All people have birthdays once a year. ” My sister has a birthday only every four years,” interrupts one of my listeners. A leap year baby she must be. Think of it, her first birth-day cake can have four candles on it! But did you ever hear of anyone having four birthdays in the same year? “Impossible!” do you say? Perhaps, from your way of looking at it, but after you have heard my story you may think that even four birthdays a year are not enough.
The little maid of whom I am going to tell you had passed only fourteen of those single yearly birthdays when she performed such a brave act that her country said she must there-after have four days a year celebrated in her honor.
She was a little creature, all smiles, and as her feet danced in and out of her father’s tent he often called her his sunshine. She was up with the birds in the morning, teasing her father awake by stroking his eyelids with a feather. Then he dressed quickly and together they went outside the tent and knelt beside the flat stone while they called upon Jehovah to protect them through the day and to give them success in whatever they might do.She was a little creature, all smiles, and as her feet danced in and out of her father’s tent he often called her his sunshine. She was up with the birds in the morning, teasing her father awake by stroking his eyelids with a feather. Then he dressed quickly and together they went outside the tent and knelt beside the flat stone while they called upon Jehovah to protect them through the day and to give them success in whatever they might do.
A slave from the doorway called them to breakfast and poured water upon their hands as they squatted before the dish which held their food, for, as we know, fingers were used instead of knives and forks.
Three loaves of bread were placed before each of them. A healthy, hungry girl and a man who spent his days in fighting must have enough to eat.
“Three loaves of bread ! ” I hear you say, “How could they eat so much?”
Their loaves you would call biscuits, so there were not any more than everyone in those times expected to eat at a meal.
Their breakfast over, they again gave thanks to Jehovah. The father strapped on his sword, and Judith watched as he bounded down the mountain side.
Jephthahfor that was the man’s nameand Judith, his daughter, lived in the times of the judgeswild, rough times such as the early settlers had when they first came to America. Just as the Indians fought the settlers, the people of Canaan fought the Hebrews who tried to settle among them and make homes for themselves. Many of the people of Israel were still wandering about and living in tents.
A man might be rich at night and poor the next morning. While he slept his cattle and household goods might be stolen, his fields burned, and he with his family rudely awakened and driven from the country.
This had happened to Jephthah. His own brothers had turned him out of their home and refused to share their father’s property with him. But he was a man of valor,” used to fighting, so he went to the mountains of Gilead and became chief of a lawless band of men as powerful as himself in war.
In those days might was right. The fighter with the strongest muscles was the most respected because he was the most feared. Fear was really the god of the people. And when people are badly frightened and always expecting to be hurt, it is no wonder that they act foolishly and wickedly. But these people of long ago did the best they knew how to do, which is all we can expect of anyone.
You have been in a crowd and had to force your way through it. Of course you were careful not to step on anyone’s toes or to hurt any-one. You think strangers have rights which you try to respect. But in the times of the Judges strangers did not count. It was only one’s family and relatives that were given attention or received courtesy. The country was small, the people many, and often they suffered for want of room. To make a place for them-selves they used the sword, and the weak were destroyed in order that the strong might have more space to feed their cattle, grow their crops, and build their cities.
The people who lived in the mountains were the most fearless because they were the safest from their enemies. Our little heroine Judith was a maid of the mountains. She could skip nimbly across rushing mountain torrents, run races with the mountain goats, and often delighted to shout aloud so that she might hear her voice bound back to her from the rocky peaks. She knew every foot of the hills, had explored their dark caverns, and at one time had climbed down a steep ravine to rescue a tiny lamb that had slipped into its depths. A strong, healthy, happy little lass was she. With a song she welcomed the morning sun, and as she held out her arms to the stars she sang them a good-night.
Some of you young people from the high school look as though you would like to ask me a question.
“Yes,” replies a boy, “we would. We want to know where in the Bible you find all you are telling about Jephthah and his daughter.”
We do not find it all in Scripture. About these two people who did the best they knew how to doalthough that “best” was wrongthere is little told us in this truly beautiful Bible story. But we can find out more about them by reading histories of those times and of the customs of those people. With this knowledge and what the Bible gives us we make our story.
“I like that way,” adds a girl. “It seems to bring them closer to us and makes real people of them.”
It was evening as Jephthah came wearily up the mountain side. He stopped to stroke the faithful dog that met him and to count the sheep over which the dog kept watch. A flock of doves scattered as he approached, and a little calf bleated from the doorway of the tent. Probably Judith had thought it needed extra care and had brought it from the pasture. A slave saw him coming and ran to meet him, received his sword and mantle, and made him comfortable in the tent.
“Where is Judith?” asked her father of the slave.
He was answered by a peal of laughter from the child, as, hidden behind a curtain, she watched while her father searched for her. Soon she was found and they sat down to their evening meal. When it was over they sat in the door of the tent, and the stern, fierce warrior listened with joy to the voice of his child as she told him of her day’s work and play.
“It is good to live, father,” she said, “and I love to live.”
Words well spoken, little maid. Tonight they make your father glad; but tomorrow is coming, and with it those words will fall upon his heart like stones.
Some elderly men with distressed faces came toward their tent, but were relieved as Jephthah arose and greeted them.
“Why do you seek me?” Jephthah asked them. “It is but a little while since you with my brothers drove me from my father’s house and country.”
” The Ammonites are troubling us; they are burning our villages and carrying away our children and our cattle. Each day is worse than the one before and we have no power to resist these enemies,” the men replied.
“Why have you no power? Is strength departed from Israel that you come to me now that you are in distress?”
Bowing to the ground before them as he spoke these words, Jephthah motioned to them to enter the tent and be seated. As he offered them food and drink his visitors became encouraged, for this act meant that he was friendly to them and to their cause.
The eldest man among them strode to the tent door. His white hair falling over his shoulders and white beard touching the girdle at his waist gave him an appearance of great age. Lifting the curtain of the door he raised his arm and, pointing to the stars, replied to Jephthah, “As is the number of the stars, so is the number of the children of Israel, but there are none among them as mighty as yourself. They need your help.”
The others joined their voices with his and urged upon Jephthah their need of him as a leader, and their need, too, of his dreaded warriors, saying, “Therefore are we turned again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight with the children of Ammon, and thou shalt be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.”
” If this be so,” answered Jephthah, ” I will go with you.”
The men arose and swore in the name of Jehovah that they would keep their word. The old man stood in their midst and raised his hands in blessing, his long, flowing robes fluttering in the rising wind which swept in through the open door of the tent.
Jephthah drew his robes close about him, fastening them in tight with his girdle. The loose upper garment must be laid aside. It would hinder his speed when he was walking or riding. He reached for his sworddropped itand over his face there flashed a momentary fear.
What was it that moaned outside the tent?
He listened, then laughed as the wild wind shrieked by his tent door and sobbed itself out on the distant mountain peaks.
At his feet something glistened. He stooped and picked it up, but let it fallit was red, the color of blood. His superstitious fancy wondered if it could be an omen of evil. Was his errand to be one of harm to himself? But no, it was only Judith’s spangled red turban which the wind had torn from its peg and thrown at his feet.
Judith! He had forgotten her, for the urgency of his errand and the terrible need of his visitors had crowded all else out of his mind.
He must leave her, but she was safe with her maidens, and the slaves were faithful. Surely no danger could come to her, secure in the mountain stronghold. She would not need the protection of his band of warriors who were to go with him.
He stepped to a little tent near his own, lifted the curtain which screened the door, and looked lovingly upon his sleeping child. He did not waken her with a good-by. She was a brave little lass, but the errand upon which he was going was a dangerous one and he might never return to her. The daughter of Jephthah, “the mighty man of valor,” he knew would meet her father’s loss with a spirit as strong as his own, and there was no need to trouble her now.
He stroked with tenderness the locks of sunny hair. There was a ruddy gleam in them like the waving of flames. He listened as her lips moved. What was she saying as she slept? It was not clear, but he remembered the words she had spoken just before their guests had arrived, and he felt them echo in his heart : “I love to live, father. It is good to live.”
Then out into the night he and his visitors went, stopping only to summon all his fighting men. In the morning he would send messengers to the king of the Ammonites and demand of him why he and his people should war upon Israel.
When the sun rose again it looked down upon two armies. One was the host of Israel, the other that of the children of Ammon. Out from the camp of Israel rode Jephthah’s courier with a message to the king of Ammon.
” Why do you trouble Israel?” was its refrain.
“Because,” replied the king, “your people have stolen the land of the Ammonites and will not return it to us.”
“Not so,” answered Jephthah. “We did not steal; we won it in a fair battle. If our God Jehovah gives us strength to win, and your god Chemosh cannot protect you, it is not our sin but our greater strength which has given us the land.”
“But God is not in battles,” I hear some of you children say. ” He is the Prince of Peace.”
In the days of our story, peace as we understand it was not known. To people of those times God was power, a being like themselves, who led in war and gloried in victory over His weaker enemies. They had forgotten Moses and his merciful laws, Abraham and his faith in God’s goodness, Isaac and Jacob with their belief in God as the source only of blessing. If they remembered those days at all, it was only as so many stories which their parents had told them and which few of them believed.
They had not obeyed Joshua’s command to drive out all the inhabitants of Canaan, the promised land. It was too hard work, and so they had done the easier way settled among the other nations, adopted their idolatrous customs, and worshiped the horrible gods, Molech, Baal, and Chemosh.
Even our poor Jephthah had lived so long among the Ammonites that he had forgotten about Israel’s God of mercy. Jehovah was to him the same as the other gods, the only difference being that He, Jehovah, favored Israel. Once the Hebrew people had known better, but this is not a story of those -times, nor of the “beginning time.” It is a story of the time of the Judges.
In our day when we move into a new house or city, we think we should be settled and feel at home in our new quarters in a fortnight. But when Israel moved from Egypt to Canaan, it took forty years to get there and about three hundred years to get thoroughly settled and be at home. It was this “settling” season that was the time of the Judges.
“We will war against you and regain our land,” was the message sent back to Jephthah from the king of Ammon.
Like two boys quarreling and each telling the other how badly the other had acted, the king and Jephthah grew angrier as their messages flew back and forth. Jephthah lost both his patience and his good sense. For the moment he forgot everything but the desire to conquer the enemy who dared defy him. From his lips there issued a vow such as the heathen made, but which no Israelite faithful to the law of Moses would utter. He thought that he had called upon Jehovahbut had he? Did not the God of Israel say, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice?”
What was that vow? “If thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be Jehovah’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering.”
Beware, Jephthah! Your vow cannot stand before Jehovah. He who “desireth not the death of a sinner” and whose hand is always stretched out to save, has not heard. Although you have used His name, it is not Jehovah, but the black-starred god of ill-omen, Chemosh ; or Molech, the remorseless fire god always hungry for human sacrifice, on whom you have called.
” Why did he make such a vow? Didn’t he know any better?” you are asking.
No, he was half heathen. He had lived many years among the Ammonites, ever since his brother and his people had driven him from home. The half-savage heathen and rough companions had been his only friends. Even the Israelites were serving the gods of the heathen, who worshiped idols. Constant fear and fighting had made them all think of Jehovah as a god of war with little or no mercy. Their lips said Jehovah, but their hearts gave him the character of the heathen gods. So can you wonder that Jephthah often confused the worship of Jehovah with that of the fire god of the Ammonites?
He may have thought that the promise he made was a safe one. He had plenty of cattle, sheep, doves, and slaves. “The doors of his house” meant anything possessed by him or found on his land. To choose from these for a sacrifice would be a simple matter.
Hebrew law forbade human sacrifice, and anyone making his child “pass through the fire” was to be stoned to death. But those laws had been hidden away for so many years that they probably had been forgotten. “Strange!” you say. Why so? We know that even in our day good laws sometimes are forgotten.
A slave or some animal would meet him. What cared he for a slave’s life or that of a captive taken in battle? He was as familiar with the altars of Chemosh and their burning victims as you are with your church spires that point upward.
His vow was wrong, but it was earnest and sincere. He meant no harm but, like the sword which turned every way guarding the gates of Eden, it turned against himself a way wrong things have of doing.
“Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thy heart be hasty to utter any thing before God . . . . Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin.” Had Jephthah thought, he might have said these words which were later spoken by a Hebrew preacher, for they were just as true in Jephthah’s day as they were in the time of the Hebrew preacher. What was the matter with his memory when he counted his possessions, that he should have forgotten the gem of them all, his daughter?
Moses and Joshua had warned Israel that the promised land was given them in order that they might serve Jehovah there. If they disobeyed his laws they were to lose all they had. They had not obeyed, but instead had served idols. So Jephthah, following their example, taking heathen oaths in Jehovah’s name, lost his all.
He was victorious; he fought with and routed the Ammonites with unpitying slaughter, and returned to Gilead the hero of his people. He did not stay to hear their praises. His heart was in the mountains. A little dark-eyed laughing girl was waiting for him, eager to hear of her father’s triumph. It was nightfall when he and his men reached the foot of the hills. Long shadows were filling the valley and hiding the paths, so they rested there until morning came.
Jephthah looked toward the darkening heights and smiled as he stretched his arms out toward them. Home is there and it is there I have peace, thought the warrior. Why does he shudder? The night air is not chill. Has sleep departed from you, “man of valor,” that you must pace back and forth in the silent night? That sound is nothing. You have heard it often. It is but the sob . of a dying sheep which a wolf has caught
Peace will come with the morning, thought Jephthah. But alas, no! The shadow of that vow, blacker a hundred times than the inky cloud which floats across the moon, is folding its somber wings to rest upon his household. Peace has departed from him. It was in the powers of darkness that he trusted. He who has vowed to sacrifice another must lay his own heart upon the altar.
Morning came. Thousands of dew diamonds trembled on the meadow grasses. The sleepy birds had barely opened their eyes when Jephthah and his men begin their upward journey. Why do you hesitate, mighty warrior? The path is not rough ; neither is it strange. Can a warrior like yourself be wearied with a little climb like this? Besides, home and your daughter are beyond.
Judith, too, was an early riser. Early in the morning father will be here, sang the maiden to herself. She will surprise him. Though every-thing and everybody be asleep, she will show her pride in her father’s victory by being the first one to meet him in the early dawn.
Some of the stars were still in the heavens when she stole out of the tent and down the mountain side. Peering over the cliffs she saw him coming, and with dancing feet, shaking her timbrel and singing, she went to meet him.
He heard her voice, but no arms of welcome were outstretched to meet her. In agony the words of his horrible vow swept through his mind, and as he rent his garments, his voice, hoarse with grief, replied to her joyous greeting, “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 Jehovah, and I cannot go back.”
Did the little maid flinch? No, the spirit of Jephthah’s daughter rose to meet his own, and the “mighty man of valor ” looked into the steady eyes of a fearless maid. Whatever her father had promised to do should be done.
“But,” you are saying, “he had no right to sacrifice his daughter. Besides, he must have her consent, for she was over twelve years old, when a Hebrew girl was of age.”
But to these two an oath was not lightly taken, nor could it be honorably broken. And, too, the merciful laws of Moses had been for-gotten, and the heathen gods of vengeance had been so long feared and worshiped that into their minds came nothing but the unpitying demands of that unrighteous vow.
With choking sobs Jephthah told his daughter of his vow. She need not keep it. Israel’s law protected her. For his country her father had risked his life. Should the daughter of a hero do less than to give her own? So thinking, Judith answered her father, “My father, thou hast opened thy mouth unto Jehovah; do unto me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth, forasmuch as Jehovah hast taken vengeance for thee on thine enemies, even on the children of Ammon.
For her country and her father she would do this thing, even as the brave Joan of Arc centuries later died for her country. The little shepherd maid of France had a forerunner in the maid of Gileadthe one chained to the stake to perish in the flames, the other laid upon the altar of fire. Both died because they believed that in making such a sacrifice they served their country and their God. You young people interested in history and who have shed tears over Joan of Arc’s cruel fate, did not know that in the pages of the Bible there was a heroine as brave as she.
Judith made but one request. The child who loved to live wanted to spend two months with her companions on the mountain side. Together they would lament this awful sacrifice, this useless destruction of a life that had filled its own and that of others with sunshine. And the pity of it was they did not know it need not be. The time had not yet come when “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea.”
When the two months were over, the child returned to her father’s tent.
Against a gray sky from a mountain peak there rose tongues of flame. The gray of the clouds changed to crimson. Did they blush with shame at the awful deed they witnessed as Jephthah’s vow was kept? Or did they promise pardon for this act of ignorance?
The night was black. There was nothing on the hilltop but smoldering ashes which the swiftly coming storm would soon scatter. A man in sackcloth with ashes on his head mourned as he sat alone. The wind tore at his tent door and hurled something at his feet; it was only a jeweled red turban, but the man’s fingers closed upon it with a groan.
It is good to live,” the little maid had said. And she did live in the hearts of Israel. “And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to celebrate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.”