Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Jephthah Affair and the Immorality of Atonement Doctrines

I became acquainted with the Jephthah narrative not through church attendance, as these embarrassing chapters are never mentioned in sermon, but by reading The God Delusion.  It's one of the most shocking chapters of the Bible, one which bears witness to the practice of sacrificing children to Jehovah in spite of frequent polemics against the cult of Molok elsewhere in the prophetic tradition.

I believe Judges 11 to be one of the most important chapters of the Bible.

In saying this, what I'm saying is that if we are to undertake the important task of assessing the values and the character of the Biblical authors, a task which no one considering the validity of any book as a moral guide should ignore, it is impossible to pass this chapter, to deny its grave importance and its moral abhorrence.  I will share here the narrative interspersed with commentary.
1. Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah.
2 And Gilead's wife bare him sons; and his wife's sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house; for thou art the son of a strange woman.
Following in the family-values tradition of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac whose sons and wives quarrelled perpetually as half-brothers and sister-wives, casting Ishmael into the desert, selling Joseph into slavery, mass-murdering the Edomites for being red-headed descendants of Esau.
3 Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, and went out with him. 
From the get-go we learn that the sacred story deals with a Jehovah worshipper who is a son of a whore, a man of low birth and bad association.
4 And it came to pass in process of time, that the children of Ammon made war against Israel. 5 And it was so, that when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob: 6 And they said unto Jephthah, Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon. 
7 And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father's house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress? 8 And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, Therefore we turn again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead. 9 And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the Lord deliver them before me, shall I be your head? 
10 And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, The Lord be witness between us, if we do not so according to thy words. 11 Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and captain over them: and Jephthah uttered all his words before the Lord in Mizpeh.
In order to regain his honor as a son of a whore, Jephthah agrees to become a General in the army of his half-brothers, who perhaps are hoping he will die at the battlefront.
12 And Jephthah sent messengers unto the king of the children of Ammon, saying, What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land? 13 And the king of the children of Ammon answered unto the messengers of Jephthah, Because Israel took away my land, when they came up out of Egypt, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and unto Jordan: now therefore restore those lands again peaceably.
Land-grabbing is another moral problem in the Biblical narrative.  The decent thing to do would have been to work and save money and buy the land from the inhabitants, or marry one's children to the inhabitants, rather than go in, murder everyone and occupy cities and villages that already have people living and working in there.  But most pious readers of the Bible don't ponder the moral problems related to terrorism and genocide for the sake of land-theft.  This is only one important side-story to Jephthah.  Let's continue.
14 And Jephthah sent messengers again unto the king of the children of Ammon: 15 And said unto him, Thus saith Jephthah, Israel took not away the land of Moab, nor the land of the children of Ammon: 16 But when Israel came up from Egypt, and walked through the wilderness unto the Red sea, and came to Kadesh; 17 Then Israel sent messengers unto the king of Edom, saying, Let me, I pray thee, pass through thy land: but the king of Edom would not hearken thereto. 
And in like manner they sent unto the king of Moab: but he would not consent: and Israel abode in Kadesh. 18 Then they went along through the wilderness, and compassed the land of Edom, and the land of Moab, and came by the east side of the land of Moab, and pitched on the other side of Arnon, but came not within the border of Moab: for Arnon was the border of Moab. 
19 And Israel sent messengers unto Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon; and Israel said unto him, Let us pass, we pray thee, through thy land into my place. 20 But Sihon trusted not Israel to pass through his coast: but Sihon gathered all his people together, and pitched in Jahaz, and fought against Israel. 21 And the Lord God of Israel delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they smote them: so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country.
Whenever I find mention of God "delivering people into the hands of" his soldiers, it reminds me of the Muslims who cheered after 9/11, and of the narratives among the pious of how Allah orchestrated the whole episode, how there was a prophecy being fulfilled, etc.  A heinous act becomes not just unavoidable, but virtuous.  I wonder what this means, for instance, when we consider that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were said to have been 'destroyed by God'.  Were these cities terrorized by God's soldiers in a similar manner?

When military victories are attributed to divinities, people feel their hatreds vindicated and they alienate themselves from their most sinister intentions and goals, which they only recognize indirectly through apocallyptic or religious imagery.
22 And they possessed all the coasts of the Amorites, from Arnon even unto Jabbok, and from the wilderness even unto Jordan. 23 So now the Lord God of Israel hath dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel, and shouldest thou possess it? 24 Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the Lord our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess. 
Curious sleight of hand.  We steal your land, but because our God gave us military victory then the land is ours.  If your God had given you stolen land, it would be yours.  Again, there is no notion of justice or fairness.  Gods will do what they want and what they do, is done and it's right because they do it.  Period.
25 And now art thou any thing better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? did he ever strive against Israel, or did he ever fight against them, 26 While Israel dwelt in Heshbon and her towns, and in Aroer and her towns, and in all the cities that be along by the coasts of Arnon, three hundred years? why therefore did ye not recover them within that time? 
27 Wherefore I have not sinned against thee, but thou doest me wrong to war against me: the Lord the Judge be judge this day between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon. 28 Howbeit the king of the children of Ammon hearkened not unto the words of Jephthah which he sent him. 
29 Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon. 30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, 31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
Now, notice that it's the Spirit of God that inspires Jephthah to make the vow.  Again, Jephthah, being a man of God and a man of faith, in fully surrendering to God, alienates himself from his vows and his deeds so that whatever happens is the deed and the will of God.  Let's see where this takes him.
32 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord delivered them into his hands. 33 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.
He terrorizes twenty cities.
34 And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back.
When he became possessed by the Spirit of his God, he had promised to his God that he would offer whatever came first out of his house as a burnt offering to Jehovah.  His daughter was ecstatic, hadn't seen him in months, and naturally couldn't wait to see him.  According to the authors of the Bible, it was his daughter that the Spirit of God wanted offered as an innocent, pure victim in the pyre.

Notice he blames her.  He says it's his daughter that "brought him very low", not his God who, he believed, had all along been hungry for innocent human victims.  But he did not believe his God or his religion had "brought him very low".
36 And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.
The Bible's wisdom tradition has many wholesome verses, but the one that is most false and immoral is the one about how fear of God is the beginning of all wisdom.  In what way can we find prudence in this one narrative of fear of God?  It was fear of God that led Jephthah and his daughter to the following course of action.
37 And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. 38 And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. 
39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel, 40 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.
- Judges 11, King James Version of the Bible
Noticed how the sacred narrative accentuates that "she knew no man".  She had to be innocent.

There is another episode of human sacrifice where David hangs relatives of King Saul on a mountaintop in order to appease Jehovah's anger during a dought.  King David did this under the whispers of prophets who believed that the innocent had to die to atone for the crimes of the evil.  The crimes of King Saul were to be atoned by murdering his relatives, except those who were near and dear to David's beloved, Jonathan.

Now, notice that elsewhere it is under God's command that tribes (like the Amalekites, whose only crime was to live in coveted land) are massacred.  This judgement against Saul (or his relatives) therefore is an arbitrary act of "justice".  Genocide is only evil when God doesn't order it.  It is not evil when he does order it.  Also, at no point do the pious use God as an excuse to advance non-violent ways to resolve conflicts. These could have been moral stories, if truly moral and non-superstitious people had written them.
1 Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites
2 And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.) 3 Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the Lord? 
4 And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel. And he said, What ye shall say, that will I do for you. 5 And they answered the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel, 6 Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, whom the Lord did choose. And the king said, I will give them
7 But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the Lord's oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. 8 But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite: 9 And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest. 
- 2 Samuel 21, King James Version of the Bible
And so we see here that this experiment of the introduction of God into human affairs and into history severely confuses the moral compass of men, introduces arbitrary notions of atonement and vengeance that have nothing to do with true justice and where the innocent pay for the crimes of the guilty.  When asked to die, some of these innocent victims have to be "delivered into the hands" of their killers while others accept the decrees of perceived authority figures, but no one who is innocent chooses martyrdom over life when given a choice under normal circumstances.

Perhaps, after killing so many innocent people and leaving so many orphaned in the twenty cities that he attacked, Jephthah unconsciously used his vow as a way to punish himself for the evil he had done.  Perhaps when we help to create an unjust world, we have such difficulty understanding how we are free to do so, that we use religion to torment our souls for cause of this freedom.  If this is the case, then here we see the very spring and the very root of religiosity.  Maybe men who are not evil do not project themselves against such evil religious fantasies, but does this makes religion less dangerous?

Supposedly, Christians believe that Christ was to be the last human sacrifice that would appease their God, but after Christ died the Christians sacrificed thousands, maybe millions, during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and today in countries like Uganda and Nigeria children are still being sacrificed (the religion-friendly media says by witch doctors, but invariably they cite Abraham's near sacrifice of his son as their moral justification).  In Uganda, the Kill the Gays bill has gained continuous traction and been partially approved.

Humans are still sacrificing their humanity to the One God just as they did to the Many Gods before, with the Aztecs, the Phoenicians and other nations.  Monotheism is not, as we have been repeatedly told by its proponents, morally superior in any way to polytheism when it comes to our dehumanization.  The amount of our Gods does not solve the problem of religious tyranny.

We must conclude that Molok still lives, that he returned Bible in hand and is still claiming victims.  Slaving away under the yolk of Moloks, the infantile will never mature into true, dignified men.

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