Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Women and the pride of men: Abimelech, Jepthah, their mothers, a daughter, and a dangerous woman with a millstone (Judges 9-11)

In this post we will look at four female characters in the stories of two men: the judges Abimelech and Jephthah. Two women, their mothers, are on the far periphery of the action, and two others, a warrior and a daughter, are in minor supporting roles. But in interestingly parallel circumstances, they each affect the honor and pride of Abimelech and Jephthah deeply. We don't know much about the lives and experiences of these women themselves, (except for one), and we will have to look at them through the often male-focused biblical perspective. But for most of history it's been a man's world, and how women powerfully affect even a world that portrays them as side characters is an interesting thing to consider.

What we learn about women:
  • Who your mother is is very important.
  • Even when men look down on women, their pride and status is influenced by women in their lives. But true honor comes from their position in relation to God.
  • The ideal of submission for women can cause trouble for men who are sinning, since it can prevent women from working against men's bad plans. (But I'd add, this is a problem for men to worry about, it's not on women to be responsible for keeping men in line.)
  • Women are used by God to stop bad guys. He loves to use those who seem weak to overcome those who seem strong. 
What I'm wondering: (If you aren't familiar with these stories, read below first to make sense of the questions.)
  • What ever became of Jotham? 
  • What was Jephthah's relationship with God like? Why did God let him think he should sacrifice his daughter?
  • What did the yearly remembrance of Jephthah's daughters look like? How did Israel interpret the event in hindsight?

Jephthah's daughter and her friends in the hills (wallhere image)

Of  Mothers, Massacres, and Millstones

An important parallel situation sets both Abimelech's and Jephthah's lives in motion: they are both illegitimate sons. Their two mothers are not wives of their fathers but a concubine and a prostitute. Nothing is revealed about these mothers other than their lack of status. We can be sure the women figured largely in the lives of their little boys, as all mothers do, at least in the early years. But the fact of their social positions, or rather lack thereof, in the family also had large consequences for Abimelech and Jephthah when they grew to be young men. First we'll summarize Abimelech's story.

Abimelech was a son of the heroic Gideon, who also had seventy other sons by his many wives. His mother was a concubine from Shechem. His illegitimacy, though no fault of his own, is a strike against him in competition with his many brothers for power. His lineage is part Hebrew, part pagan, and he chooses sides with his pagan uncles in Shechem to get an edge in the power struggle against his brothers. His bad character is made obvious by the horrible plan to seize power he carries out with his uncles: a massacre of all of his half-brothers. If Abimelech is evil, Gideon's other sons come across more wimpy than righteous, allowing themselves to be slaughtered one by one "on one stone" by the bunch of "reckless troublemakers" from Abimelech's hometown who follow him since he is their relative. Only the youngest son of Gideon, Jotham, survives. He escapes and delivers a long speech condemning and cursing Abimelech for his massacre, but that's his last recorded action. Abimelech goes on to solidify his power in Shechem for the next three years. 

A sidenote: this story is related to our earlier discussion of the life of Dinah, the sister of the 12 sons of Israel. This Shechem seems to be the same city of the ill-fated Shechem in Dinah's story, and now the town is named after him.  I found it interesting that here in Judges a man from Shechem commits an unjust massacre on Israelite leaders, after the prince of Israel has an illegimate relationship with a woman from there (who seems to be at least connected with a bunch of brothers who hold power there). It is not an exact reversal of Dinah and Shechem's story, but it does make you think of it, right? 

Eventually, Abimelech's rule is challenged, not by Jotham, but by the citizens of Shechem, who organize under one Gaal of Ebed. Abimelech cruelly crushes the rebellion, leveling the town, scattering salt on the ground, and burning the temple of Baal where the surviving citizens had taken refuge, with them trapped inside. Apparently on a tear, he continues to capture another town, Thebez, and is about to burn the tower there where the people are hiding, when another woman briefly but powerfully enters the action. She is another war hero, who drops a millstone on Abimelech, crushing his skull as he tries to set fire to the entrance. Millstones are heavy, no? The Israelite women in this period appear to have been extremely tough!! Abimelech is embarrassed that a woman will have (nearly) done him in, and he recruits his own armor bearer to finish the job so that no one can say a woman has killed him. With his death, his men disband and go home. The story ends commenting that Jotham's judgement and curse on Abimelech and the people of Shechem has been fulfilled by the events. 

Pride and Shame Delivered by Women

Though we've talked about women's generally low status in terms of political, community, and family power, we haven't considered much how the status of women affected the prestige of the men in their lives. For Abimelech, the fact that his mother was not a wife of Gideon was a problem for him. Her lack of status transferred to him, distinguishing him negatively from his father's other sons. This same pattern will affect Jephthah, whose story we will discuss next. 

These initial circumstances of parentage set Jephthah and Abimelech's lives off on contrasting courses. What might have happened if they had been born to wives of their fathers? Both might have risen to leadership through their military skills without the baggage of illegitimacy. This would be even more likely the case if their fathers had followed the good and highly practical pattern of monogamy instead of taking many wives and winding up with 70 sons vying for power. In that respect not only their mothers' "purity" but their fathers' caused them trouble. The difference between the purity of mothers and fathers is that fathers tend not to suffer in honor for their impurity, where as mothers bear impurity as shame. The mother's shame, rather than the father's honor, is then passed on to the children of the impure mother and father. Marriage, and monogamy, are a strong protection for both women and their children against the consequences of dishonor. 

Would it be better to just disregard the honor/dishonor piece completely here to level the playing field for families where women who are not married to the fathers of their children? No. Part of the reason the honor and dishonor come about is that women and their children need the protection and support of fathers. When a woman does not have this, she and her children are clearly vulnerable, and will be more likely to suffer from poverty and danger: inherently not circumstances to be praised or sought after in a person's life. A man who is impure will not reap these automatic physical consequences, so his honor is less likely to be compromised by his impurity. But the important thing is that if he is constantly inflicting bad circumstances on women and children, he is guilty of doing what is wrong, whatever his outwardly observable life circumstances are. 

The above really pertains more to Abimelech's father. But now to the affected son, Abimelech himself. The woman with the millstone brings up a different consideration of how how prestige and pride are related to relationships between women and men. Abimelech thought death would be more palatable if not served by a woman's hand. He seems to have felt that women couldn't be counted as strong warriors, and it would make him look weak to have been defeated by one. Notice that a question of pride is foremost in Abimelech's last thoughts! The text interprets the warrior's death as inflicted by God as judgment. But Abimelech in his misdirected pride, is more concerned that his death has been inflicted by a woman. When he shortly meets the Greatest and Strongest Warrior, the Lord of Heaven's Armies who has directed her, his focus will change. Despite the general pattern of power dynamics between male and female human beings, the most important thing to remember is who is in charge of it all. He makes the weak strong and the strong weak. 

A vow, a victory, a virgin

After Abimelech Israel has two more judges, with not very exciting stories, before we meet Jephthah. He is first and foremost introduced as a great warrior. His mother is a prostitute. His father is "Gilead" who I can't identify in the text. (There is a lot of talk about the land or region or towns or people of Gilead, but I don't see a person named Gilead, so I'm not sure whether he is a judge or what.) Jephthah and Abimelech are both disadvantaged by their illegitimacy. But unlike Abimelech, who snuck off to scheme against his legitimate half-brothers, Jephthah is driven away by his half-brothers to keep him from getting any inheritance from his father "for you are the son of a prostitute." Like Abimelech, after departing from his father's household, Jephthah soon has "a band of worthless rebels following him." But, again in contrast to Abimelech, Jephthah is called back to Gilead to help fight off the Ammonites who are causing the region of Gilead much trouble. If he will deliver the Israelites, the leaders of Gilead promise to make him their king. 

Do you see the pointed similarities and differences between him and Abimelech? Abimelech sneaks off to usurp power over his legitimate brothers, kills them, and is ultimately cursed to fail and lose power. Jephthah is run off by his legitimate brothers who want his power for themselves, then is called back to deliver them, and be made their ruler. The final contrasting parallel in the lives of Abimelech and Jephthah can be drawn between the roles of the only two women mentioned in their lives (other than their mothers). Abimelech's near military victory is crushed by the woman with the millstone who kills him; Jephthah's military victory in hand is turned sour, and he himself is "destroyed," by a woman he feels compelled to kill--his own daughter. 

After Jephthah agrees to lead the Israelites in battle against the Ammonite king, the Spirit of God comes upon him, enabling him to gather an army for the fight. At this time, he makes a vow to the Lord that really seems like it is provoking fate, or God. "If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph, I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." So. What kinds of things might come out of a house to greet a person? Goats or other animals which would make good offerings? Food? Money? Probably more likely people. You have to wonder what he was thinking. When God does give him victory and he returns home, unsurprisingly but devastatingly, his only child, his daughter, comes out to greet him. 

Another sidenote: the whole book of Judges reminds me so much of Greek mythology, with mischievous heroes winning great battles and then being ruined by their own character failings. It's of course distinctly different in that the true God is ever-present as a judge and helper in these events. But the story of Jephthah and his daughter feels the very Greekest of them all to me. 

What is happening in this tragic moment where Jephthah becomes apparently obligated to sacrifice his daughter? Initially, God had come upon Jephthah to help him. At that time, Jephthah made a vow, offering in some sense to pay God back for a victory. Was that the wrong turn? What is God's part in all this? God was using Jephthah for his purpose and was even dwelling in him. (Or on him. Is that an important difference?) God certainly allowed Jephthah's daughter to come out of his house. What did he want Jephthah to do then? Jephthah felt bound to carry out his vow: "I cannot take it back." Surely this was the wrong decision. But Judges does not comment other than to report the tragedy. If he had asked me for advice, I would have encouraged him to repent of his foolish vow and offer himself as a living sacrifice, or dying one, in battle for the Lord, in her stead. But alas we weren't able to discuss.

Jephthah's daughter is a direct opposite of the warrior woman with the millstone who brought shame on Abimelech. She is as gentle and submissive as a lamb in her reaction. She encourages her father to fulfill his vow. She only wants to go roam the hills and weep with her friends for two months because she will die a virgin with no children. This is so dramatically heartbreaking and horrifying. It became such an affecting event in Israel that the text says every year thereafter the young Israelite women would go away to for four days to lament her fate. 

It is a distinctly feminine tragedy for a few reasons. First of all, it involves the loss of a child, and a girl. The Father is the main mourner, but this parent-child love has a huge relationship to child-bearing in general, a women's domain first. Second, the trusting and submissive response of Jephthah's daughter is definitely the ideal feminine attitude, almost to the point of caricature though. You want to tell them both, "Wait!!! Let's think this through a bit! Maybe the vow itself was wrong!" Third, the main thing that brings sadness to Jephthah's daughter and her friends is that she will not be able to become a wife and, especially, mother. Fourth, it is the young women of Israel who remember and lament her death each year. 

Jephthah is recorded as fulfilling his vow, and then his military career continues. This time he is involved in a civil war with men from Ephraim who are angry he didn't invite them to fight the Ammonites. Though he is successful in this conflict as well, he dies after six years of judging Israel, or less than six years after killing his daughter. 

Women and Men and Pride and Falls

Very different women in the stories of Jephthah and Abimelech, in both typical and atypical feminine roles, wound up "destroying" great warriors. Abimelech was in an obvious position of guilt demanding judgment meted out, shamefully in his eyes, by a woman. This fits the pattern of Judges where women, surprisingly to the audience, are used by God to accomplish his work in situations where men are failing. Jephthah's moral situation is not so clear. He has been used mightily by God to deliver God's people and seems to be thankful to God, however rash his expression of gratitude. When Jephthah first realizes what his vow entails, he exclaims to his daughter, "You have completely destroyed me! You've brought disaster on me!" How are we to understand his guilt and his "destruction" in terms of his daughter's sacrifice? I think his willingness to make the vow and to carry it our are both expressions of his pride. Having a submissive daughter in this case would in some sense seem to help his honor, as in his own assessment he is able to carry out his word, and even possibly pay God back, so as not to be indebted to him? But this pride, supported by a textbook submissive daughter, also winds up destroying him. Abimelech is destroyed in the shame of being killed by only a woman. Jephthah is destroyed preserving his honor at the expense of the life of a woman. 

But what makes this all make more sense is keeping in mind the difference between how God and people allocate honor and shame. From the human perspective, men do not lose much honor for impurity. From God's perspective, they are guilty and bear dishonor for doing wrong. The order built into the universe where the strong must help the weak, and the weak are blessed by trusting God for help, sets a complicated system in place. Women are inherently vulnerable, subject to human dishonor. But we are blessed by God as our need for him is more obvious. We are at times used mightily by him to crush powerful bad guys with millstones and tent pegs when they least suspect it. At other times, like Jephthah's daughter, we bear the suffering men inflict, trusting God's ultimate justice. Men are less likely to suffer from dishonor and more likely to be driven to destruction by pride and inability to obey and rely on God. Our circumstances are our circumstances, but our ultimate destiny regardless depends on our willingness to offer ourselves to God for his help and his power to do what he asks.