Jephthah’s Daughter in English Post-Reformation Exegesis -- By: Henry M. Knapp

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 80:2 (Fall 2018)
Article: Jephthah’s Daughter in English Post-Reformation Exegesis
Author: Henry M. Knapp


Jephthah’s Daughter in English
Post-Reformation Exegesis

Henry M. Knapp

Henry M. Knapp is a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Beaver, PA, and adjunct faculty at Trinity School for Ministry, Ambridge, PA.

Some contemporary commentators have expressed shock and frustration over various biblical texts that appear to demean or abuse women, texts such as the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter recounted in Judg 11. The apparent lack of biblical condemnation in the Scriptures and the questionable inclusion of Jephthah in the Epistle to the Hebrews’ “Hall of Fame” only exacerbates the problem. Furthermore, it is claimed that biblical interpreters throughout the church age have also ignored the plight of Jephthah’s daughter while exalting him despite the brutality of his action. However, an examination of the biblical commentaries produced in the immediate post-Reformation era in England challenges this generalization. Far from being ignored, the difficulties of this text and Jephthah’s treatment of his daughter factor significantly in most examinations of this passage. Jephthah’s vow and its execution are almost universally condemned, and a vivid concern for the daughter’s sufferings is expressed, not in modern sympathetic terms, but in the struggle to make sense of the text as a whole. English expositors and theologians sought alternative ways to interpret the passage so as to minimize Jephthah’s culpability, as in the minority view that the daughter was dedicated rather than sacrificed. Interpreters explained Jephthah’s inclusion in the book of Hebrews based on his typological function as a judge and savior of his people, not on his morality or treatment of his daughter, many also arguing that the sinfulness of his action did not preclude a salvific faith. Finally, while hardly excusing the treatment of her, the overwhelming perception of Jephthah’s daughter expressed during this period was as an obedient and highly praiseworthy woman in her own right.

Thirty years ago, Phyllis Trible published a series of lectures on Texts of Terror, scriptural passages which appear to abuse, demean, or debase women.1 She centered her criticism on four texts: Abraham’s treatment

of Hagar; the Levite’s wife in Judg 19; Absalom’s sister, Tamar; and Jephthah’s daughter. In each case, Trible noted the devastating manner in which the women were treated, the despair and destruction to which they were subjected. Echoing other feminist critics,2 however, Trible’s main accusation was leveled at the biblical narrators themselves; as ter...

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