The J scribes had the E document before them when they crafted a story (Jgs 11.1-10, 29-40) around it to condemn God’s statute of child sacrifice (Ez 20.26). In E, after all, is the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the source who left Isaac on the pyre with Abraham’s drawn knife on his throat after Abraham planted terebinths and Mt Atlas mastic, epiphanies of Asherah, in Beersheba. By associating the cultic trees with Abraham’s call to sacrifice his son, E impugned Asherah with child sacrifice. Therefore J, in the story of Jephthah, has Jephthah sacrificing his child to honor his vow to God, and because God, through his prophet Isaiah, associated child sacrifice with goddess worshipers (Is 57.5), the J story of Jephthah refutes the charge, rightly laying the onus of origin upon God.
Son of Gideon, Jephthah, whose mother was a harlot, is half-brother to Gideon’s sons by Gideon’s wife. Gideon’s sons inform him he has no inheritance because he is the son of another woman. The KJV phrases it as “the son of a strange, ’achêr, woman,” but in J ’achêr means “another” (Gn 4.25; 17.21; 26.21-22; 29.19; 30.24; 37.9) without a pejorative implied; the harlot was simply a woman other than Gideon’s wife. Because in another J document Abraham bequeathed everything he owned to Isaac, who was the son of his wife Sarah, unlike Ishmael, who was the son of Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, matrilineal descent through the legitimate wife determined inheritance. And yet, in this story, the entitled sons, in ceding authority to their bastard brother, in a comic reversal of fortune legitimize both him and his harlot mother.
Jephthah’s name, which originated in E, is derived from pâthach, which means “to open.” Perhaps the Elohist meant Jephthah opened his mouth in declaring his vow to God; certainly J puns on his name when Jephthah informs his daughter that he must offer her as a burnt sacrifice. In J God opened, pâthach, the wombs of Leah and Rachel (Gn 29.31; 30.22) and to each woman was born their first child, Reuben to Leah, and Joseph to Rachel. For he who opens, Jephthah, his first child, and only child, is she of no name whom he sacrifices to honor his vow to God. God gives and God takes away.
After his half-brothers run him off, Jephthah flees to Tob, or “good, beautiful,” which the scribes must have meant ironically because in the good, beautiful land empty men gathered themselves around Jephthah. In J ‘gather’ is used only in reference to the gathering of manna (Nm 16.4, 21), manna that emaciated the people (Ps 106.15), manna that God gave to humble the people (Dt 8.3, 16). Manna was not a provision so much as it was a punishment, according to J, and, by extension, Tob only appeared to be good, but was not, for it harbored empty men, men as empty as a pit (Gn 37.24).
Because the Ammonites have waged war against Israel, the elders of Gilead go to Tob to entreat Jephthah to be their captain in the war against the people of Ammon. Jephthah chides them, sounding suspiciously like God in the patriarchal stories in which God reproves Israel for coming to him only during periods of distress. Jephthah’s arrogant and irascible temperament, influenced by men as empty as a pit, is like God’s. And if there is any doubt about Jephthah being likened to God, the elders tell Jephthah they have returned to him to have him fight their battles, just as in the patriarchal stories Israel returned to God to have God fight for them. And, to cement the association between Jephthah and God, just as God in the patriarchal stories will only fight for Israel if the people of Israel promise to make him their god, Jephthah will only fight for Gilead if Gilead promises to make him their leader.
The men vow to make Jephthah their leader, and the spirit of God comes over Jephthah, who passes over Gilead, Manasseh and Mizpeh to meet the Ammonites.
Jephthath vows to God that if God should give him victory over the Ammonites, he would offer as a burnt sacrifice the greeter coming out of his house door to meet him upon his safe return home. In J only people, not animals, come to meet, or greet, people (Gn 18.2; 19.1; 24.17, 65; 29.13; 30.16; 32.6; 33.4; 46.29). Jephthah, however, does not specify who or what might come out of the door, which means Jephthah’s vow is empty-headed and rash, and yet as a sworn oath, which, in Israel only a man could make of his own initiative, he is obligated to keep it regardless of the consequence. This critique of a man’s empty-headed vow satirizes the patriarchal law that a woman cannot swear an oath without the permission of her father, or, if married, her husband: men, empty and rash, can make a vow, and yet they decide whether or not a woman can take an oath? Once again in J the question is asked: Where is the justice?
After Jephthah vows to offer God a burnt offering God delivers the Ammonites to Jephthah for slaughter. Jephthah returns to his home only to see his only child, his daughter, coming out of his house to greet him with timbrels and dances as is the custom of women (Ex 15.20; 1 Sm 18.6). Because everyone knows the first to meet a victorious warrior is a revel-making woman, Jephthah’s daughter coming out with timbrels emphasizes Jephthah’s empty-headed vow: he should have known better; in fact the custom of women proves he knew who would come out first to greet him, but for his appetite for glory he ignored his better judgment because he is an empty-headed warrior for whom power is all.
Jephthah blames his daughter for his obligation to sacrifice her, his firstborn and only child, just as God blamed the people for his statute in which he commanded them to offer their firstborn children (Ez 20.24-26). He opened (a pun on Jephthah’s name) his mouth, he informs her, and cannot go back on his word. He who is the open mouth by name is he who is opened-mouthed to his shame, and yet it is his daughter who receives the blame.
The daughter dutifully tells him, “Since you opened your mouth, fulfill your oath at my expense.” Not that she needed to tell him; it was a fait accompli. So why did she tell him? What could the J scribes mean by the daughter’s willingness to die? Since she was the sacrifice was she the savior of Gilead, and not her father? It would seem so. In J women save Israel, as Rahab saved Israel, as Jael saved Israel.
The daughter asks only one thing of her father: allow her to bewail her virginity. Does she mean by her virginity that she intends to cry over never having known a man? Perhaps this is part of the reason for her bereavement, but the greater part may be the daughter’s distress that she will no longer be a merrymaker in Israel who sets the tone of religious discourse through timbrel-playing and dancing as virgins do (Jer 31.4). In the daughter’s coming out to meet her father, she plays the timbrel and dances, but the J scribes do not reveal the daughter’s song, nor do they need to because the tradition is well established: women’s lyrics are satirical (Ex 15.21; Jgs 5.1, 12; 11.34; 1 Sm 2.1-10; 18.6, 7, 11; 2 Sm 1.20). The daughter’s mourning of her virginity is a wailing over the loss of her community among virgins whose lyrics could shame both god and king. And this is why from then on it became a custom in Israel that women for four days every year honored the memory of the virgin daughter. The timbrel, according to Carol Myers [Carol L. Meyers, “Of Drums and Damsels: Women’s Performance in Ancient Israel” Biblical Archeologist 54 (March 1991): 16-26], is associated with Asherah, the goddess the J scribes revere and memorialize in hidden transcripts. Because the daughter with the timbrel is silenced; because Asherah of the timbrel is silenced, women come together to remember and honor her.