Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jephthah Did What?

Today's Lectionary reading from the Book of Judges is a shock to modern ears. The passage recalls how Jephthah, leading Israel in battle against the Ammonites, vow to sacrifice to God the first person who greets him when he returns home, if God will only grant the Israelites success in battle. The Israelites meet with great success, and Jephthah returns to his home, where he is greeted by his daughter, an only child. After two months in which she mourns for never being able to be married, the vow is consummated and she is sacrificed.


The literal sense is a little troubling here. God seems to accept the oath, for Israel is rewarded with success in battle, and Jephthah is not stopped short of sacrificing his daughter, as Abraham was stopped from sacrificing Isaac. Nowhere does the scripture explicitly state that God was displeased with the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter, although it does note that Jephthah served as a judge for six years before he died. Six is a number associated with incompleteness, being one less than the seven days associated with the creation account.

What about the allegorical, moral, and anagogical senses?

The moral sense seems to suggest that human sacrifice is A-OK, but we know from subsequent revelation and Tradition that that's not true. In the allegorical sense, we might suggest that the daughter of Jephthah is a type, but is she a type for Jesus in that she is willingly sacrificed, or a type for Mary in her virginity? Only in the anagogical sense, in which we see that Jephthah held nothing, even his only daughter, back from God, does the passage make any real sense. Jephthah made a rash oath to God, but even though the oath was rash, he fulfilled the terms. Oaths to God are not to be taken lightly.

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