Monday, November 16, 2015

Jephthah's Daughter and Fear

I've probably read Judges more than most "normal" people. I've read it a lot for someone who hasn't written a dissertation or a commentary on it. I can't escape it. There is something very truth-telling about human history in a book that perpetually shows how things go astray when they "do what is right in their own eyes", believing they have no holding center. They consistently forget God's deliverance and they fail to recognize God as their king.

In the midst of the present turmoil, pain over violence at the hands of violent, desperate people in Paris, in Beirut, in Syria, and elsewhere ... the pain is becoming fear and the fear is becoming irrationality. Our best selves are not speaking. We are not acknowledging facts (there are terror cells of the present perpetrators already within our borders plus others), nor are we acknowledging the role fear of the "other" has played in United States history (much less human history).

For me, the central story of Judges is the tragedy of Jephthah's daughter. Jephthah is a rough-edged guy, rejected by his family and his larger community due to the circumstances of his birth. He runs with a band of warriors who, if  they're not his family of origin's specific enemies- they might as well be. However, once the elders of his original community end up in hotter water than they can handle with other forces, they reach out to Jephthah for help.

He points out this hypocrisy, but they want him and his band. (He comes with his own army! Great!) According to Judges, Jephthah does a little reconnaissance work and does try to make peace with the king of the warring faction. Nevertheless, peace-making fails. Jephthah then makes a deal with the Lord. If Jephthah prevails over his enemies, he will sacrifice to the Lord the first thing he sees when he returns home.

Which will turn out to be his daughter.

This is the shift in the book. In earlier chapters, women had property, women were judges, women were part of the society and the promises of God. As the people did more and more of what was right in their own eyes, as they continued to drift further from waiting for justice and divine guidance, the value of women drops like a stone until Jephthah's daughter's fate seems ideal compared to what happens to the Levite's concubine in later chapters.

When people forget their guiding principles, their foundational hopes, their true origin stories, other things will flood in to fill the gaps left behind. Fear, anger, revenge, and false bravado are slippery little devils that will grow like weeds, especially in places with little light.

I worry that we are in a Judges moment, perhaps even a Jephthah moment. Our words, our promises, our decisions matter now more than ever. Otherwise, we will sacrifice what is most dear to us in the name of safety, security, and triumph- all of which are false gods.

Other ways aren't as easy, but for those of us who believe that God is God and there is no other... there are greater commandments for us to follow, including "Do not be afraid."

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