Bible Stories and Night Terrors

Jephthah’s Daugher (Bon Boullogne)

Around the time that Nate turned eight, he started demanding that I read him more challenging bedtime material. Out was Roald Dahl, which broke my heart, and in were The Hobbit, Greek myths, and—to my surprise—a trove of Bible stories adapted for kids.

Surprising because we’re a family of atheists, though I’m Jewish enough to have testily avoided reading the New Testament stories. Besides, you’re supposed to start at the beginning.

We marched through Genesis, which fascinated us. So many questions left unanswered, mostly to do with the provenance of early procreational partners. We worked our way through the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and, finally, Abraham and his senior moment of fathering Isaac.

Abraham and Isaac: that’s a tough story for a dad to read to his son. Because, if you’ve forgotten, God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and, at the last minute, swaps in a ram for the boy.

To my relief, we seemed to get through it safely. I exhaled and told Nate that this was actually kind of a happy story. I explained that God’s reprieve of Isaac played a role in ending child sacrifice, a practice that had been all too common in ancient societies.

And that’s when my beautiful, relaxed, nearly asleep boy began to bawl.

I am a complete idiot.

To his credit, Nate wanted to continue with the Bible stories. We worked through Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph (all marked by more bizarre father/son relations), through Exodus and Moses (more father/son weirdness), and finally to Joshua the the Promised Land. After a bit of selective skipping, we made it to Judges and found ourselves face to face with Jephthah.

Jephthah, you ask?

Why, you don’t know Jephthah??

Me either. Never heard of him. So here’s Lou’s abridged version of the story of Jephthah:

The very first thing we learn is that Jephthah was born of a wicked woman. That’s likely King Jamesian for prostitute. I dunno; either way, she never comes up again.

Jephthah grows up into a badass hoodlum, running a gang of lowlife highwaymen that hangs out in the wilderness and robs travelers.

Soon, and once again, the Jews are being attacked. If you can guess which of the Elamites, Moabites, or Ammonites is doing the attacking, I’ll give you a dollar. Either way, times are bad enough that the elders come to Jephthah and ask him to be their general and lead them to victory.

“Jephthah, save us!”

“Me? I’m just a low-life hood — I’m no general!”

“Doesn’t matter. We’re desperate, and you don’t seem to mind shedding a little blood.”

“Well… I’ll be right back. I’ve got to go check with someone.”

One of the most compelling aspects of the Old Testament is that Yahweh is always present—and often just around the corner. More accurately, He’s that big bully who lives in the hut on the edge of the village. You can go to Him any time you need to talk, but be prepared—He’s jealous and mean and prone to rage and you’re probably going to wish you hadn’t bothered. Think Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas, only much bigger, much stronger, and already made.

But saving the Israelites is a big deal, so Jephthah goes to find God to ask if he’s up for the job. This time God is remarkably calm, amiable, and even supportive, telling Jephthah “Yeah, yeah, don’t worry about it — I got your back.”

And here’s where the story went off the rails for Nate and me. Despite a divine guarantee from the Lord Himself, Jephthah’s still uncertain. So, to be extra-sure, he puts a cherry on top. Jephthah vows that if he’s victorious, he’ll sacrifice the first thing—animal, person—he sees walking out the door of his house upon returning from battle.

Of course, he’s victorious. Jephthah returns home, and who walks out the door? His daughter, his one and only child.

Jephthah is shattered but, to her credit, his daughter seems untroubled about her pending demise. “Dad, it’s ok: you made a vow unto the Lord, and you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.” All she asks is for the summer to hang out and do some camping in the wilderness with her pals.

And what happens at the end of the summer?

He sacrifices her.

Nate and I looked at each other, stunned.

No nail-biting last-minute reprieve? After all, God had let Abraham off the hook. God had saved Isaac’s life. And child sacrifice was supposed to be verboten since then, so many begats ago.

Was it Jephthah’s mother? Was her wickedness at the root of this bloody episode? If so, did it merit such horror to be visited upon her innocent descendants?

I had no explanation, no handy historical context to draw on. And when I’d tried that approach after reading the story of Abraham and Isaac, it had only made things worse for Nate.

Jephthah. That’s when we put aside the Bible stories for good. In desperate need of comfort, we grabbed our well-worn copy of James and the Giant Peach.

I started reading aloud.