Jephthah’s Daughter and Greek Iphigeneia

Jephthah

by

Damien F. Mackey

 

Given Saint Paul’s praise of various of the Judges in Hebrews, owing to their “faith”, including Jephthah (11:32-33), then it is unlikely that Jephthah was – as one might possibly conclude from a superficial reading of his story (Judges 11) – a man who would stoop to the sacrifice of his beloved daughter. And, although I had entitled a previous article of mine:

 

What Was Jephthah Thinking?

https://www.academia.edu/15372476/What_Was_Jephthah_Thinking

 

I did not actually conclude that article with a negative verdict about the action of the heroic Jephthah.

 

Now, the Greeks may have borrowed the Hebrew story of Jephthah and his daughter and re-told it as the famous tale of Iphigeneia (Iphigenia), daughter of Agamemnon.

And, in typical Greek fashion, re-told it in more pessimistic terms.

The biblical story has at least prompted the following recollection of the Greek tragedy (http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=70068):

 

…. One of today’s readings for Mass contained the tragic story of Jephthah’s Daughter (Judges 11:29-39a). Essentially, Jephthah makes a vow to God that if God gives him victory over the Ammonites (something which presumbably God wants anyway) he will sacrifice the first person who comes out from his house to greet him on his return. Sacrifice meaning “burnt offering” with the person being burnt.

Now, I am intrigued as to how the Church understands this passage, especially in the light of the passage where God actually appears to call on Abram for human sacrifice but then relents – and which leaves the impression that God did not accept human sacrifice in part to make the distinction between Himself and the idols worshipped widely (Baal, Molech and the like). Is it merely a case of the near-east prejudice that sacrificing a daughter would be somehow acceptable but sacrificing a son would not be? How does the Church understand this apparent contradiction between Isaac and Jephthah’s Daughter (who is not even named)?

## I have a theory about this

The plot is similar to some other stories. For example, in Greek mythology, Agamenon, the leader of the army against Troy, has to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia before the fleet can set sail. When he does so, Iphigeneia is snatched away & a doe replaces her; she herself has been taken to Tauris, among the savage Thracians, were she becomes a priestess of Artemis, the goddess whom Agamemnon (or a member of his family) offended, thereby causing Artemis to stop the fleet sailing. (In the end, although Agamemnon is murdered by his wife and her lover, his son and another daughter are re-united.) In both stories:

the father sets out to go to war

he does something to set a god in motion: by a vow, or by offending the god

he loses his daughter

she is taken away from everyday civilised life…

and is given over to the god ….

 

A far better interpretation of the Jephthah and his daughter incident is given here http://www.htdb.net/1901/r2897.htm

 

….

“The original, Judges 11:30, when properly translated, reads thus: ‘And it shall be that whoever comes forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace, from the children of Ammon, shall surely be Jehovah’s, and I will offer to him a burnt offering.’

The vow contains two parts: (1) That person who would meet him on his return should be Jehovah’s, and be dedicated forever to his service, as Hannah devoted Samuel before he was born. (1 Sam. 1:11.) (2) That Jephthah himself would offer a burnt offering to Jehovah.

“Human sacrifices were prohibited by the Law (Deut. 12:30); and the priests would not offer them. Such a vow would have been impious, and could not have been performed. It may be safely concluded that Jephthah’s daughter was devoted to perpetual virginity; and with this idea agrees the statements that ‘she went to bewail her virginity;’ that the women went four times in every year to mourn or talk with (not for) her; that Jephthah did according to his vow, and that ‘she knew no man.'”

We are glad that our attention is called to this evidently better translation, which clears away the difficulty, and shows that the burnt-offering was one thing, and the devotion of the daughter another thing. We are to remember, too, the testimony of the entire Old Testament, to the effect that prior to our Lord’s birth all the women of Israel coveted earnestly the great blessing and privilege of being possibly the mother of Messiah, or amongst his forebears. We are to remember, also, the exultant language of the Virgin Mary when finally it was announced to her that she had won this long-sought prize: “Henceforth all shall call me blessed”–all shall recognize me as the one who has attained this blessed privilege of being the mother of Messiah.

[End of quote]

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