The Biblical Jephthah’s Daughter: Who Owns Your Daughter’s Body?

Judaism has a lot to say about women’s bodies, and some of the stories preserved in Torah are truly shocking.

Who owns women’s bodies? The age-old answer is that women are the property of fathers, brothers, husbands, who are entitled to buy and sell them, or even, as in “honor killings,” to kill them. Here in America the idea that women can be proud owners and caretakers of themselves and their own bodies has been taking hold gradually—and with many setbacks, such as we saw played out in the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent overthrow of abortion rights.

Judaism has a lot to say about women’s bodies, and some of the stories preserved in Torah are truly shocking. For me, one of the most painful and provocative texts in scripture is the story of Jephthah’s daughter in the Book of Judges (Judg. 11: 30-40). The story is worth remembering because it is so stark—yet it leaves open a gate for healing.

In this story the Israelite warrior-general Jephthah vows to sacrifice whatever first meets him if he returns victorious from a forthcoming battle. It turns out that the one meeting him then is his daughter, his only child, who comes forth to welcome him “with timbrels and with dances.” The daughter (like many female figures in Torah) is never named. Here is what happens next:

When he saw her he tore his clothes and said, Alas, my daughter, you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to yHwH [usually mis- translated “Lord”; Yahh, Breath of Life], and I cannot take back my vow. And she said to him, My father, if you have opened your mouth to yahweh [Yahh, Breath of Life], do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that yahweh has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites. And she said to her father, let this thing be done for me, let me alone two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, I and my companions. And he said, Go….And at the end of two months she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made. And she had never known a man.

The horror we feel reading this story today was apparently felt by many of our sages. For there is rabbinic commentary aplenty about it, and most of it expresses deep distress. Some of that distress takes the form of denial (the sages, like us, practice denial when something in Torah is unacceptable): it is claimed that Jephthah merely ‘offered’ his daughter by sending her to live in seclusion. Others take a stronger stand, condemning the vow as invalid. Two fascinating midrashim may come close to our own response.

In one, the high priest Pinchah is blamed for not nullifying the vow and Jephthah is blamed for not begging nullification. “Between the two of them that poor woman was lost to the world, and both were liable for her blood. And the Spirit of Holiness—ruach hakodesh— screamed: was it human lives that I asked you to sacrifice before me?” In another midrash the daughter argues with her father like a veritable talmudist, without success. She then goes to the Sanhedrin, but again is rejected. “They arose and killed her. And the Spirit of Holiness screamed, ‘Did I want human lives?’” Not coincidentally, the ruach elohim is grammatically feminine. Some have identified it with the figure of the Shekhinah [holy presence] herself.

In the light of this scream, which readers of Judges 11 may have felt in their own throats, which I have felt in mine, we need to turn to the mysterious coda to the story: “And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year” (Judg. 11:29-30).

The daughters of Israel used to go for four days each year to lament this nameless girl’s death. What did this ceremony mean to them? Why did this custom die out? And if Jephthah’s never-named daughter is a Jewish Everywoman, why not revive or reconceive a communal lamentation for her sacrifice?

I write not as a scholar but as a poet and midrashist. Some years ago I com-posed a poem based on Judges 11 to be used in a dance company’s performance at the Hebrew Union College in connection with an exhibit on family violence. Then, imagining that the four-day commemoration of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter might be revived and added to the Jewish calendar, I wrote an extended poem sequence to be performed at such a ceremony. The piece is called ‘Jephthah’s Daughter: A Lament.’ It is designed for a group of women who speak in chorus or antiphonally, in the imaginary location of a mountaintop. As a ritual, it enables performers and audience to ponder the meaning of this girl’s sacrifice to us today. Here is an excerpt in the voice of the daughter herself: (A single voice)

Yes I am dead
Yes I was a daughter of Israel Yes I am nameless
Yes my father was a very great warrior Yes the spirit of the Lord came upon him Yes the Ammonites were delivered into his hand
Yes I ran after his love I praised I danced Yes he had opened his mouth to the Lord Yes he felt pain he blamed me
Yes I went with my companions on the mountains
Yes for two months I lamented my virginity
Yes I was a girl I wanted love
Yes I wanted a man to push into me
Yes like a long flash of light and babies to
push out
Yes my companions kissed me and
embraced me
Yes the men lay me on stone like a sheep Yes I was naked like a sheep
Yes I cried God God Mama
Yes the angel of the Lord rescued my ancestor Isaac
Yes the Lord sent a messenger to stop the father’s hand
Yes he would save a boy but not save me….
Yes I am very long dead
Yes I am weeping
Yes what else do you want of me
But this bitter poem is not the end of it. As with other ceremonies of mourning, the intention is to enable sorrow to turn to hope. A refrain throughout the sequence is “Going forth in mourning/ returning in joy.” And at the close of “Jephthah’s Daughter: A Lament” the mountain chorus hears an offstage voice—the voice of the ruach hakodesh, or of the wind—urging those who mourn to become the intervening angel who will ultimately ‘stop the warrior’s hand.’ We all know what the warrior’s hand looks like in our time, and we all can take part in the long task of making it stop sacrificing the lives and freedoms of women. I invite groups of women to read, share, and perform my “Jephthah’s Daughter” in whatever way they find meaningful as they go forward in this struggle.
Alicia Ostriker is a poet and critic, twice winner of a National Jewish Book Award, and current poetry editor of Lilith.