on Jephthah, Jeremiah, and David Archuleta
Some of the most troubling passages in the Christian canon have to do with the sacrifice of children in the name of God. Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is perhaps the most obvious example of this, but there are other examples that (ought to) raise as much concern in the mind of the believer. Perhaps the most interesting (to me) story along these lines is found in Judges 11:31 (I’m using Robert Alter’s fantastic translation throughout this post), where one of the eponymous judges, a man by the name of Jephthah:
made a vow to the LORD and said, “If You indeed give the Ammonites into my hand, it shall be that whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return safe and sound from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I shall offer it up as a burnt offering.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this story goes horribly wrong. Jephthah is victorious against the Ammonites, so he comes home ready to make good on his half of the bargain. However, as we read in verse 34:
And Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, and, look, his daughter was coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dances, and she was an only child—besides her, he had neither son nor daughter.
Victim of his poor wording, Jephthah realizes that if he is to make good to his commitment to the LORD, he’s going to have to offer up his daughter in sacrifice. His daughter is surprisingly cool with this idea, and so things go through as planned.
One of the more interesting parts of the passage is that it’s ambiguous how the LORD feels about this whole thing. He certainly didn’t ask Jephthah to do this, and while verse 33 gives some vague indication that the LORD responded to Jephthah’s terms, it’s Jephthah and his daughter (and not some divine manifestation) who ultimately decide that they have to go through with this. The passage can—and, in my mind, should—be read in a way that indicates that this was only necessary in humans’ eyes, not God’s.
Along these lines, consider this passage from Jeremiah 7:30-31):
For the sons of Judah have done evil in My eyes, said the LORD, they have placed their foul things in the houe upon which My name was called, to defile it. And they build the high places of Tophheth, which are in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in fire, what I never charged them and what never came to My mind.
Following the assumption that you don’t have to preach against things that aren’t happening, Swiss-German Biblical scholar Thomas Römer argues that this passage ought to be read as evidence that at least some believers did, at some point in history, practice child sacrifice in the name of the LORD. In short, the author of this passage in Jeremiah assumes the voice of God in order to have God say “What are you doing? I know you’re trying to please me, but that’s terrible, and I never asked you to do that!”
I have been thinking a lot about these passages in the context of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who try to be sympathetic to queer children, siblings, or co-religionists, but who ultimately feel that their commitment to God requires them to stand against same-sex or other queer relationships. I know Latter-day Saint parents who feel this way about their own children—as far as orthodox Latter-day Saint responses to having your kid come out, their response hasn’t been that bad, but it hasn’t been great either. There’s a real chance that they’ll create a division between them and their children that won’t ever quite heal, and that could lead to a mild sacrifice in the form of a strained or eventually broken relationship.
This morning, though, after reading this article on David Archuleta’s coming out and embracing his queer identity, I am reminded that that “sacrifice” metaphor I’ve been thinking about risks being much more literal. Said Archuleta:
Suppressing his sexuality had taken a toll on him, and at his lowest, he says he contemplated suicide because of the church’s doctrine: “I thought it would be a better choice to just end my life.”
I don’t think you could find a better representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than David Archuleta. He sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (when it was still called that), he prominently put his career on hold to serve as a Latter-day Saint missionary, and he was so willing to be the face of the Church in so many ways. For the Church to be willing to offer Archuleta up in sacrifice in this way is deeply tragic.
I hope that there will be a day when Latter-day Saint leaders clearly hear God’s voice saying “I never charged you with this, and this never came to My mind.” I also hope that it’s soon. Too many children have been sacrificed on this altar, and we need to read Jephthah’s commitment as a warning rather than an example to follow.
- Thomas Römer
- Robert Alter
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- affirming church
- affirming church
- David Archuleta
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