How to read a troubling text from the Old Testament

January 31, 2012

So far, I am loving John Goldingay’s For Everyone commentary on the Old Testament. I just finished reading another disturbing episode from the Book of Judges, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:30-40. In exchange for military success against the Ammonites, Jepthah promises God that he will offer as a burnt offering “whoever comes out of my house to greet me” when he returns from battle. Naturally, he’s shocked to see his daughter, his only child, come out to greet him “with tambourine and dancing.” After a two-month reprieve, he kills his daughter.

Why does Jephthah make this vow? Why can’t he retract it? Why does he imagine that such a burnt offering would be acceptable to Yahweh when Yahweh has prohibited human sacrifice? Why does his daughter go along with it so easily? It’s senseless beyond belief. To make matters worse, the text itself offers no commentary on Jephthah’s actions. There is no judgment for or against it.

Again… why?

Of this troubling text, Goldingay writes:

Whereas modern readers can be appalled that he Old Testament tells stories like this, it is actually part of its greatness that it does so. It is not a book that provides us with a way of escaping the reality of how the world is but one that rubs our noses in the reality of how the world is. Its lack of explicit moral judgments (“Jephthah did evil in the eyes of the Lord”) focuses our attention on the story itself and the horror of its implications concerning the stupidity of Jephthah and the suffering of a girl. That might have the capacity to make a difference to our lives and to our concern about men like that and our concern for their victims.

This is exactly right. If there were an explicit moral judgment, it would distance us from the horror of Jephthah’s action. We say, “Yes, that’s horrifying,” shrug our shoulders, and move on. The text forces us to work through it ourselves—to spend more time than we’d prefer getting inside Jephthah’s head and feeling this unnamed daughter’s despair.

A couple of years ago, I made the same point (not remembering how it might apply to scripture) in a favorable review of the Jason Reitman film Up in the Air. If you recall, George Clooney plays a hired-gun consultant who fires people for a living. Clooney’s character briefly pursues deeper meaning in his life before abandoning the project by the end of the movie. There I wrote:

The movie catches up with characters we’ve seen earlier who were fired by Bingham. They’re still out of work, but each of them describes how their loved ones—spouses, children, and friends—give their lives meaning and strength.

This is an unnecessarily heavy-handed touch. Are the filmmakers afraid that by robbing us of the happy ending we want and expect, they approve of Bingham’s pessimistic outlook? Do they feel as if they need to tell us, “We really believe in love after all”? The movie is in too deep for such glibness. In other words, because the film has told its story so convincingly, the audience feels genuinely unsettled. A sop to sentimentality at the end won’t cut it. The film challenges us to see the world through Bingham’s eyes and wonder if he isn’t onto something.

John Goldingay, Joshua, Judges & Ruth for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011), 130.

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