Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Judging Judges

Judges 11:29-38 tells the story of Jephthah, who cut a deal with god whereby in exchange for military assistance, Jephthah would make a pleasing fire:

[30] Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, "If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand,

[31] then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering."
These books are so old that it's dicey to try to recreate the frame of reference or state of mind of the characters, but Jephthah must have been hoping that the sad old three-legged farm dog, or the cat who wouldn't stop shitting on his pillow, would do the greeting upon his triumphant return.

Alas, no. As if cribbed from one of the be-careful-what-you-ask-for themed tales from Chaucer, The Twilight Zone, or Cormac McCarthy, it was neither the crippled dog nor the feculent cat that greeted Jephthah's return, but something he failed to account for:
[34] When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter.

[35] When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot take it back."
That's right, Jephthah. You "cannot" take it back, even though it means you'll have to burn your only child alive; after all, if you were to take it back, who knows what might happen? You might end up having to watch a loved one burn to death or something awful like that. Or maybe god would send a whole plague of three-legged dogs and shitting cats. Who knows? You don't become a great leader by not looking out for #1, am I right?

The story manages to go downhill from here. Aware of the deal between god and dear old dad under which she would be put to flame, Jephthah's daughter acquiesces, asking only for a couple of months to wander the mountains and bewail the fact that she would die a virgin. And then, rather matter-of-factly,
[a]t the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made ...
Evidently god was no longer in the same humane-intervention-y mood as when Abraham was just about to plunge the knife into his son, because god lets the burning-daughter-as-payment transaction go forward without lifting an almighty finger.

Even a dog knows to save an innocent from a cruel fate (more on that), but that's not how Bible-god rolls.

Worship that Bible god as much as you like, or pretend to do so by wishing away passages like this one, but don't hold your breath waiting for this example to inspire conversions.

Here's another take on the light-hearted tale of Jephthah and what it suggests about the god character of the Bible and his righteous followers:

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