My family and I recently read 1 Samuel 14, the second half of which contains the somewhat odd story where Saul almost kills his son for sampling some local honey.

Photo credit: Wolfgang Hasselmann

Of course, there’s more to it than that. Saul makes a vow that no one should eat on the day of battle, but Jonathan who has actually been out doing the fighting, doesn’t know about it. And on his way back to camp, he scoops up some honey for a pick-me-up, gets a sugar rush, and his men explain that he has, inadvertently, triggered the vow. And Jonathan points out how stupid it is for his father to lay a curse on his fighting men for eating. But whether or not Saul finds it stupid, he has no intention of backing down. When he finds out that Jonathan broke the vow, he tells him he’ll kill him. And the army threatens to revolt if Saul harms him in any way, because Jonathan is the guy who gets stuff done. Jonathan is the one who led the charge and started the battle that allowed Saul to rout the Philistines and be the hero. So everyone goes home. Jonathan doesn’t die. Saul looks like a posturing idiot (because he is). The End.

And that’d be fine. Good story. It helps us to see some of Saul’s unfitness to be king. But there’s something more. This story pings off of a story not too distant: the story of Jephthah, and Jephthah’s rash vow. Jephthah is also a war leader in Israel. Jephthah also makes a rash vow that inadvertently affects his child. Jephthah is also portrayed as an unworthy leader for God’s people. Plenty of readers and commentators have noticed all of this. But I’m not sure that there’s been a lot of attention paid to the victims.

Jonathan is the heir apparent.

Jonathan is a hero.

Jonathan’s men see that he’s blessed by God.

Jonathan’s men love him and protect him.

Jephthah’s daughter is heir to nothing.

Jephthah’s daughter is just a nice girl.

Jephthah’s daughter has no appreciable value to her community.

Jephthah’s daughter has no one who stands up to defend her.

Photo credit Mohamed Nohassi

Not a neighbour. Not a friend. Not a local boy who thinks she’s cute. Not a family member. Not a single person during the two months that she pleads to have to prepare herself. Not a local priest or Levite or tribal chief or town elder or random person who is walking past as Jephthah ties down his daughter and takes up a knife and slaughters her like the cow she apparently is in his eyes.

Terms like “systemic injustice” and “male privilege” are relatively new, and certainly unknown to the writers of scripture. But let me suggest that the concept is not completely absent. The authors and compilers of these stories were surely not blind to the similarities that are here. And while we very often look at these stories and talk about unfit leadership, let’s not forget that the writers also want us to hear the stories of two young people, one who is snatched from the jaws of death by his loyal army because of his goodness and courage, and one who meets a savage end completely alone, with nothing but her goodness and courage.

Ashley Hibbard lives in Canada, and is a research associate with the CSBV and an adjunct lecturer at African Christian College, Eswatini.

Jonathan and Jephthah’s Daughter
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One thought on “Jonathan and Jephthah’s Daughter

  • 27th April 2021 at 6:39 pm

    It’s interesting that humanity designates value at all. In the garden, there wasn’t an specific value assigned to Adam upon his creation, nor to Eve. We are called God’s treasure, the apple of His eye. None is less or more as far as the Father is concerned. I think the term treasure is excellent because it denotes a worth based on the owner, not the treasure itself. To a 9 year old boy, LEGOs are a treasure! To a thirsty man, homeless on the streets mid-summer, a cup of cold water is a treasure. The value is inherent to the ownership…. in our case, God.

    God forgive us for ever entertaining the notion that any human matters less or more. Thank you for this excellent piece, which brings to light an area where my thinking must be challenged and transformed.


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