Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Jephthah's (Jehovah's Witness) Daughther

There are things I respect about the Jehovah's Witnesses (JW's):  they generally seem more devoted to studying the Bible than other Christians, they don't celebrate Christmas or Easter because of their pagan origins, and, in my limited dealings with them, they seem friendly and are family and community oriented.  Then there are other things about them which are not respectable (outside of the sense that sincere adherence to a faith is respectable), such as the rejection of blood transfusions.

Another thing I can't respect is the blatant manipulation of Biblical text, which, of course, the JW's aren't the only Christians to do so.  But one particular manipulation caught my eye recently.  In the December 2011 issue of The Watchtower (OK, not that recently), there was an article on page 27 entitled "I Wanted to be Like Jephthah's Daughter."  I was stunned!

For those of you not familiar with the story, you'll find it in Judges 11:28-40.  It goes like this:  Jephthah, with the "Spirit of the Lord" and about to do battle with the Ammonites, promised God that if He would grant him a victory in that battle, he would make a burnt offering sacrifice of the first thing that come out of his home to greet him upon his return.  Jephthah won the battle.  As he returned home, his only child, his virgin daughter, came dancing out to meet him.  Jephthah was devastated to see her.  He tore his clothes and wept because of that vow he made to God.  His daughter told her father to fulfill his vow, but to give her two months to mourn the fact that she had never married.  So he gave her those two months, and then "he did to her as he had vowed."

To me, Jephthah's daughter portrays a pious willingness to fulfill a vow made to God at any cost, even if that cost is your own life.  I can understand a sense of the nobility of such an action, even if the act of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter itself represents the epitome of what is wrong with religion.  But that's not the angle Joanna Soans, the author of that article, went with.  She said:
"As you may have read in the Bible, Jephthah's daughter, when apparently only a teenager, agreed not to marry.  This made it possible for her father to fulfill a vow he had made.  So she served as a single woman at Jehovah's house, or tabernacle, for the rest of her life."
This is such a bastardization of the Scripture, it boggles the mind.  Check out Judges 11:31 in the lexicon, where Jephthah makes the promise of a burnt offering.  It is the kind of human sacrifice permitted by God's Law in Leviticus 27:28-29.

The JW's aren't alone in this interpretation.  Since around the 18th century, a minority of scholars have tried to argue the case being made by the JW's.  Yet this just emphasizes the point.  This is a relatively modern take, because the modern sensitivities found the idea of sacrificing a child to God as being unsavory to the point of needing to find an alternative interpretation for what stood unquestioned for centuries.  This represents the religious scholars trying to adapt their faith to keep it relevant to their own perspectives.

28 comments:

  1. Nonsense. A literal rendering, per your lexicon, of Judges 11:31 paints a picture of YHWH worshipers totally different from any other glimpse of them. So various scholars look for secondary meanings, even stretching the text a bit so as to get a meaning consistent with the rest of the scripture.

    I see nothing mind-boggling about this. Surely scholars are smug when they presume to dictate what this or that ancient expression MUST have meant. Today the expression "shut up" can mean the exact opposite of what it did 20 years ago. Fifty years ago people would say "I'll kill you for that" almost as an expression of endearment to a mischeivous child. (my Mom said it often, as did many) The phrase has a totally different conotation today, a literal one. It was seldom literal then.

    So with such significant variations taking place within a few decades, how is it we can look back 4000 years and speak with such confidence? We can't. Not unless we are doing character assassination.

    Lev 27:28-29 is another context altogether. When applied toward people, "devoted to destruction," the reference is always to enemies, not to one's own offspring.

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    1. First, regarding Leviticus 27:28-29:
      The context of the law itself tells you that it is not always regarding enemies. The chapter of Leviticus 27 has to do with voluntary dedications to God. Leviticus 27:28 reads "But nothing that a man owns and devotes..." A man does not own his enemies, but back in those days, the patriarch "owned" all of the people in their household. As Leviticus 27:28 continues, it reads "man or animal or family land" as things which could be devoted to God. The word translated as "devoted" is the Hebrew word transliterated as "charam," which is used to indicate an irrevocable giving of things or persons to God, often destroying them by fire. So you are wrong there.

      "...even stretching the text a bit so as to get a meaning consistent with the rest of the scripture. "
      If you want to get a sense of the true meaning, why not consult the Jews. Check out Sabio's reply below.

      "...how is it we can look back 4000 years and speak with such confidence? We can't."
      Again, you are wrong. We can, and the "how" is to look at the context, just like the context of "shut up" in an argument would clearly establish its meaning.

      If Jephthah had not intended a human sacrifice, why would he have vowed for a burnt offering sacrifice of whatever came out of his door to meet him?

      If Jephthah's daughter was not to be sacrificed, why would he react so bitterly? Was devoted service to God that abhorrent to this man of faith?

      Why would his daughter need a certain period to mourn her virginity, if she was going to continue on living in virginity? As the Geneva study Bible points out:
      "For it was counted as a shame in Israel, to die without children, and therefore they rejoiced to be married."

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    2. You have far more confidence in our technical ability to decipher 4000 year old idioms than do I. Yes, we could define “shut up” by context, and if we had sufficient written context in the Judges account, we could do the same there. But we don't. There's no reason my 'softer' take can't stand, even if it's not the primary literal meaning. Social 'context' argues for it.

      There's no record of YHWH worshipers making burnt sacrifices of their own children, though to be sure, the rowdy neighbors often carried on so. (this time my link back is to a post on the topic) Elsewhere, Yahweh declares such human sacrfice abhorrent, adding that it had “never come into his heart.” (Jer 7:31) So, 'social context' not supporting your harsh meaning, one looks for a possible softer one. And it can be found without too much fuss.

      As to your take on Leviticus verses, would not “thou shalt not kill” of Exodus override it? It's one thing to kill enemies, for which the commandment is not specifically tailored. It's another to kill one's own household, for which it is.

      Our conclusions all lie in underlying assumptions one carries into examination of these verses.

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    3. And what is all this rubbish from Sabio Lantz, (which I just noticed) suggesting I must be floored because there are Jewish and Christian scholars who disagree?! I swear, it is not I who is the sheep! Not only do some worship scholarly opinion, but they worship the majority scholarly opinion, and if there is two comparably popular scholars that disagree, you simply count the letters after their name in order to decide between them!

      As I'm sure you've discerned by now, it irks me greatly when people pay attention, not to what is said, but to who says it. (again, I link back to a relevant post)

      To be sure, I'm not really sure Sabio Lantz merits all this wrath. I'll have to go look and see what his posts contain. But he taunted me twice and that's enough. 'Turn the other cheek,' my rear end!

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    4. Tom, I don't blame you for being irked when people place more weight on who says something versus what is said. I get frustrated by it as well. Operation under the assumption that the most learned is always right is wrong. A similar foible is that the commenter who is closest to the source in time is always right, but that has a little bit more validity than the learned argument.

      "Elsewhere, Yahweh declares such human sacrfice abhorrent, adding that it had “never come into his heart.” (Jer 7:31)"
      It's generally not a good idea to defend the ignoring context by referencing another verse out of its context. Jeremiah 7:30-31 reads:
      "The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the LORD. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind." NIV

      The context of Jeremiah is clearly referring to worshiping of idols in the "high places," and ritual sacrifice of children to those idols. That is what never entered God's mind. Jephthah's sacrifice of his daughter was completely different, as it was to God and it was not a ritual, but rather a freewill offering made by a vow. These are very different circumstances, indeed.

      "As to your take on Leviticus verses, would not “thou shalt not kill” of Exodus override it? It's one thing to kill enemies, for which the commandment is not specifically tailored. It's another to kill one's own household, for which it is."
      Is it really just "kill?" No. A study of the Law reveals that, as death was often the punishment dictated by God. The commandment is about murder, which is why killing enemies is OK and why there is "a time to kill and a time to heal." If you think that it is truly wrong to sacrifice your child to God, then you are going to have an awkward meeting with Jesus. ;-)

      "Our conclusions all lie in underlying assumptions one carries into examination of these verses."
      This is very true. The fact is that I have nothing to lose in believing that Jephthah did or did not sacrifice his daughter. The actions of a man tell me nothing about God. So my underlying assumption is just that the words mean what they say. I don't have to justify Jephthah or God. Your underlying assumptions have to deal with your concept of God and of the Bible. I would judge that that makes me more suitable to look at this objectively, but I am biased in my own opinion of myself. ;-)

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  2. Interesting !
    TWF, if you have time, could you do a survey of several Christian and Jewish commentaries on that passage. Do you find any that agree that there was a little child sacrifice or do they all interpret it otherwise?

    My Jewish Study Bible comments:
    11:29-40 "biblical literature struggles with the norm of offering human sacrifices, which was apparently practiced throughout the First Temple period (2 Kings 21:6; 23.10; Jer 7.31, etc). Hence, this incident shows Jephthat in a negative light. 31: The formulation of the oath, referring to one coming out of the door of his house, suggests a human rather than animal sacrifice."

    Seems like lots of Jews feel it was a real human sacrifice. I wonder how sheep-Tom explains that away.

    This passage reminds me of a part of the Ramayana where Rama & Sita obey a disastrous vow merely out of loyalty -- a strongly held virtue in the day before our legal system. I will have to blog on that too. You give me lots of good blogging material.

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    1. I'm looking forward to your upcoming posts! I've really enjoyed your meta-analysis, including across the different religions you've seen first-hand. :-)

      The Wikipedia article on Jephthah (from where I shamelessly used the picture of the painting for this post) has a discussion about the sacrifice controversy.

      Gill's commentary is fairly thorough with both sides of the argument. Of verse 31, he states:
      "If this phrase, "to meet me," is meant intentionally, then no other than an human creature can be meant; a child, or servant, or any other of mankind; for none else could come forth with a design to meet him: but if this is to be understood eventually, of what might meet him, though not with design, then any other creature may be intended; and it must be meant what came forth first, as the Vulgate Latin version expresses it, or otherwise many might come forth at such a time"

      The real meat of the viewpoints can be seen in the analysis of verse 39. It concludes with a paragraph stating that the Jewish "Targum adds, "that a man might not offer his son or his daughter for a burnt offering, as Jephthah the Gileadite did, and did not consult Phinehas the priest; for had he consulted Phinehas the priest, he would have redeemed her with a price;""

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  3. Another source:
    My "Holy Bible: Saint Joseph Textbook Edition -- Confraternity Version" for good Catholics commentary says:
    "11,30-40: The text clearly implies that Jephte vowed a human sacrifice, according to th custom of his pagan neighbors: cf 4 Kgs 3,27. The inspired author merely records the fact; he does not approve of the action."

    Well, there is a bunch of Christians who disagree with the Jehovah Witnesses the Sheep-boy.

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    1. Yeah, it's one of those cases that you have the straightforward and obvious interpretation that agrees with context, and then you have a favored alternate interpretation which hangs on manipulation of a few words and ignorance of the context. It's not that we can't see how the other, more comfortable explanation was made. It's that it ignores the obvious truth.

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  4. The big difference between Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christians is that the Watchtower Society’s central core creed proclaims Jesus second coming in October 1914.
    They sometimes try to obscure this today and say that he came ‘invisibly’.Yes,all other Christains are awaiting Jesus return,the JW say he ALREADY came in 1914.
    -
    Danny Haszard

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    1. Yeah, it seems that there was a bit of a recalculation/clarification which occurred in 1914. I'm sure that the JW are far from monolithic in what 1914 meant, but they do all have to justify it somehow.

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  5. Tom,
    Your last name is long and awkward and hinting at JUDGEMENT, so I played with it.
    I am very interested on how all the various Christians and Jews take this passage. From what I have read, you seem wrong.
    Now then, I must confess that when I first read your objection I was excited -- I like seeing atheists getting their bottoms beat when it comes to the Bible. But I like it even more when they hold their own weight like TWF has here.

    I must also say, understanding the various ways this passage is interpreted and trying to guess the motivations is far more interesting to me that pretending to know what the TRUE interpretation must be.

    @ TWF,
    Did I ever suggest to you to get rid of hierarchy comments? I forgot

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    1. Sabio, you had not made that recommendation to me specifically, but I do remember you posting about it. It was right about that time, I think shortly thereafter, that Blogger rolled out comment hierarchy. At the time I read your post, I thought you were making a big ado about nothing, but this comment string in particular emphasizes how awkward it can be. I'm going to see if I can turn it off.

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    2. Nope. Doesn't look like I can turn it off. :-(

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  6. @TWF
    It looks turned off to me!
    Yeah, when I came back to this post I didn't feel like searching for "who-said-what-where" so just threw on a comment at the end.

    The only problem with this method, is that you have to be clear who you are talking to.

    Concerning this post, I see a few ways this passage seems to be interpretted:

    (1) Well he did kill / sacrifice her, but the author does not condone it. YHWH has always been the same and is unchanging.

    (2) Yeah, the Israelis use to sacrifice youth in part of their history, but they grew out of it as a deeper real understanding of Yahweh developed.

    (3) Yeah, they killed youth like other tribes, Yahweh did lots of horrible things. The ideas of God kept changing as it does in every religion with fictious gods.

    (4) He did not kill, the language is metaphorical for putting her in religious service where she was celibate. God would never allow that. God never changes

    Can you think of others -- we can see where Goat-Man lives, I think.

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    1. @Sabio
      I may have gotten the meanings of comment "hierarchy" confused if you think that it is "off." But after searching the available options last night,I can't seem to change the layout of the comments. :-/

      I suspect that there's a hybrid of your options 2 and 3:

      The local religions permitted, and some even ritualistically mandated, child sacrifice. (Molek is the example of a god who demanded ritual child sacrifice, and is spoken of directly in Leviticus 18:21 and Leviticus 20-2-5.) By contrast, while Yahweh permitted such sacrifice (Leviticus 27:28-29), He did not mandate it or encourage it beyond simply allowing it. Influence of the surrounding religions probably resulted in more Israelite child sacrifices, but, at the same time, the condemnation of child sacrifice to Molek and the stopping of the sacrifice of Isaac, combined with the lack of a mandate, helped to build sentiments against such sacrifice, making it a more rare occurrence among the Israelites.

      So it's really a mixed bag. :-)

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    2. hmmm, you are right, they aren't turned off.
      What if you change templates and in the new template turn off the hierarchy?

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    3. I just checked the Blogger help. Apparently, it's not really optional. Unless I want the comments to show up on a separate pop-up page or as an entire page by themselves...

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  7. As often as you've bloodied me, one would certainly think by now I'd have learned not to underestimate you.

    I did know about 'murder,' the NWT translates it that way, as do (somewhat to my surprise) most modern-day Bibles, but I used 'kill' thinking that word was more widely recognized and the particular choice didn't make any difference in this case anyway. Of course, it does, and if there really was human sacrifice with Jephthah, (an “if” I do not grant, mind you) then the Exodus commandment would not argue against it. Point yours.

    As regards Jer 7:31, I also knew the context, but didn't think it made any difference. I still don't, though perhaps the point is arguable. For the new ingredient in that passage is child sacrifice, not idol worship in the high places, the latter being a notion omnipresent in the OT. In that light, Yahweh's special denunciation is in regard to child sacrifice, not the “so what's new?” idol worship. Most translations adequately capture that sense, such as Moffat's:
    “….they have erected shrines to Topheth, in the valley belonging to Ben-Hinnom, for burning alive their sons and daughters – a thing that I never ordered, a thing that never entered my mind!”

    Of course, all this is long after Jephthah's time, as is my citing of Exodus, as is your citing of Leviticus, but my point in citing it is that as a worshiper of Yahweh, Jephthah would reasonably be expected to adhere to Yahweh's thinking. Unless he was going sour like those Israelites sacrificing on the high hills, but in that case it seems unlikely he'd be mentioned later as a OT hero, not to mention someone who's vow God looks upon favorably.

    And from your initial reply:

    If Jephthah had not intended a human sacrifice, why would he have vowed for a burnt offering sacrifice of whatever came out of his door to meet him? Because any human dedicated to temple service as result of a vow would likely be accompanies by burnt offerings. It's stretching the text a lot to get that message, but I've already explained my reason for doing so.

    If Jephthah's daughter was not to be sacrificed, why would he react so bitterly? Was devoted service to God that abhorrent to this man of faith? Because he was a hothead, and had made a rash vow. Because he kinda liked having his daughter around and figured when she left, it would be to lead a traditional life with a pack of kids.

    Why would his daughter need a certain period to mourn her virginity, if she was going to continue on living in virginity? As the Geneva study Bible points out:
    "For it was counted as a shame in Israel, to die without children, and therefore they rejoiced to be married."
    Here your one comment answers the other. She's mourning that her virginity would not end in the traditional way, with a husband and a pack of kids. After all, the vow was not her idea. 'Thanks a lot, Pop!'

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    1. Oh, man. I didn't mean to make you bloody! Let me know if I need to send you a care package of gauze and band-aids! :-)

      So, about Jeremiah 7:31. You ask a pertinent question: What's new? It's true, idol worship was nothing new. Neither was the worship of those idols in high places. Neither was the sacrifice of children. Molek is the example of a god who demanded ritual child sacrifice, and is spoken of directly in Leviticus 18:21 and Leviticus 20-2-5. If anything, if Moffat's quote is accurate in meaning, the novelty may be the "burning alive" part. If you recall, when Abraham was about to make a burnt sacrifice out of Isaac, he intended to kill him first. Indeed, all of the burnt sacrifices are first killed, and then burnt.

      We'll obviously continue on in disagreement over what these words meant, but I do have a final thought for you to contemplate which I think makes an equally strong case from a different angle:
      Ms. Soans said "So [Jephthah's daughter] served as a single woman at Jehovah's house, or tabernacle, for the rest of her life."
      There are three serious problems with such a claim, beyond the text of Judges 11.
      1) The Levites were designated by God to serve at the Tabernacle, so no extra help would have been necessary or wanted.
      2) Jephthah was from the tribe of Manasseh, and therefore neither he nor his daughter were Levites (Numbers 26:29, Judges 11:1).
      3) The work of Jehovah's house was to be performed by men, not women, as we see in Numbers 8:5-26.

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  8. Sabio: (the preceding comment being for TWF, who has turned off the hierarchy (!))

    Your last name is long and awkward and hinting at JUDGEMENT, so I played with it. Okay. Fair enough. I didn't choose it for that reason....I just like animals. But I guess I see how someone might take it that way
    I am very interested on how all the various Christians and Jews take this passage. From what I have read, you seem wrong. JWs are at odds with almost all Christians and Jews. We've long maintained the “Christians” you refer to have strayed very far from true Christianity. (Yes, I suppose that, too, sounds 'judgmental') I've long since accepted it, in fact am rather pleased about it.
    But I like it even more when they hold their own weight like TWF has here. Agreed. Atheist sites (if TWF's is that..... he doesn't fly the scarlet A, though possibly because he knows Nathaniel Hawthorne wouldn't like it) are a dime a dozen, but they generally answer challenges with condescension, insult, or jingoistic slogans. TWF grants visitors dignity and answers them competently on their own terms. That's very unusual. He's been so kind as to suggest that he and I may have much in common. Perhaps he has this 'hospitality' in mind, for I strive to grant visitors the same dignity

    I must also say, understanding the various ways this passage is interpreted and trying to guess the motivations is far more interesting to me that pretending to know what the TRUE interpretation must be. It's not to me. It likely would if intellectual stimulation were my main motivation, because these matters are intellectually intriguing.

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  9. With regard to Danny's comment: The reason JW "reclarification" of 1914 works is that history seems to dovetail so well. The year marks the first time the whole world went to war concurrently. It's immediately followed by massive famines and the Spanish Influenza...the greatest plague in history. If that doesn't fullfill Luke 21:10-11 and Matt 24:7 I don't know what does.

    Plus the date was arrived at beforehand through Bible chronology.

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    1. Yes, well, thank God those days were cut short, or else nobody would have survived (Matthew 24:22). Because I guess 1914 represented the worst suffering the world has ever known, or will ever know (Matthew 24:21). Oops, I'm sorry. That was back when the abomination which causes desolation was in the Temple, back in the first century, not 1914 (Matthew 24:15). My bad. :-p

      I think it may be best to avoid that prophesy, at least for this post's comment string...

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  10. Ex-JW here. :)

    This story never made sense to me either. I'd cross reference other study Bibles to my JW Bible and see that they translated things differently. When I saw how some talked of a burnt offering I was shocked.

    This was one of the many contradictions and issues that ushered me out of the JDubs.

    Great post, as always.

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    1. Your comment here Kay, helped me remember why I recently thought of the Jephthah's Sacrifice story. I just posted on it too. TWF must have inspired me again. :-)

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  11. @Kay
    I didn't realize that you were an ex-JDub. Cool. I'm sure it must have been a bit eye-opening for you to see those other translations. Were there any other very-memorable changes, ones which particularly still stand out in your mind like this one, or were the other changes less significant in your mind? And if there are, would you mind sharing?

    And thanks! :-)

    @Sabio
    I can't believe you just used the comment hierarchy! (jab) I've decided I'll side-step it for now and see how that works out.

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  12. TW,

    One major JW thing that drove me crazy was their translating "Lord" (adonai I think?) as Jehovah in the New Testament. Their argument is that they are putting it back and giving God respect that way.

    All the other contradiction / translation issues I can think of are not JW specific. At least I don't think so.

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  13. @Kay
    Oh, I didn't know the Lord translation thing. I've got mixed emotions about that. In some ways, I think that's kind of nice. But the practical, realist side of me feels like I would be driven crazy by it too. I mean, come on, just say Lord already. We all respect Him. A rose by any other name...

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