The idea that human nature is such that all history lacks innocence (leaving out many cultures that have not embraced violence) is the same stuff.

    It is time to stop teaching a contrived ‘human nature’ as a means to excuse or attempt to rationalize the history of some religions.


  4. I’m one of those who ‘accept holy scripture as the word of God’ and I did some work on this passage earlier this year. Dirk, I like your point about the text not necessarily approving of Jephthah’s actions.

    I think I would go further though – I think Jephthah’s portrayed as a faithful Canaanite, not a faithful Israelite. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to read him positively.

    Also, I was interested in the historical fascination with drawing the similarities and contrasts between this passage and the akedah in Gen 22. I think it’s possible, even likely, that the two are meant to be read together in order to contrast Jephthah, the faithless, with Abraham, the faithful, another layer of condemnation of Jephthah.


    • And, of course, reading in conjunction with the Akedah really brings out the fact that the vow is entirely Jephthah’s initiative, not God’s. Still, given the logic of Judges, where military defeat is a sign of divine disfavor, military victory does imply divine approval of the vow. At the same time, I don’t think there’s a spelled-out notion of divine omnipotence or omniscience in Judges, so it’s possible to see the the divine as approving a sacrifice, but not necessarily daughter sacrifice. On the other hand, it’s also clear from comparison to the Akedah that God does not intervene to save Jephthah’s daughter, so if we read them together, divine complicity in patriarchal violence is actually heightened.

      I’m wondering how you read the litany in the Epistle to the Hebrews, which holds up Jephthah as an example of faithfulness. I can work with ambiguous perspectives in Judges, its place in the canon, and its readings in history, but that positive evaluation in Hebrews is a point where I personally draw the line and just counter with “NO.” But we all draw that line at different places for different reasons.


      • Yeah, the Hebrews reference is troubling. I have thought a bit about it – as you say, we all have different perspectives on it. :)

        One thing I think is interesting is the company Jephthah finds himself in in Hebrews. Some of them are heroes but the likes of Barak (coward); Samson (hot head and fell for foreign women); and Gideon (faithless and an idol builder) have shady aspects to their character as well.

        I don’t think that excuses them or Jephthah and I don’t want to ignore the
        difficulty of them being mentioned as men of faith in Hebrews but I think it at least allows us room to read them as failed in some sense.

        I think Hebrews gives us room to read it that way as well – the chapter ends by speaking about their incompletion and how God has something better for ‘us’ (11:40). So while they’re heroes in one sense, the thrust of Hebrews is also that they were deficient.


  5. Dirk! How are you? This is Shawnari from Street Prophets (I haven’t been on the site in the last year or so). First congratulations Dr. Von der Horst! You were working on the dissertation the last time we touched base.

    I agree that the stories in Judges are to set up the need for the monarchy. Unfortunately women didn’t do much better under the monarchy; take the stories of Michal, Bathsheba, and Tamar. I wrestle with these stories and what it means to be a woman made in the image of Godde and how the church still treats us and uses stories like these to excuse violence against women. No answers yet, but then there might not be any.

    I’ll be attending the SBL conference next year here in Chicago. Let me know if you’ll be in town for it. (Same offer goes for everyone on the site. I’ve been lurking for the last couple of months.)


    • Cool – I will almost certainly be there. I’ll make sure to have my cell phone with me this time, so we don’t have another SNAFU!

      As for women doing worse under the monarchy, if you look at 1 Samuel 8, the gendered division of labor is clearly one of the signs of the oppressiveness of the monarchy that Samuel warns about – “your daughters will bake bread.” Naomi Steinberg has an interesting essay on Deuteronomy as evidence of the restriction of women’s roles during state centralization in ancient Israel.


  6. But then too “They baked cakes to the Queen of Heaven.”


  7. I must add that far more profoundly disturbing to me than this particular story is the far more widespread image of God as a dominating other, a warrior God, who archieves his will through the war–in the Hebrew Bible, in Christianity, and in the wars waged by the new chosen people, the United States of America, annointed by God to bring democracy to the world.



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