Thursday, October 22, 2009

Impeaching Jephthah

In a comment to my send-up of Judges 11, commenter pplr does some squinting and finds room to exonerate the god of the Bible, citing a few of my assumptions about the story:

1st assumption, Jep cut a deal. Where does it say God accepted any deal? And even if God was willing to cut a deal where does it say God accepted, or even wanted, the terms offered? It does appear that Jep made the offer unsolicited.

2nd assumption, God helped in the battle. Maybe God helped him because he did win and maybe he would have won anyway because he had the leadership skills to run raids on the local community anyway (these skills possibly being why the local community turned to him in the first place).
I grant a few of the assumptions I made are not expressly supported in the text, but I think they're valid. (This is not a new controversy.)

For starters, Judges 11 appears to state pretty plainly that god had a hand in helping Jephthah to victory, and therefore had accepted the terms of Jephthah's nasty deal:
[32] So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand.

[33] He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel. [emphasis mine]
Had the distinction been as important as you say, the part in bold would have been the place to state something more like, "Jephthah claimed the LORD had handed over his enemies," or "that stupid, rotten Jephthah concluded that his victory was assisted by god even though it wasn't" or words to that effect.

Moreover, in Jephthah's letter threatening the Ammonites (verses 21-25), he seems quite sure that god has played a direct role in Israeli battlefield glories of the past. Nothing in the text corrects him on that point.

As an aside, I originally didn't mention the begged question of why someone of Jephthah's stature would have the idea that god would accept burnt flesh as payment for military assistance. I mean, though a vegetarian, I like the smell of some cooked meats; I would hardly enable or assist mass slaughter to get that smell.

Certainly Jephthah thinks god is behind his martial successes -- I realize Jephthah's interpretations aren't controlling of the god character's choices, but that renews the question of why, if god so abhors the idea of Jephthah's killing and child-burning and so on, he didn't step in? He could have stepped in without touching Jephthah's free will -- just by declaring, either to Jephthah himself or to the scribes who took down this tale, "You got this completely wrong. You made a deal but didn't bother noticing that I didn't even respond, let alone accept its terms. It serves you right that your only child is dead, you dumb-ass! Now let that be a lesson for the rest of you." Or whatever.

I do not want to go too far off track. My claim about this section of Judges is that it makes an exceedingly poor case for believing in the Bible god. It is not alone in this respect, but I thought it worth highlighting, because that's the sort of thing I highlight on this precious, precious blog, being a category 5 asshole and all. I came to this Jephthah business in the first place because you mentioned it in a previous comment.

The tale of Jephthah illustrates a god who is at best lackadaisical, willing to let people use his name to justify breaking what you claim are his clear prohibitions (and are certainly prohibitions under any civilized code of conduct); or at worst, it reveals a god who likes the smell of burning flesh so much that he'll direct the outcomes of international battles for it and take it in the form of a dude roasting his only child. Either way, this tale paints an ugly portrait.

If this tale is meant to illustrate the evils of daughter-burning, or the evils of invoking god's name for war, or the evils of sticking to a deal with an excess of hard-headedness, it's a spectacular failure. A handful of verses later, and Jephthah expands his rule and dies quietly, having learned nothing in the meanwhile -- by Judges 12:2, he's back to issuing bold claims about god having helped him in military campaigns.

I think it goes without saying that I do not consider the tale of Jephthah to be terribly important: as history, it's sketchy at best, and as a moral exemplum, well, I've covered that. I would gladly count it among the countless bits of regrettable ancient lore that interest a few philologists. In the real world, though, it has come down to us as part of the book of Judges, a canonical text of at least two major world religions, and possibly a third, depending on who is doing the interpreting. Right now, as you're reading this, someone is waving a copy of that book -- not just Judges but the whole kaboodle in which it is anthologized -- and declaring it an unimpeachable guide to human affairs. Someone out there with a mind to sacrificing a loved one for a "higher cause" or waging merciless war against god's less-favored people has this book, with its supposed authority, to call upon. It matters for this reason, and because it does matter, it needs to be read without blinders.

(image source)


Anonymous said...

You've commented on what I said but you only included part of the list.

3rd assumption, God did help during the battle and it was because of the vow. Here I may go along a bit for argument's sake and say what if God did help out. It is possible God had other motives for doing so than the vow. There may be a reason not mentioned that God wanted this community not to be conquered (at least not at this time).

4th assumption, God wouldn't have let him out of this deal. Jep says he cannot break the deal but there doesn't appear to be any prophet or priest giving Jep a thumbs up on the deal and saying God approves. If God actually encouraged the daughter to come out of the house it could have been to shock the guy enough to give him a chance to rethink what he was doing-I'll point it out more soon, but there are prohibitions on human sacrifice.

5th assumption, a disapproving God intervenes in a direct manner. There are reports of miracles and so on in places but there are also points where if God intervenes at all it is in a subtle manner. Why send down a column of fire to stop 1 particular murder when murders are happening across the world? Jewish rules of the day and possibly having the daughter come out (as a form of slapping across the face someone who would readily kill someone else) could be subtle forms of intervention that left Jep's free will intact. Not all groups that fit under label commonly called Christianity say we have a choice but many do. For those groups free will is an important thing and also why God would step back and let us make our own decisions with their own consequences. If there is a God there isn't a requirement that he/she/it stop us from making decisions or feeling the results. People may ask for help after the fact but that may be interfering with our ability to mess up. God may intervene, may not, or may in an unrecognized way. I may be getting long winded and off topic here but a lot of Christians feel we have at least some level of free will.

I have some doubts about it but I'm no an expert on translation and the point E.W.Bullinger made in the wiki-link you referenced would argue for what the JWs said about the daughter going on to live in religious service. That is a point worth noting when discussion the possible results of the vow.

Going along with the point she was killed the wiki-link still points out this, according to "commentators of the rabbinic Jewish tradition", "was a gross violation of God's law". As far as I can tell much of Jewish society got the message and when they didn't or ignored it this was referred to as a bad thing (such as in the chapter I in 2nd Kings I referred to earlier).

The argument that God accepted such a sacrifice appears largely based on the seeming silence of God. If God has already stated he/she/it disliked the practice that removes the silence.

Claims that God wanted or enjoyed the sacrifice aren't directly/clearly supported by anything in the chapter and are similar to blaming someone for something someone else did in spite of the objections of the first person.

As to why didn't God intervene in this situation God didn't initiate, as part of free will God may not intervene. If God does in this situation that may imply God should intervene in all the other situations God didn't initiate-slippery slope away from free will.

About war, people killed for non-religious reasons are just as dead. A position, based on Harris, that opposes people who don't approve of religious or non-religious war isn't a strong humanitarian or anti-war one.


Montag said...

I think the form of the story is very ancient. It is the irony of fate, or the turn of fate, or the inescapability of fate.

It is my understanding that human sacrifice was outlawed by the covenant with Noah after the Flood.
Hence, the intial barter for victory was blasphemous.

At that point, we know Jephthah is in for a bad end.

The story follows as it must for arrogance so great that it ignores the covenant made with Noah: pride goeth before a fall, etc.

The form of the ironical story dictates how the story of Jephthah is told, not some musings on the nature of the God behind it all.
Jephthah lived on a while...without his joyful, playing the compnay of the woman who bore her, and the people who raised her...

What indeed was the nature of Jephthah?
When disaster loomed, the elders went to retrieve Jep. Why? Obviously the elders knew he had very special talents for war. These talents, however, did not stop his exile years before. Now in the face of defeat, they were his entry back.
The elders knew Jephthah was a capable monster of Mutually Assured Destruction, but their choice was to bring him back, or die in defeat.

Dale said...

pplr, I acknowledge your other assumptions but I find them lacking on a shared basis -- they all read like the defense brief in a trial under American law, where there's a presumption of innocence. I could hear defense counsel saying these kinds of things to create reasonable doubt in the minds of jurors.

In other words, you've made it merely plausible that god had nothing to do with this sordid mess, or indeed found it as sordid as I do -- you've squinted hard and found a way to read the bare narration in a way that supports that as plausible.

I don't think that's the right frame of reference. The question is whether we will worship, revere, and love the entity, not whether we'll overcome a presumption of innocence and put an otherwise free person under legal penalty.

Again, nothing in what I said requires a direct intervention. God could have stepped down long after the fact and declared on the matter, making his view clear. He could simply have *said* to Jephthah (and us), long after the bad deeds were done, that the deal was a rotten one, that he didn't agree to it, that it wasn't the kind of deal he'd accept even in the best of cases, that burnt offerings are idiotic, etc.

Sure, other parts of the Bible that have come down to us as canonical go on to say that burnt offerings are bad, and so on. To me, this illustrates not that Jephthah or the authors of Judges are wrong in their understanding of god, but that the writers of Jephthah's tale had an idea of god that didn't agree with the ideas of others who wrote other books of the Bible. That is, Judges stands in tension with other books considered canonical. This is a problem for the idea of canon and for the idea that everything in the canonical Bible tells a coherent story. I think it plainly does not. I think it takes a lot of exertion and squinting to get it all to agree, even on major points, and that these exertions fail.

Dale said...

Montag, you're right that the elders turned to Jep because he seemed like a useful thug. And yes, as the story unfolds, there's an element of a guy getting ahead of himself and setting himself up for a fall.

But what of this fall? He tore his shirt and did some yelling but went through with it. (If you believe one of pplr's readings of it, he just sent his daughter to a convent -- not so bad.) In any case, whatever happened with his daughter, he went on to further military victories and several more years of rule, followed by a peaceful death. This is not a portrait of someone who suffered greatly from a poor decision.

Anonymous said...

Actually when I first brought up the story of Jep it was as I had seen Dawkins misrepresent it with what I thought was an "unsound" description.

You said you didn't speak for Dawkins but gave a summation of the story that included God being part of a deal that involved human sacrifice of Jep's daughter (something each of us likely views as abhorrent).

I pointed out how the idea God accepted the deal was based on assumption. Thus there is reasonable doubt.

The assumption becomes implausible when the parts of Deuteronomy (& 2nd Kings) I referred to are examined.

Maybe I seem like a lawyer (I'm not one at this time and the closest I have come to attending law school was taking an undergrad econ & law class as part of an econ minor) but part of the discussion here has been if it is reasonable to accuse God of being party to a killing of Jep's daughter. Thus a charge was laid (with what appeared to be the assumption of guilt) and I questioned it. One of the basic things (as I understand it) court trials are supposed to do is try to figure out how reasonable an accusation is.

It appears reasonably possible that the authors of Judges had a different view of God than the other books in the Bible. However even if someone doesn't think everything in a given Bible is automatically canon that doesn't mean he/she or the authors of Judges would agree with the version of the story about Jep as you had summarized.

About what Montag said. It is an interesting take on the story and wasn't brought up here until he did. Agree with this take or not but losing someone's only child would be a heavy price for many parents-military victories or no.

Dale said...

Okie-dokie, pplr, you've had your say and I've had mine on Jephthah, and my present mood swing tells me that repeating ourselves for another round won't change anything.

I will attempt to make a novel point now by saying that should you find yourself in a proselytizing frame of mind and in the presence of someone who has not heard 'the case for' Christianity -- and I am not claiming you either will or should, for that's your call -- I will be genuinely surprised if you choose to highlight the story of Jephthah as a means of illustrating the virtues of the creed.

Instead, I expect you will treat the story of Jephthah in the same way as seemingly every other Christian on the planet treats it, namely, as a slightly embarrassing digression from 'the true meaning' of scripture -- a digression not worth emphasizing in any context, and, more often, not worth mentioning at all.

If you decide to prove me wrong, and undertake to score converts to your religion by way of highlighting Jephthah's tale as you interpret it, and succeed in doing so, I will be not just surprised but willing to acknowledge that I had wrongly underestimated its attractions.

Thanks for the comments, and by all means continue them if you wish.

Dale said...

One other comment from Montag went like this: "The elders knew Jephthah was a capable monster of Mutually Assured Destruction, but their choice was to bring him back, or die in defeat."

True enough, but since when is 'die in defeat' a bad thing in the Bible? Martyrdom is a good thing, right? Standing up for god's whatever-whatever even if it means terrible, ignoble death? That seems to be what Jesus would have done, and later so famously did in dramatic fashion, and we're all expected to praise him endlessly for it. Right?

So this gets to the incoherence -- taken as a whole, the Bible seems to say: accept martyrdom rather than compromise on principles and put up a fight, except in those cases where you should compromise on principles and put up a fight rather than accept martyrdom.

X is good, and then again, not-X is good. "The devil can cite scripture for his purpose." That being so, why would any sane person bother with citing scripture?

Anonymous said...

I can preach about all kinds of things politics, religion, urban vs suburban, do we all really use public transit, my hometown, and so on.

I don't know if the story about Jep is in the Koran but I would say talking about it for Jews and Christians shouldn't be embarrassing at all.

Granted it is harder to embarrass me than many folks so I may have a harder time telling what is embarrassing. But I think, with Jep, this is a case where examining all the possible ways of looking at the story was not done (perhaps on purpose and perhaps not).

While I know I'm at least partly repeating myself from before, my point is that scrutiny wasn't applied to at least some of those who complained there needs to be more scrutiny.

The way I say this may bug you a bit but I think you're smart so think this over. If blinders and/or rose colored glasses come on whenever someone talks about religion just so long as they only do so in a negative fashion that isn't really looking things over and is similar in some ways to jumping in with the Bible-thumpers running around claiming the study of the theory of evolution is a big conspiracy of deception or some other unlikelihood.

Especially with comments from Harris, that could just be well phrased grabs at emotion with a guise/empty rhetoric of rationality or concern.

About being a martyr. I personally don't expect people to jump in for that and figure it is extraordinary when they do (with either really good or bad reasons and related actions).

And sane people site all kinds of things when looking for answers, information, and/or evidence. If the Bible relates to the discussion at hand or not is a factor.

If it does relate the first person to quote it (in either an awed or derogatory fashion) may have a point but may not be right.


Montag said...

For me, the crux of the story is the blasphemous negotiation with God.
Since human sacrifice had been outlawed by the covenant with Noah, there could have been no party to this agreement on the divine side.
It is impossible.

If God delivered some group of wretches into Jep's power, it obviously was to set up the perfect storm of ironic destruction that closes in upon him.

Irony is the reversal of fate. And the form is ancient.
The Tower of Babel is an ironic reversal story: arrogance is visited by disaster.

The purpose of the story is to horrify...unless we think murdering one's own child is not horrifying...a mere momentary obstacle in Jephthah's road to glory.

Now, is such a story mere allegory and imagination and have nothing to do with the real world?
Reversals of fortune? From the highs to the lows?
Any of that ring a bell?