Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?

Q. Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?  Or is the other point of view correct that says that she lived her life as a virgin and in that sense was sacrificed?

George Elgar Hicks, “The Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter”

Unfortunately Jephthah most likely did sacrifice his daughter after he vowed to make a burnt offering of “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph.”  The author of Judges includes this story as one of several horrific examples of what happened in the days when “Israel had no king” and “everyone did as they saw fit.”  These examples support the overall argument of the book, that the people need a king to help ensure that they will know God’s law and follow it.  As I explain further in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth:

* * * * *

It wasn’t unusual for an Israelite who was counting on the LORD to make a vow, as Jephthah does.  This was a promise to acknowledge God publicly when he brought deliverance.  Vows like this are described often in the Psalms, for example, in Psalm 66:  “I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you—vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble.”

There would have been nothing wrong with Jepthah’s vow if he had only known the law.  Moses allowed the Israelites to offer anyone or anything they wanted to the LORD in payment of a vow, but it specified that if they dedicated a human being, they had to “redeem” that person by offering the value of their labor instead.  (These regulations are found at the end of the book of Leviticus.)  Jephthah should have paid ten shekels of silver into the LORD’s treasury, rather than sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering.  But by now the Israelites were so used to Baal-worship, which included human sacrifices, that they were actually prepared to offer human sacrifices to the LORD–even though he had expressly forbidden them in the law.  And so Jephthah’s daughter suffers a horrific fate.

* * * * *

After offering this explanation, I then make these further reflections on the story of Jephthah:  “However, apart from his ignorance of the law and these tragic consequences, Jephthah is in other ways an exemplary judge.  He continually acknowledges the LORD as the one who delivered Israel in the past and who should be trusted to do so again.  The narrative says that the ‘Spirit of the LORD’ was on him, and that ‘the LORD gave [the Ammonites] into his hand.’  The book of Hebrews names him as a hero of the faith.”

In light of these observations, I ask these questions in the guide:

• Was Jephthah the best man he could have been, given his nation’s state of spiritual decline?  Or could he have been better?  If so, how?

• What consequences do you see in your own culture of an ignorance of God’s ways?  What activities are accepted, perhaps without question, that God doesn’t want people to practice?

What would you say in response to these questions?

Why does Ruth speak in poetry when she pledges loyalty to Naomi?

Q. Having translated the book of Ruth, I’m curious about the poetic lines that Ruth recites to Naomi when she makes her pledge in chapter 2.  I’m wondering if you know where these words come from in Hebrew culture?  Given the marriage themes in the book, I have wondered if they might have been part of the ancient Israelite marital vows or something similar.  The poetry absolutely stands out there.  Any insight on this?

Pieter Lastman, "Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi"
Pieter Lastman,
“Ruth Declares her Loyalty to Naomi”

To respond to this second question of yours, you’re right, Ruth’s words to Naomi really do stand out as Hebrew poetry, in parallel couplets.  It’s surprising that Bibles don’t format them this way:

Entreat me not to leave you
or to return from following you;

for where you go I will go,
and where you lodge I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,
and your God my God;

where you die I will die,
and there will I be buried.

After elegantly concluding her poem by varying the you-I progression with a solemn final statement, Ruth swears an oath that she asks God to enforce:  “May the Lord do so to me and more also if even death parts me from you!”

I don’t think this language is actually taken from an ancient Israelite marriage ceremony.  (The opposite is true: people have taken Ruth’s words and turned them into marriage vows.)  Rather, it’s characteristic of Hebrew narrative that when someone has something crucial to say, on which the story line turns, they say it in poetry. In the ancient oral culture, this would make the saying memorable and repeatable (kind of like an advertizing slogan today).

For example, when Sheba son of Bikri foments a rebellion against David, he shouts in poetry:

We have no share in David,
no part in Jesse’s son!
Every man to his tent, Israel!

To give another example, David’s promise to Bathsheba about who will succeed him is also spoken in poetry, and it’s quoted several times at crucial points in the succession narrative:

Solomon your son shall reign after me,
he shall sit upon my throne in my stead.

Samuel speaks similarly in poetry when he announces God’s rejection of Saul as king and when he pronounces judgment on Agag.  The Israelites proclaim their refusal of Rehoboam as their king in poetry as well.

Examples like these show that poetry was used for important pronouncements in Hebrew narrative, probably reflecting the actual customs of the culture.  And we have to admit that among her many other qualities as a “woman of noble character,” Ruth was a fine poet.

Did Boaz already have another wife when he married Ruth?

Q. I see that you are posting about Ruth on your blog.  I have two questions for your, a little more in depth.  Here goes:

1) Having translated the book of Ruth, I’m curious about the poetic lines that Ruth recites to Naomi when she makes her pledge in chapter 2.  I’m wondering if you know where these words come from in Hebrew culture?  Given the marriage themes in the book, I have wondered if they might have been part of the ancient Israelite marital vows or something similar.  The poetry absolutely stands out there.  Any insight on this?

2) I have also heard the theory that Boaz was already married when this story happened, and that he probably took Ruth as a second wife (or perhaps more).  I think this view is based on the fact that Boaz seems to be a wealthy and presumably middle-aged man.  What are your thoughts about this?

That’s all.  I am enjoying your blog!

Thanks for your kind words and for following up on my recent posts with these questions.  Let me begin with the one about Boaz.

While it’s possible that Boaz did have another wife (in this culture, this wouldn’t have kept him from marrying Ruth), it doesn’t say anywhere in the book that he did, so we shouldn’t assume this.  What we do know about Boaz, as we’re told when we first meet him, is that he’s a “man of standing,” prosperous and influential.  As I explain in my Joshua-Judges-Ruth study guide:

“To get enough money to live on, Naomi is selling the portion of the fields around Bethlehem that belonged to her late husband Elimelek. The hope is that, as the law intends, a goel (family guardian) will ‘redeem’ this property, buying it from Naomi, but also on her behalf, so that she has both the money from the sale and the field’s produce year by year. The other family guardian is initially willing to make this sacrifice. But when he learns he must also marry Ruth and give her children in her late husband’s name, he backs out, explaining, ‘I might endanger my own estate.’ (He can’t afford to part with the money for the property and then divide his remaining worth among his current children and those Ruth will have in the future.) But Boaz is a ‘man of standing’ who’s in an adequate position to help out financially in this way.”

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, "Ruth in Boaz's Field," 1828
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Ruth in Boaz’s Field,” 1828

This explains why Boaz is the right husband for Ruth.  If he did have another wife, which is possible (although again, not mentioned in the book, so we should not assume it), this would raise the further question of polygamy.  We need to appreciate that in this culture, women were dependent on male relatives for provision and protection. So the commandment in the law of Moses for a close relative to marry a widow, even if he was already married himself, was a compassionate provision for her needs and those of her current and future children and dependents.  (Naomi, an older widow herself, is one of Ruth’s dependents, and so Ruth’s proposal to Boaz, as I noted in this post, is also an act of compassion to her.) 

I’ll answer your question about Ruth’s poetic promise to Naomi in my next post.

Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 3)

Q. What was really going on between Ruth and Boaz that night on the threshing floor?  I’ve heard the interpretation that she seduced him in order to get him to marry her.  Is that right?

This interpretation has spread farther and wider than I’d ever imagined.  In response to my first two posts about it, someone contacted me to say that they’d recently heard it in Christian circles over on the other side of the world!

But since this interpretation, as I said in my first post, reflects an inadequate understanding of Hebrew vocabulary and idiom, of the thematic development of the book of Ruth, and of ancient Israelite customs, I think it’s important to set the record straight.  Arguments have continued to be added to the original claim that the phrase “she uncovered his feet” is a euphemism for sexual activity, so let me address two more of those arguments in this final post.

First, I’ve heard it said that since the threshing floor, where a successful harvest was celebrated, was notorious in ancient times as a place of drunkenness and immorality, we should only expect sexual activity there between Boaz and Ruth.  This was true generally of the threshing floor after harvest in the pagan world, and perhaps even in much of Israel during the period of the judges, in which the book of Ruth is set, when “everyone did as they saw fit.”

But we should not expect this of Boaz’s threshing floor.  The book of Ruth ominously warns us of the dangers an unprotected young woman faced during the period of the judges, but it also introduces Boaz as a God-fearing man who respects and protects women.  When we first meet him, he greets his harvesters in the name of the Lord.  He later assures Ruth that he’s ordered his men not to lay a hand on her.

So while the wine is indeed flowing freely at this harvest celebration (the book tells us that when Boaz went to sleep, his “heart was merry,” and this was no doubt true of the others), this deep sleep only makes it possible for Ruth to slip in unobserved and enact the symbolic proposal ritual.  Boaz praises Ruth as a “woman of noble character” and ensures that she leaves before dawn so that no one will get the wrong impression.  This is in keeping with his characterization in the book as a godly and honorable protector, and so it is quite unfair to him to assert that he took advantage of Ruth when no one was looking.

A second argument I’ve heard in favor of a sexual interpretation of the threshing floor episode is that Ruth was in desperate circumstances but powerless, so we can’t blame her for using sex, the only tool at her disposal, to ensure her survival.

The fact is that by this point in the book, Ruth is no longer desperate.  She has courageously gone out to glean and has seen God go ahead of her providentially to lead her to the fields of Boaz, where she has been safe and favored.  Boaz has allowed her to glean on such generous terms, in fact, that Naomi has been amazed by how much grain she has brought home.  The two women were destitute when they arrived back in Bethlehem, but now, after the barley and wheat harvests, they have plenty of food to make it through the winter.

It’s actually with a view towards Ruth’s long-term marriage prospects, not towards their own short-term survival, that Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor.  So there is no need for Ruth to resort to desperate tactics.  And there is no reason to believe that she would, not after seeing God provide for her when she stepped out into the unknown, first leaving her home country, and then bravely gleaning in the fields.

When we understand her whole story, we recognize that Ruth is an inspiring example to us of loyalty, love, faith, and courage.  If we argue instead that out of desperation she adopted expedients and compromised herself–but, we hasten to add, “we understand, because of her situation”–we are condescending to a woman whose trust in God may well be greater than our own.

In a follow-up post, “Was Ruth inviting Boaz to contract a marriage by consummating that marriage?” I address a variation on the modern sexual interpretations of the threshing floor episode. This interpretation is proposed in a comment (below) on this post.


Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 2)

Q. What was really going on between Ruth and Boaz that night on the threshing floor?  I’ve heard the interpretation that she seduced him in order to get him to marry her.  Is that right?

In my first post in response to this question, I answered the claim most commonly advanced in support of this interpretation.  I showed that the phrase “she uncovered his feet” is not a euphemism for sexual activity.  Rather, this action, which occurred literally, was a prelude to her request to Boaz, “Spread the corner of your garment over me,” a symbolic action promising that he would care for her as her husband.

Let me now address another claim that is made in favor of a sexual interpretation of this episode. Boaz speaks of a “kindness” that Ruth has done by showing attention to him rather than “running after the younger men.”  It is sometimes argued that he is referring to a sexual favor that Ruth has just granted.  However, to know what Boaz really means by this, we need to consider his entire statement.

Boaz says, “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier.”  Since he clearly expects Ruth to know what he means, he must be referring to something that the two of them have talked about before.  And since readers are expected to understand as well, this conversation must have been recorded in the book. They have only had limited dialogue to this point, so the reference is not hard to identify.  When they first meet, Boaz explains why he is showing her such favor.  He says, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before.”

"Landscape with Ruth and Boaz" (detail), Joseph Anton Koch, 1823
“Landscape with Ruth and Boaz” (detail), Joseph Anton Koch, 1823

In other words, when Ruth and Boaz meet again on the threshing floor, he’s not speaking at all about a “kindness” that she has just done for him, sexual or otherwise.  Rather, he’s speaking about second and greater kindness that Ruth is now doing for Naomi.  By being willing to marry an older, well-established man, she is ensuring that Naomi will be provided for into the future.  But this also means that as young widow, Ruth is sacrificing the opportunity for a new love match with a man closer to her own age.  This, Boaz recognizes, is a “greater kindness,” an even more significant personal sacrifice than the one she’s already made by leaving her homeland.

So Ruth is not using sex to catch a new husband. Far from it. If anything, she’s making other values and commitments a priority as she approaches a new marriage.

In my next post I’ll consider some further claims that are made in support of a sexual interpretation of the threshing floor episode in the book of Ruth.

Did Ruth seduce Boaz to get him to marry her? (Part 1)

Q. What was really going on between Ruth and Boaz that night on the threshing floor?  I’ve heard the interpretation that she seduced him in order to get him to marry her.  Is that right?

Wenzel Bible (1389), illustrating "He awoke in the middle of the night and there was a woman lying at his feet."
Wenzel Bible (1389), illustrating “He awoke in the middle of the night and there was a woman lying at his feet.”

The interpretation you describe, that Ruth seduced Boaz, has been making the rounds for years.  I’ve encountered it before, and that’s why in my study guide to Joshua-Judges-Ruth I explain that “by lying down next to Boaz at night,” Ruth is only “symbolically proposing marriage to him,” and that “all of this is done honorably, within the customs of this culture.”

The sexual interpretation of this episode reflects an inadequate understanding of Hebrew vocabulary and idiom, of the thematic development of the book of Ruth, and of ancient Israelite customs.  In the next several posts I’ll respond to this interpretation by addressing the various claims it’s based on.

Let me begin in this post with the claim that the statement that Ruth “uncovered his feet” is a euphemism meaning that she had sexual relations with Boaz.  There is an idiom in Hebrew using the verb “uncover” that describes sexual relations, but it’s to uncover a person’s “nakedness,” not their “feet.”  For example, the general law against incest in Leviticus, which the NIV translates “No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations,” says more literally, “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness” (ESV; the NRSV is similar).  The specific incest laws that follow use this same idiom.

It’s a disputed point whether “feet” is ever used in Hebrew as a euphemism for the male sexual organs.  Some see this in contexts such as Isaiah’s vision of the seraphim, who covered their faces with two of their wings and their “feet” with two other wings.  Does this mean that they were naked and covering up modestly in the presence of God?  Or were they clothed and covering their actual feet, in a sign of reverence?  Scholars are divided over this question.

But whether or not “feet” is ever used in Hebrew as a euphemism this way, we need to understand the meaning of term in this passage in Ruth based on the context there.  It’s significant, for one thing, that Naomi tells Ruth to “uncover his feet and lie down,” and that the narrator then reports that she “uncovered his feet and lay down.”  If this really were a euphemism for sexual relations, she would instead lie down first and then “uncover his feet.”

The passage also says that some significant time later (“in the middle of the night”), Boaz woke up and discovered Ruth “lying at his feet.”  This clearly refers to a location, and it suggests strongly that “feet” means literally feet throughout the passage.  Ruth “uncovered” Boaz’s feet, pulling back his garment, specifically so that she then could ask him to “spread his garment” over her, meaning to assume the responsibility for her care, as her husband.  In other words, this is a symbolic act.  Similar symbolism is used, in a different context, when Jonathan makes a covenant of friendship with David:  he gives him his robe to show that he will provide for him (along with his weapons to show that he will protect him).

Some might argue that this passage in Ezekiel is a “smoking gun” that proves the expression “spread the corner of one’s garment,” for its part, is a euphemism for sexual activity:  “When I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your naked body.”  But we need to understand this statement in the context of Ezekiel’s parable, in which the woman is represented as naked because she was abandoned as a baby and has never been cared for or provided for.  That the phrase is actually describing marriage is clear from the parallel statement that immediately follows: “I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you . . .  and you became mine.”

A better understanding of Hebrew idiom and Israelite customs shows that Ruth is not having sexual relations with Boaz when she “uncovers his feet.”  I’ll continue to address the claims that are made in support of a sexual interpretation of this passage in the book of Ruth in my next post.

Does God harden people’s hearts so they won’t be saved? (Part 1)

Q. Peter clearly states in his second letter that “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”  Several statements in the Bible that seem to be contrary to this don’t make sense to me.  Two examples are Joshua 11:20, “The Lord hardened their hearts . . . that they might receive no mercy,” and John 12:40, “He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn, and I would heal them.”   Wouldn’t God want to make it easier for all of us to get to Him?  So why would God discourage some people from believing or make it harder for them than for others?  Related to this is the way people or nations had their hearts hardened so that God could demonstrate his power. Pharaoh seemed ready to let the Israelites go, but instead God hardened his heart and the plagues came, including death to all the first born. 

Thank you for these excellent questions.  I’ll take some time to answer them.  In this post I’ll talk about the reference in Joshua to God hardening hearts and showing no mercy.  In my next post I’ll take up the passage you cite from John.  And in a final post I’ll look at the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.

The question of people and nations being hardened, so that they are destroyed rather than saved, comes up several times (quite understandably) in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth.  As I tell groups when they first read through Joshua, “This aspect of the book . . . creates one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.” So let me begin answering your question by sharing what I say about it in the Joshua study guide.  I’ll take up the passages you cite from John and Exodus in subsequent posts.

In Session 4 of the guide, when groups consider the destruction of the city of Jericho, when no one is spared except Rahab and her family, I offer these observations:

Esteban March, "Joshua at the Walls of Jericho"
Esteban March, “Joshua at the Walls of Jericho”

“The Bible sometimes describes judgments of total destruction like this, but at other times God’s judgments are limited and tempered by mercy.  The challenge for readers of the Bible is to determine which kinds of episodes are normative and which ones are exceptional, and why those occurred.

Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity.  In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional.

Jesus taught that we should love even our enemies, and that we should show mercy to others so that we will receive mercy ourselves.  He died to save people who were, at the time, his own enemies.  So his life and teachings show that judgments of total destruction, like the one described here, are exceptional.  So why did exceptional events like this occur as the Israelites took possession of Canaan?

“This is a question that thoughtful interpreters have offered different answers to, but here is one possibility to consider.  It may be that God had determined that Canaanite society had become so corrupt that it couldn’t be redeemed.  This society was particularly violent, oppressive, and degraded.  . . .  If this society was never going to change, then it had to answer the demands of justice.  Moreover, if the Israelites imitated the Canaanites, they’d rapidly be corrupted themselves.  So their influence had to be removed completely.

As God had earlier used flood and fire to purge away irredeemably wicked societies from the earth, now God chose to use the Israelite armies for this purpose.  This was not an ordinary war; these armies were on special assignment as agents of divine judgment.  This is why, in the case of the opening battle of Jericho, the soldiers weren’t allowed to take any plunder.”

I then invite groups to interact with these comments, to say whether they think they might be on the right track, even if they don’t completely agree with them, or whether they’d account for episodes like this one in some other way.

Then, in Session 7, groups take up the part of Joshua that summarizes the conquest of the nations living in Canaan. There we find the statement that you asked about:  “It was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy.”  When we read this statement on its own, it does sound as if God wanted all the Canaanites to perish, in direct contradiction to what Peter writes.  But we need to understand this statement in its context.  I suggest the following in the Joshua study guide:

“The author’s primary concern here is to document that Joshua faithfully carried out what ‘the LORD commanded Moses.’  Canaanite culture was so corrupt and oppressive that God didn’t want it to supply any part of the model on which the new Israelite society would be built.  But this meant that Canaanite influence had to be completely eliminated.

So God led the Canaanites ‘to wage war against Israel so that he’—Joshua—’might destroy them totally . . . as the LORD had commanded Moses.’  The fundamental goal is the complete removal of the corrupting Canaanite influence, so that a new society can be built on God’s laws, as a model for the rest of the world.  Everything else–the hardening, the war, and the destruction–follows from that.”

If this is the case, then paradoxically the indirect but ultimate goal here is to make it possible for people to follow God, not to prevent them from doing so.  And so, as I observe further:

“If the ultimate goal is to make it possible for the Israelites to model God’s ways for the rest of the world, then it’s consistent with that goal for some people outside Israel, at any point, to choose in favor of God.  But this means that the hardening must have been general, on the Canaanites as a whole, and not specific, in each one of their individual hearts.  (The text uses the collective singular: ‘It was from the LORD to harden their heart.’)  To seek the God of Israel, an individual person or city would have to make a choice contrary to what everyone around them wanted to do.  In this culture of corporate identity, this would not have been easy.  But as the cases of Rahab and the Gibeonites show, it wasn’t impossible.”

Indeed, if we understand the episodes of total destruction in the book of Joshua by analogy to the judgment of the flood, then only the earthly destiny of the Canaanites was at stake, not their eternal destiny.  In an earlier post I’ve explored the biblical statement (also by Peter) that Jesus went and preached to the imprisoned spirits who perished “in the days of Noah.”  This is only speculative, I must emphasize, but it’s possible that the spirits of those who perished “in the days of Joshua” might also have been “imprisoned,” awaiting a proclamation of the gospel that they could understand from Jesus himself.