You may think I have chosen a very brutal Bible story to preach on this sad afternoon. It’s a story of a dysfunctional family, a wild and violent man, a rash commitment and above all a premature death. What can such an ancient story have to say with us? What redemption is there in this sorry tale? It is one of the Bible passages that feminist scholar Phyllis Trible calls ‘texts of terror’, stories where women are totally at the disposal of men. We struggle to find any good news for women, or indeed for men, in this text.
As a peace church we struggle with the idea of God’s Spirit inspiring Jephthah to military victory over the Ammonites. As Mennonites we may also shake our heads at his swearing an oath, even to God. But any Christians, Anabaptist or not, would struggle with the insane vow that Jepthah made to gain him victory. The King James translation has him saying that he would sacrifice ‘whatever’ came out of his house to meet him, rather than ‘whoever’ as we had in our reading. This suggests that he might have expected a calf or sheep to come out, which is possible as animals were often kept in the house. But I suspect the more modern translation we heard is more accurate, which means that he was prepared to perform human sacrifice. He probably expected to have to sacrifice a servant, but he should have thought that it could be a member of his family.
We may find Jepthah’s actions incomprehensible, but there are still ways they can speak to us. Jephthah thought he had to offer something to God in order to get something from God. Our own danger, especially in a church which emphasises discipleship, may be that we try to do the same. We know in our heads that we can do nothing to earn God’s grace, that Jesus, in the words of the letter to the Hebrews, has opened a ‘new and living way’ to God. But that doesn’t stop us trying to bargain with God. ‘If only we had prayed more’, ‘if only we had anointed her with oil one more time’, then God would have given the healing we longed for.
I remember when I was 20 or so resolving that I would pray all night for my brother who was having mental health problems. I lasted about half an hour before I fell asleep. And when he committed suicide at the age of 27, when I was 22, I felt guilty for years about not managing that time of prayer.
But to quote Job, ‘God gives, and God takes away’ and there is no understanding the mysteries of life and death. Which brings us to the heart of how I think this story can speak to us, and why I chose it for today, because it is the story of a premature death. Some commentators suggest that instead of sacrificing her, Jepthah dedicated his daughter to perpetual virginity. This would be a severe sentence in a society where the whole purpose of being a woman was to have children. But there is no evidence in the story for it. We could also plead that it is a legend, a story so old we cannot rely on its historical status. But that does not make it any less a text of terror, a story of undeserved, untimely, brutal death.
We have seen a lot of premature death in our congregation in the last eight years. There are many Bible passages that might comfort and console us, and I’m sure we will be turning to them as we mourn Lesley, who died on Tuesday. But sometimes when it’s hard, I find - and this may just be me - that a hard Bible passage can speak our grief for us in unexpected ways. I have often found reading the book of Job oddly supportive when I have been through hard times.
So at the very least, this text can tell us that the Bible is full of stories of grief and sorrow, and that we don’t need to hide our grief from each other or from God. As Christians we can read it alongside Jesus’ promise in Matthew that ‘not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from your Father’, or as Luke tells it, ‘not one of them is forgotten by God’ - and ‘you are of more value than many sparrows’. Or in the words of Psalm 116: ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones’.
I find it ironic that Jepthah’s daughter comes out of their house ‘with dancing and timbrels’, celebrating his victory. She thought she was about to receive good news, and instead she heard the worst news she could. I heard of my brother’s death on a day when I was preparing for my belated birthday party that night. I arrived at my college room with arms full of food for the party, and I saw my parents sitting there looking devastated. I have found it hard to have a birthday party since then. But there is never a good time for news like this..
Something that may horrify us even more about Jephthah’s story is that instead of blaming himself for his stupid vow, Jepthah blames his daughter for her own fate. Blaming ourselves when someone dies is a natural response, but actually it is also natural to blame others: the doctors, the family, even the person who has died. Sometimes, there really is someone to blame: a drunk driver, an abusive parent, occasionally a deliberate killer. And we may need to blame these people and get angry with them, before we can truly forgive. We are not mourning this kind of death today, but anger is a normal part of grief and we may need at some point to be angry. It’s all right to be angry with God. It’s all right to tell God we don’t understand what the [expletive deleted] God is doing. Jepthah was angry, but he directed his anger to the wrong place. We can direct ours to the God who takes away as well as giving, because God has taken all the blame already. He took it on a hot spring day in about AD 33 and there is nothing worse we can throw at him.
The third point of contact I see with this story is that Jepthah’s unnamed daughter had time to prepare for her death. It is a protracted rather than an instant, unexpected death. In some ways a quick death is easier. My mother, who is 96, would much rather go quickly than slowly, and while this would create problems for her family, I understand her wish. But she is 96. Jepthah’s daughter, since she was unmarried in a culture of marrying very young, might have been as young as 13.
Lesley, and her family, and this church, had time to prepare, as we did with Bernard and with Esther. That doesn’t make it any less hard. In some ways it makes it harder. We have to start our grieving before the person is even gone. But notice that Jepthah’s daughter asked for that stay of execution, so that she could have a time of saying goodbye to her friends. We may find it odd that she wanted time to ‘bewail her virginity’ but in her society, dying unmarried meant she was not fulfilling what she had always been told was her life’s purpose. Her friends would go on, get married, perhaps have children, but she was to die unfruitful.
I remember Lesley often saying she hadn’t yet found out what she was going to do when she grew up. We might think that now she never will. But I think she already had: her job was being Lesley, a highly intelligent and caring woman, who gave so much to so many people. People she met in her community health work, on mental health tribunal, in her Open University teaching; people she studied with, people in her family, people in this church. And I think on the whole it’s good that we had time to say goodbye to her. We have been able to find ways to support her on her journey, and to support her family who travelled it with her.
Finally, I want us to notice the last verse of our readings. ‘For four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.’ Even at the end of the story of Jepthah’s daughter, we still don’t know her name. But we know that she was remembered. As Bernard is, as Esther is, as Lesley will be, for the rest of our lives. Jewish people light a ‘Jahrzeit’ or anniversary candle every year for someone who has died, on the anniversary of their death. I remember my mother used to light one every year for her father, even though he had died decades before. We can perhaps find our own ways of commemorating Lesley.
One more observation. Last Sunday afternoon when we prayed at the hospice, both Judith and I both thought of reading out Psalm 139. I ended up reading it, and I missed out the verses we always tend to miss out, the ones about wishing God would kill God’s enemies, who are also the psalmist’s enemies. I understand why we leave these verses out, especially in a peace church. But I think maybe I should have read them. Because our enemies are not flesh and blood, but as Ephesians puts it, ‘the cosmic powers of this present darkness,... the spiritual forces of evil’. And as Paul promises the Corinthians, ‘[Jesus] will reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet [and] the last enemy to be destroyed is death.’
This was meant to be the first sermon in our series on Bible characters facing change. Actually I think it probably still is. The biggest change anyone can face is death. Lesley’s death is more important to our church than the possible loss of the Mennonite Centre, or all the others we are facing. But the good news is that death leads to life, because, to quote again from 1 Corinthians, ‘God... gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’. No easy answers, just a promise. Amen.
Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. 2Gilead’s wife also bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah away, saying to him, “You shall not inherit anything in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.” 3Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob. Outlaws collected around Jephthah and went raiding with him.
4After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. 5And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. 6They said to Jephthah, “Come and be our commander, so that we may fight with the Ammonites.” 7But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house? So why do you come to me now when you are in trouble?” 8The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “Nevertheless, we have now turned back to you, so that you may go with us and fight with the Ammonites, and become head over us, over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” 9Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” 10And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will be witness between us; we will surely do as you say.” 11So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.
Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” 32So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” 36She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.” 37And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” 38“Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.