Who Is Jephthah’s Daughter? The Cost of War by Carol P. Christ

carol-christIn a provocative essay and heart-breaking painting, Angela Yarber asked us to consider who Jephthah’s daughter is in our time. Angela reminded us that Jephthah was a heroic warrior in the Hebrew Bible who swore in the heat of battle that if his people won, he would sacrifice the first person he would see on returning home. That person turned out to be his unnamed daughter.

Reading Angela’s post and looking at her holy woman icon of Jephthah’s daughter, my mind turned to the story of Agamemnon’s daughter.  In this case, the daughter is named: Iphigenia.  Agamemnon had gathered his troops to sail to Troy, but lack of wind prevented them from setting off.  According to the myth, Agamemnon was told by the Goddess Artemis that he must sacrifice his daughter if the ships were to sail. He did.

In his powerful rewriting of the myth of the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Daniel Cohen questions whether the Goddess requires human sacrifice.  In his version of the story, the Goddess Artemis tells Agamemnon that he must sacrifice his daughter if he wants the ships to sail.  He does.

Cohen adds a postscript that makes my skin tingle every time I read it:

[The tellers and hearers of the tale] do not see that Artemis demanded no sacrifice. She simply gave Agamemnon a warning, that his acts would have consequences. The goddess tried to make him understand that the cost of his glory and fame was the death of many daughters and mothers, sons and fathers. That is why she asked if he was prepared to bring death to his own daughter.

The Greek dramatists intended to evoke “pity and fear” in their audiences when they retold the story of Iphigenia.  But I don’t think they ever intended to question the necessity for war. The classical Greek “democracy” in which they wrote and produced their plays was based on war and led by the heroes of wars.  “War is hell,” my father often said.  But he did not question the necessity of war in human life.

My friend Judith Plaskow and I have often debated whether the “texts of terror” in the Bible should be read in church or synagogue or excised from liturgies.  While I would prefer that stories like that of Jephthah’s daughter never be read again, Judith has insisted that it is important to read these stories which are considered “sacred texts” and then to question the “message” that is usually derived from them.  Judith is invoking the time-honored Jewish tradition of midrash, from which the Christian homily or sermon on a text derives.

Here is my suggestion for coda, postscript, or midrash to be added whenever the story of Jeptheh’s daughter is read.

Painting Jephthah’s Daughter Rev. Dr. Angela YarberWe read this story not to celebrate Jeptheh’s terrible act, but to remind ourselves that every father or mother who goes to war or condones war is signifying his or her willingness to sacrifice not one but many beloved daughters, not one, but many beloved sons.

And I would add that an appropriate hymn to be sung following the reading would be Willie Dixon’s “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” with feeling. It’s refrain is:

Ain’t gonna study, study war no more
Ain’t gonna think, think war no more
Ain’t gonna fight, fight war no more
We’re givin’ it up, we gonna let it go
We’re givin’ it up, we gonna let it go

As the Greeks say: makari,  would that it were so!

I will offer a second reflection–on the gender issues in the story–next week.

Carol P. Christ  has been busy creating a newly released website for the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute.  It is not too early to sign up for the spring or fall pilgrimages for 2014.  Carol can be heard on a WATER Teleconference.  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions


Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

16 thoughts on “Who Is Jephthah’s Daughter? The Cost of War by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thrilling to see sparks of inspiration leaping back and forth between the Iphigenia story and the Hebrew Bible. War often has to do with borders and defending them. The supposed division between paganism and other world scriptures sets up wars too as a false divide. To find connections in the sub-conscious between the ancient pagan myths and various Judeo-Christian scriptures is deeply healing. Alicia Ostriker had a theory on scripture commentary that she hoped for as a world “without borders.” As committed feminists, I believe the focus of our research can be consistently understood as a world without borders too.


    1. Yes Sarah, the Hebrew Bible is part of a larger patriarchal culture in the Near East, as you point out. Scholarship without borders is something I advocate too, which is why it warmed my heart that Judith Wouk said her rabbi friends were inspired by my post.


  2. Reminded me that when the USA Congress declared war on Iraq, only ONE Congressperson had a child in the military. Reminds me that when the USA has no draft, the military must rely on volunteers, many of whom come from economically deprived segments of the population. Would the face of war change if those in charge of making the decisions had to sacrifice their own? According to the Ancient Greeks and Jews, No.


    1. Sacrifices of war are sanctioned in the sacred texts of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews which have been said to be the foundation of (western or all) culture and which were force-fed to the heathens under colonialism. Sobering thought indeed!


  3. If Jephthah Daughter’s story were taught in a manner that encouraged critical thinking skills and engaged students in the creation of midrash, then like Judith Plaskow, I would be delighted if it were included in liturgies. A wise teacher could bring forth much knowledge from her students with such texts. Also, the talk of war in regards to song reminds me of Sting’s refrain, “I hope the Russian’s love their children, too!” Isn’t it the children, our beloved daughters, we sacrifice in war?


    1. Yes, Karen. The question is how to ensure that these texts are not just read, and not just commented upon, but also repudiated as models for a sacred path.


  4. We might also consider the unnamed daughter of King Midas, he of the golden touch. Next to gold, he loved his daughter more than anything else. When Dionysus said he could have a wish, he asked that anything he touched be turned to gold. Soon Midas was surrounded by gold. Then he touched his supper. His food turned to gold. He couldn’t eat. Then his daughter came up to him for a hug. She was turned into a golden statue. It’s not just for victory in war that men sacrifice their daughters. It’s for wealth, which equals power. Would any woman ask for the “gifts” Jephthah, Agamemnon, Midas, and other warriors and kings asked for? Would any goddess grant such a gift?


      1. Barbara and Nancy your interchange brings us back to my earlier posts on patriarchy–created at the intersection of war, private property (=greed), and the control of women.


  5. Thanks you Carol! It was a real A-Ha moment for me. I have sent this on to a number of friends, including two rabbis, who are into re-framing Biblical and other stories. One said that it made her morning and another re-sent it to her friends! I look forward to the next one.


    1. Thanks Judith. The rabbis’ responses made my day (or given time differences evening)! We can speak to each other across religious differences about the harm that patriarchy has done in almost all traditions, not just the Hebrew, but also the Greek.


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