*Redux. First posted on Backing Books Blog, 12-8-2015.
R. J. Larson
My latest work, Valor, is based in part on the much-debated, controversial text from Judges 11:30-40, concerning Jephthah and his courageous daughter. Their story stirred my imagination from the first time I read it as an eight-year-old. I remember staring at the page in my Children’s Bible, greatly distressed and seriously resenting that particular story’s ending. Why had that girl’s father made such a rotten vow? Why had she agreed to fulfill her father’s vow—couldn’t she have run away? (No, I was never tempted to run away from home when I was a child, just sayin’.) But I wished I could change the ending for her.
Fast-forward decades later.
Last year, while I was writing Queen (inspired by Esther and other scriptures set in a fantasy realm) it occurred to me that the Agocii lands were an almost ideal place to present the story of Jephthah and his daughter. Much as Israel during the time of Judges—when there was no king, but each person did what was right in his own eyes, when pagan beliefs and customs surrounded those who followed the Lord, and when wars and conflicts presented themselves at every turn—the Agocii reflected spiritual and social turmoil similar to Israel’s during the time Judges. It seemed a perfect place to present Jephthah’s story.
I chose the warrior Vsevold from Queen as my fantasy-realm Jephthah, and with Aniya’s name chosen for his daughter by a friend, I turned my attention to researching the verses which had distressed me when I was a child. Almost immediately, I found numerous web sites citing the debate over Jephthah’s story. The original Hebrew of the text is a marvelous multilayered and versatile language, which often conveys multiple meanings. In Jephthah’s case, this meant that his story, and mine, had two potential and equally defensible possible endings. First, as the most basic and straightforward translations suggest, Jephthah could have actually sacrificed his daughter as he vowed. Or, according to the nuances of some of the Hebrew words in those verses, Jephthah might have dedicated her to the Lord—to serve the Lord’s House, some of the debaters insisted, to live the remainder of her life unmarried and a virgin. The dedication theory also sets aside any quandaries concerning Jephthah’s hero-status mentioned in Hebrews 11, placing Jephthah in the company of Gideon, Barak and Samson.
Could Jephthah’s daughter have survived the threat of sacrifice? I certainly hoped so. Whatever happened, I knew above all that the Lord abhorred human sacrifice, and this must play out strongly in Valor. I dug through the debates and accompanying commentaries, and found several mentions from different sources that the “dedication” theory had first been presented in the early middle ages when it was common for women to become nuns, never marrying in order to serve the Lord. While that gave me pause during research, I still found merit in both sides of the debate.
After reading all the debates, looking up the Hebrew root words, and studying the circumstances surrounding the book of Judges, I had to make a decision. My main hesitations were:
1. Deuteronomy 23:3. (An illegitimate man many not enter the assembly of the Lord, nor many his descendants down to the tenth generation.) Jephthah and his daughter were considered ceremonially unclean due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his birth, therefore she couldn’t have served in the Lord’s House as some Dedicated theorists argued. (Though she could have been isolated for the remainder of her life, unwed and a virgin.)
2. The apparently late emergence of the dedication theory.
3. Numbers 30:2. (If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath and obligates himself by his own word, he must not break his word. He must do everything he said.)
Even if that vow displeased the Lord? This made me hesitate.
Certainly the Lord would never approve of human sacrifice. Therefore … and yet ….
Being fallible as so many other leaders from the Scriptures, such as David, Samson, and Abraham, could Jephthah (within the chaotic framework of his times) have fallen prey to a rash and desperate vow in an attempt to bargain with the Lord, when faith in the Lord’s provision for victory would have been enough?
Could Jephthah have committed a terrible sin, yet still be regarded as righteous based solely on the fact that he believed in and followed the Lord?
No matter which way the book might end, it would not be happy.
After weighing both sides of the controversy, I wrote Valor, praying through each chapter. Was it easy? No. Yet I hope you’ll enjoy the story and love the characters as I do.