And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering…Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with hand drums and with dancing…he did to her according to the vow he had made…” (Judges 11:30, 34, 39)
When I was a little girl I used to make up routines to perform for my family. From Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” I can remember making up creative choreography and performing in front of the affirming audience that was my family. Often times, my routines were accompanied by props, such as a hula hoop, roller skates, or an unwilling younger brother. Whether I had props or not, there was always a big smile on my face as I twirled and leapt to the tunes on my family’s 8-track, record, or cassette player. Half the fun was making up the routine and practicing until it was performance perfect. The other half of the fun was the response on my family’s faces as I forced them to “watch me, watch me!” once again. Despite the cheesiness of my routines and my silly props, they watched with delight, clapped, and encouraged me to dance all the more. Such is the experience for many fortunate children: choreographing routines, drawing pictures, making up skits and plays, and practicing to make their parents proud.
It is these very aspects of childhood play that haunt the story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11. A little girl skips out of her house to perform her newest routine upon the return of her daddy; little does she know what fate awaits her. Jumps and twirls of greeting, celebration, and welcome-home evolve into a dance of lamentation for a life short-lived as Jephthah’s daughter succumbs to the foolish promise of her faithless father.
Here we are confronted with what Phylis Trible calls a “text of terror.” What are we to do with this tale of injustice that is in scripture? For generations, faithful readers have wondered what happened to Jephthah’s daughter: what did it mean for him to “do to her according to the vow he had made”? Did he actually sacrifice his only daughter? Was she really given as burnt offering because of the vow Jephthah foolishly made in the midst of battle? Most feminist scholars agree on one issue: it is precisely the ambiguity that describes the sacrifice that is typical of the entire narrative. This ambiguity suppresses details about the sacrifice as a type of apology, a subtle justification of Jephthah’s behavior. As in much of history, the mighty warrior prevails uncensored; the violence he perpetuated upon his only daughter stalks him very little.
There are several aspects of the text that are worth mentioning in order to develop a fuller understanding of what is actually going on the story and what it means for us today. We note that Jephthah’s story exists in book of Judges. Jephthah is indeed a part of the downward spiral of judges over Israel. He is quite a character himself. He’s rejected by his community, the son of a prostitute, and doesn’t know who his father is. Yet, he is a good warrior and is selected to fight on Israel’s behalf.
We read that the “spirit of the Lord is upon him.” Even with God’s spirit within, Jephthah still finds it necessary to bargain with God while in battle. He makes a public announcement in his hometown of Mizpah: “If God helps me win this war against the Ammonites, then I’ll sacrifice whoever comes out of my house when I return from battle!” The word “whoever” is ambiguous, as well. We are left only to wonder if he is referring to the possibility of an animal sacrifice, but surely not his little daughter. Did Jephthah not remember that it was customary in ancient Israelite culture for women to dance out of their doorways with a dance of greeting and victory upon the return of men from battle? Did he not think about the possibility of his little daughter being a part of this noble custom?
So, Jephthah and the Israelites are victorious; they defeat the Ammonites. As he returns home, what is it that will exit the door of his house first? None other than his one and only child: his daughter, whose name the narrator did not find important enough to mention. She exits the house with a hand drum and with dancing. Just as other Israelite women were dancing out of their homes to greet fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands with greeting and celebration, so too, Jephthah’s daughter skipped and danced forth to celebrate the return of the daddy that she probably missed. Perhaps she had been working on her routine, choreographing the steps, practicing on her hand-drum, and waiting for the perfect moment to praise her father for his victory.
The text tells us that she is his one and only child and that she is a virgin. In fact, three times in the passage we read that she has never slept with a man. This is important because it reminds us that she is the property of her father. In this time, women were owned by their fathers until they married; then they became the property of their husband. So, Jephthah’s daughter was one of his only assets. Her loss would indicate a significant loss of property and his possible lineage. She had no children to carry on his name.
As this young child danced through the doorway, mindfully recalling her choreographed steps, prepared for her daddy’s return, she did not know that her actions would “bring him low.” She is probably quite shocked with his response to her dance. Instead of scooping her up and hugging her, praising her thoughtful gestures and beautiful dance steps, Jephthah rends his garments and yells at his little dancing daughter: “Daughter, why?! You are one with my enemies! For I have made a promise to God and I cannot take back my vow!” Why not, we wonder. Why can’t you take back your silly vow? God does not require it.
And we wait for a voice from heaven to spare the dancing daughter. But, unlike with Isaac, the child of promise, we hear no voice; a ram does not appear. God is silent. The daughter’s well-planned routines are replaced by the rending of garments: lamentation for the loss of lineage. Today let us rend our garments: lamentation for the loss of her name.
The story of Jephthah’s faithless vow and his dancing daughter’s demise stands as a paradigm for so many innocent victims who have suffered at the hands of proud people in power. This young daughter, who is not even awarded a name in scripture, is quite similar to the many who suffer injustices today. I think of the countless girls who have been victims of violence at the hands of faithless fathers. I think of persons and families caught in cycles of violence, nameless victims whose stories we never hear.
The story of Jephthah’s daughter and her violent fate has been a part of my own story for quite some time. She occupies an entire chapter in my recent book, Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. I’ve preached about her on numerous occasions, created choreography in her memory, and hiked Mount Sinai to see the oldest depiction of her at St. Catherine’s Monastery. I knew that she would be one of my Holy Woman Icons with a folk feminist twist that I feature each month. But this nameless daughter’s story is different than Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, and Sappho. Like Salome, she was only a child. Like Isadora, she died tragically. Like the Shulamite, Baby Suggs, Salome, Isadora, and Miriam, she danced. But we know their names. We don’t know her name. And she died so violently, so young, so unnecessarily. So, when I spread my canvas to canonize her into sainthood, I knew she had to be different. Her heart must be broken; our hearts must be broken. The painting must be more childlike, as though it was painted by this innocent young girl and not by a professional artist. From this icon, Jephthah’s nameless daughter’s broken heart cries out:
A dance of greeting for the triumphant warrior
A daughter sacrificed at the hands of a faithless father
Nameless and Fallen…
Our hearts break
In order to be responsible feminists we must confront the injustices that surround us today. We must ask ourselves: who are those that are oppressed in my neighborhood? Who are those that are victimized in my country? Whose names do we not know in my community? Then we must ask: what can I do to change this cycle of oppression? How can we be an agent of change in an unjust world? It is our responsibility to mourn these tragic deaths, to dance their dances, and rend our garments with actions of justice and remembrance. Paint. Rend. Dance. Prophesy. Rage. We owe it to her.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergywoman and professional dancer and artist since 1999. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com