An Overlooked Lenten Figure

I’ve been working my way through the book of Judges in anticipation of preaching at a Toronto-area church that is in the midst of working its way through the book.  The book of Judges, with its many “texts of terror” (to cite the term coined by Phyllis Trible) presents numerous hermeneutical challenges for the preacher.  Yesterday, I was confronted by the infamous, story of Jephthah’s daughter.  The story could be read as a demonic parody of another famous and frightening passage – “the binding of Isaac” (Gen. 22).  However, in the Jephthah story, Jephthah’s decision to sacrifice his “only child” emerges solely from his own idolatrous self-assertion.  Whereas a ram was provided for the faithful Abraham to sacrifice in Isaac’s place, in the terrible story of Jephthah no divine intervention is forthcoming.  Perhaps this is so because God had already made clear through the Abraham story and the Torah his displeasure with human sacrifice.  While “the binding of Isaac” has a long pedigree of being interpreted as a type of the crucifixion of Christ in the Christian tradition, it is also possible to see Jephthah’s daughter as standing in a typological relationship with the person of Jesus.  J. Clinton McCann explains:

“A male-dominated history of interpretation has sometimes identified the judges, especially Samson, as a type of Jesus.  The logic goes something like this:  as Samson was a powerful deliverer, so also Jesus was a powerful deliverer.  But such logic is questionable, especially in the case of Samson, whose character was terribly flawed and who did not really accomplish deliverance for the people . . . If there is any type of Jesus in the book of Judges – that is, anyone who embodies God’s experience – the most likely candidate is Jephthah’s daughter.

Like God in the book of Judges, Jephthah’s daughter is the victim of unfaithfulness and disobedience.  In this way too, of course, Jephthah’s daughter anticipates Jesus, another innocent victim of human unfaithfulness and disobedience.  Like Jephthah’s daughter, proclaiming and remembering Jesus’s death became a custom or tradition for those whom he called friends or companions (literally, ‘eaters of bread with’).  Both the death of Jephthah’s daughter and the death of Jesus are described as sacrifices.

It is precisely at this point that the death of Jephthah’s daughter might help Christians understand more fully the death of Jesus.  In particular, the terror of Judges 11:29-40 may help Christians realize that the cross of Jesus Christ is also a horror story.  Like Jephthah’s daughter, Jesus was the victim of unfaithfulness and idolatry.  To affirm this is also to affirm that suffering as such is not redemptive.  The cross is a symbol of redemption because it demonstrates how much God loves the world and consequently how far God goes in giving God’s self for the sake of the sinful world.  The point is love, not suffering.  Love redeems, not suffering.  To be sure, those who love will inevitably suffer.  But the reverse is not true; not all suffering is evidence of love”  (J. Clinton McCann, Judges, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002), 88).

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