Covenant in Jephthah’s Story: Judges 10:6 – 12:7

Artwork: Pat Berger, Jephthah’s Daughter, 1991, oil & oil sticks on canvas.

As I look through the lens of covenant to view my life and my faith, a question arises. What human propensities cause covenants to go awry? If, as Brueggemann says, “covenanting (and spirituality) consists in learning the skills and sensitivities that include both the courage to assert self and the grace to abandon self to another,” covenanting can go wrong when we are either too diffident or to self-assertive. Diffident in a way that doesn’t acknowledge our gifts and skills, our own wisdom and insight, and self-assertive in a way that doesn’t acknowledge the talents and perceptions of others.

The judge of Israel, Jephthah, is an interesting example of a covenant that has gone tragically wrong. Jephthah is the son of a prostitute, with an unknown father — the Book of Judges calls him a “son of Gilead,” meaning that he might have been sired by any man in the region of Gilead. The legitimate sons of the men of Gilead drive this unwanted bastard from their midst, and he takes up with the outlaws and bandits who haunt the hills. When the Ammonites threaten Gilead, the men who had rejected Jephthah call him back, and ask him to lead them in war. This is akin to a city asking the chief mobster to general its armies. Jephthah agrees to this deal, with the proviso that after the fighting is ended, he will be the headman of all of Gilead. It’s as if the mobster in our contemporary illustration demanded that he be named mayor for life once the danger to the city was past.

As he goes out to fight the Ammonites, the spirit of YHWH comes upon him. This has happened before to other heroes of the Old Testament, and once they’re filled with this spirit, they’re able to do wondrous things. But Jephthah, who already has YHWH’s spirit guiding him and blessing his actions, decides to make a bargain with YHWH. “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,” he says, “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 (11:30-31).” Phyllis Trible points out that:

The chosen savior, endowed with the spirit of Yahweh, is nevertheless unsure of divine help and insecure about his future among those who had once rejected him…[His speech] has broken in at the very center to press for divine help that ironically is already Jephthah’s through the spirit of Yahweh. The making of the vow is an act of unfaithfulness. Jephthah desires to bind God rather than embrace the gift of the spirit. What comes to him freely, he seeks to earn and manipulate. The meaning of his words is doubt, not faith; it is control, not courage. To such a vow the deity makes no reply.

Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror

Jephthah’s vow has a tragic outcome. After defeating the Ammonites, he returns home. His daughter, his only child, comes to greet him, dancing and singing about his victory. Jephthah tears his clothes and says, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to YHWH, and I cannot take back my vow.” He will have to murder her by burning her to death. Trible writes that “though in anguish he calls her ‘my daughter,’ he offers her neither solace nor release…Unlike the father Abraham, Jephthah fails to evoke the freedom of the deity to avert disaster.”

This then, is the failure of Jephthah’s covenantal awareness. He fails to trust the spirit of YHWH. He wants to continue to exert control over his own destiny. He doesn’t believe that YHWH is capable of adjusting to circumstances, or loves his daughter enough to spare her. He can’t abandon himself to God, and he does not expect God to abandon God’s self to him. For him, covenant is simply a legal bargain, rather than a living, moving relationship.

This is the problem with a legalistic view of covenant. It cannot allow for change, for a shift of circumstances, for a renegotiation. It suspects the other person in the covenant, and wants to shore up its side and try to gain advantage. It is closed off to the possibility of mercy and love, and so it is closed off to grace.

The last word should belong to Jephthah’s daughter, and the women who mourn her. After her doom is proclaimed, she asks for two months to wander the hills with her female friends and mourn her virginity. Jephthah grants her this wish, but after those two months are over, he kills her. Yet her female friends, and their descendants, continue to mourn her. “There arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite (11:40).” They have covenanted with her memory, and they keep their covenant, giving of themselves to mourn her without asking for anything in return.

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