Tuesday, August 30, 2005

The Sacrifice Story You Don't Learn About in Sunday School

And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD's, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:30-31).

Then Jephthan came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child . . . . When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, "Alas my daughter! You have brought me very low; 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." . . . At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made (Judges 11:34-35, 39).

Anyone who went to Sunday school as a child knows the story of Abraham being commanded by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19). Of course, with Isaac bound to the altar and Abraham with knife in hand, God stops the pious father from sacrificing his son and provides a ram "caught in a thicket" as an alternative offering. Though no one (except the poor ram) dies, later Rabbinic tradition struggled with this text. Why would God ask someone to kill his son as a test of fidelity?

Jephthah's daughter is not as fortunate as Isaac. She dies nameless; according to the text her death is most significant because she dies an unmarried virgin. Poor girl. Where is her "ram in the thicket"?

Granted, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, while Jephthah sets his own terms for an offering of thanks to the LORD. (Jephthah possibly assumes that an animal will be the first to meet him in the courtyard of his home upon his return from battle.) Still, why doesn't God make acceptable an alternative sacrifice? For that matter, why doesn't Jephthah cry out, asking to be released from his vow, so that he won't have to kill his daughter?

Judges 11:29-40 is a tricky text and one the church doesn't like to deal with. How do we teach this story to our children and youth? How do we help our adults struggle with this difficult Scripture?

(Painting: "Abraham Sacrificing Isaac" by Laurent de la Hire, 1650; public domain.)


Blogger DannyG said...

I can't answer the 2nd question, but as to the first, I've always thought that it mirrored God's sacrifice of his son. He is not asking Abraham to do anything that HE would not do. He does provide a sacrifice for humanity (as represented by Isaac. When one wonders why God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son...and we all react with tight stomachs...how much more to illustrate the sacrifice that HE made on the cross for us all?

7:52 PM  

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