This month, we are beginning a year long monthly series on biblical women. Women from around Turtle Island will be honoring the women in scripture with poetry, art, storytelling, and love. This month, Joyce Hollyday starts the series with Jephthah’s daughter. If you are interested in contributing to the series, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Joyce Hollyday
Her name is lost to us—excised by the male chroniclers of faith history who understood that to name something was to give it power. And she was about as powerless as anyone could be. Jephthah’s daughter. Young, naïve, and female. Defined, possessed, and controlled by a violent and volatile warrior-father who ended her life in a ritual murder.
So, why launch a series on biblical women with such a tragic tale? Because Jephthah’s daughter is with us still. Her story is present among us in every form of male control: in the assumption that those of us who marry men will take their names and those who choose women must be “set straight”; in domestic violence and discriminatory pay; in denial of education and forced child marriages; in genital mutilation, sexual slavery, and female infanticide.
Jephthah, bargaining with God, made a vow: In exchange for victory in battle, he would sacrifice the life of the first person who greeted him upon his return from war. He went home after conquering and crushing twenty cities. His only daughter, anxious to greet her war-hero father, danced proudly and joyfully toward him with timbrel in hand.
In a classic case of blaming the victim, Jephthah lamented, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me” (v. 35). He offered her neither comfort nor release.
She understood that a daughter had no power to override a man’s vow to God, no path of recourse to plead for mercy. She believed that her only option was to submit in faithful obedience. But she did not acquiesce completely. She claimed two months of her life, to grieve her fate in the company of her friends.
Jephthah’s daughter spent her last weeks in the loving presence of women, in the mountains, far from the laws of men. I imagine that many tears were shed. The women wept over the injustice of the imminent sacrifice and their powerlessness to change it. They wept at the realization that their lives were worth less than the rash and reckless words of men.
Jephthah’s daughter was doomed to the margins of history—except for the actions of the women who loved her. They knew that she was God’s daughter before she was Jephthah’s. “So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go to lament the daughter of Jephthah” (v. 39-40).
Horror and hope drove them back to the mountains. They cried, they sang, they danced, mourning and celebrating the vulnerability and strength of womanhood. Perhaps they built an altar and turned their prayers to a Mother God, consecrating their bond as her daughters.
The women had the last word. Year in and year out, they commemorated the tragedy, so that the memory of Jephthah’s daughter was not snuffed out with her life. A story that began with a man’s unwavering vow ended with women’s undying devotion.
In October 2011, 285 girls and young women dressed in their finest outfits converged on Satara, India. What they had in common was the name Nakusa, which in Hindi means “unwanted.” At their renaming ceremony, they received flower bouquets and certificates officially documenting their new names. Each had rejected the name that her parents had given her at birth and chosen another—such as Savitri, a Hindu goddess, or Vaishali, meaning “prosperous, beautiful, and good.” One 15-year-old chose Ashmita, which means “very tough, rock hard.”
We launch our series on biblical women with Jephthah’s daughter because she is with us still. So, go find some sisters, or head to the mountains, or pick a bouquet in her memory. When you give thanks to God for her, call her Kelilah, which in Hebrew means “powerful, victorious, and crowned with honor.”