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Feminist Hermeneutics and Hebrews 11

There’s been an interesting discussion about the story of Jephthah’s daughter over at Feminism and Religion. I enjoy the opportunity there for people from different places on the feminist spectrum to exchange ideas. I’ve found it particularly fruitful for helping me to understand different hermeneutics i.e. different ways of reading the Bible.

The discussion I was involved in centred around the question of what to do with Hebrews 11. Verse 32 briefly mentions Jephthah in this ‘roll call of faith’. How are we to read this in conjunction with his despicable actions in Judges 11?

2 approaches

The standard feminist approach is to see the Bible as a product of its culture. The story existed in Judges 11 but then is given shape as it’s reflected on in Hebrews 11. Thus, even if you could read Judges 11 negatively, Hebrews 11 prevents that possibility.  The latter’s seeming praise of Jephthah reveals a patriarchal reading of the story, a white-washing of the Old Testament: either it ignores Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter, or perhaps, it reads it as a positive action.

As I wrote in the comments, I’m not convinced that Hebrews 11 is necessarily as positive as we might like to believe. But even if it was, I’m troubled by the lack of respect for the Old Testament perspective that I think is implicit in the above approach. Sure, the New Testament helps us to understand the Old, but it doesn’t overturn it. If a character is failed in the Old Testament, I think we need to bring that to our reading of the New.

This is a major difference in approaching the Bible and it depends on whether you see it as an integrated whole. I suspect the feminist assumption relies too heavily on the fact that these are human texts, written by humans, in various cultures. We need that perspective. But the Bible is not only an historical product: it is also a coherent story.

But does that mean, if you read Hebrews 11 as positive, that Judges 11 must be a positive story? I don’t think so. The Bible’s consistency might not be in the heroism of its men. Rather, it might be that even in their failure, there’s a place for them. That doesn’t excuse their actions, just the opposite in fact! It means we don’t have to whitewash or overturn their stories. We can face them in full.

The enemy is us

And where does that get us? Well, none of us can claim the moral high ground of righteous victimhood. One of the leaps that feminism has made in recent years is the perspective that gender is not the only level on which people have been oppressed. For much of its history, feminism has been the domain of middle-class white women, as if their stories are superior to those of Asian, or working women for example. There’s a sense in which, however accidentally, feminists marginalised their sisters. All of us are both victims and oppressors.

But if the Bible provides room, not to endorse the likes of Jephthah, but to include oppressors like him in its story, there might be room for the rest of us as well.

Categories: Bible Woman Written by Tamie

Tagged as:

Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

5 replies

  1. Yep! Same with Gideon and Barak. In fact, you could probably argue the dodginess of every character in Hebrews 11 – even Abraham who features at length!

  2. Oh! I’m so glad you posted on this as I wondered about Jepthath in Hebrews 11 after reading your thesis recently. Yup I agree with you – the faults of ‘heroes’ of the faith presented show that each ‘saint’ was sometimes sinful and sometimes faithful – like us, actually.

  3. Some good thoughts, Tamie. I was having a discussion on an atheist blogsite about this very passage. It occurred to me that at this point in narrative, the author is using irony to make his point (as is so often done in the Bible). Remember, Jephthah was fighting the Ammonites, whose god was Molech (or Moloch). It was to Molech that the Ammonites sacrificed their children – apparently, it was such a widespread practice that the Israelites had to be warned against it (cf. Lev. 18:21). So, Jephthah defeats these evil people, but in sacrificing his daughter, shows himself to be as evil as they were.

    Therein lies the irony, and one of the author’s main points: the Israel was, paradoxically, God’s solution to the problem of sin and evil and wrapped up in the very same sin it was meant to counter. It was meant to be God’s outpost, but throughout the narrative of Judges, we see Israel becoming enmeshed within, and repeatedly reflecting, the corruption around it. Jephthah’s sin is only a more gruesome example of that truth. So the author implicitly condemns his actions as ultimately pagan and sinful.

    Sorry, went into blogging mode there. But it also ties well into what you mentioned about all of us being simultaneously victims and oppressors.

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