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Judges 11:29-40, The Language of the Story III



Today I examine two more pages in the 1935 Rahlfs edition of the LXX (pp. 456-458). The Jephthah story reaches its climax here, at least in terms of the battle, his vow and the sacrifice of his daughter. A more poignant story one can’t really imagine—for it illustrates how the ambition and faith of one generation leads to the death of the next generation and the end of the family line. The story of Jephthah in the LXX adds a deep note of sobriety to our quests and to our “victorious life” ideology, shaped as it was for me in the early fires of Evangelical youth and burnished by a dose of seemingly innocuous Americanism.


                                                                                 The Words of 11:29-33


The first five verses aren’t especially riveting.  Even the Spirit, which comes upon Jephthah to enable him to win his victory, only “is” or “comes” upon him, just as we have seen elsewhere.  Nothing of the dramatic “jumping” activity of the Spirit on later kings. Indeed, the authors/translators seem still to be “negotiating” the proper language to describe that momentous event.


To show how exiguous our knowledge is (if such a point really needed to be established), we have Jephthah preparing for battle by passing through or along the σκοπιὰν of Galaad.  This is some kind of “lookout” or “spying place,” and is no doubt mentioned to give us a sense that Jephthah is “scoping out” the opposition, but we have no idea where is meant. I sort of wish I could take a tour of the Holy Land and have someone take me to “Jephthah’s lookout”—probably the next stop before the Ark on Ararat. . .


When Jephthah utters his vow, Recension A has him use the verb παραδίδωμι, while B only has δίδωμι. If the Lord will “hand over/give” Ammon into his hand, he will sacrifice, as a whole burnt offering, whoever (ὃς) happens to come out of the doors (A)/door (B) of his house to “meet” him. A has ἀπάντησίν, while B just changes the prefix to κατά to describe this “meeting.” Very little point is made of the battle itself. It happens quickly, and the victory is a complete one, as he ends up taking 20 cities in addition to the location of the main fight.  An interesting verb choice in v 33 has, in A, the Ammonites retreating in “shame” (verb is ἐντρέπω), while B has them “drawing back” (συστέλλω).


                                                                         Things Get Interesting, 11:34-40


Several points worthy of scholarly and homiletic attention arise from these unforgettable verses.  Chief among them is the realization by Jephthah that he has spoken unwisely or, as I argued elsewhere, with “too much faith,” and the sadness that dawns on him when he knows that his oath is irreversible.  Sad also is the fact that the daughter willingly accepts her father’s vow, knowing that God has worked vengeance (ἐκδικήσεις) against the enemy partly because of her father’s faithfulness to God. She is able to join her companions for a few months of weeping and bewailing virginity in the mountains before she dies. It might be interesting to make up a poem or play or some kind of dialogue about what might have gone through the girls’ minds (or been on their lips) at this time.


The principal word and then sentence that call for mention in A is the rare ἐμπεποδοστάτηκάς in verse 35 and then the six-fold mention of “I” or “me” in that verse. It is a verse of incredible intensity.  B “softens” the verb a bit to a threefold use of ταράσσω or its related nouns.  Let’s unpack the language of A.  Verse 35 reads, in A: 


καὶ ἐγενήθη ἡνίκα εἶδεν αὐτήν καὶ διέρρηξεν τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ καὶ εἶπεν οἴμμοι θύγατέρ μου ἐμπεποδοστάτηκάς με εἰς σκῶλον ἐγένου ἐν ὀφθαλμοῗς μου ἐγὼ δὲ ἤνοιξα τὸ στόμα μου περὶ σοῦ πρὸς κύριον καὶ οὐ δυνήσομαι ἀποστρέψαι. . .


“And it happened/came to pass that when he saw her (his daughter), he tore his garments and said, ‘Woe! Woe is me my daughter! You have placed your feet right in front of me as a thorn/stumbling block before my eyes, and I have opened my mouth concerning you to the lord and I cannot take it back.”


Let’s first examine the verb and then the repeated use of the first person pronoun.  The verb is rare; the big LSJ gives this passage and only one or two more in the entirety of Greek literature where it appears. It is a verb made up of three words:  “to stand” and “feet” and “in (front of)” or “in (side).” In other words it is someone standing in front of him.  His daughter, who is no doubt his pride and joy, has been placed in front of him like an obstacle. Her feet are standing right there in his way.  He cannot evade or get around her; he has to deal with her, and this means he will have to sacrifice her. It is a most poignant and powerful verb to describe an inescapable reality for Jephthah.


But we ought not to leave this passage without recognizing the six-fold use of “me/I” in it.  When he starts speaking he says— “Woe is ME MY daughter”. It is a heartfelt statement.  The two “my’s” are working in opposition to each other, since one captures his woe and one his blessing.  Then, we have the fact that she is “placing feet in front of ME.”  She has become a kind of obstacle/thorn before MY eyes.  Then he says that I have opened MY mouth concerning you to the Lord. . .”  All this emphasis on “my”—is this a subtle way for the author to suggest that behind Jephthah’s vow and dedication to his task was a little too much of “I”?  Never know, but the ironies that lace this most powerful narrative would be large enough to include such a thesis.




The multiple layers of linguistic usage in this story, much less theological ideas, make this among my favorite Biblical narratives.  Utter faith leads to utter victory, which leads to utter destruction of the things that you most treasure. Signal success in a public arena leads to signal loss in a private venue. And, that, friends is the Word of God.

The Spirit

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