Political Texts of Terror in the Book of Judges

 “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.” Greta Thunberg, World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, January 25, 2019.

By Peter Feinman
Institute of History, Archaeology and Education
January 2020

            “Texts of terror” in biblical scholarship is a phrase reflecting the physical mistreatment and violent deaths of women. It has been applied most prominently to two women in the Book of Judges: a daughter in Judges 11 and a concubine in Judges 19. The daughter is sacrificed as the result of a vow to Yahweh by her father, and the concubine is raped, killed, and dismembered. By any standards of human behavior, such treatment would be considered abusive, justifying the term “texts of terror” for their stories. The implication in the term is that the stories were about individual human beings, be they fictional or non-fictional, and they express a harsh negative attitude toward women.

            This perception is in error. No individuals were hurt in the creation of the stories or their performance. Instead, the stories are political polemics where the anonymous females are symbolic or metaphorical figures. To judge the stories as reflective of the treatment of women in Iron I Israel or any other time period is roughly equivalent to analyzing the role of women in the United States in the 21st century based on a story about a terrorist attack on Lady Liberty. Such an approach misinterprets the purpose of the stories.

            What is overlooked in traditional exegesis is that the author intended the stories to be texts of terror. The author of these political polemics wanted his audiences to be outraged over what was happening to the female figures he had created. That was the whole point. He wanted the audience to panic. He wanted the audience to fear. He wanted the audience to act as if their political house was on fire because it was. The violence perpetrated on these metaphorical female figures in the stories was a call to action for redress against those violators.

            Therefore, a key to understanding the intention of these stories is to determine who or what these unnamed female figures represent. Once one understands the metaphor, one can ascertain the political context. What actions were being taken, by whom, and what redress is being called for in these texts of political terror?  This approach is based on the principle of literature as politics, politics as literature.     

            These two political texts of terror stories share other features in common but are different as well. They were written at two points in time about one political scenario. In this article, I only have space to address the first story.

The Story of Jephthah’s Daughter

            In this story, the author points out the danger to the Israelite people if they should have a human king. In some ways, it is the narrative story expression of the more direct objections raised in I Sam. 8 by Samuel. First, there was a warning about the meaning of having a human king. This general warning subsequently was supplemented by a more detailed listing of the specific dangers of having a king once Israel had experienced having a human king.

            I suggest that the Story of Jephthah’s Daughter was written as a warning of the dangers to the Israelite people should a successful warrior seek and become the human king of Israel.       A full exegesis of the canonical story, let alone the purported original story, is not possible here. Instead, I present some critical points to be learned from that original story.

1.  It was written as a standalone story. It was not part of any extended sequence or cycle and probably could fit on a single sheet of papyrus. It should be no surprise that alphabet prose storytelling began with short stories and not extended narrative cycles.

2. The author based his story on oral tradition. He did not invent the figure of Jephthah, nor did he expect his audience to scratch its heads in bewilderment over the identity of this figure in the political polemic. He relied on the existing knowledge of the audience and did not use an obscure figure. There really had been a hero from Gilead whose legacy lived on in the popular culture. Beyond that, both the author and audience knew nothing or very little about him. We should be familiar with this technique. There was a historical Davey Crockett; there is the John Wayne version of Davey Crockett in the Cold War movie The Alamo; and if the story were made into a movie today, it would be different. Similarly, there was a historical Spartacus; there was Howard Fast’s Spartacus in an anti-McCarthy political polemic; and if the story were made into a movie today, it would be different. Ancient Israel knew the technique, too, although it developed it through a different medium. Here, the oral story became a written story, which itself was subsequently supplemented to express alternative views. I propose in the original political polemic, the historical figure of Jephthah is being used to represent the historical Saul, and the issue is his desire to become king.

3. The author provided a family background for the Saul-substitute: he was the son of a harlot or concubine (Judges 11:1). That social designation should be understood as a conscious choice of the author to help deliver his message. It is not a historical memory. It is a polemical choice. It is not a social commentary, either. Jephthah, being a child of a woman from the wrong side of the tracks, should not be interpreted as evidence of social mobility in Iron I Israel. He was not attempting to portray directly or implicitly that a son born to a harlot could achieve the pinnacle of power in ancient Israelite society. One should not interpret this political characterization as a way to gauge the life of women based on 21st-century values or preferences. Such considerations are irrelevant to the story and bear no relation to the actual message the author was delivering.

            Consider the hypothetical story of Ronny and the Bear. The story tells of Ronny successfully hunting a bear. At the conclusion of the story, he is shown rocking on his cabin porch on a bearskin rug or perhaps beneath a stuffed ferocious looking bear. No names are even mentioned. People of a certain age will recognize that the story is about Ronald Reagan and Russia or the Soviet Union and of America winning the Cold War. People removed from that context might fault the Ronny character for hunting an endangered species. People from a time when an American president is submissive to a Russian leader might even condemn the story. While the second and third interpretations might make sense on some level, they have nothing to do with the original historical context of the story.

            So too, with the author making the Saul-substitute a son of a harlot. French structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested the basis of human communication occurred when two men arranged for the exchange of a woman. One man would marry the sister or daughter of another man, thereby creating a bond between the two men: they were family now. Regardless of the validity of this hypothesis, it overlooks the situation when the exchange between men over the women is negative. The technical term for this is “Your Momma.” I do not even know if there is an acceptable jargon term in biblical scholarship for this type of exchange.

            Some of you may be familiar with the trash talk of “Your Momma.” Perhaps you participated in such an exchange yourself as either the recipient or the one taunted. When the author depicted the Saul-substitute as a son of a bitch, he was not engaging in social commentary. He was engaging in trash talk and insulting Saul. Both Saul and the original audiences understood the intention of the author to belittle him.

4. The author’s ire here was directed solely toward the person represented by Jephthah. In the story, the villain’s own family thrust him out and cut him off from any inheritance (Judges 11:2). Again, that has nothing to do with the historical Jephthah or the oral tradition by which he was remembered. The author of this alphabet prose narrative was attempting to isolate the perpetrator of this violation of Israel from his own family. In this case, the author’s judgment may be questioned. It does suggest the possibility that at first Saul’s desire to be king may not have been acceptable to all the clans of Benjamin either. After all, they were not used to being ruled by a human king themselves. Perhaps the author naively hoped the rest of the family, meaning the Benjaminites, would prevail over this outcast and pull the plug on his evil ambitions. Obviously, in hindsight such hopes were misplaced, hence the need for the second story of the Levite concubine directly charging the Benjaminites and seeking help elsewhere to defend the violated Bethlemite woman.

5. As an outcast, the antagonist lived much like a habiru and even as David in the wilderness with his band later would be depicted (Judges 11:3; I Sam. 23). This characterization does not mean the historical Jephthah, Saul, or David ever actually lived as a habiru, as an outcast; simply that it suited the authors to portray them as having done so because of the image it connotes. Maybe they really did.

6. The motives of the Jephthah character are impure (Judges 11: 6-10). He does heed the call of the people in their time of adversity but at a price. All this dialog is the creation of the author. Nonetheless, in this exchange, the author acknowledges the military prowess of Saul, the mighty man. However, he does question Saul’s motives. As the Ammonites had threatened the Gileadites, so the Philistines now threatened the Benjaminites. A savior was needed. The Saul-substitute is not acting because he was called by Yahweh or blessed by a priest. That whole process of legitimizing a military engagement has broken down here. It is not how the older Song of Deborah operates (Judges 5:12). Instead, the coronation is the result of a transactional accord where the leader puts his own needs first. Is it really possible to imagine such a scenario?

7. His coronation as head of the people is devoid of the appropriate religious commissioning, at least appropriate according to the author (Judges 11:11). Presumably, the author’s own power is being threatened here or that of the Levite priesthood who had such power.

8. Mizpah is not a site chosen at random by the author (Judges 11:11). Again, there is no point in taking out a map to see if the geography makes sense for a battle against the Ammonites. Mizpah appears numerous times within the biblical text as a place of gathering for social and military purposes in Judges 11, Judges 20, Judges 21, and I Sam. 7. This usage in various stories should be understood as part of the political dialogue expressed through writing between the competing sides over whether Israel should have a human king and if that king should be a Benjaminite. The historical Ammonite threat against Gilead in the Jephthah oral tradition represents the Philistine threat against the Benjaminites and Israel in the context of the alphabet prose narrative. The story is not about an event in the past. It is using an event in the past to address an event in the present. I suspect the author picked this location in the land of Benjamin to allude to where historical Saul really had mustered troops for what had turned out to be a successful battle against the Philistines.

9. The author uses anonymous figures to represent peoples. Whereas the named character Jephthah refers to a specific individual human being, his unnamed daughter does not. Consider the example of Spartacus again. Many real figures appear in the novel and the movie. The slave girl Livinia is not one of them. Similarly, in the anti-McCarthy polemic Inherit the Wind, many real figures appear in the story with changed names and sometimes in composite form. However, the girlfriend Rachel is fictional. Both of these female figures represent the audience, we the people. We have to make a decision about whom to support: the forces of light or the forces of darkness. In Inherit the Wind, Rachel chooses between her father and her true love, just as Michal may be said to do initially in later stories. Some storytelling techniques have remained effective for millennia. 

            In this story, Jephthah’s daughter represents the Israelite people. It is those people who are in jeopardy due to the actions of Saul against the Philistines. The author draws on the well-established tradition of women singing in praise of a victory won by their fathers, husbands, sons, or brothers who are now returning home. In the story, the fix is in. How stupid would you have to be not to know that your daughter and only child would be the first person to greet the returning warrior? I am open to the possibility that these phrases were added to the original prose narrative to emphasize just how truly absurd his vow had been.

            Putting such derogatory slights of Saul aside, the historical validity of the prophecy of doom for Israel should be considered seriously. It was only a few decades earlier when the Philistines had defeated Israel, destroyed Shiloh, and captured the Ark of Yahweh. It would be only a few years in the future before Saul and Jonathan would die in a battle against the Philistines, and Khirbet Qeiyafa, which I think Saul built, would be destroyed. The author’s warning that Israel’s life was at risk due to the rash actions of Saul in acting against the Philistines seems warranted. In some ways, the author may be considered a forerunner of the prophets who preached accommodation with the stronger Assyria or Babylonia.

The bottom line is that the story failed. It did not deter Saul from proclaiming himself the king of Israel (with the support of unnamed Benjaminite priests who themselves would become writers). It did not spark a revolt against Saul, either. Words alone were not enough. A warrior was needed to combat Saul. Hence, the second text of terror story.


            I suggest that these two political texts of terror were the first two alphabet prose narratives written that subsequently became part of the Hebrew Bible. Before you can run, you walk. Before you can walk, you stand. Before you can stand, you crawl. The writing of the Hebrew Bible did not begin with long extended narratives in Persian or Hellenistic times. It began with individual standalone stories in the transition to the monarchy in Iron II.

            The catalyst for this development was Saul’s desire to become king. Two hundred years had passed from Merneptah to monarchy. During that time, Israel had no king, no taxes, no corvée, and no draft. Now all that was at risk. Israelites only had to look at the nearby Canaanite cities to know what kingship meant. It is reasonable to expect that there would be opposition to such a change.

            Those objections would be voiced and written. The major change or trauma engendered a significant innovation: the development of the alphabet prose political polemic narrative. We know that Canaanites could write during the Amarna Age and presumably that skill carried on past the 14th century BCE even though such diplomatic correspondence has not been discovered. We know that the Egyptians erected stele with writing in Canaan, where the Israelites actually lived long before the Assyrians erected monuments in Syria where the Israelites did not live. We know that there is a political dimension to the Ugaritic myths. Necessity is the mother of invention. There came a time in Israel when writing on arrowheads as prestige items was not enough. Saul’s desire to become king was a disturbance in the force, and the Levites fought against that change with the only weapon they had: storytelling of the word of God. And then David answered their prayers.

            What may be conjectured about the identity of the writer of these two stories?

1. He was the founder of the alphabet prose narrative.

2. His stories were of political nature. They were not written as history, literature, or theology. There is no constructive purpose to taking any of his stories as literally or physically true. They were written to be politically true.

3. He was a Levite.

4. He wrote during the time of Saul and David (and Solomon, too). As a result, there is a unique opportunity in the ancient Near East to trace the development of writing through the corpus of one person’s work over time.

5. He had rivals, a successor, and a student.

6. His name was Abiathar.

            In these first two alphabet prose narratives, we can observe him struggling to maintain the traditional political arrangement where only the priests of Shiloh had the power to call Israel to war and the only king of Israel was Yahweh. He objected to Saul’s attempt to free Israel from Philistine hegemony as suicidal. Saul’s initial success caused him to re-evaluate the situation. He still opposed Saul’s monarchy as a matter of principle, but he recognized that he could not resist Saul alone. So he reached out to David. One notes that when David and Abiathar were fugitives in the wilderness together, David did inquire of the Lord through him I Sam. 23:9 and 30:7). While this author still objected to the concept of a human king, he could accept one if it was the right person, one who would later install the Ark of Yahweh at Zion.

            If you invent a new weapon, your enemies will learn how to use it. Military monopolies don’t last forever. This Levite author had weaponized the alphabet prose narrative. We can see that his stories became battlefields for future writing. In the story of Jephthah’s Daughter, supplements included the expansive dialog and confrontation with the Ammonite king with many geographical names, the mountain ritual of the female virgins, and the shibboleth-sibboleth Ephraim encounter. Identifying the various layers and exchanges among the writers will require the skill of a biblical surgeon. But the result will be a more sophisticated and thorough knowledge of the rise of the monarchy in Israel and the formation of the Hebrew Bible.

What story do you think was the first alphabet prose story in the Hebrew Bible?


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Assis, Eliyahu. 2005. “The Jephthah Account (10:6-12:7)” in Self Interest or Communal Interest: An ideology of Leadership in the Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah Narratives (Judges 6-12). Leiden: Brill, 174-237.

Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. 2015. “A Stratified Account of Jephthah’s Negotiations and Battle: Judges 11:12-33 from an Archaeological Perspective.” JBL 134: 291-311.

Brettler, Marc. 1989. “The Book of Judges: Literature as Politics.” JBL 108: 395-418.

Day, Peggy L. 1989. “From the Child is Born the Woman: The Story of Jephthah’s Daughter.” In Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, Peggy Day, ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 58-74.

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Gerstein, Beth. 1989. “A Ritual Processed Look at Judges 11:40.” In Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible, Mieke Bal, ed. Sheffield: The Almond Press, 175-191.

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Römer, Thomas. 1998. “Why Would the Deuteronomist Tell about the Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter.” JSOT 77: 27-38.

Sanders, Seth L. 2009. The Invention of Hebrew. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Sasson, Jack. 2013. “Jephthah: Chutzpah and Overreach in a Hebrew Judge.” In Literature as Politics, Politics as Literature: Essays on the Ancient Near East in Honor of Peter Machinist, David S. Vanderhooft and Abraham Winitzer, eds. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 405-420.

Sweeney, Marvin A. 1997. “Davidic Polemics in the Book of Judges,” VT 47: 517-529.

Trible, Phyllis. 1984. “The Daughter of Jephthah: An Inhuman Sacrifice.” In Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 93-115.

Tugendhaft, Aaron. 2018. Baal and the Politics of Poetry. New York: Abingdon.


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