Jephthah’s daughter sought bigger name than Abraham’s son Isaac

Jephthah sacrificing his daughter

Whatever a man can do, a woman can do even better. Behind every great man is an even greater woman. Every husband knows that all his success he owes to his wife. Who would dare to challenge such popular wisdom? Few persons have throughout history. In the ancient Hebrew biblical world, Jephthah’s daughter sought to gain an even more famous name than Abraham’s son Isaac. Not surprisingly, about 1900 years ago in a Hebrew work now known as Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum {Book of Biblical Antiquities}, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob recognized that girls rule.

Jephthah’s mother was a prostitute. His father was Gilead. This was a time before sex workers received their due respect. Gilead, the name of Jephthah’s prostitute-visiting father, means in Hebrew “eternal happiness.” What was for Gilead a balm, a universal cure for a man’s ills?[1] Like biological anthropologists who still don’t understand sexual selection in practice, biblical scholars still can’t imagine what the balm of Gilead was. Jephthah was born of Gilead’s visit to a prostitute.

Jephthah was a mighty warrior. Societies have long exploited men to fight their wars. Drafting or inciting Jephthah to fight for his society was more complicated than normal. Because Jephthah wasn’t their mother’s son, the sons of Gilead’s wife drove Jephthah from their home. In gynocentric society, men’s relationship with women determines the right to stay in one’s home. Jephthah thus became an outcast brigand. To get Jephthah to fight for them, the elders of Gilead offered to make Jephthah their chief if he would lead the fight against their enemy the Ammonites.

Jephthah vowed to God for a victory. He vowed that if God would allow him to defeat the Ammonites, whoever came out first to meet him when he returned home victorious would be God’s — would be offered to God as a burnt offering. Jephthah was victorious over the Ammonites. He undoubtedly killed many Ammonite men, and many men of Gilead were probably killed as well. When Jephthah returned home, he was greeted first by his only child joyously shaking timbrels and dancing. This only child was a young woman. Would Jephthah kill a young woman, his daughter, to fulfill his vow to God?

Many ancient and medieval thinkers found reason for Jephthah not sacrificing his daughter. Mosaic law condemns instances of sacrificing children, and it provides monetary equivalents for human sacrifices.[2] Surely honoring a vow to God to perform an action that God condemns can’t be right. Joining the Hebrew phrases for “would be God’s” and “would be offered to God as a burnt offering” is a Hebrew letter that the twelfth-century rabbi Joseph Kimhi interpreted as “or” rather than “and.” Perhaps Jephthah fulfilled his vow by dedicating his daughter to the Lord as an alternative to immolating her.[3] Many men undoubtedly were killed in the battle between the Ammonites and Jephthah’s men. Yet the fate of Jephthah’s daughter has attracted far more concern than the fate of all the men who were killed.

The great medieval thinker and poet Peter Abelard provided words of Jephthah’s daughter. Judges records Jephthah’s daughter urging him to sacrifice her:

She said to him, “My father, since you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, the Ammonites.”

[4]{ ותאמר אליו אבי פציתה את־פיך אל־יהוה עשה לי
כאשר יצא מפיך אחרי אשר עשה לך יהוה נקמות מאיביך
מבני עמון }

What father wouldn’t do what his daughter asked him to do? Yet fathers in their loving concern seek what’s best for their daughters. Being killed usually isn’t good for a person. Jephthah’s daughter had to spend additional words to persuade her father to do what she wanted him to do:

Abraham wishing to sacrifice his son
did not receive this grace from the Lord,
that the Lord would accept from him the boy as an offering.
He who spurned a boy,
if he accepts a girl —
think, what an honor it would be for my sex!

{ Immolare filium uolens Abraham
non hanc apud Dominum habet gratiam,
ut ab ipso puerum uellet hostiam.
Puerum qui respuit,
si puellam suscipit —
quod decus sit sexus mei percipe! }[5]

Abraham was ready to sacrifice his son Issac according to God’s command. At the last moment, an angel of God stayed Abraham’s knife-wielding hand. Jephthah’s daughter sought do better than Isaac. She eagerly imagined that God might not intervene, and that being killed, she would win glory as being better than Isaac. Like many women today, Jephthah’s daughter ardently sought to be like a man, but better.[6]

Jephthah’s daughter told her horror-stricken and wavering father to man up. She harshly declared to him:

As in sex, so in spirit,
be now a man, I pray!
Do not impede my glory or your own!

{ Ut sexu sic animo
uir esto nunc, obseto!
Nec mee nec tue obstes glorie! }

Women constantly tell men how to be a man. Wise men choose their own way, consistent with the innate goodness of their being. Jephthah should have gently but firmly told his daughter not to instruct him about how to be a man. Then he should have said to her, “If you have sorrow for your offense and love for me, go make me a sandwich.” Instead, he allowed her to continue to instruct him disrespectfully:

Would you wish to hold me before your soul
and by this perverse example harm others?

If love should allow you
to prefer this girl to the Lord,
then offending the Lord together with the people,
you would also destroy the people by displeasing the Lord.

What the tender young woman does not fear to endure,
let the man’s right arm suffer to inflict,
as the solemn promise of his own vow requires!

{ Si tue preferre me uis anime
exemplo que prauo cunctos ledere?

Sinat te delectio
proferat hanc Domino,
unaque tu Dominum offendens cum populo,
amittas et populum displicendo Domino.

Quod ferre non trepidat uirgo tenera
inferre sustineat uiri dextera,
sponsio quem obligat uoti propria! }

Even with this provocation, Jephthah didn’t immediately go ahead and kill his daughter. Like most fathers, he loved his daughter completely.[7]

Like most fathers, Jephthah lacked the strength to stand up to his daughter. She demanded and received time and supplies from him to enjoy a two-month hiking trip in the wilderness with her young single female friends.[8] When Jephthah’s daughter returned from her wilderness trip, she enjoyed a bath in her own bedroom, with her servant-handmaidens serving her. Jephthah’s daughter was a highly privileged woman.

After her bath, Jephthah’s daughter ordered her father to prepare to kill her. Her servant-handmaidens adorned her with a necklace of gems and pearls, and with golden earrings, rings, and bracelets. Annoyed by the weight of these luxurious accessories, she quickly pushed herself from her soft bed to her feet. She was in a sense a strong and independent woman: “At once she seizes the naked blade which she delivered to her father {Mox quem patri detulit ensem nudum arripit}.” Like the highly privileged women of ancient Jerusalem, Jephthah’s daughter had material riches but no husband. Her death would for her substitute for a marriage feast.[9]

Throughout history, Jephthah has been blamed for his daughter’s death. Jephthah has been blamed for rashly making a vow to God while facing a terrifying battle with the Ammonites. Jephthah has been blamed for being faithful to his vow to God. But Jephthah has scarcely ever been blamed for doing as his daughter wished him to do:

O senseless mind of a judge!
O insane zeal of a prince!
O father, but enemy of your family,
which you destroy by the death of your only child.

{ O mentem amentem iudicis!
O zelum insanum principis!
O patrem, sed hostem generis,
unice quod nece diluis. }

Most early Jewish and Christian commentary condemned Jephthah for fulfilling his vow.[10] In the course of a lengthy review of ancient and medieval commentary on Jephthah and his daughter, a modern scholar refered to Jephthah killing his daughter as “Jephthah’s senseless deed.” Another modern scholar lamented:

Ephrem is not the only ascetic patristic author who fails to denounce Jephthah unequivocally. Jerome, for one, equivocates. [11]

Gynocentric society encourages fathers to do anything to please their daughters. Women should share the blame with men for the resulting pain and suffering.

With women typically regarded as wonderful, Jephthah’s daughter has been celebrated among the most wonderful women. Pseudo-Philo’s God in Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum {Book of Biblical Antiquities} declared of Jephthah’s daughter:

I have seen that she is wiser than her father and that the young woman is smarter than all the wise men who are here. Now let her soul be given up in accord with her request, and her death will be precious before me always, and she will go and depart into the bosom of her mothers.

{ Ecce nunc conclusi linguam sapientum populi mei in generationem istam, ut non possent respondere filie Iepte ad verbum eius, ut compleretur verbum meum, nec destrueretur consilium meum quod cogitaveram. Et ipsam vidi magis sapientem pre patre suo, et sensatam virginem pre omnibus qui hic sunt sapientibus. Et nunc detur anima eius in petitione eius, et erit mors eius preciosa ante conspectum meum omni tempore, et abiens decidet in sinum matrum suarum. }[12]

In addition to insisting that her father kill her, Jephthah’s daughter had another credit to her name. The biblical account declares that through to the time of her death, “she didn’t have sex with any man {ידעה איש}.”[13] Many young women majoring in Women’s Studies today will die unmarried, hugging to the hope that in death they’ll depart into the bosom of their mothers. They are heirs to generations of women taught life-depriving lies:

Chant, young Hebrew women,
in memory of that famous young woman,
that glorious girl of Israel —
that young woman truly raises your status.

{ Hebree dicite uirgines,
dicite uirginis memores,
inclite puelle Israel —
hac ualde uirgine nobiles. }

According to the biblical account, four days every year the women of Israel honor the memory of Jephthah’s daughter. That commemorative ritual came to be known as tekufah. Jews throughout medieval German and medieval northern France observed tekufah regularly.[14]

Gynocentric society’s yearning to create a goddess can have astonishing effects. Writing to cure religious misunderstanding about 1650 years ago, Epiphanius of Salamis observed:

The profundities and glories of the sacred scripture, which are beyond human understanding, have confused many. … in Sebasteia, which was once called Samaria, they have declared Jephthah’s daughter a goddess, and still hold a festival in her honor every year.

{ πολλοὺς γὰρ ἐφαντασίασε τὰ βαθύτατα τῆς θείας γραφῆς καὶ ἔνδοξα καὶ ὑπεραίροντα διάνοιαν ἀνθρωπίνης φύσεως. … ἐν δὲ τῇ Σεβαστείᾳ τῇ ποτὲ Σαμαρείᾳ καλουμένῃ, τὴν θυγατέρα Ἰεφθάε θεοποιήσαντες ἔτι ταύτῃ τελετὴν κατ’ ἔτος ἄγουσιν. }[15]

The great thinker Paul of Tarsus, deeply learned in Jewish culture, warned strongly against gyno-idolatry. Neither Jews nor Christians nor Greeks nor anyone else have consistently taken to heart Paul’s profound wisdom about women.

Jephthah’s daughter sought to gain more glory that Abraham’s son Isaac by insisting that her father kill her. Jephthah should have rebuked his daughter’s foolish attempt to lean into his sword. Today, even more so than in biblical times, women strive to outperform men. That’s a recipe for an unhappy, lonely death.

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[1] For the story of Jephthah and his daughter, Judges 11. On the balm of Gilead, Jeremiah 8:22, 46:11. According to the Wikipedia on the name Gilead:

In Hebrew, גלעד (transcribed Gilad or Ghil’ad) is used as a male given name and is often analysed as deriving from גיל (gil) “happiness, joy” and עד (ad) “eternity, forever”; i.e. “eternal happiness”.

Perhaps originating in a very ancient time before pervasive disparagement of men’s sexuality, Gilead has a complementary root meaning “hard, stony region.”

[2] Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, 27:1–8; Deuteronomy 18:10. The issue is historically complicated. Child sacrifice apparently did licitly occur in ancient Hebrew society. Cf. Thompson, who asserts:

the sheer unlawfulness of Jephthah’s vow in light of the biblical prohibition against human sacrifice and the provision of the Mosaic law (in Lev. 27:1–8) for such a vow to be redeemed monetarily.

Thompson (2001) p. 170.

[3] Jephthah’s vow is in Judges 11:31. Rabbi David Kimhi wrote this grammatical argument about Judges 11:31 early in the thirteenth century. He attributed it to his father, Rabbi Joseph Kimhi. Thompson (2001) pp. 150-1.

[4] Judges 11:36.

[5] Peter Abelard, Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite {The Lament of the Young Women of Israel over the Daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite} ll. 36-41, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly in some places) from Ruys (2014). Abelard probably wrote this planctus in the mid-1130s. Id. pp. 8, 65. Ruys characterized Abelard’s six planctus as perhaps his “most remarkable literary achievement.” Ruys (2006) p. 1.

All subsequent quotes from Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite are similarly sourced. Those quotes are (cited by verse number in Ruys’ Latin text): 44-6 (As in sex…); 47-52, 61-3 (Would you wish…); 111 (At once she seizes the naked blade…); 120-3 (O senseless mind…); 124-7 (Chant, young Hebrew women…). The planctus ends with l. 127.

Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite has a complex poetic form. The manuscript text is written with multiple vertical columns and explicit musical notation. Carefully study of the text and its metrical patterns suggest that two lacuna might exist. Orlandi (2001) pp. 329-37. I simply follow Ruys’ Latin text.

A Latin text (significantly inferior to Ruys’) and German translation of Abelard’s Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite is freely available online at Heloïsa und Abaelard. Here’s a better Latin text and French translation, also freely available online.

For Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and the angel’s last-minute intervention, Genesis 22:1-19.

[6] A chorus of young women of Israel provide framing song for the drama of Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite. In their introductory song they sing, “O how rare the man like her {O quam rarum illi uirum similem}!” Planctus l. 16. The chorus understood Jephthah’s daughter to have successfully competed with men, particularly with Abraham’s son Isaac. For a detailed comparison of the biblical texts concerning the two incidents, Shemesh (2017) pp. 119-22.

Visual representations of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter have long been prominently paired with Abraham being restrained from sacrificing Isaac. Within the great church (Justinian’s basilica) of Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai, seventh-century encaustic paintings of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac and Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter frame the altar of the sanctuary. In the Monastery of Saint Anthony at the Red Sea, a thirteenth-century wall painting over the altar also depicts both events. Weitzmann (1964), Schroeder (2012). For visual representations of Jephthah and his daughter more generally, Drewer (2002).

[7] Ruys perceptively commented:

the entire poem turns upon the question of the relationship between biological sex and social gender. …  Abelard’s Planctus uirginum thus profoundly challenges traditional identification of sex and gender and explores the question of what constitutes the sexed female body and what it means to be, and to become, a woman.

Ruys (2006) pp. 10-1. What’s missing from this analysis, and from literary studies in general, is a meninist perspective. Abelard’s Planctus uirginum Israel super filia Iepte Galadite profoundly challenges daughters dominating their fathers and young women disastrously constructing their identity in terms of competing with men.

Abelard’s Planctus also challenges privileging mothers’ relationships with their children relative to fathers’ relationships with their children. Inverting the sex stereotype of the absent father, Abelard makes no mention of the young woman’s mother. Moreover, the daughter says to her father:

Behold, she who is the fruit of your womb

{ Uteri qui tui fructus inspice }

Planctus, l. 42. Ruys learnedly observed:

Certainly in Classical Latin ‘uterus’ can mean any bodily cavity, but it can hardly be disputed that it is a word with very strong feminine overtones, most commonly used to designate the womb. This is especially the case in Abelard’s time, a period when the twelfth-century veneration of the Virgin Mary and the virgin birth was well under way and was being expressed in an increasing number of hymns explicitly in praise of the ‘uterus Virginis’.

Ruys (2006) p. 11. Similarly, Ruys (20014) p. 277, note to l. 42. Id. adds that this line echoes God’s blessing in the Vulgate text of Deuteronomy 28:4, “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb {benedictus fructus ventris tui}.” Those are the same words of Elizabeth to Mary in the Vulgate for Luke 1:42. Jephthah’s daughter thus figures her father as being as important to her as a mother. That sense of gender equality contrasts sharply with gross anti-father sex-discrimination in child custody rulings today.

Dronke declared, “As Abelard has presented Jephtha and his daughter, we cannot, strictly, identify with either of them.” Dronke (1970) p. 144. I think many men can significantly identify with Jephthah, and many women, with Jephthah’s daughter. Part of the problem for Dronke seems to be his one-sided perspective on women and men.

[8] Jephthah’s daughter said to Jephthah:

But you will grant
a period of two months
in which, wandering through valleys and hills with my companions
and weeping, I may give myself over to laments
that thus the Lord should deprive me of progeny.

{ Sed duorum mensium
indulgebis spatium,
quo ualles et colles cum sodalibus
peragrans et plorans, uaccem planctibus
quod sic me semine priuet Dominus. }

Planctus ll. 64-8. Both the words indulgebis (indulgeo) and uaccem (uaco) have connotations of indulgence and idleness. The word semine (semen) literally refers a bodily component of the precious gift of men’s sexuality. Jephthah’s daughter here projects onto the Lord her culpability for her impending, barren death.

[9] For death as a wedding substitute in literary history and oral folktales in relation to Jephthah’s daughter, Alexiou & Dronke (1971). For an example of a woman’s death described as a wedding, see the eighth-century poem of Paul the Deacon {Paulus Diaconus}, “Epitaph of the granddaughter Sophia {Epitaphium Sophiae Neptis},” incipit “Dewy with tears of your pitiful parents is the earth {Roscida de lacrimis miserorum terra parentum},” Latin text in Neff (1908) p. 50, English translation in Waddell & Corrigan (1976) p. 137. Here are Latin reading notes.

[10] Blaming Jephthah was commonly combined with celebrating his daughter:

Early Jewish and Christian commentary, however, commonly condemned Jephthah for his vow while honoring the daughter, often seeing her as a martyr. … Prior to Kimhi, rabbinic literature had mostly vilified Jephthah along lines followed also by Pseudo‐Philo.

Thompson (2001) abstract for electronic edition of Ch. 3 and p. 150. Thompson refers to “Jephthah’s senseless deed” and “Jephthah’s senseless vow.” Id. pp. 119, 149. A significant counterpoint to disparaging Jephthah is Hebrews 11:32-4.

Dante’s preeminent guide Beatrice faulted Jephthah while making no reference to his daughter’s powerful influence:

Let not mortals take vows lightly.
Be faithful and, as well, not injudicious,
as was Jephthah, offering up what first he saw,
who had done better had he said “I have done ill”
than keeping faith and doing worse. And you can find
this sort of folly in the leader of the Greeks,
who made Iphigenia lament the beauty of her face
and who made all those, whether wise or foolish,
who heard reports of such a rite lament as well.

{ Non prendan li mortali il voto a ciancia;
siate fedeli, e a ciò far non bieci,
come Ieptè a la sua prima mancia;
cui più si convenia dicer ‘Mal feci,’
che, servando, far peggio; e così stolto
ritrovar puoi il gran duca de’ Greci,
onde pianse Efigènia il suo bel volto,
e fé pianger di sé i folli e i savi
ch’udir parlar di così fatto cólto. }

Dante, Paradiso 5.64-71, Italian text and English translation from the Princeton Dante Project and Robert & Jean Hollander. More so than Dante, Guibert of Nogent thought deeply about the sacrifice of Iphigenia and Lucretius’s De rerum natura.

[11] Schroeder (2012) p. 294.

[12] Pseudo-Philo, Liber antiquitatum biblicarum 40.4, Latin text and English translation from Jacobson (1996) pp. 60, 161. Here’s a online Latin version.

[13] Judges 11:39.

[14] Baumgarten (2007) analyzes the tekufah in detail.

[15] Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion 35 (55) 1.9-10, Greek text from Patrologia Graeca 41:973, English translation from Williams (1994) v. 2, p. 79.

Despite modern pretensions, critical analysis of the story of Jephthah and his daughter has improved little over the past two millennia. On the literary and artistic history, Sypherd (1948) and Thompson (2001), Ch. 3. Sypherd (1948) ignorantly dismisses much insightful medieval work. Thompson (2001), Ch. 3, devotes extensive, non-critical attention to modern anti-meninist scholarship. That’s an oppressive, gender-bigoted aspect of current dominant ideology. Moreover, Thompson projects onto medieval thinkers the obliteration of the father in modern gynocentric ideology. Thus:

minds both theological and pious attempted to identify with Jephthah’s daughter, reading their own lives and concerns and ecclesial contexts into her story in order to recall the witness of her truncated life — in mourning, warning, and grace.

Thompson (2001) p. 178. Serious study of great medieval Latin men writers, e.g. Matheus of Boulogne, Boncompagno of Signa, and Walter Map, might help to remedy such narrow-mindedness.

[image] On left, Jephthah’s daughter and her young single female friends lamenting in the wilderness. On right, Jephthah beheading his daughter. Illumination from folio 54r of the Paris Psalter of Saint Louis. Created from 1270-74 in Paris. Preserved as Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 10525.


Alexiou, Margaret and Dronke, Peter. 1971. “Lament of Jephtha’s Daughter: Themes, Traditions, Originality.” Studi Medievali 12 (2): 819-63. Reprinted, with minor revisions, as Ch. 12 (pp. 345-88) in Dronke, Peter. 1992. Intellectuals and poets in Medieval Europe. Roma: Edizioni di storia e letteratura.

Baumgarten, Elisheva. 2007. “‘Remember That Glorious Girl’: Jephthah’s Daughter in Medieval Jewish Culture.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. 97 (2): 180-209.

Drewer, Lois. 2002. “Jephthah and His Daughter in Medieval Art: Ambiguities of Heroism and Sacrifice.” Pp. 35-59 in Hourihane, Colum. 2002. Insights and Interpretations: studies in celebration of the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Index of Christian art. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Dronke, Peter. 1970. Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages: new departures in poetry 1000-1150. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Jacobson, Howard. 1996. A Commentary on Pseudo-Philo’s Liber antiquitatum biblicarum: with Latin text and English translation. Leiden: Brill.

Neff, Karl, ed. 1908. Die Gedichte Des Paulus Diaconus. München: Beck.

Orlandi, Giovanni. 2001. “On the text and interpretation of Abelard’s Planctus.” Pp. 327-42 in John Marenbon and Peter Dronke, eds. Poetry and Philosophy in the Middle Ages: a festschrift for Peter Dronke. Leiden.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2006. “Ut sexu sic animo‘: the resolution of sex and gender in the Planctus of Abelard.” Medium Aevum. 75 (1): 1-23.

Ruys, Juanita Feros. 2014. The Repentant Abelard: family, gender and ethics in Peter Abelard’s Carmen ad Astralabium and Planctus. New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmsillan.

Schroeder, Caroline T. 2012. “Child Sacrifice in Egyptian Monastic Culture: From Familial Renunciation to Jephthah’s Lost Daughter.” Journal of Early Christian Studies. 20 (2): 269-302.

Shemesh, Yael. 2017. “Jephthah — Victimizer and Victim: A Comparison of Jephthah and Characters in Genesis.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society (JANES). 32 (1): 117-131.

Sypherd, Wilbur Owen. 1948. Jephthah and his Daughter: a study in comparative literature. Newark: University of Delaware.

Thompson, John L. 2001. Writing the Wrongs: women of the Old Testament among biblical commentators from Philo through the Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Waddell, Helen, trans. and Felicitas Corrigan, ed. 1976. More Latin Lyrics from Virgil to Milton. London: Gollancz.

Williams, Frank, trans. 1987/1994. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis. Vol. 1: Book I, Sects 1-46, Vol. 2: Books II and III (sects 47-80). Leiden: Brill.

Weitzmann, Kurt. 1964. “The Jephthah Panel in the Bema of the Church of St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. 18: 341-352.

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