I preached this sermon the week of July 27 at St. Lydia's as part of our Summer Story Series. The story of Jephthah's daughter is probably not one you heard in Sunday School. You can find it in Judges 11.
I want to start out tonight by teaching you a word.
It’s a seminary kind of word: “etiology”
And etiology is a word for a story
that tells us why something is the way it is.
You may have head “just so” stories when you were a kid,
like “how the tiger got its tail.”
These are stories that are passed down through generations.
You can imagine them told around campfires
in ancient villages and towns
to explain why the world is the way it is.
Well, the bible is filled with etiologies,
especially the Hebrew Bible.
These stories we’ve been telling this summer at St. Lydia's are about a lot of things,
but they’re also explanations.
Noah’s ark explains where rainbows came from.
The story of the tower of Babel explains why there are so many languages in the world.
And the story of garden of Eden explains how humans and animals came to be.
And this story is an etiology, too.
It gives a reason for a tradition that we hear about in this story:
of the Israelite women going up into the mountains for four days once a year.
Scholars posit that is was probably some kind of a fertility rite,
and that the rite most likely pre-dated
the story we read about how it came to be.
So the story of Jephtha’s daughter is being told in retrospect,
explaining something that was already in existence at the time.
Now, one thing we know about stories
is that the way a story is told tells us a lot about the person who is telling it.
And one thing we know about patriarchal cultures,
like that of the Ancient Israelites,
is that they dooooon’t really love it when women gather up in big groups,
without any men around to oversee what they’re doing.
I mean, who knows what they might get up, right???
So, right away, I’m feeling a little suspicious about the voice
telling us this story about Jephtha’s daughter.
I feel like maybe that authors (who are most likely male) are not only explaining something,
but trying to explain something away:
trying to explain away whatever it is
those women are doing in the mountains for four days,
because whatever they’re doing...is a little scary to them.
It feels a little bit like something that they're not in control of.
And they don't like that.
So...here are some things that I, you know, noticed,
reading this story.
I noticed that Jephtha makes a promise to God that he doesn’t really need to make.
He’s already having all these victories:
the passage says that “the sprit of the Lord had come upon him,”
which is like biblical code that he’s not gonna be losing any battles.
He’s winning all the way through the passage.
And yet he takes this crazy step and makes this promise...
a "rash promise," it’s sometimes called.
And then, I notice that there are a lot of other stories in the Bible
when women come out to meet the victors of war with tambourines and singing.
Like the way they met Saul and David after battle.
It was a custom. A tradition!
And that makes me wonder
just what Jephtha was expecting to happen when he made that promise.
Who he really could have expected to be sacrificed for his military victory.
If it wasn’t his daughter, it would have been someone else.
Someone else’s daughter.
And then, I notice that when Jephtha sees what he’s done,
he doesn’t so much take responsibility for it.
In fact, he sort of blames his daughter for it.
“Oh my daughter,” he says, “you have brought me very low.”
And THEN I notice that if you look back earlier in the book of Judges,
you get the feeling that, really, this whole situation the Israelites are in with all this war,
is because they stopped worshipping God and started worshipping Baal.
And all of that, added up,
makes me think that Jephtha’s daughter is really paying the price
for a whole lot of other people’s mistakes.
And that doesn’t seem right.
Here’s another thing that I notice.
That whoever the folks were who wrote this text,
they seemed to think it was important,
to show that the right way to respond
when you learn that your father has promised God he’ll kill you.
And that is: to accept it implicitly.
No, even to welcome it.
To smile and pay the price for the sins of your father
and his father and his father,
and head off obediently to your death.
“Do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth,”
the writers have her say.
Somehow I don’t think that was really her reaction.
But that’s the kind of woman the writers of this text want to hold up as a model.
That when generations of ancestors try to cover their tracks,
cover their sins,
this woman should pay the price, and do it gladly.
That’s the way the world should work.
Recently, a woman in Texas named Sandra Bland refused to smile.
Refused to be polite.
Refused to be obedient.
And just like Jephtha’s daughter, she ended up dead.
It doesn’t matter if you submit or resist.
If you say “yes officer, thank you officer,”
or claim and name your rights as a citizen.
It doesn’t matter,
because if you’re a black woman in this country,
a black man or trans person or a child of color,
you’ve been pre-selected to pay the price for the sins of our nation.
It doesn’t matter what the alleged “crime” is,
how well you dress,
how educated you are,
how politely you behave.
Just like Jephtha’s daughter,
the deal has already been made.
Someone has noticed you gathering up there on the mountainside,
talking together, making plans,
brewing up trouble, and they’re going to put an end to it
by making you fear for your life.
Every time you get in a car
or go to a pool party,
go to the corner store,
or even just step out of the hallway of your public housing unit.
“Each time I get in my car, I make sure I have my license, registration and insurance cards. I make sure my seatbelt is fastened. I place my cellphone in the handless dock. I check and double check and triple check these details because when (not if) I get pulled over, I want there to be no doubt I am following the letter of the law. I do this knowing it doesn’t really matter if I am following the letter of the law or not. Law enforcement officers see only the color of my skin, and in the color of my skin they see criminality, deviance, a lack of humanity.”
Here’s something else I notice about this story.
I notice that Jephtha’s daughter has no name.
At the hands of whoever wrote this story,
she is remembered for her perfect death,
not her lost life.
Virginal, pure, and nameless,
she’s held up as an unblemished sacrifice,
one so submissive she doesn’t even require a name.
Let’s not forget the names of women and girls who, like her,
payed the price for the sin of a nation.
We may never know her name,
but we can be sure to remember others.
And the terrifying truth is that there are so many names to remember.
Each of you has a name in your hand of a Black woman or girl
who was killed in an act of police brutality or racialized violence.
You may know this name or it may be a name you don’t know.
Tonight during the prayers I’d like you to pray for the person whose name is in your hand.
And then I invite you to go home and do some research about what happened to her.
And keep praying, for her and her family, and for change, and for justice.
So, what are we to take from this?
What are we to do with a “text of terror,” as Phyllis Trible called it,
and a nation that, like Jephtha,
will sacrifice its own daughters for dominance and control?
The way we tell stories matters.
If the writers of the bible had it their way, the story of Jephtah’s daugher
would be titled, “Virginal daughter accepts role as sacrificial heroine.”
My headline is a little different.
Something like, “War-addled father murders daughter for political gain.”
You notice how the subject of the headline shifts
from victim to perpetrator.
We have watched the news these past weeks tell this Sandra Bland's story
the way mainstream America wants to see it:
the headline we're being give is:
“Woman who failed to signal, was rude, and smoked pot gets what she deserves.”
It's terrible. But that's the story we're being told.
What is my headline? What is your headline?
Perhaps, “Rage-filled racist cop abuses activist for insignificant infraction.”
What would God’s headline be?
“America continues to sacrifice innocents, rather than face the sins of its past.”
There are always the mountains.
Despite the best intentions of the tellers of this story,
one thing remains indisputable:
that Jephtha’s daughter takes her companions, women like her,
and goes to the mountains:
that place where Moses met God in the burning bush,
and stays there, in safety, for months.
In the mountains, she and her companions create a “place away,”
where, we might imagine, they can make a community of their own,
guided by their own intuitions and desires,
and free from the death-dealing structures that have held them all prisoner.
We all need the mountains.
That place where we can shed the shackles keep us bound,
whatever they might be,
and experience the world God has in mind for us,
far away from the cries of battle and the shouts of victory
over disputed territory.
A place apart where we can be free, and will never be asked
to pay the price for someone else’s sin.
With God, we can bring the mountains home.
This year, the mountains have felt far away.
The stories have piled up: the names of those who’ve been lost.
And there are so many who have gone before them.
At times, it can feel like there’s nothing we can do.
Our contributions seem so small in the shadow of this
“system” that is so firmly in place.
But small things add up.
Even Jesus said that.
He spoke about faith the size of a mustard seed,
a tiny seed that grew into a sprawling, stubborn weed
that just refused to stop spreading.
And that kind of faith, he said, would move mountains.
This winter was a hard one for me.
The sins of our nation seemed so intractable
that I felt sure nothing could ever change.
Even when we marched among thousands,
I wondered if those voices, raised up, would be heard.
But every day, actually, I’m become more and more sure
that God is changing everything.
One thing that has happened this year
is that a bunch of scrappy organizers
in Ferguson sparked off a conversation that,
like a stubborn weed, has just refused to stop spreading.
They made it impossible for me to not see what’s happening.
They’ve changed the story.
They've changed the way the story is being told.
My heart and my mind have shifted this year.
I’m guessing yours has too, in some way.
We're seeing the story differently.
And that means change is happening: right in our midst.
I believe that God is up to something in this world,
often despite our best intentions.
The bible contains stories of terror in its pages,
but even in the middle of a story of the death of a woman
whose name no one remembers,
we find the mountains,
that place where God comes and finds us
and reminds of the truth: that too many lives have been lost.
That too many have paid the price for the sins of our ancestors,
the sins of our past and of our present.
And that all of it,
all of it, can change,
Right here in this place,
around these tables,
and across this nation,
as a different version of the story being told.
Here are the names of the women and girls we prayed for at St. Lydia's.
You're invited to choose a name, to learn her story, to pray for her and her family, and pray for change and justice.
If you know of other women and girls of color killed by police violence who should be added to this list, please comment.
Addie Mae Collins
Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd
Ethel Lee Lance