Yesterday, I took the time to attend the noontime Mass at my parish. A treat indeed, for the presider was Fr. Jude Lucier - a wonderfully erudite priest whose knowledge of sacred Scripture is formidable.
He warned us that the first reading - from Judges, Chapter 11 - was "outrageuous" and to view it as a time, event and place firmly set within the Old Testament. Unfortunately, because Fr. Jude was aware that people attending the Mass were on their lunch break from work, he did not touch upon the reading in his sermon but focused on the Gospel instead.
That did not keep me from being disturbed by the story of Jephthah. I see I am not the only one as Winnie over at Reformed Catholic is pretty steamed over what appears to be his pastor glossing over it with a "keep-your-promise-to-God-and-it's-noble" stance. Even if that means killing your only child. I've made a quick comment there, but I want to expound a little further here.
I won't rewrite Chapter 11 of Judges here, but I recommend that you take the time to read it through. It is not a long reading, but I think it has to been seen in its entirety to understand what is going on and to accept the interpretation that Jephthah indeed made a burnt offering to the Lord of his daughter.
What was the sacrifice - the girl or her virginity? Some Biblical scholars suggest that Jephthah made a vow to keep his daughter celibate for the rest of her lifetime if God helps him to defeat the Ammonites. His grief, then, comes from the fact that she is his only child and so, by sacrificing her virginity to God, he mourns the loss of his lineage. But look back at Jephthah's vow - "whoever" comes out to meet him first, Jephthah vows to offer as a holocaust. The offer of celibacy makes no sense if the proverbial old blind guy who sits by the cistern all day greets Jephthah first. It is bothersome that Jephthah would make such a vow after the Law has been given to the Israelites forbidding such a practice . . . and yet, notwithstanding the covenant that God has made with them, the Old Testament is filled with examples of the Israelites behaving poorly and, yes, even engaging in some of that "old time religion" being practiced by their pagan neighbors.
Jephthah is not a sympathetic character, by my reckoning. He is the illegitimate son of Gilead and a harlot, whose "legitimate" brothers cast him out, not wishing to share anymore than they have to of their father's estate. So, Jephthah becoems, in essence, a gang leader: "A rabble had joined company with him, and went out with him on raids." Nice guy - no mention of whom he's raiding, but I am willing to bet he is not to discriminating with his choce of victims.
Meanwhile, back at the old homestead, his brothers are feeling the heat from the Ammonites. They seem to remember, "Hey, I bet that thug Jephthah could kick their a**es!" and call him back to become their mercenary. Is Jephthah ready to do this for family honor or the sake of God's chosen people? Aw, hell no, he wants some power from those who cast him aside: "If you bring me back to fight against the Ammonites and the LORD delivers them up to me, I shall be your leader." And the deal is struck.
What follows is odd. Jephthah sends his envoys to the king of the Ammonites and basically warns them, "You know, we Israelites, we're not the bad guys you made us out to me, and even if we did annex a little bit of Moab, hey, God is on our side. Don't forget what happened to the Amorites when they warred against Israel - God, you know, delivered them to us. 'If now the LORD, the God of Israel, has cleared the Amorites out of the way of his people, are you to dislodge Israel?'" I think Jephthah's approach is odd, basically claiming to be inevitably victorious because he leads God's Chosen People while his previous actions do not suggest him to be a Godly man. If you're going to fight in the name of God, you better be with Him, else risk breaking that pesky Second Commandment, as we have seen rulers do throughout history and into modern times, eh?
And that is what happens - 'The spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and through Mizpah-Gilead as well, and from there he went on to the Ammonites." Jephthah sees himself delivered safely before the Ammonites, ready to do battle, being led there by "the spirit of the Lord." Do you think that is enough for him to realize the faith that trust in the Lord will win the day? Oh no, not a shrewd guy like Jephthah - he wants a surety and so offers a bribe to God.
"Jephthah made a vow to the LORD. 'If you deliver the Ammonites into my power,' he said, 'whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites shall belong to the LORD. I shall offer him up as a holocaust.'"
What a louse. The practice of the Israelites was to offer as a burnt offering an unblemished male calf or kid, the idea being you sacrifice what is near perfection to One as great as God. Jephthah instead offers whoever - regardless! - comes out first. Could be the Village Idiot, could be the town brothel keeper ready with the "two for one" coupons for the returning troops, or - and I suspect that Jephthah was thinking along these lines - it could be those sum'bi**h brothers of his who cast him out in the first place, now vying to be the first to congratulate their new leader on his glorious victory, not realizing that the winner in such a foot race dies.
Who comes out? Jephthah's only child, his daughter, whose name is unknown to us. Psyche! At that point, Jephthah realizes his choice - does he keep his vow to God or does he succumb to the selfish nature that ruled him before? Jephthah is considered one of the great heroes of the Bible, but like our own Saints, he is not born that way. Instead, he faces a difficult choice and realizes that there is no fooling God or making deals with Him - His Will will be done. And who teaches Jephthah this? His own daughter, knowing what is in fate for her: "Father," she replied, 'you have made a vow to the LORD. Do with me as you have vowed, because the LORD has wrought vengeance for you on your enemies the Ammonites.'" A foreshadowing, as it were, of another Virgin saying, "Let it be done with me according to Your Will." Interestingly, no mention is made of Jephthah having anymore children after the death of his daughter and in Chapter 12 another man takes his place over Gilead, having come not from wthin but from Bethlehem (oh, what you could read into that).
Jephthah kept his promise but the real hero of the story is his daughter.