Woman protesting for Democracy in Iran

I write essays each week as part of my seminary studies. Usually they are not related to the topic of this blog, but the one I wrote today ended up being very appropriate. It’s short – we have a strict word limit. I think this essay could stand to be expanded. But I like it anyways. I started off the essay with no idea at all what I would say about Daughter, and I’m amazed, again, at what we can see when we sit with a story. I was thinking about stories and how we live stories and that’s why they’re powerful to us. I asked myself, have I EVER seen a story like this in my life? Surely not! And then suddenly I realized – I haven’t just SEEN this story – I have LIVED it! I have BEEN Daughter! 

I strongly encourage you to read this disturbing story in Judges 11:29-40 before you read this post.  

From the surface, the story in Judges 11:29-40 seems foreign and weird to us. A man makes a foolish vow and keeps it, though it results in the death of his daughter; and what is maybe more astonishing, she participates. But with a close examination of this story, we can see several themes that echo through the stories of our lives today.

  • Victim blaming

Upon realizing that he has vowed to sacrifice his own daughter (hereafter called “Daughter”), Jephthah lays the blame immediately on her head. “You have brought me very low,” he says. “You have become the cause of great trouble to me” (Judges 11:35). He explains that he has made a vow, but the emphasis is on her culpability. Never mind that he made the foolish vow and she was simply fulfilling her role as a faithful daughter in celebrating his victory. Jephthah deflects blame from himself onto Daughter. I hear echoes of his words in my own generation, “Look what you made me do…” and “Well, you shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

  • Internalized misogyny

Daughter’s response when she hears that her father has made a vow to kill her is, “Do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth.” She cares more about her father’s honor than her own life. Contrast this to Jonathan’s response to a similar vow made by Saul in 1 Sam 14:43. In the NRSV, Jonathan’s response is a statement, but in the CEB and most Spanish translations, it’s a question: “‘I only took a very small taste of honey on the end of my staff,’ he said. ‘And now I’m supposed to die?’” Jonathan has the self-assurance to protest Saul’s foolish vow (see 1 Sam 14:29-30), whereas Daughter understands herself to be her father’s, to do with what he will.

We read this and we feel superior (we would fight – we would run away) – but how many of us have been violated and rather than protesting, have been more concerned about the feelings of the violator? How many of us have soothed his guilt or laughed it off so as not to appear rude? How many of us have chosen to be polite rather than fierce when our boundaries are crossed? How many of us have excused men’s exploitation of women by saying something like, “Oh men!” How many of us have let doctors do things to our bodies that we didn’t actually want done? And then thanked them for it? Like Daughter, we are still vulnerable to the belief that our bodies are here for other people to do with what they will.

  • Solidarity of women

The one request Daughter makes for herself is that she and her friends be allowed to mourn her virginity for 2 months (Judges 14:37). After her death, “the daughters of Israel would go out to lament” Daughter (Judges 14:40). These women are linked in sorrow by their belief that nothing can be done for the women. They lament her fate. It is what it is, it’s horrible, and there’s nothing at all we can do about it. [1]

Each generation of feminists builds on the previous generations. I wonder if this lament is the very first women’s rights protest in western history. As we know, the first step to a solution is recognizing the problem. Although these women could not imagine a different world, they are recognizing and bringing attention to a problem – and that is Something.

This story is a cautionary tale, from which we can learn to hold people in power accountable for their choices; to maintain a strong sense of self – and the awareness that our bodies are our own and no one may violate us with impunity; and to gather with other women in solidarity with the full knowledge in our hearts of a different world and the hope that we can change the injustice we see.[2]



[1] Again contrast the women’s response with the men’s response in Jonathan’s situation – in 1 Sam 14:45 – the men join in solidarity with Jonathan in opposition to Saul, confidently imagining a world in which Jonathan is not at the mercy of his father. And they succeed.

[2] I went on Facebook after I wrote this essay, and I read a friend’s conversation about the BLM movement and the protests we’re seeing this year which are seeking racial justice. I think the protests for racial justice is a great example of another movement which imagines a different world than the one we live in. People of Color in our culture are seeing a problem and protesting with the hope and intention of changing the world. I am so grateful to live in a time when change is seen as a possibility, rather than a time like Daughter’s – where change wasn’t even thought of. Injustice was simply lamented.

Published by Nikki Holland

I am a Quaker wife, mother, pastor, and writer. I work as the country branch director of a fabulous NGO in Belize City and I recently graduated with an MDiv from Earlham School of Religion. I love my family, and I love my community.

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