Mourning with Jephthah’s Daughter
Thirty years ago my older brother asked if I wanted to go to Sonic with him to get a cherry limeade. On the way back we passed my dad in his beat up Chevy truck. As he waved I asked my brother where my dad was headed. “He’ll be back,” my brother responded. But he never did come back. That one moment in time defined so much of the following decades, and it still presses itself into my mind some nights, refusing to let me sleep. I didn’t know it then, but that moment marked the beginning point of a “distinct type of suffering that overwhelms a person’s normal capacity to cope.”¹
Trauma is a sort of suffering that forces us to our knees, that defies all attempts to come to grips with what has happened or been done to us. Scholar Jennifer Beste states that this sort of suffering “shatters persons’ key assumptions regarding self and one’s relations to others in the world, including a sense of self-protection, personal invulnerability, and safety and predictability in the world.”² People respond to trauma in their own ways, but a few coping strategies show up regularly. For example, survivors of trauma often dissociate and withdraw in order to protect themselves. I’ve seen this in my own life, as I’ve struggled to develop what my counselor calls “safe and meaningful relationships.” Since that day my dad left, I thrash about at the first sign of intimacy, doing everything in my power to push people away before they leave of their own accord.
My oldest son is six now, the same age I was when my dad left.
Self-blame is also common and can function as a defense mechanism to stave off the despair caused by the complete loss of power and personhood.³ My oldest son is six now, the same age I was when my dad left. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve looked at him and said to myself, “How could I ever leave this boy?” And another thought follows quickly on: “I must have been a really difficult child, or my dad would have stayed.” I know that’s a lie, of course, but I’ve heard that whisper in my ear for decades. The self-blame at least means that it was really me, and not my dad, driving the Chevy that day.
Psychologist Judith Herman, who has written extensively about trauma and its effects, argues that recovering from trauma proceeds, though not always linearly, through three stages: “establishment of safety,” “remembrance and mourning,” and “reconnection with ordinary life.”⁴ The Old Testament helps us navigate Herman’s second stage of remembering and mourning by retelling the stories of others and inviting us to see ourselves in those stories.
Jephthah’s daughter, whose tragic murder we explored earlier, gives readers an opportunity to enter into remembrance by retelling her story, and it encourages us to sit in mourning with her by recounting her own grief and the establishment of a mourning ceremony in Israel. Judges 11:36–40 (CSB) reads:
Then she said to him, “My father, you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me as you have said, for the Lord brought vengeance on your enemies, the Ammonites.” She also said to her father, “Let me do this one thing: Let me wander two months through the mountains with my friends and mourn my virginity.”
“Go,” he said. And he sent her away two months. So she left with her friends and mourned her virginity as she wandered through the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, and he kept the vow he had made about her. And she had never been intimate with a man. Now it became a custom in Israel that four days each year the young women of Israel would commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Of course, the two months of mourning did nothing to stave off Jephthah’s daughter’s death—her father still committed filicide—but perhaps these short verses do something for us, the living.
The story of Jephthah’s daughter highlights the importance of remembrance. God in his wisdom carved this story of abuse into Scripture. He ensured that it would be remembered. He didn’t cover it up, push it away, or pretend it never happened. He disclosed it for all the world to see. God brought this daughter’s story to light, which shapes readers in two ways. First, the disclosure tells us to listen to the stories. Stories of trauma matter. Bearing witness to the stories matters. Second, sufferers of trauma can see our own lives in Jephthah’s daughter and learn that disclosing our stories of trauma is okay, right even. God, after all, told us Jephthah’s daughter’s story.
Stories of trauma matter. Bearing witness to the stories matters.
Second, her story shows the value of mourning. Jephthah’s daughter and her friends—and even her father—recognized the tragedy of what Jephthah was going to do. They mourned. They didn’t push Jephthah’s daughter toward forgiveness or excuse her father’s actions. They didn’t tell her to move on, to consider her role in the abuse, or ask why she kept bringing up the past. They just mourned. No excuses, no explanations, no encouragements to forgive and forget. Just mourning.
In sum, the story of Jephthah’s daughter teaches us to be better, healthier human beings. In the first place, we can learn what it means to bear witness to the suffering of others; we can learn to give space for disclosure of trauma and for mourning. We can learn to honor survivors of trauma by listening to their stories and by weeping with them. In the second place, perhaps we can see ourselves in Jephthah’s daughter and give witness to our own trauma. Too often we learn to bottle up our experiences. Our minds bury our hurt to protect us when we couldn’t possibly go on otherwise. What’s more, so many of us have discovered danger in telling our stories. We become vulnerable once again: we’re disbelieved, we’re cast aside. Yet God asks us to, at the very least, tell him our story. He told Jephthah’s daughter’s story. It’s just one among a host of other traumatic narratives etched into Scripture. And that tells us God can be trusted with our suffering.