My mind races back to the days when as a young seminarian I studied theology at Catholic University. There were several ladies also taking classes and studying for degrees. When we studied the story of Jephthah’s daughter, my friend Theresa became agitated. She found the story in Judges 11:29-40 to be deeply disturbing. She wondered aloud if there might be some Scriptures that cannot be salvaged for Christian believers, today. In thanksgiving for his victory in battle, the Hebrew general pledges that the first who steps out the door of his home, he will sacrifice. He immediately laments his pledge because out steps his young daughter. She requests a short time to mourn her virginity and then we are told he did as he promised. Unlike the story of Abraham and Isaac, it appears that God does not stay his hand. It is arguably a remnant story that betrays the fact that human sacrifice, while later regarded as offensive, had at one time been practiced by the Chosen People. As with a few other passages from the Bible, there was a debate during the formulation of the Lectionary for Mass that this story should be skipped. Nevertheless, while the Scriptures are edited and censored for polite sensibilities in the Lectionary, this reading is still included. It is terribly hard to preach upon. The young girl had courage and her father kept his promise to God; but as Christians, we are aware that some promises should not be made. The child mourns that she will never know the joys of being a wife and mother. It is a poignant and terrible story. Mary was probably not much older. Tradition has it that she had embraced celibacy and/or virginity as a servant of the Temple. This fuels the assumption by some authorities that Joseph was a much older man, betrothed to protect Mary in a male-oriented society. A friend of mine uses the story of the slaughtered girl to talk about the low premium placed on virginity by Jewish society in ancient days. We also see how virginity is embraced to honor God, either in a death to self (as with Mary) or in a physical death (as with Jephthah’s daughter). But I am of the mind that the story is too emotionally evocative for a level-headed analysis. It makes us very angry. How can the murder of the innocent ever please God?
Jephthah was a great Jewish general. He was successful against great odds. He was victorious not because of his oath, but in spite of it. As St. John Chrysostom would tell us, his repugnant act would move the Jews to renounce all such blood-oaths from that time forward. We read:
“For if after that vow and promise He had forbidden the sacrifice, many also who were subsequent to Jephthah, in the expectation that God would not receive their vows, would have increased the number of such vows, and proceeding on their way would have fallen into child-murder. But now, by suffering this vow to be actually fulfilled, He put a stop to all such cases in the future. And to show that this is true, after Jephthah’s daughter had been slain, in order that the calamity might be always remembered, and that her fate might not be consigned to oblivion, it became a law among the Jews, that the virgins assembling at the same season should bewail during forty days the sacrifice which had taken place; in order that renewing the memory of it by lamentation, they should make all men wiser for the future; and that they might learn that it was not after the mind of God that this should be done, for in that case He would not have permitted the virgins to bewail and lament her. And that what I have said is not conjectural, the event demonstrated; for after this sacrifice, no one vowed such a vow unto God. Therefore also He did not indeed forbid this; but what He had expressly enjoined in the case of Isaac, that He directly prohibited; plainly showing through both cases, that He doth not delight in such sacrifices” (Homily 14:7).
There is a minority view that the girl was not put to death but that she lived as if dead and embraced a life-long virginity. It may be along these lines that some would make a clearer connection to Mary. However, St. John Chrysostom would be the greater authority in this matter of the Jewish general and his act.
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