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I was recently in Canada visiting my daughters; as family reunions often go, we discussed our complicated family dynamics. And again, as it often goes, we played the blame game. They say to me, "When I celebrated my birthday, you could not come…When I needed money, you were too poor to help me….When I was sick, there was no one to bring me chicken soup….When I needed you, you weren't there." Like all parents of mature children, I suppose, I feel badly at times like these. But I also get a little defensive. I make excuses and try to reclaim my place as the parent with integrity. I want my children to say, "It's OK Mum. You are a wonderful parent. I still love you." I want them to play the part of the willing sacrifice and let me off the hook. This article addresses the idea of the willing sacrifice of our daughters first by taking a quick look at the story of Jephthah's daughter and some of this story's written and artistic interpretations, then by perusing a modern film that deals with a similar theme but is resolved somewhat differently, Pan's Labyrinth.

In the book of Judges, chapter 11, Jephthah vows that, if he is victorious against the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first one who comes to meet him upon his return. Of course, his only daughter is the first to greet him "with timbrels and with dancing." Jephthah says to her, "Alas my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow" (11:35). She says to him, "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites. Let this thing be done to me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I" (11:36-37). At the end of this time, Jephthah "did to her according to the vow he had made" (11:39); that is, he sacrificed her. His unnamed daughter is not offered Isaac's reprieve.

Traditional/patriarchal interpretations acknowledge Jephthah's choice as the only possible alternative: he should give priority to the vow he made to God; what the daughter feels or thinks is totally irrelevant. The words in her mouth are submissive, as they should be. She is a model daughter, prepared to give herself up for the sake of her father. The text itself excuses Jephthah: there is no resounding refrain at the end of the story—so common in the rest of the book of Judges—that what Jephthah did was "evil in the LORD's sight" (2:11, 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1). In 1615, R. Rogers claims that this story is intended to remind the reader not to get too attached to what really belongs to God anyway.[1] As recently as 1962, C. F. Kraft commends Jephthah: "it was not a rash vow, but deliberate . . . he was expecting great things, and he promised his best in return." Kraft praises the daughter as one willing to die for her father's integrity.[2] She is a Jesus-type, one who "lays down her life" for her father (cf. John 15:13). One twentieth-century interpreter makes this striking comment: the women companions who commemorated Jephthah's daughter on an annual basis "came back to be far better daughters than they went out. They came back softened, and purified, and sobered at heart. They came back ready to die for their fathers, and for their brothers, and for their husbands, and for their God."[3] These interpretations, like my own rationalizations with my daughters, see the tragedy of the story of Jephthah's daughter, but assign the violence to a higher calling in service of God, father, and social stability. The parents win. If I were to apply the same interpretive strategy to my relationship with my daughters, I might say that my parenting skills are just fine! I followed a biblical model and taught my daughters humility, self-discipline, and service. They have no right to complain.

Other interpreters shift the focus of the story from violence to subtle elements of resistance. So, for example, Peggy Day argues that the story of Jephthah's daughter focuses on the rite of passage from an adolescent to a woman.[4] Although Jephthah does not renege on his vow to God, he does give his daughter a reprieve of two months so that she might "bewail her adolescence," reads Day—that is, not her virginity. This way, the daughter wins because she is remembered every year in this adolescent rite of passage. The story is thus etiological in nature and genre. Mieke Bal suggests that Jephthah's daughter is more interested in celebrating her adolescent rite of passage than she is in mourning the lost opportunity of sexual intercourse.[5] It is not the daughter, but the narrator who sees her virginity as a subject for mourning in verse 39: "She had never slept with a man." The daughter wins again because she enjoys the last few days of her life the way she wants to. It is a story of feminist resistance. Cheryl Exum notes that the daughter—first blamed by Jephthah—wins a power struggle when she shifts the blame back to the father, turns away from him, and turns toward her companions.[6] Or to put it another way, the daughter knows where to put her priorities—in her BFFs! (Best Friends Forever!). Danna Nolan Fewell suggests that the daughter unwittingly stumbled into her father's vow and acted tragically, but again wins because she is such a model of courage.[7] Others suggest that the daughter knew about her father's vow and gave herself willingly in order to spare another innocent community member from her foolish father's vow. She wins because she dies willingly for the sake of her community; again, she is a hero. We tend to like heroes these days; the television drama, Heroes, attests to that. If I were to apply the same interpretive strategy to my relationship with my daughters, I might say that, in spite of my poor parenting, they win because they are mature, responsible, independent, and lovely young women.

Obviously, I have adjusted the interpretive language to reflect the idea of winning and losing in order to highlight the stark difference in interpretive strategies. When we look at the art on the subject of Jephthah's daughter, we also see some sharp interpretive differences. Three examples will demonstrate.

First, Gustave Doré's woodcut from 1865 locates Jephthah's daughter in the center of the action—leading a crowd of young women in exuberant but modest dance, stepping lightly, almost suspended over the earthen mountain path.[8] The grain of the woodcut rises and falls with the energy of her dance. But the snapshot moment of the story is ambiguous. Does the illustration capture the moment when the daughter celebrates her father's victorious return.  As Judg 11:34 says that she greeted him dancing with a timbrel, we might assume so. The black and white of the illustration might also suggest that the daughter knows she has only two choices: to die or to live. Or, is the snapshot moment capturing the daughter as she celebrates the time with her girlfriends in the mountains? The mountain scene and the presence of other young women in the background might suggest this. The title gives it away, however: sadly, Doré called it, Jephthah's Daughter Coming to Meet her Father. Doré prefers the joyful self-sacrificing daughter.

Now compare a 1945 revision of Doré's woodcut by the German artist Arnulf Rainer.[9] Rainer takes Doré's woodcut and colors it with streams of bright red, blue, yellow, and pink rays emanating from the dancing daughter, as though she were the center of radiant flames of fire. The whole scene is haloed with entwining lines. The brambles of wood and flames thus foreshadow her sacrifice and bring the two narrative moments—the greeting and the sacrifice—into one image. The lines might also suggest barbed wire, emphasizing her loss of freedom, either to live or to choose her own destiny. Or the wire might evoke a motif of the Jewish Holocaust, offering a social critique of those who went to their death without resistance. In any case, Rainer's revision reframes Doré's joyous celebrating daughter into a woman dancing in the flames of her own sacrifice. Rainer appreciates the more tragic nature of the dancing daughter.

Finally, consider Barry Moser's engraving, The Daughter on the Pyre.[10] Moser captures an anorexic undeveloped adolescent already half-consumed by the pyre in which she lies. Her resolute face reaches upward, yet her eyes are closed. She goes to her death with intention, to honor her father. Her physique suggests that she is used to want: food, rest, nurture, compassion, her father's love, and the intervention of her mother and her community. Even her peers, her BFFs—best friends forever—are absent. Moser gives the emaciated and mystical daughter a look of unyielding strength, however, as if she is giving up her life—Jesus-like—as atonement for her father's sin. She is in absolute control. Here, Moser captures the most important moment in the story, in my opinion: the moment when the daughter takes her place on the altar.

All three illustrations demonstrate the ambivalence of the story's import. Do we blame the father or credit the child for this loss of life? Or in my situation, do I apologize to my daughters, praise them for putting up with me, or tell them to suck it up?

Finally, we turn to a recent film to see how the theme of daughter-sacrifice plays out to an even more contemporary audience. In his Oscar-winning movie called El Laberinto del Fauno (or Pan's Labyrinth) released in 2006, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro tells a painful story of Spain in 1944 as seen through the eyes of a young girl named Ofelia (played by Ivana Baquero). In the opening scene, Ofelia is warned by her mother to leave behind her dreamy world of fantasy and fairy tales so that she might make a good impression on her new step-father, Captain Vidal, the fascist commander of an isolated military outpost. Amid the turmoil caused by Spanish resistance fighters, Ofelia seems invisible both to the captain—who wants only a son—and her desperately sick and pregnant mother. In a flight of fantasy, she follows a fairy into an ancient and mysterious labyrinth. There she meets Faun, a strange satyr-like creature who informs her that she is a long-lost princess, the daughter of the King of the Underworld. Faun gives her three tasks to complete before the full moon to see if her "essence is still intact." Ofelia courageously and successfully completes the first two tasks, but, for the third, she refuses to turn over her new baby brother to Faun when bidden, therefore giving up the opportunity to reclaim her throne in the Underworld.

Faun aks her, "Would you sacrifice your sacred rights for this brat you barely know?" "Yes," she says, "I would." "Would you give up your throne for him who has caused you so much misery and humiliation?" "Yes," she says, "I would." The Faun disappears as the enraged captain staggers into the scene. He grabs the child from Ofelia and shoots her. As she lies dying, her blood drips onto the altar that stands at the entrance of the underworld. In a flash, the next scene shows Ofelia in a cavernous throne room fully restored and dressed in velvet. She looks up and says simply, "Father." The King of the Underworld says, "Arise my daughter. Come closer. You have spilled your own blood rather than the blood of an innocent. That was the final task, the most important." Ofelia sees her mother, beautiful and restored, and joins her to the applause of all those present. At the close of the film, the narrator claims that Ofelia returned to her father's kingdom and reigned there with justice and a kind heart for many years; she left traces of her presence for those who knew how to see them.

I draw your attention to this film because I see resonance here with the concept of the sacrifice of daughters. As Ofelia—an important daughter—protects her baby brother at the cost of her own life, Jephthah's daughter protects her father's life. Neither Ofelia's brother nor Jephthah's father warrants the sacrifice; neither is sympathetic; there are no heart strings pulling to protect them. But while Ofelia is renamed a princess, restored to her Underworld kingdom, and is remembered by the traces she has left behind, Jephthah's daughter dies and only her father's name lives on.

In spite of attempts to the contrary, the story of Jephthah's daughter cannot really be saved through the language of interpretation and art. And while I usually like the idea of redeeming the women in biblical stories in some way, in this story I just cannot conclude that the end of the daughter can be justified through the means of the story-telling. A father is stupid. God withholds. The daughter dies. Her name dies. Even the unnamed daughters of Israel are silent; the annual ritual for her lament was forgotten long, long ago. We have lost a daughter and not even realized it. In contrast, Pan's Labyrinth takes the story of the daughter who willingly gives her life to save another and redeems both the story and the daughter by locating her reward in another dimension. But, of course, this film is absolute fantasy. In the end, then, by its very genre, the film does the same thing as the interpreters in text and art demonstrate. Every attempt to rationalize the victimization of the daughter fails.

Perhaps too much attention has been paid to the plight of the daughter and not enough to the silence and inadequacy of her family. Perhaps a different type of question must be raised: Where were the other women in the story of Jephthah's daughter? Where were her aunts and cousins and friends? Instead of chalking this story up as another woman-victim story, perhaps it is time to acknowledge the rebuke directed at those who are silent in the background.

For me and my own daughters, I need to stop making excuses and justifying my behavior. I will be there more often. I will attend to them and love them. Hopefully, then, they may desire to stay present in this life, to seek life and not sacrifice, reality and not the refuge of a fantasy.

Jane S. Webster, Barton College


[1] R. Rogers, A Commentary on Judges (1615) cited in Timothy K. Beal and David M. Gunn, "The Book of Judges," in Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (gen. ed. John H. Hayes; Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 637-47.

[2] C. F. Kraft, "Jephthah," and "Book of Judges," in vol. 2 of Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1962), 820-21, 1018.

[3] Alexander Whyte, Biblical Characters: Gideon to Absalom (1905), 31, cited in Timothy K. Beal and David M. Gunn, "The Book of Judges." DBI, 637-47.

[4] Peggy L. Day, "From the Child is Born the Woman: The Story of Jephthah's Daughter," in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel (ed. Peggy L. Day; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 58.

[5] Mieke Bal, Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), chapters 2, 4, and 5.

[6] J. Cheryl Exum, "Feminist Criticism: Whose Interests Are Being Served?," in Judges and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies (ed. Gale A. Yee, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 75-78.

[7] Danna Nolan Fewell, "Judges." In Women's Bible Commentary Expanded Edition (ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon Ringe; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 77.

[8] Gustave Doré, Jephthah's Daughter Coming to Meet her Father (1865). This illustration appears in many editions, e.g., Le Sainte Bible: Traduction nouvelle selon la Vulgate par Mm. J.-J. Bourasse et P. Janvier (Tours: Alfred Mame et Fils, 1866).

[9] Arnulf Rainer, Jephthah's Daughter Goes to Greet Her Father (1995-98), Museum Freider Burda, Baden-Baden.

[10] Barry Moser, The Daughter on the Pyre (2003), illustration in Moser, The Holy Bible: King James Version: The Pennyroyal Caxton Bible (New York: Viking Studio, 1999).

Citation: Jane S. Webster, " Giving Up on Life: Jephthah's Daughters," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2008]. Online:


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