In which I name Jepthah’s Daughter

I particularly enjoyed my Hebrew Bible class where we were encouraged to interact with the text through art, poetry, and modern interpretations of the readings. My analysis (or exegesis) of Judges 11:29-40 begins with a poem in which I name Jepthah’s unnamed daughter.

“Precious”

Daughter

What shall I name you, Dear One?

Joy?

Because you welcomed your father with joyful dancing upon his return from battle?

Faith?

Because you responded with faithfulness and

kept your promise to return home after two months in the mountains?

Courage?

Because you faced your tragic demise with bravery?

Indeed, you are all of these things and more.

You, who were a first and only child,

You, who were nameless,

You, who were sacrificed,

You, who are remembered,

shall be named…

Precious.

Despite her brief and nameless status in Judges 11: 29-40, Jephthah’s daughter, widely portrayed in biblical artwork and researched in religious scholarship, leaves an indelible impression. The typical androcentric point of view uses Jephthah’s daughter to retain male supremacy through control, violence, and the male gaze.[1] Regardless if one subscribes to the early Christian view that she became, an “anchorite nun,” or if she was truly sacrificed, Jephthah’s daughter remained nameless and powerless. [2] More recently, Feminist and Womanist scholars, have named and claimed the unnamed daughter to celebrate women’s agency, solidarity, and power. In this paper, I will support that by naming Jephthah’s daughter, “Precious,” she is made human, claiming both positive female character traits and female solidarity, and thus the dynamic of the story changes in favor of Precious. Ultimately the reader is allowed to connect and resonate with the passage in a new redemptive way.

I am not alone in wanting to give a name to Jephthah’s daughter to honor her brief life and lasting memory. In naming her, “Precious,” I attempt to capture the traits she exhibits in Judges 11:29-40.[3] Indeed, each trait represented in the brief passage is an insight into her character: Joy (v. 34) because she welcomed her father home with, “dancing to the sound of tambourines,” Faith (v. 36) because she kept her promise to return home after, “two months to roam the hills, and mourn my virginity with my female companions,” and Courage (v. 39) because she bravely faced her tragic demise. Joy, faith and courage are all valued attributes, and more importantly, they each reflect that she was a precious child of the Divine, despite the flaws of her father. While perhaps not Feminist criticism, Dr. Seow’s lecture on Judges offered different forms of reception history, including early Jewish midrash, which gave me the idea of also naming Jephthah’s daughter.

Early Jewish reception offers her an identity: “Sheelah” (“Question” – a noun, a question). Midrashim suggests that “Her request to go to the mountains to bewail her virginity,” was interpreted to mean going to higher authorities to protest her sacrifice – hence her name, Sheelah, “Question.” [4]

I like “Sheelah” as a suggested name because it assumes the daughter has some sense of self. Some spark, or agency. She is not passive. She asks questions. She tries to defend herself with a higher authority.  Cheryl Exum’s, “Feminist Criticism, Whose Interests Are Being Served?” continues this theme of renaming by reflexively identifying Jephthah’s daughter by her position as a daughter.

Jephthah’s daughter is one of the many anonymous female characters in Judges. One way to restore her to the subject position she is denied in the story is to give her a name. Mieke Bal calls her “Bath,” which in Hebrew means “daughter,” to remind us of the role that defines her: she is bath-Jephthah, “The daughter of Jephthah.” Following Bal’s lead, but using the fuller form of the name, I call her Bat -jiftah. [5]

While “Sheelah,” suggests that the young woman has some personal agency, enough to ask a question, “Bath,” or “Bat-jiftah,”, however, do little more than to cement her role in the family. “Precious,” as I shall refer to Jephthah’s daughter going forward and as her poem suggests, is so much more than her singular attributes, her ability to ask a question, or her status as a female child of a family.

Precious, was precious indeed to her female friends who joined her for two months in the mountains to, “mourn her virginity” (v.36). How precious must have been their time together, grieving what was to become of their dear friend?

Womanist theologian Renita J. Weems describes the power of her grieving: “There is a sorrow known only to women; a sorrow so profound and so bottomless, it can only be shared with a woman; a sorrow that only another woman can help you bear. It comes from the feeling of having been violated, betrayed, and abandoned by a force much stronger than yourself. And when the force is someone you trusted; the sorrow can be unbearable.” [6]

I find it unimaginable to even consider what was asked of Precious. Essentially, her father vowed that she be his sacrificial lamb in return for a, “very great slaughter” (v.33). However, in blaming Precious for her fate (v. 35), he made her his scapegoat instead. Feminist theologian, Phyllis Tribble concurs.

The making of the vow is an act of unfaithfulness. Jephthah desires to bind God rather than to embrace the gift of the spirit. What comes to him freely, he seeks to earn and manipulate. The meaning of his words is doubt, not faith; it is control, not courage. To such a vow the deity makes no reply. [7]

This was truly an unbearable betrayal, but the sacrifice of young Precious was not the end of the story. The final sentence of the passage of Judges 11:40 notes a tradition of Israelite women to mark the right of passage for young women to womanhood.[8] In so doing, female solidarity was recognized and celebrated. Imagine how unique and precious those days of just women together must have been given the typical female roles of the day. Theologian and author, Joyce Hollyday gives voice to that time.

Jephthah’s daughter is doomed to the margins of history – except for the actions of the women who know her. They were with her those two months in the mountains, where they witnessed a rare courage and faith in this young woman. They know that she was a daughter of God before she was Jephthah’s daughter. [9]

Hollyday further emphasizes the significance of the last word and in highlighting the on-going tradition, she claims the transformative power of sisterhood in community.

They had the last word. A story that began with man’s unwavering vow, ended with woman’s undying devotion – to God, to a sister, to one another, and ultimately, to the truth. Claiming the power of their sisterhood, they made sure that the memory of Jephthah’s brave and faithful daughter – and the story of what had been done to her – were not snuffed out with her life. [10]

Like Hollyday, Cheryl Exum concurs, that “Bat-jiftah,” or “Precious,” reclaims what was likely a period of separation for purposes of a taboo, to be a celebration for women, apart from their daily responsibilities.

But the rite of passage, which Bat-jiftah observes with her friends, and the women’s ceremony, in which Bat-jiftah is commemorated, transform female segregation into female-solidarity. [11]

In my earlier Exegesis paper, I concluded with a similar theme to both Hollyday and Exum emphasizing the importance of the final passage (v.40) and the tradition that was established to remember Precious.

In coming together to lament or commemorate her, she is being re-membered by the women of Israel. Literally, that which was divided was brought together in her memory. I’d like to think that the women of Israel saw the injustice of their leader and used the taboos of their culture to reclaim both time for themselves and to honor their sister, (Precious) who was sacrificed needlessly and unjustly. [12]

            In naming Precious, she is given agency and an identity separate from her role as a daughter. In highlighting her positive traits, she stands apart from her father, who made a dishonorable vow based on his weak faith. Precious, in name, and action, reframes the story in a subtle yet dramatic way. Indeed, who would needlessly sacrifice something so very precious? The shame of such an action is directed at the father. In naming Precious and celebrating her remembrance, Jephthah’s culpability is highlighted and the energy of the whole story changes. By celebrating positive female character traits and female solidarity, a biblical sister, who was otherwise unnamed and largely dismissed, is named and claimed, as Precious, a beloved child of the Divine.

Bibliography:

Baumgarten, Elisheva. “‘Remember That Glorious Girl’: Jephthah’s Daughter in Medieval Jewish Culture.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 97, no. 2 (2007): 180–209.

Coogan, Michael David, Pheme Perkins, Marc Zvi Brettler, and Carol A. Newsom. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version. 5th ed. Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Equality, Priests for, trans. The Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures: The Prophets. 1st AltaMira Ed Edition. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004.

Gale A. Yee, ed. “Feminist Criticism, Whose Interests Are Being Served?” Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies 59, no. 2 (2008): 720–722.

https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/fln084.

Gunn, David M. “Cultural Criticism Viewing the Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter.” In Judges & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, edited by Gale A. Yee, 2nd ed., 202–27. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

Hollyday, Joyce. Clothed with the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us. 1st ed. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Maczka, Mary E. “Exegesis: Judges 11:29-40,” October 11, 2020.

Seow, C.L. Lecture. Presented at the Hebrew Bible 6700, Vanderbilt Divinity School, October 2020.

Hebrew Bible – Vanderbilt University

Research Paper

November 2020


[1] David M. Gunn, “Cultural Criticism Viewing the Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter,” in Judges & Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies, ed. Gale A. Yee, 2nd ed (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 202–27.

[2] Elisheva Baumgarten, “‘Remember That Glorious Girl’: Jephthah’s Daughter in Medieval Jewish Culture,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 97, no. 2 (2007): 180–209. 202.

[3] Priests for Equality, trans., The Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures: The Prophets, 1st AltaMira Ed Edition (Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 2004).

[4] C.L. Seow, Lecture (Hebrew Bible 6700, Vanderbilt Divinity School, October 2020).

[5] Gale A. Yee, ed., “Feminist Criticism, Whose Interests Are Being Served?” Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies 59, no. 2 (2008): 720–722, https://doi.org/10.1093/jts/fln084.

[6] Joyce Hollyday, Clothed with the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice, and Us, 1st ed (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994). 38.

[7] Equality, The Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures. 64-65.

[8] Michael David Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version, 5th ed. (Place of publication not identified: Oxford University Press, 2018). 358.

[9] Hollyday, Clothed with the Sun. 40.

[10] Hollyday. 40.

[11] Gale A. Yee, “Judges and Method.” 77.

[12] Mary E. Maczka, “Exegesis: Judges 11:29-40,” October 11, 2020. 3.

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