further thoughts on Jephthah's daughter
Yesterday, I wrote a post on Jephthah, a figure in the book of Judges who makes a commitment that if God helps him out in battle, he’ll sacrifice the first thing that exits the door of his house when he returns home. Robert Alter notes that there’s been a lot of rabbinic and scholarly effort to make sense of this but that in “any case, it is a rash vow.” Indeed, the vow goes wrong, and Jephthah winds up in a situation where’s he believes he’s committed to offer up his daughter in sacrifice. One remarkable thing about the story is that Jephthah does not turn to God to bargain (as Abraham did for Sodom—though not, if memory serves, for his son, which is another interesting contrast). Nor does he rail against God in grief at the propsect of losing a child (as Job did after the fact). Rather, he accepts it as what needs to be done, and he goes through with it.
My reason for writing about this yesterday was to serve as a metaphor for heternormativity and homophobia in Mormonism—how many young people (and even older people) are offered up in metaphorical—and, all too often, literal—sacrifice because Latter-day Saints at all levels are convinced that this commitment is necessary, instead of pleading or railing as Abraham or Job might have. Almost immediately after publishing the post, it occurred to me that I’d left out one of the most interesting details of the story that fits neatly into the metaphor. I’m coming back to the subject today so that I get a chance to correct that error.
As I noted yesterday, Jephthah’s daughter is surprisingly on board with this whole plan, which could itself be the focus of attention in the context of this metaphor, but I don’t think it’s my place to make those comments. Instead, I want to talk about the one request that Jephthah’s daughter makes. As Robert Alter’s translation of Judges 11:37-39:
And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me be for two months, that I may go and weep on the mountains and keen for my maidenhood, I and my companions.” And he said, “Go.” And he sent her off for two months, her and her companions, and she keened for her maidenhood on the mountains." And it happened at the end of the two months, that she came back to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed, and she had known no man."
Commenting on this recurring emphasis on virginity, Alter notes that it:
underscores the point of keening for her maidenhood: she is cut off from the living without ever having had the opportunity to enjoy the fulfillment that life has in store for a woman.
I’m not sure that I would agree with the Biblical authors on “what life has in store for a woman,” but I do think it’s very interesting that the mourning of Jephthah’s daughter is that her life will not—and cannot—include a committed romantic or sexual relationship because of her father’s commitment to God. This, of course, is true of even those queer children and adults who accept Latter-day Saint leaders’ teachings on sex and gender—they may not be sacrificed in the sense of taking their own lives or losing a relationship with their parents, but they are still sacrificed in that they must mourn in the way that Jephthah’s daughter mourns.
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- affirming church
- Robert Alter
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