The story of Jephthah’s daughter – found in the Hebrew Bible, Judges 11:29-40 – is a difficult story to read. The first time I read it, I was in my Christian high school Bible class and I could not understand why our teacher did not address the violence done by a father to his daughter. In my experience, Christians dismiss much of the violence done to women in the Hebrew Bible as evidence that ancient fathers, brothers, and husbands really did not care for their daughters, sisters, and wives. Since today men love the women in their lives, the ancient problem is no longer an issue, and we can continue with more pressing issues – or so the unspoken logic goes.
However, some feminist scholars – such as myself and Dr. Tammi Schnider – argue that it was common for fathers to love their daughters in the Hebrew Bible, and Jephthah is no exception. His daughter is his only relative in the text, and presumably the only person impatiently waiting for him to return from the war he led. Yet, because of the vow he makes to the deity – a vow the deity does not request or acknowledge – he sacrifices his only loved one. Why would he make such a vow? Why would his daughter go along with it? These are two of the questions I could not help but yell as I struggled with the text.
My interpretation of Jephthah’s daughter was inspired by a fellow student, Mariam Youssef. She presented three key aspects of modern rape culture that further victimize subjects of violence: victimization of the perpetrator, ambiguity in the retelling of the violent action(s), and cooperation of the victim. Youssef then showed how these aspects fit the biblical story of violence (despite the lack of rape). I found this insight very helpful and incorporated each into my painting.
Jephthah’s reaction to his daughter’s celebratory exit of her house is one that shifts the blame from him to her. Instead of becoming upset that he made a rash vow that resulted in such a devastating situation, he blames her for unknowingly fulfilling his vow (11:29-30). The shift of blame from father to daughter happens in one concise verbal expression, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow,” (11:35). He portrays his daughter as the reason for him being brought low. According to Jephthah, she is now the perpetrator and he the victim. To highlight the shift in blame, Jephthah’s daughter is falling to her knees in my painting; she is the one brought low, she is the victim.
The biblical text does not address Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter; instead it says that she came down from the mountains after the two months of mourning her virginity and that Jephthah did as he had vowed (11:39). This gives the strong impression that she was indeed sacrificed. Excluding important details or using ambiguous language to describe an act of violence de-emphasizes the horror of the action and dehumanizes the victim. Since I wanted to express other aspects of Jephthah’s daughter’s experience, I seemingly participate in this ambiguity. Nevertheless, I hope it is clear in the context of the other women in this set of paintings that violence is imminent (see future parts). While the text is not addressing the horror of the violence, my painting is by emphasizing the personhood of the woman prior to her terrible and completely unnecessary death.
The last aspect of modern rape culture Youssef addressed was the cooperation of the victim. This is the most devastating part of the story for me. Witnessing the biblical account of Jephthah’s daughter’s acceptance of her abusive relationship – and the loss of self that would result – is heart breaking. Not only does she respond to her father’s blame shift with an acknowledgement of his right to complete his vow (11:36), but she also returns from her mountain experience so that he could complete his vow (11:39)! My experience of compliance in a past abusive relationship resulted in self-examination and eventual awareness of how toxic my situation was. It is for this reason that I painted Jephthah’s daughter with her hands out in front of her. Her face is downcast because of the weight she bears, but also because of the introspection she is experiencing.
Since the text does not detail Jephthah’s daughter’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations, I imagined them for the sake of my painting. In my interpretation, Jephthah’s daughter is aware of the toxicity of her situation. But she continues to stumble to her home for a reason unknown to the biblical text, interpreters of the text, and viewers of my painting – she appears to be enabling the violence. In my painting, this is the reason she does not fight back against the box surrounding her, which represents any and all aspects of the biblical text and interpretation that has limited her.
The box surrounding Jephthah’s daughter is blue, green, and dark magenta. Each box includes blue because in this set of paintings, I chose blue to represent patriarchal forces. For this box however, blue also represents the mountains and freedom denied Jephthah’s daughter. Green represents the grass I envision Jephthah’s daughter dancing in with her fellow maidens (11:37) and her growing vibrant life, both of which were taken from her. And magenta is for the blood Jephthah spilled both on the battlefield and at home.
If we are to read this text seriously, how does it affect the way we understand a deity who saved Isaac from a very similar situation in Genesis? How does this affect the way we read other biblical narratives like the metaphors of battered women in Ezekiel? And, most importantly, how does it affect the way we react to violence against women today?
Also see: Painting Jephthah’s Daughter
Melinda Bielas is currently a Masters of Arts student at Claremont School of Theology in Interdisciplinary Studies, focusing on Hebrew Bible and Feminist Theory. Art is a significant aspect of her interpretation process and you can see more of her art at mindypaints.weebly.com. She graduated from La Sierra University with a BA in Religious Studies and Pre-Seminary as well as a Masters of Theological Studies. When she is not studying or painting she enjoys playing with her cat and practicing her harp.