Jephthah’s Vow: A Corruption Of Yahwism In The Era Of The Judges -- By: John Roskoski
BSpade 25:1 (Winter 2012) p. 23
Jephthah’s Vow: A Corruption Of Yahwism In The Era Of The Judges
To many readers of the Bible, Jephthah’s vow and the consequent sacrifice of his daughter (Jgs 11:29–40) is a troubling account. There are many narrative points which seem to be in tension with each other and with early Yahwism. The account opens with the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Jephthah. As he prepares to engage the Ammonites in battle, Jephthah prays for victory. To secure this victory, he promises that whatever comes out of his house first, upon his triumphant return, will be sacrificed to YHWH. Jephthah routs the Ammonites and upon his return, his unnamed daughter comes out to meet him. He cries out in anguish, literally saying that she has brought him to his knees. He tells her of his vow and she accepts the vow, but asks to mourn her virginity for two months. After this period, she returns and he sacrifices her according to his word. This became the origin of a yearly commemoration of the daughter of Jephthah among the Israelite women.
In this passage there are several basic features which must be considered. Jephthah receives the Spirit of the Lord, the Spirit of YHWH, yet still engages in a ritualistic vow that is consistent with the surrounding pagan and idolatrous cultures. The text uncompromisingly presents the power of the spoken word, as contained in the uttered vow and the status of virgins in this era. Perhaps the most curious feature is the place of the actual sacrifice within the narrative structure. The text does not present the sacrificial act, which was promised to obtain the victory, as the climax of the account. The ritual mourning takes the final climactic position, thus relegating the sacrificial act as the historical explanation and origin of the ritual. The sacrifice is narrated as a matter of course, with no explanation or description offered to the reader. Significantly, the text offers no judgment of the act to the reader either. We cannot know the author’s view of this sacrifice. However, we can argue that the lack of details, explanations or judgments suggest that this type of sacrifice was well-known to the original author or storyteller and his audience and, therefore, there was little need for such narrative expansions.
Based on these general considerations, we suggest that the vow and sacrifice of Jephthah is consistent with the culture of the Ancient Near East, particularly the Transjordan. Furthermore, his actions were typical of the syncretistic religious climate, wherein there was a blending or corruption of Yahwism as it came into contact with the surrounding pagan cultures. Moreover, this act was indicative of the henotheism that permeated the era of the Judges,...
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