If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Mixed Metaphors: Hosea 1:1-8, 2:1ff, 11:1-4

*This sermon is the second in a series of sermons entitled: Textual Objects: Women in the Bible as Daughter, Wife, and Widow. It was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, June 10, 2012.

The cover story of a 2004 Newsweek magazine featured an article entitled “The New Infidelity.” Now, can someone tell me just what’s so new about infidelity? The article told the stories of married women who commit adultery. With more women in the workplace, overscheduled lives, easy access on the internet, and inattentive husbands, more women are now cheating in their marriages. Studies seem to indicate that the rate of adultery for married women is now approaching that of men. What an accomplishment! Unfaithfulness is becoming an equal opportunity destroyer of marriages.

Stories of unfaithful women can be found not only in the pages of Newsweek, but they appear frequently in the pages of the Bible. The metaphor of the unfaithful wife is found frequently among the prophetic writings. The adulterous woman is a central metaphor in the book of Hosea. This prophet from the Northern Kingdom of Israel used the metaphor of marriage to talk about the relationship between God and Israel. Hosea’s prophetic speech occurred in the eighth-century B.C.E, a time of political maneuvering in Israel. Israel’s ruling elite forged foreign alliances and engaged in commercial “intercourse” for her economic prosperity. Agribusiness was booming. The export of grain, wine, and oil benefited Israel’s wealthy ruling class, while they “lusted after” more tilled land for producing cash crops. And guess who got the short end of the stick. The rich got richer and the poor…Well, you know how that tired old story goes. Bad foreign policy, business monopolies, benefits for the wealthy, and the poor were left to fend for themselves. We sure don’t see that sort of thing today, do we! In essence, Israel was serving Baal, the god of commerce, who symbolized the alliance of the prosperous, oppressive state and unfaithful religion. Israel’s foreign allies became her “lovers.” Israel’s unfaithfulness to God had to do with the male ruling elite’s “illicit” relationship with these foreign alliances and her unjust domestic policies, all tied up and legitimized by the religion of Baal.

The metaphor of marriage seemed to be a most appropriate rhetorical device for the prophet to talk about the divine/human relationship. It seemed so appropriate that, according to Hosea, God told him to go and marry a promiscuous woman, as if God was sanctioning infidelity. How odd of God! Hosea, you go out there and get yourself a loose woman, by God. Marry an adulterous woman? The marriage was doomed from the start! Not only that. The text says something like: Hosea, have yourself some “children of promiscuity.”  Scandalous! Why would Hosea be told by God to marry a promiscuous woman? The answer? Because the land has been unfaithful to God.

Now, did God really tell Hosea to go marry a promiscuous woman?  A literal reading of the text seems to say exactly that. If you are more of a biblical literalist, then you may have to struggle with the meaning of this a bit. This command by God was so scandalous to the Jewish philosopher Maimonides that he interpreted the book of Hosea as a vision and not something that really happened. Others would come to interpret this divine command to Hosea as being after-the-fact, that is, Hosea was supposed to marry a woman who would become unfaithful. How do you interpret this command of God?

Some biblical scholars call Hosea’s marriage a “symbolic action.” Some of us common folk just call it plain nuts! But, prophets often did odd things to symbolize some bigger message. But, marry a loose woman in order to symbolize a spiritual truth? Isn’t that taking symbolic speech just a bit too far? Is this a marriage for the sake of metaphor? In any case, Hosea’s marriage to Gomer was to be a symbol of God’s relationship to Israel. Whatever way you may want to interpret God’s command, one thing’s for sure. Those ancient prophets did a bunch of crazy stuff in the name of God. And Hosea was no exception. Marrying a promiscuous woman as a symbol of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God? Now, that takes the cake, the wedding cake at that!

First, let’s look at this marriage on the positive side. It does have potential, metaphorically if not literally speaking. The metaphor of marriage in Hosea is an emotionally powerful image the people could identify with. It served as a dynamic metaphor for illustrating God’s intimate relationship with Israel. God and Israel were interconnected in a covenant relationship. The marriage metaphor movingly illustrated a wide range of issues in this divine/human relationship; love, jealousy, fidelity, unfaithfulness, punishment, and reconciliation. The marital bond of love, commitment, and obedience are like the divine/human relationship. The breaking of that relationship through infidelity is a heart wrenching experience. With this metaphor the people could feel the agony of God as a betrayed husband and understand deeply their own unfaithful actions.

Not only that, the metaphor was used to address the underlying truth of real oppressive foreign policies and economic injustices that benefited the male ruling hierarchy of Israel. Hosea castigated Israel’s wealthy, male ruling class by depicting them collectively as a promiscuous woman, unfaithful to her spouse. Depicting men collectively as a woman would have been bad enough, but as a promiscuous woman was even worse. The purpose of Hosea’s marriage metaphor is a call to social justice and a rhetorical symbol of God’s desire for Israel to forsake her promiscuous relationships with Baal and to be faithful to their covenant relationship with God.

We can appreciate the thrust of Hosea’s message, while at the same time recognizing some crucial limitations and problems with such a mixed up metaphor. For starters, from our contemporary point of view, one of the problems with Hosea’s marriage metaphor for us is that it is based upon a dominant/submissive view of marriage. Although this hierarchical marriage was to be a loving and  intimate relationship, marriage in those days was not co-equal. The culture of Israel was patriarchal. The male was dominant in all arenas of life, especially marriage.  The female, daughter and wife, were considered the property of the man, father or husband. Strangely enough, the view that women are male property is still symbolically re-enacted in some contemporary marriage ceremonies when the father “gives away” the bride to the husband as in a legal transfer of property. As property the female’s sexuality was supposed to be under the control of the ruling male. Therefore, female promiscuity brought particular shame to the male, which would call for drastic measures against the woman; either divorce, stoning, or physical abuse.

There was even a provision in the Mosaic law, known as the Sotah, for jealous husbands to put their wives to a test to see if they were being unfaithful (Numbers 5). It was an ordeal worse than the results of those lie detector tests given to suspected spouses on the Maury Povich Show. The test went something like this. The couple goes to the preacher. The preacher says to the wife, “Here, drink this Drano. If you haven’t been sleepin’ around, it won’t harm your insides. And if you have been unfaithful, on top of being sterilized, or driven to an early grave, I will curse you for good measure. What if the husband’s suspicions were unfounded? We’ll, who can blame a jealous husband. And…of course, there was no such test of fidelity for husbands.

So, although the patriarchal marital relationship of a superior to an inferior may have been swallowed easily by Hosea’s audience, it may sit on our stomach’s about as smoothly as that priest’s potion. Understanding the context of marriage in the ancient world, the marriage metaphor may work for some as a way to reveal the dynamics between a superior God in relationship with inferior humans, but I suspect the implications of this metaphor might cramp the style of many women…and men, in this congregation. 

Another way to state the problem with the marriage metaphor is to say that for us today it is just plain sexist. The male in this metaphor symbolizes a faithful God. The female symbolizes unfaithful Israel. Blameless male. Sinful female. Hey, that metaphor could just as easily have been turned the other way around, someone might say. Well, if it were that easy, why don’t we ever find Israel depicted as a promiscuous male in the Bible?  Casting Israel in the role of the promiscuous wife would have been a powerful way to bring shame on the people.

One of the worst implications of this marital metaphor in Hosea concerns where it finally leads us; to a dead end, or should I say a “deadly end.” In an ancient, male-dominated culture, where women are property with little or no power, how do you imagine God’s judgment upon Israel’s injustice using a marriage metaphor? Well, one could use the image of divorce to talk about breaking of the covenantal relationship. More deadly, you could talk about stoning of women as an image of judgment upon the unfaithful Israel. The last option Hosea picks up in chapter two.  

The marital metaphor reaches its lowest point in a number of passages within the prophetic writings. If I would have had somebody, possibly a woman, read the verses from Hosea 2, along with those from chapter 1 and 11 during the scripture reading today, the reader may have fallen silent, and mothers may have had to cover the ears of their children. Some women and men in this congregation may have blushed or squirmed in their pews at this reading of scripture. And one can only wonder how the prophet’s words in Hosea 2 might have been heard by women who may have been abused by their husbands or another male in their lives? Hosea, and even God, might not have come out smelling like roses. That’s because name calling, verbal threats, forced seclusion, physical and sexual abuse, and the public degradation of a woman are rhetorically used to depict God’s judgment upon Israel.

Hosea, who is the victim of Gomer’s infidelity, calls upon their children to take sides against their own mother. He wants them to recognize that she is not his wife. Hosea tells his children to plead with their mother to put away her “whoring,” while he tells his own children that he will have no pity for them either. Hosea, or is it God?, will shame her, call her derogatory names, strip her clothes off, publicly expose her nakedness, and kill her with thirst, just to name a few horrible acts done to this  woman in order to warn Israel of God’s judgment. If that were not bad enough, after all those violent threats of Hosea against Gomer, or is it God against Israel, he will woo his promiscuous wife back and give her gifts of grain, wine, and oil. Some violence, then make up. Hit her, then bring her flowers.

At this point in Hosea metaphor and reality get mixed up. We get confused about whether it is about Hosea and Gomer or God and Israel. Whether human metaphor or divine reality, where have we heard of this kind of behavior before?  Walk into any women’s shelter and talk to a battered wife. That’s how she will describe the pattern of her husband’s behavior; abuse and violence, then making up. To say the least, this marriage metaphor has its limits in addressing the unfaithfulness or injustices of Israel, particularly when a marriage goes awry.

Yes, that may be true, but in the book of Hosea we are dealing with a metaphor, not real women. This is just vivid, poetic language. Seventeenth-century mystic poet John Donne used images of sexual assault in a well known sonnet:

                Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you
               As yet but knock, breath, shine, and seek to mend.
               Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
              Except you enthrall me, never shall I be free
             Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

 Isn’t Hosea’s marital image, like Donne’s verse, mere metaphor, poetic language? What’s important is the message behind the metaphor.  That’s partly true. The marriage metaphor in Hosea was a powerful rhetorical devise for communicating the truth to the people and culture in which it was spoken. But, we must recognize the negative consequences of such images when trying to communicate God’s desire for justice. Metaphors can mix up our message. Imagine this scene. A father comes into the living room, puts his hands on his hips, and with furrowed brow he sternly lectures his son: “Son, you must stop threatening to beat up kids in school, even if it is just words. Your teachers are trying to attack this problem with every weapon they have. Your mother and I are battling it out to make a good home for you. Your older sister is taking a stab at helping you. We are all in a war trying to beat off your enemies. So, we just can’t go around using such violent threats in school anymore!” You see, metaphors can mix up the message.

Metaphors matter, particularly when they’re intended to image God or call us to do justice. Language can mend or mar. As kids did any of us really believe in our heart of hearts that sing-song saying “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but…”?  Words can wound, even words from sacred texts. What might words, such as those in the second chapter of Hosea, do to real women battered and abused, who live with the daily threat of violence? What about using the words of genocide and the taking of the land of the Canaanites as God’s command to address the issues of Native Americans or Palestinians? Words can become weapons. What about a white slave owner reading the biblical admonition “slaves obey your masters” to his servants on a Southern plantation? Texts can enslave. What about words like “women should keep silent in the churches,” whether from sacred text or bishop decree, pronounced to women and men in the Mennonite church? Texts can negate and subjugate. What if we only sing of God as father, lord, king, or he? What does that shape young children, women, and each of us over time?

How we use and interpret biblical texts and words is not a small matter. At the same time, are there not other words in our sacred texts that say to women that you are born again, new creatures, God’s very image, co-workers, disciples, deacons, elders, apostles, ministers, gifted by the Spirit, baptized into Christ, where there is no longer male nor female? Words can heal and liberate!

Hosea’s marriage metaphor is both illuminating and deadly. It reveals the utter seriousness of personal and corporate fidelity to God and the utter horror of wife abuse. Mixing up metaphors can make for a deadly potion.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger said that language is the “house of our being.” It is where we live and move and are shaped as human beings. Words are a lens through which we see the world. Language is not mere words. Rhetoric reflects reality. Behind the sexist language in the Bible are real wives subjected to the power of their husbands. Behind the language of sexual violence were real stories, or as Phyllis Trible calls them “texts of terror, like Jephthah’s daughter, burned as an offering by her father because he made a rash vow or the Levite’s concubine, raped by strangers then sliced and diced into twelve pieces by her outraged master to represent the twelve tribes of Israel or…no, I could go on, but that’s quite enough. You see, metaphors matter.  They mirror and mold reality.

Our language today is still used in sexist, violent ways.  Just one example, women are devalued and degraded, humiliated and violated, metaphorically speaking, in popular music; rap and rock, heavy metal and punk, are supported by recording companies that make profits from “artists” who degrade women. Dehumanizing women is part of the economics of pop culture. Some dare call it “poetic license.” Where does this language come from? Behind these wounding words is a culture of terror where each year as many women are beaten to death as those killed in the World Trade Center bombings. Sticks and stones…fists and guns …can kill. Words not only reflect, but create an environment that legitimizes a fractured culture. 

Just as pacifists question the violence of the bible in the light of the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, so we need to question some biblical images of women. We can learn to better understand the cultures out of which these images, metaphors, and stories arose and why they were used and became part of scripture, while at the same time seeking to grapple with the divine message they try to communicate. Speaking metaphorically, we can approach the Bible like Jacob, the Old Testament character who wrestled with an angel at the River Jabbok. As Christian men and women we can learn to wrestle with the biblical texts, and not just take them “at their word” as literally the very voice of God, so that we might, in the end of our wrestling receive their blessing. But remember, like Jacob we may walk away from our wrestling match with some biblical texts with a limp. And don’t forget this when it comes to reading the Bible; Our God is not bound by our culturally-bound Bible.

Reading the bible is always a moral and political act. How we read, interpret, and apply biblical texts can be life-giving or death-dealing. For these sacred texts can shape or misshape us as believing communities and how we live and practice our relationship with God. How we image God is a significant act. And we should always remember that whatever metaphor we use of God is limited. Hosea himself reminds us of this, where he seeks to speak for God:

I am God and not a man, holy in your midst,
and I do not come to destroy (11:9).

God is not male. God is not human, with all our gender, cultural, and political biases. God is not married. God is not a god of death and destruction. God is loving and compassionate. God is like Jesus, the living metaphor of God, who said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” This does not mean there is no place to speak of God’s judgment upon unfaithfulness and idolatry, sin and injustice. Hosea tried to do that with the marriage metaphor. But, that metaphor has serious limitations and dangerous implications. Every metaphor we use to speak of God is limited and fragmented. By consciously recognizing that God is far beyond the language and metaphors we use to speak of God, we can approach our sacred texts not only with a discerning eye, but with an eye open for language and images that are healing, nurturing, and life-giving.

Maybe our eyes will fall upon alternative, nurturing images of God, like the one in the eleventh chapter of Hosea. Imagine God as a mother and Israel as her child. She loves her child dearly. She would give her life for her beloved. She called her son out of slavery in Egypt. She gave her child a home in which to grow. As her son turned into a teenager he became rebellious. His life was in grave danger by those he associated with. He turned his back on his mother. Yet, she was the one who taught her son to walk and held him in her loving arms. She was the one who healed him when he fell and scraped his knees and took him to the doctor when he was ill. Though her umbilical cord was long ago severed, she was still connected to her child by threads of love and kindness. She was one of those mothers who lifted up her child and placed her warm cheek next to his. As a mother she bent down and nursed him. O, how can this mother give up on her child? Her heart aches for her son. Her compassion grows more warm and tender with each day. How can she be angry with her dearest child? She cannot bear to think of his destruction.

Can you imagine God’s love for us being like this mother? But, since women are not just mothers, this metaphor also has its limitations. What about God as a lover, friend, bakerwoman, Sophia-wisdom, rock, fire, or wind? Many nurturing, liberating, creative human metaphors are needed to speak of the Mystery we call God.

There are many healing and nurturing, loving and compassionate metaphors in our sacred texts. Each has its limitations. Even marriage can serve as a life-giving metaphor for how we can understand our relationship to God. In one Midrash, a textual commentary written by Jewish Rabbis, there is a story of a king and a noble woman which speaks of God’s relationship to Israel. The king and noble woman are to be married. Each plans to bring precious gems to offer each other for the wedding covenant. The woman happens to lose her gem. She searches everywhere for her prized jewel so that she may bring to the relationship something precious, something she can share out of love for her partner. The king takes his gem away so as not to dominate their relationship with his gift alone. Finally, she comes across her lost gem. The king and the noble woman bring their gems together. The king makes a decree that a crown shall be made from both gems and it shall be placed on the head of the noble lady. The rabbi’s comments continue…”In a like manner God too has set up two gems, namely loving kindness and mercy…Israel lost theirs…So, God took away His…and after Israel restored theirs, God has given his back. And God will say, “Let both gems be made into a crown and placed on the head of Israel.”

This is the loving and compassionate God who desires to finally say to you and me, male and female, flawed and unfaithful though we may be:

I will marry you forever
I will marry you with righteousness and justice
and with goodness and mercy
I will marry you in faithfulness,
and you shall know I am your God.


Sunday, June 3, 2012

In Remembrance of Bat-Jiftah: Judges 11:29-40

 *This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, June 3, 2012

If you read my sermon title you may be wondering, "Who is Bat-jiftah?" I've never seen her name in the Bible. In reality there is no one by that name in the Bible. I use this name to identify an anonymous person (1). She is a victim of domestic violence, as well as anonymity. We may know the name of Nicole Brown Simpson only because her batterer was a celebrity. But, the victim in our text goes unnamed, like the women abused every fifteen seconds, the more than 4,000 women killed annually by domestic violence, or the estimated 2 to 4 million women physically abused each year. They have become mere statistics to be recited; nameless persons, victims of domestic violence. So, I give this victim a name. Bat-Jiftah in Hebrew would be translated "daughter of Jephthah." By giving her a name and remembering her story we may help to break the silence of abuse. And by remembering the unnamed victims of abuse today we may move toward their healing. 

The story of Bat-Jiftah begins with a violent male. This is true of most stories of domestic violence. The overwhelming majority of perpetrators of domestic violence are male. Studies have shown that a larger percentage of males than females display aggressive and violent behavior. 89% of all violent crimes are committed by men. Males, in general, seem to be socialized toward aggressive behavior. So, we begin with the male in this particular Biblical story, whose name is Jephthah. He was the son of a prostitute, a "mighty warrior." He was skilled in the art of violence. Driven out of his home by his half-brothers he fled to the land of Tob, where he gathered around himself a band of outlaws.

Jephthah was invited to return to Gilead and command the military forces in a war against the Ammonites. This society practiced human sacrifice to the god Molech. The crux of the story centers around a vow he made. Before Jephthah goes into battle, he bargains with God by making a vow. Strangely enough, the text says that he made the vow while "in the spirit of the Lord." Jephthah said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then 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." This was a man driven by power. Jephthah desperately needed a military victory to legitimate himself in the eyes of his people. And his victory was to be sealed with the offering of a sacrifice. When the battle was won, Jephthah returned home to Mizpah. 

At this point in the story the writer intends to create in the story a sense of anticipation, even anxiety, as Jephthah makes his way home. Who will come out to meet him? Jephthah himself doesn't seem to know. When he was some distance from his home his daughter, his only child, came out to meet him. Like Miriam at the Red Sea, she came with timbrels and dancing in joyful celebration of the victory of her father and her people. Jephthah appears to be genuinely surprised and falls into deep sorrow on account of the outcome of his vow to God. Knowing the place of sons in such an ancient, patriarchal society, I wonder if the one who came out to meet him were a son, would his sorrow have been even greater? Might he have reconsidered his foolish vow? Nevertheless, it is his daughter who will be sacrificed on the altar of male egotism and blind faith. 

First, Jephthah rends his garments in an act of mourning. But, then he places the blame of his forthcoming violence upon his daughter. He says, "Ah, my daughter you have brought me low and you have become the source of my trouble." Blaming the victim is the classic justification perpetrators use to excuse their violence. The batterer says to the victim, "If you wouldn't make me so angry, then I wouldn't hit you," As one battered wife said: "I was blamed for just about everything and got so that I accepted that blame. Once he threw a brush at me and accused me of breaking it." This tactic of blaming the victim is seen in the title of one "pro-family" tract: Wives: 90% of the Fault. A battered woman may be blamed by her family, counselor, the church, or clergy when they tell her that she shouldn't have provoked her partner to anger. The victim will even blame themselves for their abuse. She may say to herself, "I should have cleaned the house and had dinner ready" or "I shouldn't have said anything about the bills." By blaming the victim the whole system of male domination is protected from its need to change. "Ah, my daughter, you have brought me low... "

As strange as it may sound to us, Bat-Jiftah responded to her father's rash vow in complete submission.  The Lord had fulfilled his part of the agreement, her father could do no less. In no way did Bat-Jiftah challenge paternal authority. She is portrayed as the perfectly submissive daughter. We may want to question whether teaching children an unqualified obedience and honor of parents may set some of them up for accepting parental abuse. Like her father, she accepted the vow as irrevocable. So, she submitted to the vow. We may not know whether to praise her or feel sorry for her. Some interpreters of this text have lauded Bat-Jiftah for her submissiveness to her father's vow to God. I read a sermon on Jephthah's daughter that compared her "noble" self-sacrifice to the "sacrifice of God's Son." The preacher said, "An oath has been made to God and she will do her duty." One modern poet would have us remember Bat-Jiftah's submission by putting these words in her mouth to her father:

When this blood of thy giving hath gushed,
When the voice that thou lovest is hushed,
Let my memory still be thy pride,
And forget not I smiled as I died! (2)

Hogwash! One may wonder whether this portrayal of unquestioned submissiveness to paternal authority is rather the narrator's male-oriented interpretation of what happened. Some interpreters would read in Bat-Jiftah's words a tone of ironic judgment upon Jephthah. Others consider that she even may have already known about Jephthah's vow, which seems to be indicated in the text, and intentionally took the place of someone her father considered more expendable, maybe a servant, thus challenging his senseless vow. Even if this were a case of humble submission to such an act of violence, it can in no way be used to legitimize a woman's submission to domestic violence, even if it is done "in the name of the Lord." Jephthah was ready to commit an act of domestic violence in God's name.

Some of us may be saying to ourselves, "They sure were brutal back in those days. I'm awful glad that in our modem times people don't do such things in the name of religion." And yet, even today acts of domestic violence are perpetrated in the name of God and religion, or at times with religious justification and sanction. I am reminded of the criminal case of John List, who considered by many around him to be a devout man of faith. The bodies of his wife, Helen, their three teenage children, Patricia, John Jr., and Frederick, as well as his 85 year old mother, Alma, were all found in List's New Jersey home shot in the head. One could point to List's enormous debts, the loss of his job, and pressure from his wife's illness as triggering events. But, List was also frustrated with the unchristian attitudes of his family. He told his daughter, who rebelled against his rigid religion, that her interests were interfering with her continuing to be a Christian. His wife, also frustrated with his dogmatism and its negative effects on their lives, asked to have her name removed from the church roll. That incident with his wife happened right before the murders. List decided instead of removing his wife from the church rolls he would remove his whole family from the roll of the living.

He left a note for his pastor at the murder scene. List later professed a positive spiritual benefit in the murders saying, "At least I'm certain they've all gone to heaven now." Following the murders he even returned to regular church attendance under another name in another place.
Truly, this is an extreme case. But, religion, even Christianity, has often been used in many ways to justify, sanction, or indirectly support committing or submitting to domestic violence. In a 15th Century Christian publication called Rules of Marriage we read: 

Scold your wife sharply, bully and terrify her. If this does not work, take a stick and beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul than to damage the soul and spare the body. .. Then readily beat her, not in rage but out of charity and concern for her soul so that the beating will rebound to your merit and her good (3). 

As appalling as this may sound, theological justification is still being used to condone or ignore violence within the family. Are we not condoning Jephthah's act when confronted with a situation of marital violence we advocate the sanctity of vows made to God over the sanctity of human life? Clergy, Christians, and friends have advised battered women to respect their marriage vows, be submissive to their battering husbands, as the will of God, with little or no admonition to the husband to end the violence. By no means does everyone who believes in a divine plan of male headship over women and wives abuse or approve of abuse. And yet, there appears to be a direct correlation between the theological viewpoint of male domination and authority over women and abuse. Research has shown that men who batter embrace the traditional view of male supremacy. 

Our theology can, when misused, reinforce domestic violence. The Christian virtues of self-denial, self-sacrifice, suffering for the sake of others, and taking up one's cross have been literally applied in the situations of domestic violence trapping the victim in the deadly cycle of violence. In the light of our knowledge and experience of domestic violence should we not reconsider perpetuating one traditional formulation of the doctrine of redemption, more particularly the doctrine of "substitutionary atonement"? In this portrayal of redemption the Father is all-powerful and the children are all-guilty. There is nothing the children can do to earn mercy, no moral basis upon which appeal to the love of the Father. The Father's rage is justified because of the sinfulness of the children. No matter how they are treated by the Father, it is their fault and they have to carry the blame for whatever the Father might do to them. The children's guilt is exacerbated by the presence of a perfect child. Out of love for his children, the Father takes out his wrath upon his blameless Son through a violent; and by divine necessity, bloody death. Thus, the perfect Son accepts the punishment that the Father's hopelessly sinful children rightly deserve, so that they can be saved and go to live forever in the home of the all-powerful Father (4). I don't know about you, but that sounds like a nightmare to me! Imagine how it might sound to the millions of victims of domestic violence.

It is not hard to see how this doctrinal construct could be used to give divine legitimization to domestic violence. As one who has heard many horror stories of abuse and has personally experienced the deep pain, trauma, and permanent emotional damage left in the wake of domestic violence, I would have to say that I would find it extremely difficult to worship a God who would in any way condone or justify domestic violence, or violence of any sort. The God that I worship is a God of love and compassion. The God of our Jesus Christ is a God of healing and hope, who defends the abused and oppressed.

Some might well be saying, "Yeah, but all that stuff about domestic violence may be true for others, but we Mennonites, with our peace theology, don't have to deal with the problem of domestic violence." Sad but true, one recent study done by Isaac Block of Mennonite families in Winnepeg revealed that sexual and domestic violence occurred as frequently in Mennonite families as it did in the general population. (5) Some believe that a Mennonite theology of Gelassenheit, or humble submission to God's will, self-denial, self-sacrifice, suffering love, following the way of the cross, turning the other cheek in passive nonresistance, and quick and easy forgiveness, have contributed to the further victimization of women in situations of abuse. On the other hand, I am encouraged by Mennonite women and men theologians and ethicists who are applying our peace theology in new ways to the issue of domestic violence by advocating that we work for social justice and practice active, nonviolent resistance. We can follow the way of Jephthah and without question literally and woodenly apply our beliefs in situations that can only further victimize people. Or, by the healing grace of God, we can discover alternative ways to be faithful to our covenant vows with God.

In the end Jephthah carried through with his vow. Frozen in my mind is a painting I came across on the internet, a 17th century painting by Venetian artist Pietro della Vecchia entitled The Sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter. It captures the moment right before Jephthah robs his daughter's life in human sacrifice. The figures of Jephthah and his daughter fill the canvas. The bottom of the canvas is strewn with the shadowed heads of bystanders looking on as if at a peep show. The figures of father and daughter are set against a brooding sky. Their heads touch in the center. In one hand Jephthah tenderly holds the back of the neck of his daughter. The muscles of his other arm bulge with his hand holding a steely knife reflecting light in the shadows. Light falls bright on the bare flesh of Bar-Jiftah, with only her legs draped with a cloth and her hands protecting her uncovered breasts. To our modem sensibilities there is something almost pornographic in this mixture of subtle sexual titillation and misogynist violence. Bat-Jiftah's head is bowed in quiet submission waiting for the inevitable plunge of the knife blade.

Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible has rightly called this story a "text of terror" (6) There is no word in the text that condemns the sacrifice. Nowhere do we read anything in the book of Judges like, "And Jephthah did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord." As a matter of fact, our story begins “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” He is even listed among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. And within the book of Judges God did not stay the hand of Jephthah as God did with Isaac as Abraham lifted high the knife to plunge it into the Isaac’s breast. There was no one in the community to hold back the hand of a violent father, as in the case of Saul, who was kept from doing violence to his son Jonathan on account of a rash oath that he made.

 Besides that, you have the problem of modern biblical interpreters who justify Jephthah’s act of violence. As recently as 1962, C. F. Kraft commends Jephthah: "it was not a rash vow, but deliberate . . . he was expecting great things, and he promised his best in return." Kraft praises the daughter as one willing to die for her father's integrity. Baloney! Some modern interpreters even go so far as to say the Jephthah really didn’t sacrifice his daughter, but made her keep her own vow…. of virginity. And yet, the biblical text says clearly that Jephthah “did with her according to the vow he had made” (vs. 39b).

Some of the ambiguities, silences, and word construction of the text make Jephthah into a tragic victim of circumstance. If the narrator had Bat-Jiftah question her father’s vow, plead for mercy from her father or God, then he might have tipped the scales too much in her favor and brought into question her father’s vow and God’s silence. The story may very well be a reflection of the sexual politics of the narrator. The narrator implicates Bat-Jiftah in her own demise being a willing subject of her father horrible vow and protects Jephthah from responsibility for his violent behavior, or should I say bluntly, the murder of his own daughter. 

Even though we may find human sacrifice condemned elsewhere in the Bible, there is no direct indication in the text that God was displeased that Jephthah followed through with his vow. On the other hand, it may be simply assumed by the narrator that human sacrifice is not God’s will and Jephthah’s vow is rash and should not have been kept. “Obedience is better than sacrifice,” says God. Could it be that the death of the daughter through human sacrifice, the silence of God, the absence of moral critique by the narrator, and the lack of anyone in the community to protest such violence are but signs that something is rotten and evil in their midst? This might be the case. This story may be a reflection of the repeated mantra in Judges, “There was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Before Jephthah offered his daughter as a human sacrifice she asked only one small favor. Within the limits of her own patriarchal culture, Bat-Jiftah assumed some responsibility in her dire situation by bargaining for herself. She asked that she might go into the mountains for two months with her female companions to "bewail her virginity." Her women sisters would be the only ones who could truly understand her plight in a male-dominated society.

The narrator notes that Bat-Jiftah "had never known a man," as if that makes her fate more tragic than it already was. One might reply that she had known a man, at least one and all too well, and that is at the heart of her tragedy. But, her pilgrimage to the mountains with her female companions was not to bemoan the fact that she had never had sex with a man. First, this is primarily a comment in view of Jephthah’s interests, more so than his daughter’s. It means that there will be no progeny for Jephthah. It was his loss, more than hers. In the narrator’s eye this is tragedy more for Jephthah than it is for his daughter. 

Secondarily, Bat-Jiftah was mourning the fact that she would not make the transition to adulthood. From textual and cultural analysis, we may conjecture that this pilgrimage involved a rite of passage from puberty, a common ritual depicting the death of adolescence and the emergence of adulthood (7). The ritual became associated with the premature death of Bat-Jiftah. It is interesting to note that in her book In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan presents a study of female moral development from an adolescent stage of self-sacrifice to a woman's mature recognition of responsibility for her own well-being in moral decision making (8). For women to appropriate Bat-Jiftah's story today it may mean that they move beyond the stage of adolescent self-sacrifice in solving moral dilemmas to a mature recognition of the need to care for their own well-being. Anyway, we do know from the text that there existed some kind of ritual reenacted for four days each year, in which the daughters of Israel would go out to lament Bat-Jiftah. These women kept her memory alive in a ritual of remembrance.

In Africa there is still a belief that a person does not really die until the last one who remembers that person dies. Let us keep the memory of Bat-Jiftah alive, like the women who for four days each year remembered her in an annual ceremony. Even more so, let us remember the countless Bat-Jiftah's, unnamed women, daughters, and sons sacrificed on the familial pyres. And let us remember them not merely by the ritual of listening to a sermon or observing Domestic Violence Awareness month. Let us remember by working for the healing of bleeding women and children, as Jesus healed the woman with a menstrual hemorrhage. Let us in remembering work to break the silence of abuse, advocate a zero-tolerance attitude toward any form of family abuse, support organizations, like Oregon Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and Clackamas Women’s Services in Oregon City, that educate the public, support and shelter battered women and children. Let us remember the contemporary Bat-Jiftahs by dismantling oppressive patriarchal structures and ideologies and tearing down the walls of a theology that condones, justifies, or supports domestic violence.

Let us also remember to listen to the liberating Biblical stories of the healing of women, children, and men that can transform our personal and social consciousness and moral vision. Let us remember stories of the triumph of the human spirit, like the Alice Walker's fictional story of Celie in The Color Purple, a survivor of domestic abuse. Let us remember the real life stories of those around us who have, by the grace of God, experienced a measure of healing from abuse. Let us remember Bat-Jiftah. For those who do not remember history are bound to repeat it. By remembering the unnamed victims of domestic violence, we can hopefully avoid repeating a history of abuse. By remembering, we all may continue to live.

(1) I am indebted to J Cheryl Exum for the name "Bat-jiftah." See Cheryl Exum, "Feminist Criticism: Whose lnterests are Being Served?" in Gale Yee's Judges and Method. (Minneapolis:Fortress, 1995), 75-78.

(2) Lord Byron, Jephthah's Daughter in Robert Atwan and Lawrence Wieder, eds., Chapters into Verse, Vol. I, (Oxford: Oxford University, 1993), 182.

(3) Cited in Marie Fortune, "The Church and Domestic Violence," Theology, News and Notes, Fuller Theological Seminary, June 1982.

(4) I have benefited from the theological reflections on the atonement by James Poling in his book The Abuse of Power. (Nashville:Abingdon, 1991).

(5) Isaac I. Block, Assault on God's Image. (Winnepeg:Wildflower Communications, 1991).

(6) Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror. (Philadephia: Fortress, 1984).

(7) Peggy Day, "The Story of Jephthah's Daughter" in Peggy Day, ed. Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. (Minneapolis:Fortress), 60.

(8) As cited in Peggy Day, "The Story of Jephthah's Daughter."