Sunday, May 18, 2008

Human Sacrifice for God: Judges 10-11

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Arguably this is the most disturbing moment in Judges. I can explain it with my theory of female property, which is more than a lot of people can manage - but the fact that God's on side with it then makes the story all the more disturbing.

The author of Judges throws us a couple of meaningless judges by way of a breather before moving on to the next bloodbath: Tola of Puah (whose grandfather was Dodo!), and Jair of Gilead. There's probably a pun in the original Hebrew here, which is yet another reason why we should always bear in mind that Biblical language is made stilted by the need for a "faithfully" literal translation: Jair "had thirty sons who rode thirty donkeys. They owned thirty town."

It will come as no surprise that, once again, the Israelites have begun to worship foreign gods. Actually, it's not really clear whether they ever stopped, beginning with Gideon's idol at Ophrah. The Philistines and Ammonites promptly invade and "shatter and crush" the Israelites for 18 years. The people repent again, but this time, God is exasperated and bitter. He tells the Israelites he's not going to save them this time. He taunts them to beg their other gods for assistance instead. But the Israelites keep praying, so God changes his mind and agrees to save them.

Which brings us to Jephthah of Gilead, and another opportunity to berate the NIV translators. Jehpthah, Judges begins, "was a mighty warrior." Then it discusses his background, which is somewhat less than mighty: the illegitimate son of a Gileadite and a prostitute, shunned by his family and forced to become a criminal. He gathers a group of bandits, which for some inane reason the NIV calls a company of "adventurers." Adventurers? Really? Come on. What the hell's the point of that?

Inexplicably, the Gileadites decide that Jephthah is the natural leader for a revolt against the Ammonites. Jephthah correctly reasons that this is a strange request to a banished bastard. Jephthah agrees and sends an extraordinarily lengthy message to the Ammonites, basically a history of Israel combined with a warning that many of the Israelites' previous enemies have wound up dead. Interestingly, the Ammonites suggest that they're interested only in a limited territorial dispute, but Jephthah either doesn't believe them or doesn't care. They go to war and Jephthah wins handily, massacring the inhabiants of twenty cities.

In the meantime, however, Jephthah has made a dangerous promise: he will sacrifice the first living thing he sees upon his return home, in gratitude for the victory. Surprise! It's his only child, his daughter. He confesses what he's done and she agrees to let him kill her, but first he lets her spend two months with her friends, allegedly mourning the fact that she will never marry. She comes back after the two months and is killed. The Bible carefully specifies that she died as a virgin.

If for some strange reason my previous posts haven't convinced you, this chapter should: any notion that the Israelites in the narrative continuously cherished the sanctity of life dies with Judges 11, in which a man's need to keep his oath is worth more than the life of his own daughter. It is either a testament to her devotion or a sad fact of oppression that his daughter consents to her own murder - for that is what this is. Even more painfully, the Bible does not even give this daughter a name. She is simply "the virgin."

It should come as no surprise that the response of many modern Christian readers has been to look for an exemption, an exception, some minor translation error. The fact that the Mosaic law flatly bans human sacrifice of children, and provides no guidance for how to conduct a ritual, helps this. So, oddly, does the Judges focus on virginity, which leads people to conclude that what "sacrifice" in this contact really meant was that she had to live out her life as a virgin. I hate to say it, but that strikes me as an idiotic suggestion, given the context: Jephthah says he will sacrifice her as a burnt offering, and Judges says he "did to her as he had vowed." The virginity in this context, I think, is used by the author of Judges to highlight the severity of the tragedy. The alternative notion is touching but kind of silly - the Jews didn't have any ritual guidance for lifetime sexual abstinence in place of sacrifice at the time either, nor did Jephthah's own distress at his predicament suggest he's worried about not being able to give away his daughter's virginity properly. The fact hat the ancient Israelite women apparently honoured the story of Jephthah's daughter with a four-day memorial every year is also suggestive of the real sacrifice interpretation.

The notion that Jephthah could vow to sacrifice his daughter simply cements in my mind the fact that to the ancient Jews, women were owned property - the fact that Jephthah seems upset about what he must do doesn't change that fact. At no time does he decide that breaking his oath, and thus sinning himself, would be preferable to human sacrifice. This is certainly an extreme case, but all attempts to apply the Jewish laws to our context today must consider this fact. Is Jephthah righteous for upholding his oath, or wicked for sacrificing his daughter? Did he commit murder - and if so, why is he not punished for it?

It's hard to say, because the author of Judges doesn't give an explicit answer to these questions, but it certainly doesn't condemn Jephthah for his actions. Jephthah remains the loyal and righteous judge of Israel. What he has done is horrendous, and something that should never have happened, but Jephthah remains respected for upholding his oath. The apparent lesson here is not to make foolish oaths - and, by implication, that even a foolish oath is worth more than the life of a fellow human being. Oaths have power. Jephthah's actions are terrible but he does right by keeping his oath.

Tellingly, God is silent throughout the story. Judges says that the Lord was on their side in the initial victory against the Ammonites, but for the most part, the author of Judges knows fuck-all about God. God has stepped out for most of Judges; he only rarely speaks, and this notion of battle-as-oracle is frankly unconvincing. The author of Judges clearly thinks that what Jephthah did was right, but on this occasion if no other, we must begin to question how closely we really do agree with the authors of the Bible on basic moral issues, and, for that matter, how closely they agree with God.

You don't have to accept that point, of course. You could accept that God really did bless Jephthah for his oath and permit him victory over the Ammonites. In that case, however, you're going to have to explain why an all-knowing God sanctioned human sacrifice in order to buy Israel a military victory. In that case, why would God not redeem Jephthah's daughter the way he redeemed Abraham's son? Is it merely because she is female?

A final possibility, it occurs to me, is to accept that the author of Judges actually intends to write a story in which events are deliberately morally complex. There is, on reflection, perhaps no such thing as righteousness in Judges. Gideon builds an idol, Jephthah murders his daughter. This is not about the xenophobic military propaganda of Joshua, the priestly arrogance of Numbers, or the liberation of Exodus. Is the story of Jephthah, with God's suspicious silence, a celebration of a system in which a man's oath trumps human life - or is it a veiled criticism of that ethical system in which such ridiculous extremes would be legally justifiable? It can only be the latter if the author of Judges is being deliberately flexible about God's "role" in battle, I suppose, but it does offer something in the way of an alternative explanation. Thus the problem, or perhaps the point, of Judges is that there is no victory, no divine liberation, no promise, no hope: even the apparent defeat of foreigners is tainted by the repugnance of the Israelites who are carrying out the battle in the name of the Lord.

Judges is by design and intent the greyest book in what is supposedly a very black and white Bible, and that, perhaps, is what makes it most difficult to read.