I would like to talk about the last verse of the eleventh chapter of the book of Judges. But first, I would like to give you a quick refresher on the first 39 verses where we learn the story of Jephthah the Gileadite. Jephthah was the child of a prostitute who was eventually run out of his father’s house and his hometown. He moved to the land of Tob where he lived as a thieving outlaw. But one day the elders of Gilead came to him in Tob and explained that the Ammonites were planning war against them. They asked him to return home and to lead them in their fight against the Ammonites. Jephthah’s first question for them—reasonably I think—was “Are you not the very ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house? So why do you come to me now when you are in trouble?” (Judges 11:7) The desperate elders could not deny this accusation, but they knew they needed him. So they offered Jephthah the role as head over all of Gilead if he would come back home and save his people from the Ammonites. Jephthah accepted their offer and returned home with them where he was made head and commander over Gilead. He set out to explore the problem and over the course of 17 verses we learn all about the land disputes between the Gileadites and the Ammonites. Eventually Jephthah decides that it’s time to fight and embarks on a journey towards war. And for reasons that the text doesn’t tell us—Jephthah stopped and made a vow before heading into battle. Judges 11:30-31 read, “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” Now, if you’re anything like me, this vow makes you cringe. I want to shake him, and ask him what the heck his problem is. Why on earth would anyone ever make such a horrible vow? He must have known of the victory celebrations after war. He must have known that all the women would be dancing and playing hand drums to celebrate his victorious return. And yet he vows, “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me…shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” And in verse 34 we read, “then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing.” His daughter, his only daughter, his only child, runs out to meet him in celebration. Of course, all celebration stops when he sees her. For, he immediately realizes the stupid thing that he has done. His daughter, who is never named, asks that she be given two months to go and mourn with her friends, which she is granted. And Judges 11:39 reads “At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made.”
I’ve just told you a horrible story and I don’t have any way to rosy it up. But I had to share the story of Jephthah and his daughter with you, so that together, we can understand the solemnity of the last verse of the eleventh chapter of Judges. It reads, “for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” Every year they went out to mourn her, they created a public witness to the injustice that had taken place, they lamented the life that had been sacrificed. In her book Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible offers these words:
Like the daughters of Israel, we remember and mourn the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. In her death we are all diminished; by our memory she is forever hallowed…Her story, brief as it is, evokes the imagination, calling forth a reader’s response. Surely words of lament are a seemly offering, for did not the daughters of Israel mourn the daughter of Jephthah every year? (TOT 108)
Every year. Every year. Where did that custom go?
In The Inverse World of Mourning in the Hebrew Bible, Paul Kruger gives multiple examples of what mourning looked like in biblical times. Mourners would gash and beat their bodies, tear their clothes, stop eating, roll around in the dirt, sit on ashes and stop bathing. Beyond these examples of personal manifestations, there are also examples of corporate rituals. The prophet Jeremiah called for professional mourners. Jeremiah 9:17-18 read, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider, and call for the mourning women to come; send for the skilled women to come; let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water.” Verse 20 continues, “Hear, O women, the word of the Lord, and let your ears receive the word of his mouth; teach to your daughters a dirge, and each to her neighbor a lament.” Ezekiel 32:16 reads, “This is a lamentation; it shall be chanted. The women of the nations shall chant it. Over Egypt and all its hordes they shall chant it, says the Lord God.” The Psalms are filled with cries of lament and of course, we have the entire book of Lamentations. Mourning was an essential component of life for the Israelites. So Judges 11:40 isn’t surprising, “for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” But again I ask, where did this custom go? Can you think of anything like it in our culture?
Americans live in constant contradiction. We are bombarded daily with news of war, poverty, hunger, disease, corruption and violence. Yet we’ve also been raised with the notion that in this country, with a lot of hard work, some positive thinking, and a little ingenuity, we can have success. We turn on the 5:00 news and we hear of unspeakable violence and trauma mixed in with 30-second snippets of perfect happiness. How are we supposed to balance all of these messages? Somehow, we seem to have a bizarre ability to hold them all together or at least compartmentalize them. We praise suffering people for being strong. But as I look around, I am often overcome with an underlying sense of powerlessness and grief, and I doubt I’m alone. I wonder what we’re losing by holding it all together? What is the cost of forgetting traditions like that of the daughters of Israel mourning the sacrifice of the daughter of Jephthah? According to the authors of the book Rachel’s Cry, “A clear consequence of banishing the many moods…of lament—among them, anguish, remorse, fury, protest, even hatred—is that we lose an essential resource in confronting the very emotions that terrify us.” (RC 14)
Now, in case you’re starting to worry that I’m about to ask you to run outside, tear your clothes, put dirt on your head and scream at the top of your lungs—relax—I’m not. But I am asking you to consider your relationship to mourning. Why are we scared of it? Are we afraid that if we allow ourselves to feel the suffering inside of us and around us that we will become paralyzed? Stuck in passive vulnerability? Do we think of the daughters of Israel and their ritual of annual remembering as the behavior of paralyzed, passive people? I know I don’t. I will concede, however, that they were vulnerable people. In their continued remembering, they allowed themselves to be vulnerable to their pain, year after year. I wonder what affect this communal vulnerability had on their community—and what affect it can continue to have on ours if we let it. In her book Precarious Life, Judith Butler says:
Perhaps…one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly for ever. Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation (perhaps one should say submitting to a transformation) the full result of which one cannot know in advance. (PL 21)
To think of mourning as submitting to transformation seems wildly powerful to me. There is no room for paralyzing passivity in transformation. No room for overwhelming fear that dictates our lives. Transformation requires action; it requires attention. How were the daughters of Israel transformed by their grief? And how were they and their community continually transformed in their action of remembering? What would happen if we allowed ourselves and each other to fully embrace grief, to fully mourn the suffering that we are surrounded by? Now, I understand that mourning doesn’t in and of itself create change; however, once we allow ourselves to grieve our personal and global losses, we can take notice of what we’ve lost. And when we pay attention to what we’ve lost, then we can begin to look at what’s left. What’s left of our relationships, our communities, and ourselves. Loss changes us, grief changes us. When, instead of banishing mourning to the far reaches of our minds and removing it from our discourse, we submit to its transforming power, when we allow ourselves to feel the pain, hurt, loss, anger, rage, confusion—then we can take stock of who we are and what we need to do. Do we need to repent, do we need to be grateful, do we need to protest? In our grief, we come to understand that we are vulnerable and that we always will be vulnerable. With this understanding, we can transform our fear into an understanding of our interdependence. We can learn to care for one another.
While I was a student at Whitworth College, I attended a lecture by James Waller about his book Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. He said that while most of us will not commit horrendous acts of violence, we will become bystanders to it. This thought has haunted me ever since I heard it. I don’t know about you, but I do not want to stand by in the midst of horrible suffering. But everyday, I do stand by. And I do it because I’m scared.
Recently I came across a group called the Black Sash, a white women’s organization for human rights that ardently fought against apartheid and Afrikaner nationalism in South Africa for almost forty years:
The women of the Black Sash protested in various ways, but their ‘most visible and most reviled public activity was to stand silently in public places with black sashes across their chests, overtly lamenting injustice.’ When these public ‘stands’ were forbidden by the Riotous Assemblies Act, the women continued to stand—not in a group, but ten meters apart. (RC 92)
The Black Sash—born out of a conversation between six Johannesburg housewives at a tea party in 1955—was called by Nelson Mandela, the conscience of the white nation. We would be well served to remember those women and that tea party the next time we think of allowing fear to keep us from taking action. Big things start in small places.
The Black Sash was not only an integral part of the opposition against apartheid; they were also part of the inspiration for other peace movements such as Women in Black. Women in Black vigils were started in Israel in 1988 by women protesting against Israel’s Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, but have become a worldwide means of mobilization and a formula for action. The mission statement of Women in Black New York reads:
[We] stand in silent vigil to protest war, rape as a tool of war, ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses all over the world. We are silent because mere words cannot express the tragedy that wars and hatred bring. We refuse to add to the cacophony of empty statements that are spoken with the best intentions yet may be erased or go unheard under the sound of a passing ambulance or a bomb exploding nearby.
Our silence is visible. We invite women to stand with us, reflect about themselves and women who have been raped, tortured or killed in concentration camps, women who have disappeared, whose loved ones have disappeared or have been killed, whose homes have been demolished. We wear black as a symbol of sorrow for all victims of war, for the destruction of people, nature and the fabric of life. (WIB para 1,2)
Women in Black vigils help to bring the act of mourning into public consciousness, making it a difficult act to ignore. They are the modern day daughters of Israel mourning the daughter of Jephthah. The history of the Black Sash and the presence of Women in Black give me courage to fight the fear that keeps me a bystander. And they give me hope for our broken world.
According to the authors of Rachel’s Cry, “the wisdom tradition [of the Bible] knows that lived experience is sometimes like a broken vase whose shards cannot be easily reunited rather than like a puzzle whose pieces can be neatly fit into a unified design.” (RC 24) I love this quote. Every one of us has lived life, we have suffered, and we have witnessed suffering in the people close to us and, because of technology, in the people on the other side of the globe. What would happen if instead of trying to hold everything together like a perfect puzzle piece, we allowed ourselves to stop once and awhile and pay attention to suffering? In the words of Phyllis Trible, “Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings.” (TOT 2) Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter is a horrifying and sad story, but I agree with Trible, it yielded a new beginning in the lives of the daughters of Israel who mourned her every year. So my question becomes, how can reflection inspire repentance and create space for change? I am not trying to tell you that you have to be sad all the time and that in your sorrow you will change the world. I’m asking each one of us, myself included, to pay attention, to not stand by in the midst of suffering. I don’t know what ‘not standing by’ means for each of us as individuals or for our church community as a whole. But I have the sense that if we allow ourselves time to mourn the injustice and suffering that surrounds us, we will be transformed. And in our transformation, we will find the courage to fight the fear that paralyzes us into being bystanders. In our transformation as individuals, this community will be transformed and who knows, maybe a little of that transformation can seep out into the larger world and create space for change.
Billman, Kathleen D. and Daniel L. Migliore. Rachel’s Cry. Cleveland, OH: United
Church Press, 1999. (RC)
Butler, Judith. Precarious Life. New York: Verso, 2004. (PL)
Gerstein, Beth. “A Ritual Processed: A Look at Judges 11:40.” In Anti-Covenant.
Sheffield Academic Press, 1989.
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Kruger, Paul. “The Inverse World of Mourning in the Hebrew Bible.” Biblische Notizen
124 (2005): 41-49.
Meyers, Carol, ed. Women in Scripture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, 2001.
Spink, Kathryn. Black Sash. Great Britain: St Edmundsbury Press, 1991.
Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. (TOT)
Women in Black. 11 Nov. 2002. Date accessed 20 Nov. 2007.