The Sacrificing of Children: A Meditation/Sermon on Judges 11

[1] Several years ago-1999, to be exact-Hollywood came out with a movie called The General’s Daughter. Starring John Travolta and Madeleine Stowe, and set on a major military base in Georgia, it told of an investigation into the suspicious death of a woman officer at the base, who also happens to be the daughter of the base’s commanding general. To all initial appearances, she had died in a quite grisly manner: her nude body was found staked out on a training ground at the base, her panties were wrapped around her neck, and bruise markings were found on her face and upper torso. As is usual with a murder-mystery, a number of twists and turns in the plot occur as the story unfolds. Eventually, though, we find out that her death is linked to events that had happened years previously while she was a cadet at West Point. It was at a time when women were just beginning to be admitted as students into the various military academies. And, as has often been the case when women have entered areas that were previously the exclusive province of men, there was resistance. But for this daughter the resistance took an especially extreme and violent turn. While on night-time training maneuvers, she was accosted by several of her male fellow cadets. They stripped her, tied her up, and repeatedly raped her. At dawn, barely alive, she was found by other cadets and air-lifted to a hospital. Her physical recovery took weeks. When her father, who at this time was a career military officer making his way up through the ranks, visited her later, he not so subtly suggested that what had happened to her was of little import and asked that she forget about it, put it out of her mind. In fact, his exact words were: “it never happened.” It’s clear that his suggestion is motivated by concerns for his own upwardly-mobile career. Indeed, his own superior officers had advised him to hush up the incident. It would not do him any good professionally to have a family member, also in the military, who broke ranks and spoke up about felonies perpetrated by West Point cadets, a group of men destined to be the next generation’s best and brightest leaders of the military. So the general sacrifices his daughter’s well-being for his career; eventually, as the investigators finally discover, this sacrifice leads to her death.1

[2] Now this movie could just as well have been titled “Jephthah’s Daughter”-in reference to a story found in the biblical book of Judges. For the themes, players, and plot moves in both stories are remarkably alike. But that means that this little known story in the Bible has more to say to us today than we have been wont to recognize.

[3] In brief, the biblical story is as follows. Jephthah, the central character of the narrative, has for a father the renowned Gilead; but his mother is a prostitute. This stain on his legitimacy causes his half-brothers-sons of Gilead’s wife-to drive him away from the family household. Striking out on his own, he gathers other outcasts around him and becomes the head of an outlaw band, a sort of army-for-hire. Soon Jephthah wins renown for his exploits, so much so that when the Gileadites find themselves hard-pressed by their enemies (the Ammonites), they ask Jephthah for his help. Jephthah agrees, though not without winning from the Gileadites the concession that if he is victorious, he will rule over them. They accede to his terms. Then, before the big battle with the Ammonites, Jephthah pronounces a vow to the Lord: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30). Well, sure enough, Jephthah is victorious. And the first person out of his house to greet him on his return is his daughter. Although she asks her father for a two month stay on the execution, during which she wanders the mountains with her companions and grieves, at the end of that time period she does return to her father, and, according to the text, her father, “did with her according to the vow he had made” (Judges 11:39).

[4] A daughter killed by her father to fulfill a vow, a vow motivated by the father’s desire for social standing and respect-no wonder most readers of the Bible have never encountered this text. It’s not in the lectionary. It is not a part of any Sunday school curriculum that I’ve ever heard about. Even professional biblical scholars, who more often than not pride themselves on treating the entirety of the Bible, tend to talk “around” or past this text. Sometimes they do so by focusing on the text’s wider literary context. In this way, they stress how the book of Judges precedes and prepares the way for the following book of Samuel and its record of the rise of Israel’s monarchy, first in the person of Saul and then in David. The editorial tags found scattered throughout the book of Judges are especially indicative, in that they comment on how such-and-such happened at a time when “there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25; cf. also Judges 19:1; 18:1). Thus, Judges 11 becomes a sort of proof-text, evidence for how bad and lawless the people can be without a king to rule over them-the obvious conclusion being that Israel needs to establish a kingship. Another way scholars treat this text also depends on it functioning as an anti-type of what is good and right to do. In this case the focus is on the father’s sacrifice of his daughter and the rarity of such episodes in the Hebrew Bible. Judges 11 then becomes the exception that proves the rule that the people of the Bible normally do not sacrifice their children; the moral superiority of the ancient Israelites is thereby proved, especially vis-à-vis other so-called primitive peoples, who supposedly did practice child sacrifice. Oftentimes in this interpretation reference is also made to Genesis 22 and Abraham’s “almost” sacrifice of his son, Isaac, which further proves the Israelite rejection of child sacrifice. Of course, since the nameless daughter of Judges 11 really is killed, while Isaac, the son of Abraham, is, in Genesis 22, allowed to live, another message is also conveyed: the higher expendability of daughters as compared to sons in the Bible.

[5] One of the problems, though, with these scholarly readings of the Judges 11 story is that they distance it from our present-day reality. Its values, concerns, and meanings come to have no claim on us and our lives. It even allows for a feeling of moral superiority. After all, we live neither in a time of outlaws nor in a time of kings; our political system is a democracy, presumably the most perfect political system on earth. Further, in our own quite civilized time, we no longer sacrifice our children.

[6] Or do we? Did you know that “out of every ten children murdered in the world, nine lived in the United States”?2 In the United States today, a child under five is killed every fourteen hours; every five hours, a youth between fifteen and nineteen is killed.3 The killing happens everywhere-it is no respecter of differentiations based on race, class, ethnicity, or geography. It also happens in an almost unimaginable variety of ways: children have been whipped, beaten, burned, starved, drowned, poisoned, bitten, knifed, shot, and buried alive.4 And besides killing them, we also hurt children horribly: physical and sexual abuse is all too common,5 and poverty subjects 16% of our country’s children to an existence deprived of many of the basics of food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education.6

[7] Our sacrificing of children can also be more subtle, though still very damaging. It can happen every time a parent tries to live his or her life through a child. One example, and one which I see far too often as a college professor, is that of parents who dictate to their children what their school, major, and/or career should be. How often have I listened over the years to students agonizing over the conflict between what their parents demand and what they themselves want for their lives. Often a mixture of love and financial obligation makes it difficult, if not impossible, for these students to break free of their parents’ expectations. And yet if they are not ever able to do so, they are at risk of great unhappiness, for they face the very real possibility of living a life not of their own choosing or making.

[8] So much sacrificing of children, so much pain and hurt…in the midst of it all, where is God? When we turn to the biblical story of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter and ask that question, we discover that God is not easy to find. That’s because although God is referred to fairly frequently, God Himself never actually speaks or interacts with any of the human actors. In other words, God is present, but it’s a silent presence. It’s as if God is hovering over and around the actors, watching and listening to all that goes on, but without ever actively interposing Himself into the events themselves. Of particular note is that God does not solicit the vow from Jephthah. Nor, after the pronouncement of the vow, does God say anything, whether good or ill, about it. Now as someone who earnestly wants to believe in God’s goodness, I deeply regret this silence on the part of God. Why didn’t God speak up and say to Jephthah, “What are you thinking of? Do you realize how careless and reckless your words are? You better be careful what you wish/vow for…” But God doesn’t interrupt Jephthah’s words, just as God so often does not actively interfere with our world and prevent misdeeds from happening-even though so often we dearly wish God would do so. But that’s one of the challenging truths about our world-God has given us our freedom to do with as we will, even if what we will is terribly misguided and leads to horrifying ends. God is no deus ex machina.

[9] But perhaps God’s silence in this story can also be understood another way. Perhaps God is simply struck dumb both that Jephthah vowed and what he vowed. After all, even before Jephthah makes the vow, the text says that God’s Spirit came upon him (v. 29). If God had already divinely empowered Jephthah, what need is there for a vow? Is Jephthah here trying to manipulate God, forcing God into a guarantee that the outcome will be good-instead of simply trusting to the divine spirit that now resides within him? Is Jephthah so lacking in faith? Indeed, I think he is. And this lack of faith leads to a further tragedy: a certain recklessness in the wording of his vow. In the Hebrew of what he says the relative pronoun referring to that which will come out of his house (asher) can mean either “whoever” or “whatever.” It could thus as easily refer to an animal as a person (v. 31). Given that animals were normally stabled in the room just inside the entrance of an Israelite house, does Jephthah imagine or hope that a sheep or goat will be the first thing he will encounter on his return? And yet, Jephthah would also know that it was a regular custom in his time for young women to come out and greet returning, victorious warriors with song and dance. Does he not consider that latter possibility? If not, how foolish; if yes, how chilling, for it would mean Jephthah deliberately willed the death of his daughter.

[10] And so God is silent-a silence borne of the shock that Jephthah is so lacking in faith, and so arrogant, that he makes a vow attempting to manipulate God. And then, as the vow itself unfolds, and its callous and careless wording becomes apparent, God’s silence amplifies, reverberating and echoing in the vast emptiness that has become God’s outrage and horror. Far, then, from being disappointed by God’s silence, we can honor it, be thankful for it, and share it. For are we not also shocked by Jephthah’s vow and all that it leads to? And are we not outraged by the fact that so many of our children are sacrificed? And are we not horror-stricken by the myriad ways in which that sacrificing is accomplished? God’s silence is our silence; and our silence is God’s silence. God stands with us, and together we recoil at the ways-whether careless or deliberate-in which words are pronounced and deeds are done that lead to the pain and death of so many sacrificed children.

[11] But silence should not be all that there is. For the story does not end in silence. There needs also to be understanding, even, perhaps, understanding for Jephthah, the primary perpetrator of the violence. Why does he do what he does? Arguably it’s prompted at least in part out of his own sense of inferiority and thus his consequent desire and drive for recognition and affirmation. Recall that his childhood was less than ideal: Jephthah was an illegitimate child, with a nameless, forgotten prostitute as his mother and a father who failed to defend him or watch out for him. Driven out of home, village, and country, he was a rootless, isolated man who likely always felt inadequate, even worthless. Deprived of love, respect, and self-acceptance-things that all of us crave-is it not easier to understand the extreme, even if misguided, lengths to which Jephthah goes to try to achieve them? Moreover, it’s not just a matter of Jephthah being selfishly concerned about his own needs. He can argue that there is also a more high-minded motive: to save a whole people, his people, the Gileadites, from their enemy, the Ammonites. He could readily rationalize-and it is not so difficult to accede to such rationalizations-that it is worth it to give one life up, even if it his own daughter’s, if so many others can be saved. Thus, his own needs get mixed in with the needs of a whole people.

[12] But understanding cannot, and must not, excuse violence. The sacrificing of anyone-but especially children-is always wrong. And so understanding must not be all that there is, for understanding on its own does not effect change-and so the sacrificing of children will inevitably continue. What then? Turn to the story one final time and discover what is missing: the community. No one-whether family members, servants, kin relations, or villagers-steps in to stop Jephthah’s vow, prevent the later killing of the daughter. Their silence and their lack of action makes them also responsible in the death of the daughter. It’s only the young women-relatively powerless members in that society-who stand with the daughter. And their actions are limited to sharing her grief. Although mourning is a powerful way of acknowledging the importance of the young woman’s life, and so state all that will be lost with her death, it’s not enough. What was needed were more persons in positions of power and influence to question Jephthah, to stop the sacrifice, to negotiate a different ending. There needed to be an active communal response preventing Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter, just as today the whole community is needed-led by those with money, votes, influence, education-to enact the changes, both globally and locally, that will end the sacrificing of our children. Maybe, then, God will be moved beyond the silence to help us enact a new world in which never again do our children suffer and die. Otherwise, the sacrificing will continue; and God’s continued silence-by the very fact of its silence-will be an accusation holding us all accountable for the ongoing suffering and dying of our children.

End Notes

1 Although only a fictional movie, the story resonates quite well with the realities still experienced by women in the military academies. The very week I wrote this piece, Time magazine came out with a number of statistics pertaining to the experiences of female cadets of the class of 2003 at the U. S. Air Force Academy: 1) 11.7% had been victims of rape or attempted rape during their time at the academy; 2) 22.3% were pressured “for sexual favors”; and 3) 68.7% had been victims of sexual harassment. See TIME, Sept. 8, 2003, pg. 14. Under “Numbers”

2 United Nations Children’s Fund Report, quoted in Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), pg. 235.

3 Ibid.

4 I derived this list from Delaney’s book. The complete listing is even more horrifying. “Children have been whipped, beaten, starved, drowned, smashed against walls and floors, held in ice water baths, exposed to extremes of outdoor temperatures, burned with hot irons and steam pipes. Children have been tied and kept in upright positions for long periods. They have been systematically exposed to electric shock; forced to swallow pepper, soil, feces, urine, vinegar, alcohol, and other odious materials; buried alive; had scalding water poured over their genitals; had their limbs held in open fire; placed in roadways where automobiles would run over them; placed on roofs and fire escapes in such a manner as to fall off; bitten, knifed, and shot; had their eyes gouged out” David Bakan, Slaughter of the Innocents: A Study of the Battered Child Phenomenon (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), pg. 4 [quoted in Carol Delaney, Abraham on Trial, pgs. 235-36].

5 According to one set of statistics, one in five to one in three girls, and one in sixteen to one in eleven boys are physically sexually abused by the age of eighteen. See Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), pg. 152.

6 Poverty is here defined according to the levels set by the federal government, which, in 2003, was anything at or below $18,400 for a family of four. Note that sixteen percent is equivalent to 12 million children. Further, of this percentage, 7% (or 5 million children) live in extreme poverty, which means their parents made half the federal poverty level. And since research shows that, in most areas of the United States, it actually takes roughly double the federal poverty level to provide a family with the basic necessities of life, the number of children living in such situations (i.e., where their parents made 200% of the federal poverty line or below) is a staggering 27 million – or 38% of all American children. National Center for Children in Poverty. Accessed September 15, 2003.