The Remembering Women

Mona Coleman


Dear God, we’ve come to consider the death of one of your children, a daughter sacrificed by her father.  We know out of the biblical witness of your living word, help us hear the word from you oh Lord, in this time and this place, that it would be your will.  In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.


Our text this morning is from the Hebrew Bible, the book of Judges chapter 11 verses 29-40.

Judges 11:29-40

29 Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 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.” 32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. 33 He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “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.” 36 She said 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.” 37 And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander[a] on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” 38 “Go,” he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. 39 At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never slept with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that 40 for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

Sermon by Mona Coleman

Renita Weems in her book, Just a Sister Away, titled her chapter on Jeptha’s daughter “A Crying Shame.”  She points out that the mourning women, the remembering women, redeem this slain sister, giving her back her rightful place in history.

That in this story about a man’s radical devotion to God, there is the ending of women’s radical devotion to one another. I wonder if the story ends there. I wonder about all those unnamed women in the story of Jeptha’s daughter.  And I wonder as you might, where God is in all of that.  Is there any word from the Lord?

As I read the scripture, I read that the daughters of Israel continued to mourn.  So for them, the story did not end there.  And I think about all those unnamed women: Jeptha’s daughter, her mother, her grandmother, her friends, and I find God with them.  God present in the beginning silence, in the response of the daughter to her father, and in the mourning women then, in the years following, and now.  But I’m ahead of myself in the story.  In the beginning of chapter 11, Jeptha the ninth judge of Israel is introduced in the continuing story of Israel’s occupation of Canaan.  Israel continues to turn away from God and to cry for relief from her enemies.  And Jeptha is described as a valiant warrior, son of a harlot, or at best in some translations, son of a divorced woman.  Growing up in his father’s house with sons of his father’s wife, he’s thrown out by his brothers when they grow up, and when he leaves, they say, “you are the son of another woman.”  Jeptha leaves the land and becomes an outlaw, gathers worthless people about him, raids and plunders.  And when the Ammonites begin to harass the children of Israel the elders of Gilead, Jeptha’s birthplace, ask him to be their leader against the Ammonites.  He bargains with them and they agree: that if God will give him the victory, he will become their leader.  He then tries to bargain with the Ammonites and is unsuccessful, and then he makes his awful bargain with God.  He prevails against the Ammonites, and returning home feels bound to keep his bargain, a bargain that he made.  We do not hear God’s answer.  And for sixth months after his daughter’s death, six years rather, he continues to judge Israel.  And during that time he finds himself fighting not against the Ammonites, but against his own brothers and the people of Ephraim.  They’re angry at not being asked to participate with the Ammonites.  And following his story and his death is series about judges of Israel and the continuing turning away of the people from God. God does not speak when Jeptha returns home.

I am outraged at the silence. 

I am outraged at Jeptha’s daughter.

  I am outraged at Jeptha’s success as a judge of Israel. 

It’s a sad and fearful thing that such a thing would happen when sacrifice was forbidden as a profanity against the worship of God, later codified in the Levitical regulations.  How rash was this vow for Jeptha?  A calculating negotiator who bargains with the elders and the Ammonites and with God, how rash to make such a bargain?  He knew who raided his house. He knew the practice after victory.  I suspect that most of the men had gone with him to fight.  Who could have come out?  Some unnamed woman.  Some would say that because Jeptha had been cast out of his father’s house, cast out of the nurturing of a father who would

"Jepthah's Daughter"- James Tissot
“Jepthah’s Daughter”- James Tissot

share with him the law and the condition of the people, because the people of Israel were living in a combination with Canaanite religion, that maybe such a sacrifice was not so unusual.  But my friends, Jeptha lived there long enough for his brothers to grow up. He must have had some foundation about what it meant, about what sacrifice meant, that God did not require that a child be sacrificed for a vow.  And as to his daughter, she went to the mountain with friends.  And every time I read that story, I want to say, “Go over the hill. (laughter)  Why do you go home?”  Jeptha’s daughter much loved, and some how we learn that because she was loved, she returned to her father and to death.  How often is injustice coated in the phrases of well-meaning and well-being?  How often is the sweet title of ‘much love’ used by trusted adults in the abuse of children? By spouses in the abuses of spouses?  By those who oppress the elderly?  By us, as we oppress each other?   And yes, we do respond.  The reality is, we often come back.  So where is God in that?

Jeptha is often, not only in the Hebrew Bible, but also in the New Testament, described as a man of valor and in other ways that lift up his faithfulness to a vow.  But somehow things are turned upside down when we really look at this story.  It is his unfaithfulness that causes his child’s death.  Of Jeptha I ask, “How rash was this?  How little did you know?  Didn’t you think that you were manipulating, that you had a possibility of gardening, and of forcing God to give you the victory?”  So many questions.  When I encourage his daughters to go over the hill, I ask, “What about the women who went?  Maybe her mother was with her?  And what did they say- I can imagine what they said about Jeptha (laughter.)?” Did they encourage her to stay?  Did they encourage her to confront him?  What did they encourage her to do?  Even as I look for God in those women, I wonder where is God in that?

Something of my Own Experience

I’d like to share with you, something of my own experience.  It comes from the reality of slavery in this country.  I don’t think it’s peculiar to my family or to black people.  I’ve heard a number of people say that it’s something they’ve experienced, but it has to do with the role of mother.  And as I listen this morning in plenary, I wonder how I would think about that in terms of what was said and the role that is placed on women and the way that we are often seen as just one dimension, but I want to share that with you anyway.  In the slave reality, despite what you may have heard about black matriarchy, not every child knew his or her mother.  Very often, children were born and sold away.  Sometimes they died, their mothers died- a disease of abuse, of forced labor- not every child knew his or her mother.  And so, the society created a system of mothers- of sisters and aunts, of neighbors and friends, of women who nurtured, who told the stories, who created the connection in a community that was destined to lose its connection.  And it was in that relationship of the ‘mothers’ [in quotes] of the people who nurtured that I find a connection with the story of Jeptha’s daughter- in the unnamed women of my history and maybe your history, in the unnamed women of the story, of the mother and the grandmother and the friends, I find the mothering of God. 

Now where does that happen?  In the silence?  In the sacrifice?  In the weeping? I think it does.  I think we find the mothering of God in the dry silent anguish in the knowledge of what will happen to us, to our brothers and sisters when we do not recognize the connection.  I think we find in Jeptha’s confrontation, in Jeptha’s daughter’s confrontation with her father, in restating what his vow would really mean, the stark realities that we must confront very often if we are to be true to what God calls us to.  There is no magic there-there is no fixing.  Jeptha’s daughter dies.  And despite some traditions that say that the story is simply the retelling of a festival of the rites of harvest and renewal, she does not renew.  She’s dead.

We remember her because of the mourning of the women.

Because of the remembering and the retelling. 

Because of the weeping when she was alive of the future, and the weeping after she was gone.

 In that mourning, I find God. 

There are terrible things that can happen when a person’s nurturing is set in a structure or system of sin.  In some of the popular, and all too realistic stories that some of us know, some recounted in Beloved, and in Eva Peace by Toni Morrison and some other places, we see where the systems of evil and sin take of that mothering and turn it around.  When women kill their children to save them from the slave catcher, or from the addiction to heroin.  The nurturing, the relationship, that comes in what we are calling the ‘mothering of God,’ but is really the connection of all of us as people, is what happened in Jeptha’s situation, I believe.  And this is not to excuse it, and it doesn’t excuse us.  But we have to be so careful about what we see as our connection.  And although it would be very nice to identify ourselves with the mourning women, with that empathy and sympathy of that connection, I believe we have to identify ourselves with Jeptha too.

That every time we opt for an easy care, easy clean, non-iron blouse or shirt, that we are involved in the sacrifice of the children in the Philippines, of women who work and children who work for slave wages.

That every time we reach for our iron or plug our toaster in, or do something else in terms of ‘easy-use’ appliances that uses energy that require us to build nuclear plants and spread hazardous waste and destruction on our neighbors;

that every time we see our privilege that our economic systems and our comfort and the way that we have to go about doing things, without worrying what happens in the rest of the world, then we are participating with Jeptha.

We are sacrificing our children and each others’ children for our own commitment to vows that we think we have made, and that God requires of us in some way.  Why should we keep mourning?  Nobody likes to cry.  Doris Lessing has said that

‘remembering this history is not for the sake of keeping alive the memory of old tyrannies, but to recognize the present tragedies, for the patterns are in us still’.

So as we participate in the redemptive mourning of the women, we must look to ourselves.  As we identify with the women, we must identify with Jeptha.  We must recognize our willingness, we must mourn our situation.  And after we have mourned, we must get up from the mourning bench and go on.

Something you Can Take with You

I’d like to share one other piece with you that may be something that you can take.  It won’t resolve the mourning.  And it won’t resolve the dry anguish of connecting the realities that confront us, with the things we need to say to each other, and be about.  And it may be, not easier, but come to mind more often than the story of Jeptha’s daughter, and so I offer it to you, if it works for you.  And it’s from Alice Walker, and it is that:

“Love does not ask for whom we worship, or where you slept the night you ran away.  Love only asks that the beating of your heart kills no one.  Our notions and our values do not take precedence over lives of others of God’s children.  We cannot redeem ourselves through love.”

Mothering God sits in dry anguish until we claim the reality.  And in the reality and in our tears of mourning, get up from the mourning bench.  Can you cry with God’s children, in that new connection of standing, and sitting, and kneeling, with the unnamed women.  Can you come to the mourning bench, rise to do what God calls you to, and with the beating of your heart kill no one? 



Books Referenced in the Sermon:

Just a Sister Away- Renita Weems

Beloved- Toni Morrison

Sula- Toni Morrison (character reference to Eva Peace)