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Book Preview: “Leading Ladies” Part 2

In the previous article, part 1 of Jephthah’s daughter’s story, we solved many mysteries
Read Time: 13 minutes

(Part 2) 

“My father, you have given your word to the Lord.
Do to me just as you promised.” (Judg 11:36)1

Find Part 1 here: https://tidings.org/articles/book-preview-leading-ladies/

We solved the mystery of what Jephthah meant by “a burnt offering”– he intended of his free will to give the LORD a male without blemish, for life, in keeping with what the law insisted a burnt offering had to be.

However, It was a highly flawed offering because it was made of grudge-born bitterness. He intended to force one of his brothers, whose legitimate births made them purer than him, into lifelong Temple service, thus terminating their genealogical line.

He has been harboring a simmering fury against them for years because they evicted him from the house, family, and inheritance, since he was born of a prostitute. This development also solved the mystery of why he made them swear an oath before the LORD at Mizpah that, if he returned from the war victorious, he would have full authority over them. Otherwise, they could simply refuse his commands.

He has now returned to his parent’s house at Mizpah, where his brothers reside. Believing his daughter is safely ensconced at home in Tob many miles away, he eagerly awaits who will come out of the house first and thus be the victim of the vow.  

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her, he had neither son nor  daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” (Judg 11:34-35). 

It’s his daughter. 

This story is a constant stream of mysteries: as soon as one is solved, another appears. How is it that Jephthah’s daughter is in the family home in Mizpah when she should have been in Tob? 

We’re not told, so we can only speculate. Have the brothers found out about the vow and lured Jephthah’s daughter to the family home to defeat his plan? Almost certainly not because Jephthah’s response to seeing his daughter is despair, not rage.

If Jephthah had learned his brothers had tricked his daughter into being there and were thus responsible for ruining her life, he would’ve been incandescently furious, and I doubt a single one of them would’ve lived out the day. His anguish shows he knows they aren’t responsible for ruining her life; he is. 

I suggest she decides to be there to meet her father; she has acted entirely with her own agency. We have one clue to work with–she leads a victory dance with tambourines, which triggers an ancient memory. Many years before, a Leading Lady coordinated the celebration of God’s victory over an enemy, in that case, Egypt, a comparison that other expositors also see.2 

Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. (Exod 15:20). 
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. (Judg 11:34). 

Jephthah’s daughter knows the history of the children of Israel. She knows about Miriam leading Israel in celebration of God’s victory. Miriam knew this wasn’t a circumstance that needed deference to a male leader and Jephthah’s daughter knew likewise, taking her cue from Miriam’s age-old precedent.

Jephthah’s daughter led Israel in a triumphant celebration of the victory the LORD gave over Ammon, dancing with tambourines as Miriam had centuries before, providing the crowning glory to Israel’s triumphant day. Better still, she knows of her father’s continuing bitterness against his brothers. What better way to heal an ancient rift than celebrating a victory for God and country as a family together? It’s a glorious idea. 

Until it was ruined.

Ruined by her father’s petty, decades-long vendetta against his own family. 

Some might argue, “Why would God honor a vow born of such an ungodly spirit?” He doesn’t—God forbids it, in fact. He answers the prayer of Jephthah to deliver him victorious from the Ammonite battle, even rewarding the courageous warrior with His Spirit to prevail.

But God does not honor Jephthah’s vow; rather, He confounds it. He does not permit Jephthah to visit grudge-born vengeance on his brothers; instead, God intervenes to transform the vow into something authentic, and Jephthah has to make a sacrifice of enormous value, almost beyond what he could bear. 

Jephthah’s anguish seems genuine, and he sees the depth of the destruction his bitter grudge has finally caused. Now his daughter is dispatched to Temple service. She will never marry and raise children. He has terminated her lineage and in so doing, his own.

There are even broader impacts. God’s victory celebration is completely deflated, at least for the two most important participants: the commander and the choreographer. Jephthah must’ve seen how pathetic his age-old grudge was in the broader scheme of God’s people’s survival against Ammon, how self-serving his catastrophic vow was.

But Jephthah’s moment of clarity provides only that: a clear vision of the wreckage he’s wrought. After the glorious victory God has just granted him because of his faith and courage, Jephthah is, ironically, defeated and speechless. 

The Daughter of the Vow takes charge. 

“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.” (Judg 11:36-37 NIV). 

A Leading Lady indeed! She sounds like a mature mother instructing a wayward child, yet it’s a daughter respecting her father, who has behaved disastrously arrogantly by placing his grudge above all. She has saved her father, even though he has destroyed her.  If she had resisted him then he, not her, would be guilty of vow-breaking. This is her selfless sacrifice.

She has saved her father, even though he has destroyed her.

Sadly, some unwisely misinterpret her selflessness as active support for an abusively patriarchal system.3 That is just foolishness. She rescues and protects her father, the very man who should have been dedicated to protecting her. She takes the position of power to save him from violating God’s law:

“Do to me just as you promised.” After the two months… he did to her as he had vowed. (Judg 11:36, 39 NIV). 

This language is notably obscure. Whether she was killed (we have shown that she wasn’t) or sent to the Temple, it would be easier to say so than use the clumsy language above. I can only conclude the obfuscation is deliberate. I see this as a test of faith for the reader.

For those prepared to do the detective work, there are enough clues to confidently conclude she was not killed. Yet the Biblical record forbears from spoon-feeding the reader the truth in a direct statement. So, for those determined to find an evil God whom they can curse, the ambiguity permits enough latitude to satisfy them as well. 

We have so little information about her. She speaks with maturity yet is unmarried: Hebraists confirm that the word “virgin/maiden” specifies an unwed state.4 Given the culture, that suggests she is approximately teenaged.

Her calling for two months to mourn that she would never marry independently demonstrates she would never have been killed as a result of the vow; otherwise, her concerns would be for her life, not her virginity. And in the phrase: “The daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judg 11:40), the Hebrew word is “letannôt,” which is poorly translated as “lament,’’5 but better rendered “chant,”6 or “celebrate,”7 as it appears in Deborah’s Song: 

To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the righteous triumphs of the Lord, the righteous triumphs of his villagers in Israel. (Judg 5:11). 

No-one “laments” the righteous triumphs of the LORD they rejoice. Bal dispenses with the word “lament” altogether, and translates the sentence: “the daughters of Israel went yearly to recount the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year,”8 giving the sense that the young ladies celebrated Jephthah’s Daughter’s story at the Temple with the woman herself: perhaps to lament the end of her lineage, but to rejoice in her strength in shouldering the burden of The Vow. 

Good and Bad Fathers

Human Fathers: Serving Self

Here, then, is the point of Jephthah’s daughter’s story: Don’t bear grudges. For one thing, grudges are arrogant; the grudge-holder necessarily rates the importance of their personal grievance above all, rendering them deaf and blind to the needs of those around them. Grudges can be woefully destructive, as we have seen.

Above all, studying the subject of grudges is relevant to your life and mine. If this Bible chapter taught nothing more than “Don’t set fire to your children,” the story is pointless since it applies to practically no one. But grudges are real and common in every era, and as damaging now as they were for Jephthah’s daughter, making Judges 11 one of the most supremely relevant Bible chapters to modern life. 

In Jephthah’s case, his grudge led to many disasters. He planned to terminate the lineage of one of his brothers, which, culturally, is an extremely heavy blow (c.f. 2 Sam 14:1-7). But would God have ever accepted his offering? It looks good on the outside; the victorious warrior who has risked his life for God and country in battle has extended his sacrifice further by dedicating a family member to Temple service—a heroic gesture! 

God hates ingenuine offerings

But this is a damaged offering! It’s not motivated by a desire to serve God but by a desire to wreak vengeance (which belongs to God, Deut 32:35) on a family member for an old injustice. For all Jephthah knows God’s laws so well, he’s overlooked an important one–that God hates ingenuine offerings. 

“When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the Lord Almighty. (Mal 1:8 NIV, from Deut 15:21). 

Jephthah’s sacrificial vow is utterly diseased in conception. Thus, God does not accept it; but rather intervenes in the plot so that Jephthah ends up dedicating something truly valuable, indeed something much greater than he was willing to give. 

How, then, does Jephthah earn his place in the list of the faithful (Heb 11:32)? Perhaps because, for all the disaster the selfish vow caused, he was faithful enough to keep it (which required his brave daughter’s cooperation), even though it hurt. 

Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? The one whose walk is blameless… who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind. (Psa 15:1-4, NIV).

There’s more. Selfish parenting, like any form of abuse, can be cyclical. Jephthah’s father, Gilead, fathered Jephthah via a prostitute. Even disregarding moral objections to prostitution, this is a very selfish act. Jephthah’s (half-)brothers could never have rejected him without this parentage; this entire cycle of disaster would not have occurred without Gilead’s selfish indulgence. 

Gilead, father, abused his power. His child paid the price. 

Jephthah, father, abused his power. His child paid the price.

Both fathers abused their authority for the same reason: to indulge their agenda at the expense of all else. Both times, these “heads of house,’” whose responsibility was to nurture and protect their family, ended up breaking their families apart. 

Divine Father: Serving His Children 

One might still ask: where’s God in all this? Is He merely sitting back with an air of indifferent disdain, watching Gilead’s selfishness wreck his family and, a generation later, watching Jephthah’s selfishness wreck his? Some analysts entirely give up on the idea that God cared; Frymer-Kensky simultaneously throws in the towel and indicts God with these words: 

“It will do no good to ask where God is or why God does not answer. The book of Judges takes place in the real world… in which God will no longer intervene to save individuals. …In the absence of God’s intervention, human beings and their social system must prevent such horrors.”9 

Fortunately, this hapless exposition is miles off the mark. Where human fathers fail and families are scattered abroad, God is gathering together, quietly, in the background. Consider: 

Jephthah devotes his (teenage?) daughter to the Temple. 

Hannah devotes her weaned son Samuel to the Temple.

It’s difficult to date either event, but the various timelines suggest Hannah’s event follows Jephthah’s by only a few decades. 

Samuel grew up to respect the Lord (1 Sam 2:26). Yet Eli the High Priest, Samuel’s default “father,” is renowned as a terrible father; so bad that the scriptures name him responsible for the evil characters of his sons (1 Sam 2:12, 30-36). Samuel didn’t learn to respect the Lord at Eli’s hand. So what godly person was ministering at the Temple to act as a nurturing parent to Samuel? 

There is no doubt in my mind that Jephthah’s daughter raised Samuel. 

Jephthah’s daughter has been consigned to Temple service. We know she wanted to have a family because she spent two months in the hills mourning the loss of this chance through her father’s selfish, grudge-born vow.

She finds herself at the Temple instead, but she’s wise enough and godly enough to know her God is generous, and so doubtless continues fervently praying that one day she might be a mother. She knows the history of the matriarch Sarah who was finally granted this opportunity. Yet, as the years pass, this window of opportunity slowly but irrevocably closes, and she passes child-bearing age. God Says “No,” or so it seems. 

Out of nowhere, Samuel arrives, a small boy also consigned to Temple service without his knowledge or approval; in a way, Samuel is the victim of a similar fate as Jephthah’s daughter. The Temple now houses a woman desperately desiring a child and a child in desperate need of a mother. Can there be any doubt they would have come together (probably on day one)? 

Samuel becomes Israel’s last and greatest Judge

Best of all—what a result this produces! Samuel becomes Israel’s last and greatest Judge, which reflects in praise on his character and the character of the Leading Lady who raised him. 

This is the story of the Daughter of the Vow. It reveals the character of a God so powerful, yet so typically subtle. His actions, one might say, are told in a still, small voice. A casual read suggests a repulsive tale where God approves of a man who burned his daughter to death. But a deeper examination reveals the beauty of a God who powerfully, if ever so quietly, puts families together, even while self-indulgent humans are tearing them apart. And I find that beautiful. 

John Pople,
(San Francisco Peninsula Ecclesia, CA)


1 All Scriptural quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. 

2 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, 2002, p. 108. 

3 Susan Niditch, The Old Testament Library: Judges, 2008, p. 135.

4 Neal H. Walls, “The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Myth,” 1992, pp. 77-79. 

5 Mary A. Beavis, A Daughter in Israel: Celebrating Bat Jephthah (Judg 11.39d-40), Feminist Theology 2004, 13.1, p. 12. 

6 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Op. cit., p. 113. 

7 Beth Gerstein, A Ritual Processed Look at Judges 11:40, in Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible, Mieke Bal, 1989, pp. 175-191. 

8 Mieke Bal, Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges, 1988, pp. 66-688. 

9 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Op. cit., p. 11.

Suggested Readings
Over the next two issues, we will be previewing Bro. John Pople's new book, "Leading Ladies," which is being planned for publication in early 2023, Lord willing. We will begin by previewing the story of Jephthah's daughter.
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