In our Pentateuch class, I was struck by Genesis 22, the story of Abraham’s would-be sacrifice of Isaac. Surely this would be the passage to compare with Jephthah’s daugher in Judges 11! Both involve the notion of child sacrifice, yet the boy is spared and the girl killed. That’s rich fodder for any feminist! However, I couldn’t find a feminist comparison. (Let me know if you do!) I suspect this is because feminists enjoy using Judges 11 as an example of the Bible’s acceptance of maltreatment of women. However, when read alongside Genesis 22, such a reading is much more difficult to maintain.
The first thing to note is who the sacrifice is instituted by. In Abraham’s case, it’s commanded by God. Jephthah’s sacrifice, on the other hand, is of his own devices.
A second, related contrast, is the purpose of the sacrifice. For Abraham, it’s a test of his faith. For Jephthah, it’s the result a rash vow, made (totally unnecessarily) to bargain with God.
Third, note that Abraham’s trust is in God to provide the lamb for the sacrifice. It might be that saying so is just covering up from Isaac what’s about to happen but this statement by Abraham is ultimately fulfilled: God does provide. Neither Jephthah nor his daughter even entertain the possibility of God providing a way out. Perhaps that’s the difference between a test and a vow, but it’s interesting that the one person who is not included in the Judges 11 narrative is God. Would the outcome have been different, had Jephthah or his daughter appealed to God?
Finally, it’s worth noting the different points at which these stories come in the unfolding Israelite story. Abraham’s story is something of a highlight. He is the paradigmatic righteous man of faith. Jephthah, on the other hand, comes in Judges’ spiral of depravity as each person does what is right in their own eyes. He is no better than the bitterly squabbling tribes he is attempting to lead.
Read on its own, Judges 11 makes me uncomfortable: it’s so matter-of-factly told, with little commentary. However, viewed alongside the story of Abraham and Isaac, its depravity becomes clear. Man-made, unnecessary, and leaving God out of the picture, Jephthah’s sacrifice is not condoned by the Bible but rather shown to be a perversion. The story is still difficult; God still doesn’t intervene on behalf of Jephthah’s daughter. However, reading this as an inversion of the Genesis 22 story gives just a tiny bit of room for women to read this story positively, as a condemnation of maltreatment of women rather than acceptance of it.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.