Sunday, 10 June 2012

Fathers in The Bible I: Jephthah

Oh, shit!
We're one week off Father's Day.  This will be the first Father's Day where I'm both a father and a blogger at the same time.  So I thought I'd celebrate in my own twisted way by focusing on some of the famous dads of the Bible.  You know this will all end up in tears.

Click here for the entire series.

I'm pretty sure many a pulpit is going to resonate about all those special fathers next Sunday - so I thought I'd chime in too.  I'll try to focus on one a day until father's day and I'm in luck since Christianity is a patriarchal (daddy-ruling)  religion - I should have enough material to work with.  Thanks Dad!

So let's jump right in with some human sacrifice!  I bet you're thinking of Abraham and his son.  No, no I'm talking about the real deal - Jephthah and his daughter: Daughter of Jephthah.  I suppose she didn't have a name - many women of the Bible seem afflicted with this indignity.  The Bible is a sexist book.
The Book of Judges describes Jephthah as leading the Israelites in battle against Ammon and, as the result of a rash vow, sacrificing his daughter after defeating the Ammonites. - Wikipedia
Here's the story minus all the distracting fluff that seems to often get added on by Christian apologists.  They're probably trying to hide the principle story and soften the blow, I would guess.  Of course you can read about this in the Brick Testament (BT Judges 11:34).  Here's more from Wikipedia:
The elders of Gilead ask him [Jephthah] to be their leader in the campaign against the Ammonites, but he holds out for a more permanent and a broader position, and the elders agree that, provided Jephthah succeeds in defeating Ammon, he will be their permanent chieftain. 
On behalf of Israel as a whole and in reliance on the might of God the Judge, Jephthah challenges the Ammonites. Jephthah swears an oath:
"Whatever/whoever emerges and comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be God’s, and I shall sacrifice him/her/it as a burnt offering." (Judges 11:31 - Note the Greek term for burnt offering is actually "holocaust" though the Hebrew עלה‎, `olah is derived from "ascention"). 
The victorious Jephthah is met on his return by his daughter, his only child. Jephthah tears his clothes and cries, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low!" but is bound by his vow: "I have given my word to God, and I cannot go back on it." (Judges 11:35). 
The girl asks for two months' grace, "... that I may go down on the mountains ... and bewail my virginity" (Judges 11:37). And so Jephthah "carried out his vow with her which he had vowed" (Judges 11:39). 
Needless to say, this story has caused some difficulty to theologians across the centuries. But this isn't their blog so here are my problems.

Apparently Jephthah was unemployed yet holding out on job offers until he could get himself a decent position.  But this offer to be made head chieftan was just the sort of management position he was after.  He was so eager to get the job that he promised God he'd butcher whatever piece of meat wandered out of the threshold of his house first upon his return - man, woman, goat, child.  God could get anything he wanted so long as Jephthah got his victory in battle - this was what passed for a job interview in those parts back then.

God apparently liked this deal, because he gave Jephthah a resounding victory against the Ammonites.  In fact, his army slaughtered pretty much everyone in twenty cities.  This was after the Hebrews relinquished their idols (for the hundreth time) and returned to worshipping Yahweh.  Those Hebrews seemed to waiver from the true faith quite frequently.   This would often hamper their ability to massacre entire city populations.

Now, this is going to hurt me more than you.
Jephthah came home after a long and successful slaughter.  Of course, who should be the first to meet her father upon his return?  Daughter of Jephthah of course. Who set that little piece of randomness up?  Apparently all the Ammonites weren't enough - this god is athirst for blood.

"Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low!"

Look buddy, it's not her fault. She was just being a good daughter. And what's her punishment? A death sentence. But while we're at it, let's also not forget all those Ammonite children and babies.

Daughter of Jephthah requested two months grace from her father to mourn the fact she's never going to get laid - this would have been the least of my worries. Jephthah generously agreed with the terms - it was apparently within his power.  I'm not sure why he couldn't have given her, say ten years grace, or forty.  I guess there are certain statutes of limitation that need to be honoured when placating bloodthirsty divinities with close family relations.
Jephthah is mentioned in the New Testament in Hebrews 11:32 as a man of faith. 
He is commemorated as one of the Holy Forefathers in the Calendar of Saints of the Armenian Apostolic Church on July 26.
Agamemnon and Iphigenia.
Okay, if there's anyone in this story that should be honoured or sainted it's Daughter of Jephthah.  And I'm certain he got around to naming this poor girl.  This guy does not get my vote for best dad of the year.

The Classsical Connection

I've got a degree in Classics.  For awhile this made me unpopular at parties.  I would inevitably start blathering on about the Greek or Latin roots of words or more recently about how The Hunger Games is just a modern rehash of the Theseus and the Minotaur myth.

Well when I read this part of the Bible I couldn't help but think of a similar story in Homer's Iliad, the story of Iphigenia.  Apparently the ancient Greeks thought that this daughter deserved her own name.

Like much of Greek mythology, there are many different variants to the story.  The first, most tragic version, has Agamemnon killing his daughter to appease Artemis, who's miffed because he killed a deer in her sacred grove.  As if that wasn't bad enough, he boasted he was the better hunter.   What a dick.

But the Greeks couldn't live with this picture of their goddess.  I guess they were too human.  So other variants made their way into the mythology.  In his play about the story, masterful Euripides substitutes a deer in the place of Iphigenia at the last moment.  Read Euripides, you'll thank me for it.

Both daughters die willingly, but the Greeks give their daughter a voice and makes her a true heroine.
Achilles vows to help prevent the murder of Iphigenia even after the Greeks throw stones at him. After Iphigenia and Clytemnestra mourn together, Iphigenia makes the noble decision to die in honor and by her own will and asks Achilles not to stop the men. When Iphigenia is brought to the altar to be slain she willingly allows herself to be sacrificed. As Iphigenia is about to be slain a deer is put in her place.
The Wikipedia article goes on to guess some of the motives for Iphigenia being so willing to sacrifice herself.  I can remember the play as being very moving at this part.  I prefer Greek tragedy to Bible stories - you can tell can't you?

But in a way the biblical story is more tragic because it only has a single variant - and it ends in death for an innocent girl so her dad can get the big promotion he wants.  An unnecessary death to a bloodthirsty god who was not satisfied with the deaths of twenty cities.  Nice going, dad.

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