May 162010

Another of the gorgeous Dore illustrations

In Judges 11 we find another fascinating little story. Jephtha is another one of the “judges” called to save errant Israel. He’s an interesting character in himself. Son of a prostitute, he has to live in exile in the land of Tob until the Ammonites attack Israel. This echoes several Bible stories including the early life of Moses who has to escape from Egypt for a while before coming back to save the Israelites from Pharoah. Any number of Biblical heroes have to live in exile or in the Wilderness before achieving greatness (echoing shamanic practice).

The Israelites promise Jephtha he can govern them if he helps them fight the Ammonites. So off he goes to whack some Ammonites after promising God to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his front door when he returns home victorious (what was he thinking? what was home life like? what sort of innocuous thing wandered in and out of his front door? goats? puppy dogs?). As luck would have it, the first thing that comes through the door to greet him is his little daughter who dances out happily expecting big hugs and, maybe, souvenir t-shirts. She asks Jephtha why he looks grumpy and he tells her, well, now I have to offer you as a burnt offering to the Lord. She is, to my mind, justifiably dismayed, but she’s a good daughter. She says, okay, but let me go up into the mountains with my girlfriends to mourn my virginity for two months. Jephtha says okay to that (the text emphasizes that his daughter is an only child–think of it). And the girl and her friends spend two months camping and hiking in the mountains bewailing her virginity (have teenage girls changed since then; I mean, really?). Then she comes back and Jephtha burns her on the altar. The KJV translation here is absolutely gorgeous in its description of a sweet, real little girl on the cusp of womanhood.

There’s no further commentary on this story. Jephtha gets to be judge, and Israel is saved. But, my goodness, this is a story of human sacrifice! So far the Bible has done nothing but complain about the Philistines who “pass their children through the fire.” Now this! Of course, there are parallels and echoes with the story of Abraham and Isaac (wherein God finds an animal substitute) and, of course, the New Testament wherein God sacrifices his own son. But this story in particular sets the context of a strange, alien, violent, tribal cosmos where actually burning your daughter to death because of some ill-considered words is considered a legitimate outcome. Over and over again, you ask yourself: What were these people thinking? The imagery overpowers the sense of the story, as Gary suggested in his comment on my post about the Levite and his concubine. Or, as the critics say, the image floods the scene with a surplus of meaning. It is all awful, mysterious, unreasonable, and inhuman. What does it mean? (See other bad parents in history, e.g. Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to obtain good weather for the Greek fleet, a story I cited in Elle.)

This story also echoes the strange little fairy tale in the Brothers Grimm collection, the one about the girl with no hands (at least the first part). Though in the Brothers Grimm tale, it is the devil who tricks the father into giving up his daughter. But, really, anthropologically, it’s the same story.

Here is the climactic bit of the Jephtha story from Judges plus the Brothers Grimm fairy tale for comparison.

011:029 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed
over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead,
and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of

011:030 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou
shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine

011:031 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of
my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children
of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up
for a burnt offering.

011:032 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight
against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands.

011:033 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith,
even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with
a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were
subdued before the children of Israel.

011:034 And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his
daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances:
and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor

011:035 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his
clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me
very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have
opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.

011:036 And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy
mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath
proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken
vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of

011:037 And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me:
let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the
mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.

011:038 And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she
went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the

011:039 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she
returned unto her father, who did with her according to his
vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a
custom in Israel,

011:040 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the
daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.


The Girl Without Hands

A certain miller had little by little fallen into poverty, and
had nothing left but his mill and a large apple-tree behind
it. Once when he had gone into the forest to fetch wood, an
old man stepped up to him whom he had never seen before, and
said, why do you plague yourself with cutting wood, I will
make you rich, if you will promise me what is standing behind
your mill. What can that be but my apple-tree, thought the
miller, and said, yes, and gave a written promise to the
stranger. He, however, laughed mockingly and said, when three
years have passed, I will come and carry away what belongs to me,
and then he went. When the miller got home, his wife came to
meet him and said, tell me, miller, from whence comes this
sudden wealth into our house. All at once every box and chest
was filled, no one brought it in, and I know not how it
happened. He answered, it comes from a stranger who met me in
the forest, and promised me great treasure. I’ in return,
have promised him what stands behind the mill – we can very
well give him the big apple-tree for it. Ah, husband, said the
terrified wife, that must have been the devil. He did not mean the
apple-tree, but our daughter, who was standing behind the mill
sweeping the yard.

The miller’s daughter was a beautiful, pious girl, and lived
through the three years in the fear of God and without sin. When
therefore the time was over, and the day came when the evil one
was to fetch her, she washed herself clean, and made a circle
round herself with chalk. The devil appeared quite early, but
he could not come near to her. Angrily, he said to the miller,
take all water away from her, that she may no longer be able to
wash herself, for otherwise I have no power over her. The
miller was afraid, and did so. The next morning the devil came
again, but she had wept on her hands, and they were quite
clean. Again he could not get near her, and furiously said to
the miller, cut her hands off, or else I have no power over
her. The miller was shocked and answered, how could I cut off my
own child’s hands. Then the evil one threatened him and said,
if you do not do it you are mine, and I will take you yourself.
The father became alarmed, and promised to obey him. So he
went to the girl and said, my child, if I do not cut off both
your hands, the devil will carry me away, and in my terror
I have promised to do it. Help me in my need, and forgive me
the harm I do you. She replied, dear father, do with me what
you will, I am your child. Thereupon she laid down both her
hands, and let them be cut off. The devil came for the third
time, but she had wept so long and so much on the stumps, that
after all they were quite clean. Then he had to give in, and
had lost all right over her.

The miller said to her, I have by means of you received such
great wealth that I will keep you most handsomely as long as
you live. But she replied, here I cannot stay, I will go forth,
compassionate people will give me as much as I require.
Thereupon she caused her maimed arms to be bound to her back,
and by sunrise she set out on her way, and walked the whole day
until night fell. Then she came to a royal garden, and by
the shimmering of the moon she saw that trees covered with
beautiful fruits grew in it, but she could not enter, for it was
surrounded by water.

And as she had walked the whole day and not eaten one mouthful,
and hunger tormented her, she thought, ah, if I were but inside,
that I might eat of the fruit, else must I die of hunger. Then
she knelt down, called on God the Lord, and prayed. And
suddenly an angel came towards her, who made a dam in the water,
so that the moat became dry and she could walk through it. And
now she went into the garden and the angel went with her. She
saw a tree covered with beautiful pears, but they were all
counted. Then she went to them, and to still her hunger, ate
one with her mouth from the tree, but no more. The gardener
was watching, but as the angel was standing by, he was afraid
and thought the maiden was a spirit, and was silent, neither
did he dare to cry out, or to speak to the spirit. When she had
eaten the pear, she was satisfied, and went and concealed herself
among the bushes. The king to whom the garden belonged, came
down to it next morning, and counted, and saw that one of the
pears was missing, and asked the gardener what had become of it,
as it was not lying beneath the tree, but was gone. Then
answered the gardener, last night, a spirit came in, who had no
hands, and ate off one of the pears with its mouth. The king
said, how did the spirit get over the water, and where did it go
after it had eaten the pear. The gardener answered, someone
came in a snow-white garment from heaven who made a dam, and
kept back the water, that the spirit might walk through the moat.
And as it must have been an angel, I was afraid, and asked
no questions, and did not cry out. When the spirit had eaten
the pear, it went back again. The king said, if it be as you
say, I will watch with you to-night.

When it grew dark the king came into the garden and brought
a priest with him, who was to speak to the spirit. All three
seated themselves beneath the tree and watched. At midnight the
maiden came creeping out of the thicket, went to the tree, and
again ate one pear off it with her mouth, and beside her stood
the angel in white garments. Then the priest went out to them
and said, “Do you come from heaven or from earth? Are you a
spirit, or a human
being?” She replied, “I am no spirit, but an unhappy mortal
deserted by all but God.” The king said, “If you are forsaken
by all the world, yet will I not forsake you.” He took her with
him into his royal palace, and as she was so beautiful and good,
he loved her with all his heart, had silver hands made for her,
and took her to wife.

After a year the king had to go on a journey, so he commended
his young queen to the care of his mother and said, if she
is brought to child-bed take care of her, nurse her well,
and tell me of it at once in a letter. Then she gave birth to
a fine boy. So the old mother made haste to write and announce
the joyful news to him. But the messenger rested by a brook
on the way, and as he was fatigued by the great distance, he
fell asleep. Then came the devil, who was always seeking to
injure the good queen, and exchanged the letter for another, in
which was written that the queen had brought a monster into
the world. When the king read the letter he was shocked and
much troubled, but he wrote in answer that they were to take
great care of the queen and nurse her well until his arrival.
The messenger went back with the letter, but rested at the
same place and again fell asleep. Then came the devil
once more, and put a different letter in his pocket, in which
it was written that they were to put the queen and her child to
death. The old mother was terribly shocked when she received
the letter, and could not believe it. She wrote back again to
the king, but received no other answer, because each time the
devil substituted a false letter, and in the last letter it was
also written that she was to preserve the queen’s tongue and
eyes as a token that she had obeyed.

But the old mother wept to think such innocent blood was to
be shed, and had a hind brought by night and cut out her tongue
and eyes, and kept them. Then said she to the queen, “I cannot
have you killed as the king commands, but here you may stay
no longer. Go forth into the wide world with your child, and
never come here again.” The poor woman tied her child on her back,
and went away with eyes full of tears. She came into a great wild
forest, and then she fell on her knees and prayed to God, and the
angel of the Lord appeared to her and led her to a little house
on which was a sign with the words, here all dwell free. A
snow-white maiden came out of the little house and said, welcome,
lady queen, and conducted her inside. Then she unbound the
little boy from her back, and held him to her breast that he might
feed, and laid him in a beautifully-made little bed. Then
said the poor woman, “From whence do you know that I was a queen?”
The white maiden answered, “I am an angel sent by God, to watch
over you and your child.” The queen stayed seven years in the
little house, and was well cared for, and by God’s grace, because
of her piety, her hands which had been cut off, grew once more.
At last the king came home again from his journey, and his first
wish was to see his wife and the child. Then his aged mother
began to weep and said, “You wicked man, why did you write to me
that I was to take those two innocent lives,” and she showed him
the two letters which the evil one had forged, and then
continued, “I did as you bade me, and she showed the tokens, the
tongue and eyes.” Then the king began to weep for his poor wife
and his little son so much more bitterly than she was doing,
that the aged mother had compassion on him and said, “be at peace,
she still lives, I secretly caused a hind to be killed, and
took these tokens from it, but I bound the child to your wife’s
back and bade her go forth into the wide world, and made her
promise never to come back here again, because you were so
angry with her.” Then spoke the king, “I will go as far as
the sky is blue, and will neither eat nor drink until I have
found again my dear wife and my child, if in the meantime they
have not been killed, or died of hunger.”

Thereupon the king traveled about for seven long years, and
sought her in every cleft of the rocks and in every cave, but
he found her not, and thought she had died of want. During the
whole time he neither ate nor drank, but God supported him. At
length he came into a great forest, and found therein the little
house whose sign was, here all dwell free. Then forth came
the white maiden, took him by the hand, led him in, and said,
“Welcome, lord king,” and asked him from whence he came. He
answered, “Soon shall I have traveled about for the space of
seven years, and I seek my wife and her child, but cannot find
them.” The angel offered him meat and drink, but he did not
take anything, and only wished to rest a little. Then he lay
down to sleep, and laid a handkerchief over his face.

Thereupon the angel went into the chamber where the queen
sat with her son, whom she usually called Sorrowful, and
said to her, go out with your child, your husband has come. So
she went to the place where he lay, and the handkerchief
fell from his face. Then said she, “Sorrowful, pick up your
father’s handkerchief, and cover his face again.” The child picked
it up, and put it over his face again. The king in his sleep
heard what passed, and had pleasure in letting the handkerchief
fall once more. But the child grew impatient, and said,
“Dear mother, how can I cover my father’s face when I have no
father in this world. I have learnt to say the prayer – Our
Father, which art in heaven – you have told me that my father
was in heaven, and was the good God, and how can I know a wild
man like this. He is not my father.” When the king heard that,
he got up, and asked who they were. Then said
she, “I am your wife, and that is your son, Sorrowful”. And he
saw her living hands, and said, “My wife had silver hands.” She
answered, “The good God has caused my natural hands to grow again,”
and the angel went into the inner room, and brought the silver
hands, and showed them to him. Hereupon he knew for a certainty
that it was his dear wife and his dear child, and he kissed
them, and was glad, and said, “A heavy stone has fallen from off
my heart.” Then the angel of God ate with them once again, and
after that they went home to the king’s aged mother. There were
great rejoicings everywhere, and the king and queen were married
again, and lived contentedly to their happy end.

  5 Responses to “Jephtha and his daughter, more collateral damage from the Book of Judges”

  1. But everybody lived happily ever after, right? It was just a little harder back then and took longer, in the case of the girl without hands about 10 – 15 years.

  2. I found this interesting: In the Bible it was God who demands the daughter. In Grimm’s tale, it was the devil or the ‘evil one.’

    • We’ll not exactly. One interesting aspect of the Jephtha story is God’s silence. Jephtha makes his rash promise all on his own, God doesn’t demand the daughter–Jephtha just fulfills his promise.

      But, yes, God in one story, the devil in the other. Except that, as I say, God doesn’t actually trick Jephtha; his is a peculiarly human mistake.

      I am still thinking about this.

      • Hm…that’s interesting…I read right past that and it’s significant. It makes me wonder why Jephtha would promise this in the first place(and presumably believe it needed to be carried out), though clearly the God of the OT had a reputation as a demanding deity.

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