After going through the ten commandments I began thinking about all of the really disturbing stories in the Bible and thought I might start an occasionally writing about passages in the bible which were disturbing or immoral.
Today’s entry is a gem of a story from Judges 11. Jephthah goes to make war against the children of Ammon, this in itself is not that remarkable, but the there is much more to the passage starting in verse 30.
And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, 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. Judges 11, 30-31
So we see here at the start of the passage Jephthah makes a promise to God. He tells god that if he is granted a victory over the Ammon he will kill and make a burnt offering of whatever comes out of his house first. I find this a really odd promise to make, given that he was going to be coming home from a war did it not occur to him that it might not be an animal that came out, but a fellow human being? Further, God, though silent in this passage, seems to find this arrangement acceptable. He certainly speak up to tell Jephthah he might want to rethink his promise.
While we are on this subject I think it might be worth bringing up that this bargain looks very much like some sort of magic spell. Offering up blood sacrifices in exchange for deities reorganizing reality in your favor seems very similar to the sort of things I often hear Christians condemn about other religions.
So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands. 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. Judges 11:32-33
So, fairly straight forward here, Jephthah goes out to war and wins. Indeed he apparently chases them across 20 cities.
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 daughter. Judges 11:34
So, unsurprisingly, Jephthah’s daughter comes out to greet him. His only daughter as it turns out. You might think Jephthah would have deemed it a good idea to tell his daughter not to come great him when he got back, but clearly he did not think that far ahead. His daughter came out to greet him because she was presumably happy that he hadn’t been killed in the war, unaware that he had struck a blood bargain with his preferred deity for that safe return.
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. Judges 11:35
Well, at least he is upset about this turn of events. However, he simply says that he can’t go back on a promise he made to God so he is going to have to kill her and make a human sacrifice of her. Again, God could have popped in at this point to tell him human sacrifice is wrong, and killing ones own daughter is even more wrong, but He continues to be silent.
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 Ammon. 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. And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. Judges 11:36-38
To being told her dad is going to have to kill her now she responds rather calmly in this story. I rather expect if this event were real she would not be so understanding. She only asks that she be allowed two months to hang out with her friends to bewail that she will die a virgin. Considering the age of marriage at the time this means that Jephthah’s daughter (funny they never give her a name) would probably be no more than 13 or 14. There is also some rather inherent sexism in this passage, the fact that she chooses to bewail her virginity rather than the fact that she was about to be made a burnt offering focuses on her role as a producer of babies to the exclusion of any other value she might have possessed. “It’s just a shame she has to die before she could pop out a few babies,” is the way this reads to me.
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, That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year. Judges 11:39-40
Well, as promised she calmly comes back to her father so that he can preform the sacrifice. If she had any sense she would have run away from that abusive nut job that calls himself her father, but she comes back and he goes through with it. Again it should be noted that God could have intervened here but did not. He did so for Abraham, not that God showing up at the last second up and yelling, “Psyche” makes the story all that great, but at least there was no actual human sacrifice in that one.
I have actually had Christians try to absolve this story by treating it as a object lesson about the need to keep the promises one makes to God. The passage actually even supports this conclusion when Jephthah says, “I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.” I personal think if there is any lesson to be found here it’s that we shouldn’t make bat shit crazy promises to invisible beings, but I am just weird like that I guess. Mostly I just point out to them that this kind of thinking can only lead to a rather openly relativistic moral position. (you know, the sort of position that Fundamentalist Christians claim is a flaw with atheism)
How does one know that all of those parents who killed there kids weren’t doing God’s will? Perhaps all those pedophile priests in the Catholic church were told by god to do what they did? God wouldn’t do that? Why? Because it is wrong? Just like human sacrifice is wrong even if its to keep a promise to god? One cannot have it both ways, either we always keep our promises to god and this guy is a spiritual hero for his actions, or there are somethings that should never be done in any circumstance and this guy is the poster boy for what religion can make people do at its worst.
If it is the first, then Fundamentalist can not reasonably claim to have the moral high ground on anything, If it is the second then the it becomes increasingly difficult to treat the Bible as if it has anything useful to say about our morals.