Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Naming Jephthah's Daughter...

A sermon from pastor Cindy, from last Sunday in the wake of the shootings in Orlando...
Judges 11 excerpt...

...and Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands,  whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”

“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.  But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry.  After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.

From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

This is, to me, the most horrible story in the Bible. It’s not the most graphic or vicious, but it is the most horrible, in that it is a story of man sacrificing his own daughter in the name of his god.

If you read the beginning of the chapter, you see that Jephthah was the illegitimate son of Gilead. His mother was a prostitute. When Gilead’s other, legitimate sons were grown up, they drove Jephthah away, saying, “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family, because you’re the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers, which makes it sound like they were either violent or threatened violence, and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.

He evidently made a reputation for himself, because later on, when the Israelites were fighting the Ammonites, the elders of Gilead, that is, his brothers, needing some good fighters, came to him, and said, “Come, be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.” To which Jephthah responded, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?” “Nevertheless” they said, “we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be head over all of us who live in Gilead.”

Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the Lord gives them to me—will I really be your head?” Notice Jephthah is bringing God into it, for his own purposes. “The Lord is our witness,” they said, “we will do as you say.” So he went back to Gilead with them and became their leader.

He then sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites, “Why have you attacked my country?” The king says, “It’s not your country. You took it from us when you left the land of Egypt,” back and forth, and eventually, there was a was. Jephthah was winning, but suddenly unsure of himself, perhaps, insecure about his future (?), in the midst of battle, he made his awful, horrible, thoughtless, stupid, selfish, wicked beyond measure vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Twenty devasted towns later, Jephthah returns home as the victor.

And in the tradition of Miriam and the women who played the tamborines and danced and sang when Pharaoh and his soldiers drowned in the Red Sea, in the tradition of the women who met David after he defeated the Philistines, dancing and singing, this wasn’t something that had never happened before, Jephthah’s daughter, his only daughter, his only child, runs out the door to greet him, dancing to the sound of timbrels.

When Jephthah sees that it is his daughter who he has vowed to sacrifice, he tears his clothes, which is a sign of great grief. You could almost feel sorry for him if you didn’t listen to what he said next. “Oh no, my daughter!” he cried. “You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.” Some of the Jewish texts add, “you are a stumbling block to me.” YOU have brought ME down? And I am devastated? Are you freaking kidding me? This was HER fault???

Citing the way the Hebrew is used here, Phyliss Trible writes, At the moment of recognition and disclosure, Jephthah thinks of himself and indicts his daughter for the predicament, thus, I would add, giving him an out, a justification in in his twisted, evil mind for his actions. You have brought me down. This is your fault.

Well, we’ve heard it before, haven’t we? All these centuries later, it’s still around. It’s what’s we call blaming the victim, and it happens all the time. Robert and I have been watching some of a documentary about the O.J. Simpson trial over the last few nights until I just felt so sick that I couldn’t watch it anymore. One of the things that came up over and over was how people blamed Nicole for not leaving O.J. sooner than she did. In an interview, one of the jurors, now an old woman, was, all these years later, even knowing all the facts, still scathing in her remarks about how weak Nicole was, as if it were her fault that she was murdered.

But we don’t just blame the victim in cases of domestic violence, do we? There were two teen brothers shot and killed about three weeks ago, you may recall, and on the same day that their mother identified their bodies, the Director of the Urban League, and this is supposed to be a progressive organization, blasted her, tore her down publicly, saying on WHAS, “Where was the parent who was supposed to say why didn’t my child come home last night?”

Blaming people who are vulnerable, oh, it’s just so easy, whether we’re “progressive” or not, it’s just so easy.

So, as I said, you could almost feel sorry for Jephthah if he hadn’t opened his mouth. But he does, he opens it the first time to make a horrific vow, horrific no matter who walked through the door, and the second time to blame his daughter for being that person.

Now his daughter responds in this way that doesn’t make sense to us in our culture. She basically says, “That’s alright, Daddy. You’ve made a promise to God, and you’ve got to fulfill it. Can I have two months to wander in the hills with my friends before you kill me?”

Now, some commentators ask why she didn’t fight it, why she didn’t stand up to him, why she didn’t run away. And nowadays, maybe she would have. Hopefully she would have. But my guess is that she was very shrewd here. Perhaps she thought it through in an instant as she stood there. She had no power whatsoever. The best she could hope for was time, and that’s what she went for. Boldly and strategically. Can I have two months in the hills with my friends to mourn my virginity? she asked. She cut to what was to her culture, the heart of the things, not her life, but her worth. She asked to for time to mourn her virginity, in other words, to mourn the fact that she would never be able to bear children for some man, and to carry on Jephthah’s name as well. Good move. And maybe in that time, who knows? Maybe he would change his mind, maybe someone would intervene, maybe…

And in fact, a rabbinical commentary on the story tells us how and why Jephthah, even after making a vow to God could have and should have done differently:

Jephthah was an ignorant man, else he would have known that a vow of that kind is not valid; according to R. Johanan, Jephthah had merely to pay a certain sum to the sacred treasury of the Temple in order to be freed from the vow; according to R. Simeon ben Laḳish, he was free even without such a payment (Gen. R. l.c.; comp. Lev. R. xxxvii. 3). According to Tan., Beḥuḳḳotai, 7, and Midrash Haggadah to Lev. xxvii. 2, even when Jephthah made the vow God was irritated against him: “What will Jephthah do if an unclean animal comes out to meet him?”

Later, when he was on the point of immolating his daughter, she inquired, “Is it written in the Torah that human beings should be brought as burnt offerings?” He replied, “My daughter, my vow was, ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house.'” She answered, “But Jacob, too, vowed that he would give to Yhwh the tenth part of all that Yhwh gave him (Gen. xxviii. 22); did he sacrifice any of his sons?” But Jephthah remained inflexible.

So according to tradition, Jephthah’s daughter did try to change her father’s mind…

It’s noted more than once that she is virgin, and this is for at least two reasons, the first being that in the culture of the time, her value wasn’t based on her own life, but rather on the descendants that she will have, that was her worth as a woman, and two, that in Leviticus, it says that the daughters of priests who are caught fornicating can be burned. So the narrator is making it clear that it’s not just her life that we’re talking about, but the lives of her descendants, AND that there’s no legal grounds on which to kill her.
But that none of that stops Jephthah from doing what he promised his god that he would do.

So that’s most of the story. What do we do with it?

Well, I’d like to suggest that mainly we ask questions about it, and the questions will vary, perhaps, depending on where we are in terms of how we think about the world and God.

For example, when I was a young Southern Baptist, my questions would have been along the lines of, “Why did God cause this to happen?” That’s because I believed that everything that happened in the Bible was God’s will.

As I got older, my ideas about how to interpret the Bible changed, and I would have asked, “Why did God allow this to happen?” That’s because I believed that God was in control of everything that happened, no matter how bad it was, and so while God didn’t cause it, God did allow it, meaning that God could have kept it from happening if God wanted to.

But now I’m more likely to ask, “Where is God in this?” And quite frankly, in a story like this one, that’s hard to answer.

A question we’ve already asked is, “Why didn’t Jephthah’s daughter fight back?” And I’ve addressed that a little bit already. “Why didn’t Jephthah’s wife fight back?” “Why didn’t Jephthah’s priest advise him differently?” “Why didn’ t more people get involved in this?” And maybe they did. Jephthah was, after all, a thug.

But even so, why did Jephthah cause this to happen? Once he realized that it was his daughter, why did he allow his pride, his reputation to override his love of family? Especially now that we know that he could have simply paid an offering? You may have some other questions as you think about the story.

I think that some of the most important questions, though, are, why do WE allow this kind of thing to happen? Why do we allow the powerful to sacrifice the children, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicts, the vulnerable?

How are we complicit in such sacrifices, and what can we do about it?

You know, Jephthah’s daughter was never named in the text. But we can name her, can’t we?

Forty-nine people were sacrificed in Orlando last Sunday morning. Sacrificed by the politicians and the gun lobbyists who support the right to bear any arms by, it would seem, any person at any time under any circumstances, and many of whom like Jephthah, use God’s name to justify their evil, sacrificed by a fundamentalist, anti-gay ideology that also uses God’s name to legitimize discrimination, sacrificed, perhaps, by the self-hatred that comes from a culture that has discarded, discredited, and discounted gay and lesbian and transgender persons. 
The children of Flint, Michigan, 57% black, and 40% poor, were sacrificed by a system that wanted to save money by switching their water supply, exposing all 9,000 children under the age of six to lead, which can lead to irreversible brain damage. The politicians and public officials, while ignoring the damage they were causing to the general population, were, however, sensitive to the needs of General Motors. When the head of GM went to Gov. Snyder to complain that the Flint River water was causing their car parts to corrode when being washed on the assembly line, he arranged for them to receive water from Lake Huron. So while the cars were being washed with clean water, the people were drinking lead.

Yes, we can name Jephthah’s daughter. We could name her all day long…

Phyliss Trible, who writes about this and other “Texts of Terror,” as she calls them, says that these texts are mirrors, and unfortunately, she is right about this one. This is a story that is taking place all around us all the time. It mirrors our world. And it doesn’t have a happy ending. But even as it mirrors the terrors of our world, it also mirrors a bit of the grace, and that, my brothers and sisters, that is where we find God in this story.

Jephthah’s daughter went to the hills for two months, where she wept with her friends. They weren’t able to keep her from dying, though I’d imagine that they hoped and dreamed together, that they plotted and planned together. But no, in the end, they weren’t able to keep her from dying, but they were able to share her grief, her pain, her story. They were able to listen and to comfort and maybe to laugh together a bit and to remember and to weep and to weep and to weep. And that is where we find God in this story. In the tears of those who loved her and in her own.

The story ends by telling us that every year, the young women of Israel would go out for four days to commemorate Jephthah’s daughter. In other words, this young woman who was a nothing, who was worth nothing, became a Jewish tradition. I don’t what difference it made. How much stronger the women of Israel became. But my guess is that the women of Israel were strengthened as they gathered together, as they mourned together, as they plotted and planned and hoped and dreamed together, as they remembered and wept together.

Sometimes we can stand up against evil, and when we do, God is there. Sometimes, the best we can do is gather together and weep, and when we do, God is there. May we be a mirror of God’s grace in this world full of terror.