image: Wikimedia commons (link).
In the Old Testament scriptures, in the Book of Judges, we encounter the horrifying story of Jephthah and his daughter. If ever there were a Biblical passage which renders an absolutely hideous message when taken literally, while yielding a completely satisfactory conclusion when understood astronomically, this story is it.
In chapter 11 of Judges, after a description of the elders of Gildead requesting that Jephthah be made head and captain over the children of Israel, and a description of a series of battles between the children of Israel and the children of Ammon, we arrive at verse 29, where we read:
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gildead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.
And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,
Then it shall be, that whatsoever comth 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.
So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands.
And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.
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 had neither son nor daughter.
And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clohtes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou has 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.
And she said unto him, My father, if thou has 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.
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.
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.
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,
That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.
And the men of Ephraim gathered themselves together, and went northward, and said unto Jephthah, Wherefore passedst thou over to fight against the children of Ammon, and didst not call us to go with thee? we will burn thine house upon thee with fire.
If this passage is understood to be describing the literal and historical actions of a literal and historical judge and war-chief of the ancient children of Israel, who swears a vow to sacrifice the first thing he sees upon returning home from battle and burn it as a burnt offering to the Almighty, it would surely seem to be a horrible episode and one that probably does not feature too often in sermons.
Certainly it could be used as a stern warning against swearing to rash vows (the episode is often referred to generally as "Jephthah's rash vow"), but even if it is used as an example of the dire consequences of swearing too rashly, that still leaves the gaping question of whether such a vow must then be fulfilled, even to the extent of killing another person -- even to the extent of sacrificing one's only daughter. Can this scripture possibly be implying that once such a vow is sworn, to break the vow is considered impossible, and worse than actually taking someone else's life -- let alone the life of one's own beloved daughter?
The passage itself gives us no help in this regard: it simply records that Jephthah groans with pain but clearly does not consider it possible to break the vow, and Jephthah's daughter understands and says that he must do it, especially since he was given victory in the battle over the Ammonites after swearing the vow.
The verses which follow the human sacrifice likewise do not give any hint of whether the community thought Jephthah had acted rightly or wrongly: immediately after the verse about the daughters of Israel mourning Jephthah's daughter once a year, at the end of chapter 11, the following verse (at the beginning of chapter 12) has the men of Ephraim gathering and preparing to burn down Jephthah's house down with him inside, but not because he has killed his daughter and burned her, but because he did not take them along when he went to fight the Ammonites.
Again, a literalist encountering these verses is left with a sickening scenario in which all values seem to be inverted and violence and darkness reign supreme. I am aware that the verses could potentially be used as a "type" or foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ by the Father, but even that hermeneutical move would have to be used with extreme caution, as the circumstances surrounding Jephthah's sacrifice are simply so shocking and so horrifying that there seems to be nothing uplifting in the passages whatsoever (to which the reply would be that this is the contrast between the sinfulness of humanity and the perfection of the redemption -- which seems to be the only way these verses could possibly be made to serve a positive purpose in a sermon). Even such a rhetorical move would still leave the question of whether Jephthah then was right in proceeding with the killing and burning of his daughter.
Clearly, a strictly literalistic interpretation of these verses leads into an absolute swamp filled with pitfalls from which it becomes more and more difficult to extract one's self, the further down into it one charges.
However, like the horrifying verses about the prophet Elisha calling two she-bears out of the woods to tear apart the forty-two youths in the Old Testament book of 2 Kings (an episode almost as sickening as the Jephthah incident, and yet even that one is less hideous than this one in many respects, except for the obviously higher body-count), this passage contains clear elements of celestial metaphor which indicate that it was never intended to be understood as an account of something that took place on the earth involving human beings: it takes place in the sky.
Very briefly, because the elements of the system of celestial metaphor have now been explained in some detail in numerous previous posts, this incident has all the markers indicating a sacrifice at the point of equinox: those two points on the annual cycle where the two great "hoops" of the ecliptic and the celestial equator "cross" one another, allegorized in countless different forms as a sacrifice (previous posts as well as the first three chapters of The Undying Stars
which are available for free perusal online have demonstrated that the equinox crossings form the foundation for the myths of the sacrifices of Iphigenia, of Isaac by Abraham, of St. Peter in early church tradition, and even of Christ -- which explains the "echoes" that typologists can find between some of these Old Testament star-myths and the sacrifice on the Cross in the New Testament).
Which of the two equinoctial points we are dealing with here should be fairly obvious from the clues that have been included in the scriptural passage: the sacrifice is of a young virginal daughter (her virginity is emphasized several times in the episode), and so we should be fairly confident in identifying the September equinox. For those in the northern hemisphere, this would be the autumnal or fall equinox, when the days cross over from being longer than nights to the half of the year in which they are shorter (each of the two equinox-points are marked on the zodiac wheel below with a red "X" and the one on the right as we look at the wheel is the one at Virgo, where the sun which moves in the direction of the arrows as the year progresses is declining towards the lower half of the year and the winter solstice at the bottom of the circle). This fact supports the possibility that the "children of Ammon" that Jephthah was battling before he returned to his house to encounter his daughter (returning to the house of the sign of Virgo, that is) represent the upper, sunny, summery half of the year.
The exact correspondences of the different opponents Jephthah battles with are much more difficult to identify with exactitude, although we can be fairly confident that this is a celestial battle describing the circle of the zodiac (along with many, many other examples from both the New Testament and the Old Testament, as well as from other mythologies such as the Greek myths about the Trojan War). The identity of the daughter with the stars of Virgo, however, is very certain.
We have already seen that the passage itself takes care to emphasize her status as a virgin. The other distinguishing feature of the daughter of Jephthah, however, is her timbrel -- which is to say, her tambourine. It just so happens that the constellation Virgo has some distinguishing features which are often included in ancient art: one of these is an outstretched arm, and one is the fainter circle of stars that are in front of her face and above this outstretched arm. In the ancient Greek art depicting the Pythia of Delphi, for example, the outstretched arm represents the arm with the sacred laurel-branch, while the circle of stars corresponded to her circular dish or platter holding the holy water, as discussed in this previous post. In the case of Jephthah's daughter, this circle becomes a timbrel.
Note also in the painting above, by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675 - 1741), the artist has incorporated the outstretched arm and the timbrel of the girl, in a way that is most suggestive of the possibility that he understood her connection to the Virgin of Virgo (either that or, in his formal art schooling, these elements were passed down to him without his understanding). This indicates that the esoteric aspects of these myths was known by some and passed down among some circles, without being taught to those seekers in the churches, who were being taught that these stories all represent events that took place in history among literal people.
Below is an image of the Pythia alongside the stars of Virgo: you can see the faint "circle" of stars that become the dish in the artwork of the Pythia, the circular hoop in the image of Rhea seated on a throne below the outline of Virgo, and the timbrel of the daughter of Jephthah:
The final clincher for me that we are dealing with a star-myth of Virgo and the equinox (point of many sacrifices) is the presence of fire -- almost always present in equinox-myths, since the equinoxes are the two points where the fiery path of the sun (the ecliptic) crosses through the celestial equator. Previous posts detailing this include "The Old Man and his Daughter" and "Common symbology between Mithraic temples and the Knights Templar." In the myth of Jephthah, we find that he must make his daughter (Virgo) into a burnt offering, and that immediately thereafter some men come and threaten to burn his house down.
And so, we see that what would be an absolutely execrable story if interpreted "historically" (the way most of those with positions of authority inside the various Christian churches have generally approached the scriptures for the past seventeen hundred years or more) is actually just another star myth built upon a structure that is found in the Greek myths and in Native American traditions all the way across the globe, intended (I believe) to convey a positive and uplifting message to all people, embodied in the motions of the the stars, the sun, the moon, and the planets, and a message which describes our incarnate condition as the "Djed-column cast down" -- identified with the horizontal line between the equinoxes, the line of sacrifice, the line of being made "like an animal" and plunged down into a similitude of death -- but which teaches the real possibility and even inevitability of reconnection with the spiritual realm, and the "raising up of the Djed column" again.
This is a powerful lesson, and I would think a very powerful argument that these passages are not intended to be read literally. Additionally, the above analysis should demonstrate that the scriptures and traditions the world over are all close kin, and that the artificial distinctions between "Christian" and "pagan" that were imposed upon the rise of literalist Christianity are both harmful and false.