Today Rachel Held Evans shared a truly beautiful passage from her “Year of Biblical Womanhood” book. Do yourself a favor and read it.
In this passage, she talked Biblical stories when things didn’t turn out well, when they were quite tragic. Stories that a lot of people point to when explaining why they’re not religious. In particular, she tells the story of Jephthah. It’s an obscure story but a fairly contained one. You can read it in Judges 11, or if you prefer, check out Rachel’s telling:
Jephthah was a mighty warrior of Gilead and the son of a prostitute. Banished from the city by Gilead’s legitimate sons, he took up with a gang of outlaws in the land of Tob. Jephthah must have earned a reputation as a valiant fighter because, years later, when the Gileadites faced war with the Ammonites, the elders summoned Jephthah and asked him to command their forces.
When Jephthah reminded them that they had expelled him from the city, they promised to make him their leader if he agreed. The opportunity to rule over those who once despised him proved too much for Jephthah to resist. As Jephthah charged into battle with his countrymen behind him, filled with “the Spirit of the Lord” (Judges 11:29), he made a promise to God: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (v. 30).
The text reports that God indeed gave victory to Jephthah. He and his troops devastated twenty Ammonite towns, thus deterring the Ammonite king from further attacks. When Jephthah returned home, glowing with sweat and triumph, “who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines” (v. 34). She was a virgin and his only child. The Bible never reveals her name.
Mrs. Evans focuses on the daughter of Jephthah, but of course she’s not the only innocent victim here. Jephthah devastated twenty towns. And I’m sure the Ammonites felt they had a good reason to go to war against the Israelites in the first case. I think Mrs. Evans focuses on Jephthah’s daughter because the Bible says that while history didn’t record her name, the women of Israel remembered her and commemorated her death. And because she’s a woman, and Mrs. Evans was writing about biblical womanhood. But as pointless as her death was, it’s not even the most tragic part for me. When I think of those stories I think of the women and children and (yes) men who weren’t given months to mourn their lives. They weren’t any more or less guilty than Jephthah’s daughter.
Mrs. Evans’s point is, you can’t just look at the encouraging parts of the Bible. Sure, many people do, but there’s something dismissive and reductive when we aren’t willing to mourn Jephthah’s daughter, or look at a system that compelled her father to kill his daughter in this way. I know a lot of people encounter stories like this and choose they can’t believe in a good God who would allow this (the problem of evil), or they see the dangers of organized religion in stories like that. I can respect that; I was in that space at one point. But for me a part of religion and theism is living with things bigger than I can understand or make sense of. It’s not that I’m not aware of the problem and dismiss it as problematic. And maybe it is so problematic that as a philosopher I should recognize the simple truth these stories tend to tell: this is no God worthy of worship.
But when I sit with them and think of them, even that seems too neat and simple somehow. So I choose to try to remember them and honor them and sit with their pain. Maybe it’s a cop-out, but when it comes to stories like this, it seems like the only thing I can manage.
Do read Mrs. Evans’s thoughts on histories like this; they’re a wonderful meditation on the dark stories as she calls them. And if you’re a Christian or a religious person at all and have thoughts on how you make sense of them, come back here and let me know how you do it. I’m sure we could all use the pointers.