Sermon - 16th February 2020
Scripture - Judges 11:30-40
As we continue to commemorate LGBT History Month, I thought we might look at a story from the Old Testament which reflects one of the distorted understandings of God which still results in LGBT people being killed today.
What an appalling story we have just heard! Shall we be brave today and admit that our Bible does contain some appalling stories - and this is one of them?
What we seem to hear is the killing and sacrificial offering of a daughter to satisfy the demands of a tribal God - a God who requires such sacrifices to continue supporting his chosen tribe against the territorial claims of other tribes.
The daughter comes across in the story as unbelievably obedient to what she believes to be the divine will and, after a period of preparation, surrenders herself to a sacrificial death.
Did you notice that she remains unnamed in the story? Why name her? - to all intents and purposes, as an unmarried daughter, she is no more than her father’s property to be disposed of as he sees fit.
What does this say about the value of women in ancient Israel?
What does it say about the cultural and religious values of God’s chosen people as they fought to establish themselves in the land which they claimed as their divine right?
What does it say about the God of the Israelites who remains silent and impassive while a child is sacrificed as a burnt offering in return for a military victory? Is this the God whom Jesus points us towards? Is this the God we worship?
It is right that, from our perspective today, we should ask those questions. And the ancient Jewish scribes and prophets, who ultimately edited, shaped, pulled together and defined the content of their holy scripture, included that story from the many varying threads of their oral tradition precisely because it all needs to be questioned.
We have said before, when looking at the Hebrew scriptures, that the Jewish people showed great courage by including in their sacred story the bad things as well as the good - the horrific stories as well as the uplifting stories.
Although Hebrew scripture has some historical characteristics, it was not written as objective history: it was written as an interpretation of the Jewish people's relationship with their God set in a broad, but not perfect, timeline. And it contains periods of great disobedience, waywardness and failure, as well as times of great holiness, insight and blessedness as that relationship grew, declined, suffered and renewed itself.
The story of Jephtha is intended to be a horror story, set in a time of great lawlessness and disconnection from God’s will for the Israelites, and it shows human frailty at its worst.
But the great sweep of Hebrew scripture beyond this story, and beyond the brutality of this time in Jewish history, shows how God and his people journeyed together slowly, and sometimes painfully, to a new understanding of who they were and how they related to the world around them. They only achieved this by getting things wrong sometimes.
The tribal God who is described in the story as a deity who takes sides in tribal disputes and requires sacrifices for his intervention to achieve victory, is an example of how the Jews in that time and place were struggling to grasp the nature of God.
Tribal and local gods were features of the religions which surrounded them and we know that, during the period covered by the book of Judges, many Jews drifted away from their loyalty to the God of Israel and became followers of these other tribal gods. Some forms of sacrifice, even human sacrifice, were common among these other traditions.
So, the religious background for the story of Jephtha is one of fragmentation, scattering, uncertainty and a steady contamination of the Hebrews’ own religion by the cultures which surrounded them and which were constant threats to the security of their borders.
And it is in this context that we see Jephtha make his devastating oath which would bring about such disastrous results.
In a poem by Jan Berry called "Her father’s will" and based on this story - and reflecting on some of the words of Jesus in his own prayer - Jan asks this question:
When the Word of God is distorted to justify evil,
used in bargaining or negotiation,
manipulated to gain power,
then is God’s name hallowed,
or his will done?
The story of Jephtha and his unnamed daughter is an inclusion in the Hebrew scriptures which tells a moral tale. Everything about the course of events which led up to the daughter’s death was a distortion of the morality of the Hebrew faith and yet, in this episode which became part of the Hebrew tradition, it still happened.
The Hebrew law was quite clear that human sacrifice was forbidden, and yet Jephtha’s judgment still somehow led him to pursue the oath he had taken right up to its final ungodly outcome.
We are given this story to show what happens when the law of God is set aside in an environment of lawlessness, poor leadership, disloyalty and the adoption of primitive beliefs. The story lives on in the Jewish tradition as an example of how not to bring about God’s will and God’s kingdom.
So it’s just an appalling story: with nothing to teach us today, surely? Well, if the moral of the story is that we should be really careful about the promises we make to God, I do wonder whether we can simply leave it to gather dust in the Old Testament.
I wonder about the way some people, within the context of our own Christian faith, seem to be comfortable about making a deal with God. I know that in some Christian traditions there is an accepted custom of striking a bargain with God - it’s sometimes known as ‘laying down a fleece’.
Every time I hear someone say words to the effect of, ‘So I said to God, if only you will do this for me, I promise I will do that for you,’ I feel uneasy.
To my mind, there’s a certain leaning towards a rather primitive understanding of God in such bargains which unnerves me.
Adapting Jan Berry’s words, I wonder, ‘When the Word of God...is used in bargaining or negotiation..then is God’s...will done?’
And then, if another modern insight from the story is the way in which single women were viewed as no more than the possessions of their father, then the story has nothing to teach us today, surely?
Well, I do admit to being slightly uncomfortable when I watch a father still ‘give’ his daughter’s hand in marriage to her future husband at the chancel steps during many of today’s forms of the marriage ceremony. The transaction is actually spoken in some cases with the words, ‘Who giveth this woman to this man?’.
I’m sure for many people it’s only a ritual, the remnant of a tradition with no real meaning today. But it leads to wonder whether our language still reveals something of primitive attitudes? Is that daughter really her father’s to ‘give away’ in some deeper sense than we care to admit?
I fear we may be reliving Jephtha’s moral code when I hear of a child killed by a parent, or by a sibling believing he is acting as his parent’s proxy, in an act often described as an honour killing?
Jephtha’s daughter submitted herself to death at her father’s hand in honour of her father’s belief in what his God required of him. When a daughter - or a son - in today’s society is judged guilty of some act of dishonour and disowned and abandoned to the ‘justice’ of a mob, I see echoes of the lawlessness and primitive beliefs of Jephtha’s time when God’s honour, or some religious interpretation of family honour, is invoked in bringing that child’s life to an end.
Jephtha’s daughter may not have been significant enough in the early tradition of her faith community to be given a name; but the circumstances of her life and death still awake powerful feelings in us when we look for God’s justice in her time and in ours.
As a series of lessons in human nature, human frailty and a deeply flawed understanding of the nature of God, the story is both ancient and modern, and shines a critical light where perhaps we didn’t expect to see its reflection.
Yes, the story is a snapshot from ancient folklore. But if we retell it, can it perhaps bring change?
If we reflect on what the story says about the power of deeply distorted religion, and the perversion of brutal and primitive interpretations of tribal honour and family reputation, I think we can honestly say that we don’t find any Gospel values in the culture which the story reveals.
But if we listen to the Gospel as Jesus brings it to us in his life and his teachings, and we are challenged to make more determined progress towards the values of love, freedom, inclusion and the celebration of diversity.
And none of those values requires us to strike a bargain with God to be assured of his care, his blessing, and his love.
Some final words from Jan Berry’s poem Her Father’s Will:
When women are seen as possessions,
the objects of lust or desire,
the fulfilment of another’s ambition,
then is God’s name hallowed,
or his will done?
When God remains silent,
ignoring the cries of terror
and indifferent to the cruelty of abuse,
then is God’s name hallowed,
or his will done?
When women find refuge together,
solidarity and trust growing in the face of betrayal,
when suffering is remembered and retold to bring change,
then God’s name is hallowed,
or her will is done!
(Extracts from “Her father’s will” by Jan Berry, in “Naming God”, published by Granary (a publishing imprint of the United Reformed Church) 2011. Copyright: The United Reformed Church. Used here by permission.)