Jephthah’s Daughter

Jephthah’s Daughter

Alicia Ostriker

The Book of Judges recounts the history of the Israelite people after settling in the promised land, as the tribes struggle against neighboring peoples such as the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Ammonites and the Moabites.

The story of Jephthah’s Daughter (Judges 11) tells us that Jephthah the Gileadite made a vow to the Lord before going into battle with the Ammonites. He vowed that if he succeeded in battle he would offer up to the Lord as a burnt offering whatever first came forth from the doors of his house to meet him. When his daughter (who is unnamed in the text) comes out with timbrels and dances to greet him, he rends his clothes, saying that she has brought him very low and troubled him, but that a vow to God cannot be retracted. She does not protest, but obtains permission to spend two months in the mountains with her companions, to bewail her virginity. When she returns, Jephthah fulfills his vow. An epilogue tells us that it was a custom for the daughters of Israel to lament her death for four days each year.

Jephthah’s Daughter: A Lament is a ceremony which offers an opportunity to grieve the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, and to ponder the meaning of her sacrifice to us today. Groups of women are invited to experiment with the text. A group may choose to read or perform the entire Lament, or it may select sections.


And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to the vow which he had vowed; and she had not known man.

And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.

Judges 11:38-39

(Performers come onstage to this chant, which may be repeated between sections of the performance.)

Going forth in mourning

Returning in joy

Going forth in mourning

Returning in joy

Going forth in mourning

Returning in joy


(The chorus is motionless. Two voices read, the italicized voice interrupting.)

Sacrifice: The act of offering something to a deity in propitiation or homage, esp. the ritual slaughter of an animal or person. A victim offered in this way. The forfeiture of something highly valued for the sake of one considered to have a greater value or claim.

The heart asks pleasure first. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. And then excuse from pain. And then —

Considered to have a greater, as they say, value or claim. A grander. A greedier. Such as a father. Such as a vow. A sequence of special higher-than-legal-more-sublime. Words. Such as a father might utter to One. The relinquishment of something at less than its presumed value. Something so relinquished. Such as a daughter. A loss so sustained. The father has. Lost the daughter.

The father has sacrificed the daughter.

He has–

we have– beloved one blessed are

lost her.

Holocaust: Great or total destruction, especially by fire. Widespread destruction. Disaster (bad stars). A sacrificial offering that is entirely consumed by flames. Cf. Holokaustos, burnt whole.

Sacer, sacred + facere, to make. It is made sacred by sacrificing it.


(Full chorus, almost dancelike, but uppercase is shouted)

Into a sacred clearing

from the forest of our lives

every year it is

a wild high climb

The presence of God

is in the rocky ridge

the wildflowers the stunted pines

the ghostly wind

Light stands on the mountain

almost too bright

like the truth from which our people

hide their eyes

Today we do not remember

the angel, the ram, the thicket

we remember the war

and the death of our sister

The sons of Ammon were coming

we feared their army

we begged Jephthah

be our leader

The spirit of God was upon him

he made a great slaughter

when he returned home he was greeted by his daughter

(Sopranos alone)

For he had one daughter, no other to praise him after the war so the child danced out with timbrels and with dancing from the door

But Jephthah rent his clothes he said you have brought me very low if a man open his mouth to God he must fulfill his vow

Then the child asked leave to go two months in the mountains to bewail her virginity among her companions.

Two months in the mountains.



(A section for several voices: A begins loudly then continues softly under the voice of B, who speaks her section twice, then yields to C, who speaks very quickly, etc. Variations can be tried; in any case the overall effect should be one of cacophony, but each voice should be heard clearly at least once. The final section is to be said in unison by all speakers. The duration of this piece should be no longer than one minute.)

A. She weeps in the night

her tears are on her cheek

my eye, my eye runs down with water

because the comforter is far from me

B. The Lord is become an enemy

he has swallowed up Israel (2x)

C. He actually blames her claims she

made him compelled

do to her this awful thing

can you believe

never otherwise


D. Fault stands in door fault fault

fist is his whoever cries be hit (2x)

E. Obedience shallow law

repeat repeat a tale of terror repeat

comply complain

complain comply

deny deny


Want to say no

want to jump in

want to say stop

stop stop

want to stop

being afraid, want

the power

to say no


(The implicit question asked by this section is what keeps someone in an apparently oppressive or abusive situation when the option of walking out seems possible. The question has many resonances, including the issue of the feminist within a patriarchal religion, and the issue of God in a post-holocaust age. The structure of the piece is modelled on the alphabetical acrostics of the Book of Lamentation.)

In the beginning, the wound is invisible.

Edmond Jabes

A question to pose to the celebrants. The participants. You women, of outraged eyes and grinding teeth, resemble birds whipping themselves against the walls of a room into which they have accidentally flown. In its frustrated attempts to escape a bird becomes frenzied. It leaves bloodspots on the walls. But here no walls exist. Against what do you fling yourselves so extravagantly?

— Against this very question, hurling ourselves at it in vain. This irresistible, unanswerable question encloses us like the swaddling blanket around the squirming infant. Like a Polish chimney. Like a used star. Like a crown and a balloon. Like a glass bell jar.

— Because walls of stone or plaster would include windows from which to climb, doors to unlock, keyholes to squint through, we are not permitted images. Instead, we inhabit a penitentiary of fire (or alphabets) which is a cage of cages.

— Chained to earth from before the beginning of the world, the destiny of the human heart is to ache. We alone offer it the exalted thin wind of the mountaintop.

— Do you think you are immortal? Do you think you are innocent? We will die but we cannot abandon our sister. Do you claim we are extravagant? Do you believe we are strident? Have you heard that if you save one life it is as if you saved the universe? Down the collapsed mineshaft of time we call until our voices grow hoarse, we are coming though we delay. We beg our sister to breathe, to forgive our slow machinery.

— Expert at stillness, we are whirling in place like Sufis. We are dancing on the inflamed heart. As it heaves we almost fall.

— From the forest of our lives

into the clearing

lightning rapes the mountaintop

violent like the truths

of which we only dream


the ancient screaming of God

answers our scream

– God who is One warns us that to escape is to perish. Beyond these nonexistent walls they have removed the air! Did you not know that? Nothing is outside but vipers and tigers.

— Her desire was for her beloved. Her boyfriends, her girlfriends, her life.

— If a baby is beaten by a parent, and then put down on the floor, the baby will crawl, not away from the parent, but toward. So we-So we–

— Just then I stood in the doorway of a ruined stone castle. A tuft of thick grass lay beneath my feet. The Mediterranean sun hammered against my forehead until it felt like a brass amphora. I offered my brass forehead as a bride. Here, I said, is the soul. Before me tumbled the hillside of grass and boulders to the sea edge. The blue sheerness offered itself as a husband.

— Killing God, killing God… if I walk away God will commit suicide. He threatens it. I cannot risk it.

– Lovely little lies. The truth is that we are afraid of our passions. And afraid of history.

— More lies. The truth is that we are terribly, passionately hopeful. The truth is that we are tethered like fiery-eyed horses. The truth is a mystery. The truth is, it is a mystery. The truth is that the razor is in my pocket.

— No, the truth is that we are on vacation. Lament, for us, is recreational. A pilgrimage is an excuse for adventure, look at Chaucer, look around, women in every culture pursue some religious rites or other, groveling massively, doing novenas, wearing veils, lighting candles, you must perceive that this is not simply a matter of oppression. Of course they are oppressed. Of course we are. The ritual of lament faithfully encodes our oppression and we enact our part faithfully. On another mountain you might see women from a neighboring oppressive culture excising the clitorises and labia of their daughters. We might exchange signals from our twin peaks. Or not. And for Jephthah’s daughter, we get four whole days off from work.

— One may not desert the sickbed of a friend. Or of a nation.

— Perhaps the story has been edited, perhaps the daughter was a priestess, perhaps the vow was not an accident: what then?

— The Question always is how to go on living after the holocaust. Each and every holocaust. How to value life enough. Is Palm Beach enough? Are the Catskills enough? Is mooing the cow on the kibbutz enough? How about Carnegie Hall and the invention of land-of-the-free America by Hollywood? And being dredged from the Mississippi riverbottom with your black and white companions?

— Riverbottom mud, the unassuaged, the infinite screaming of the moon.

— Since Isaac was saved, they can pretend that men are not wounded. Since Jephthah’s daughter was a woman, they can pretend that her murder was insignificant. Since Adonai transcends the body, they can sacrifice the planet. These imbecilities make us, too, writhe as if bound upon an altar.

— To let go, we once knew, was to plunge into the abyss. Suddenly we learn that there is no abyss, or rather that the abyss is everywhere. Now we cling with desperate arms and legs, because we love the smell of God. The milk-yielding nipples of God. God’s tongue.

— Underneath everything we are women. Hear us sigh. Do not call us sweetness.

— Very often we meet on the mountaintop for the same reason that we perform in the theater of religion. Here we are allowed to wear masks. And if you question people in their masks, they will tell the truth. And we love the truth.

— What strategies we have used to survive. How inventive our means, how diligent our metamorphoses. We use even the moon. Even the mountaintop.

— X = the unknown that may yet be discovered, the truth that may yet be born, for the sake of which I am prepared to pierce a hole in the membrane of God. Let him not dare to show his face. I would reach into his gizzards and drag out the Goddess concealed there, all these centuries, even if he himself denies that such a Goddess exists. He is ignorant of her existence because of his terrible busy memory.

–You remember that it is the obligation of every Jew to remember.

–Zero my fate, infinite my dream.


Can these bones live?

–Ezekiel 37:6

No one bears witness for the witness.

–Paul Celan

(To be performed slowly, with grief.)

She has no name, has neither face nor eyes

they were drowned in blood

they were burnt

by fire

She is a garden shut, a fountain sealed

She sought her beloved and found him not

no kisses of the mouth no child at breast

no belly of heaped wheat

she is the song of nothing

and never

She loved the man she called father

a great a mighty warrior

a rock an outstretched arm his enemies fled

she ran after his love she praised she danced

hallelujah father but he

was angry

He said she hurt him, she caused him grief

he took her she consented he raised the knife

she lay on stone and showed her throat she said

blessed be he who protects and saves

who comforts the captive and raises up

the dead

Her father will die at a good old age

but where was the angel to stop his hand

where was the sacred messenger

who is this God of stone and knife and fire

why does he hide, what can he see

when a woman prays

will he ever hear

From the forest of our lives

into the clearing

rain falls on the mountaintop

soaking the wordless stone

year after year

like the truth of tears


(Three voices together speak the epigraph, then one by one the separate parts.)

Of our own accord, with our intelligence and understanding, we can distinguish between good and evil, doing as we choose. Nothing holds us back from making this choice.


So then there was a moment in time

the knife might fall

or it might

not fall

So then there is a moment

in time

the knife may fall

or it may not fall

there is

a moment

in time


(Chorus divided into portions. May be a sequence of alternating or mixed alto and soprano voices.)

To cause to burn! To add fuel to! To maintain or intensify a fire in! To bake in a kiln! To arouse the emotions of! To detonate or discharge (a firearm, explosives, or a projectile)! Fire a rifle! Fire an electron! Informal: to discharge from a position; dismiss!

Catch fire. On fire. Under fire. Firepower.

The Lord thy God is a consuming fire

and that which passes through the fire

returns to its nature

the beauty of fire, the beauty of fire, the beauty

and the secret of fire is that to burn something is to send it back,

released from its body, to the

energies of the other world. To see a fire raging is to see the process of


hereby matter returns to spirit, with one’s own ecstatic eyes –

wood, cloth, flesh, what were they before the cosmos was formed?

They return in glory and fury. The smallest campfire, or the

smallest flame in a domestic oven or wood stove,

proves that Death is everywhere, vividly

enacting his rights and exerting his

powers and prowess

and that to die is to be unwritten, ravished and ravishing

and they say that whenever something is burned

it is an outburst of the violence of God

who is light, rock, flame

who is creation’s roar behind all sound


(A single voice)

Yes I am dead

Yes I was a daughter of Israel

Yes I am nameless

Yes my father was a very great warrior

Yes the spirit of the Lord came upon him

Yes the Ammonites were delivered into his hand

Yes I ran after his love I praised I danced

Yes he had opened his mouth to the Lord

Yes he felt pain he blamed me

Yes I went with my companions on the mountains

Yes for two months I lamented my virginity

Yes I was a girl I wanted love

Yes I wanted a man to push into me

Yes like a long flash of light and babies to push out

Yes my companions kissed me and embraced me

Yes the men lay me on stone like a sheep

Yes I was naked like a sheep

Yes I cried God God Mama

Yes the angel of the Lord rescued my ancestor Isaac

Yes the Lord sent a messenger to stop the father’s hand

Yes he would save a boy but not save me

Yes we are born into a theater of war

Yes the violence of my father is a mirror he holds to the face of God

Yes I was unblemished

Yes I was a proved virgin

Yes I am very long dead

Yes I am weeping

Yes what else do you want of me


There is no immutable moral principle to countermand what humankind will do if left to the willfulness and negligence and indifference and callousness of its unrestraint.

Cynthia Ozick

Holocaust, from Gr. holokaustos, a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; a burnt offering.

(Full chorus, call-and-response, crescendo)

how is she slain who was full of life



our eyes run down with bitter water



never to be scholar worker leader



physician judge rachmanes din



image of God denied rejected



how many daughters sisters mothers



how to lament the unremembered



is there any sorrow like this sorrow


(Full chorus, immediately following the previous section)

sorry for him

feel feel

sorry for him


of a whore

sorry for him

he opens

he opens

sorry for him


the poor bastard

the poor bastard

it hurts him

it hurts him, feel

sorry for him

the poor despised bastard

the despised rejected lonely bastard feel it

inside every heartbreak

an older heartbreak

inside every injustice

a deeper injustice

he opens his mouth

sorry sorry feel it


(This call-and-response section should be considered optional. If performed, it may be best to speak it almost in a whisper, implying a tone of desolation comparable to that of “Lament.” The verb may remain present tense, “We sacrifice…” or may be changed to past tense, “We sacrificed…”)

We sacrifice this girl in the theater of war

For the Lord your God is a jealous God

We sacrifice this girl in order to spell our names

See now that I, even I, am he

We sacrifice this girl to strengthen our hearts to combat the enemy that surrounds us.

Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron,

Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

We sacrifice this girl today because we sacrificed her yesterday, last year, a thousand years ago, it is a tradition of holiness.

For the Lord our God is holy

We sacrifice this girl because her hair is long and powerful

Sin began with a woman, and because of her we all die

We sacrifice this girl because she danced at the wrong moment

Her filthiness was in her skirts

We sacrifice this girl that blood surge from her cut throat.

We sacrifice this girl that her soft new body become ash and cinders, and we smash what remains of her pelvis.

And let her put away her harlotries from her face, and her adulteries from between her breasts

We sacrifice this girl to protect ourselves from impurity.

For the lips of a strange woman drop honey

And her mouth is smoother than oil

We sacrifice this girl because she asked for it.

For all his ways are justice.


(Full chorus, but the italicized words should be a single voice to be heard as wind, spirit, ruach–the voice of God who finally replies.)

Going forth in mourning

returning in joy

From the forest of our lives

into the clearing

weeds grow on the mountaintop

between the stones

Birdcalls fly from shrub to shrub

the spirit of God

is in their twittering

like a truth that is sweet

Wind increases

shiver and listen

is it the wind

is it a voice

You who lament

you are the one

you be my angel

you be my sacred messenger

you stop the warriors hand

it will take ages

it will begin today

you will die many times

you will slip in blood

you will be humbled

you will fail

it will take all your strength

it will appear to take forever

it will begin today

we must go forth in mourning

we will return

in joy


(“Mountaintop” may conclude the performance of “Jephthah s Daughter: A Lament.” Performers will freeze for applause. They will then walk toward the audience but instead of bowing, an option is the following naming ceremony.)

The performer who has read the part of Jephthah’s daughter steps forward one step, and speaks:

Remember me

and tell me

what is my name

The other performers step forward one by one to stand at her side. Each states her own name.

When they have all done so, it may be possible to gesture toward the audience, inviting members of the audience to state their own names.

I desired mercy and not sacrifice,

and the knowledge of God

more than burnt offerings.

Hosea 6:6

Alicia Ostriker is the author of nine volumes of poetry, most recently The Little Space: Poems Selected and New, which was a National Book Award finalist in 1998. She is also the author of The Nokedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, a combination of midrash and autobiography. Ostriker is a Professor of English at Rutgers University.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Association for Religion and Intellectual Life

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group