The virgin (Judges 11)

Bilderesultat for virgin mary

Illustration: The virgin Mary

The request of Jephthah’s daughter to be allowed to go out into the hills and weep over her virginity (Judges 11:37) strikes modern readers as almost incomprehensible. Why would a girl who was about to be put to death as a sacrifice focus attention on her virginity? In order to begin to understand this, it is necessary to recognize the enormous importance attached to virginity in ancient cultures, especially in Israel. A few examples will make the point:

  • In Aeschylus’ play Suppliant Maidens, a father appeals to his daughters to maintain their virtue in the face of the lustful desires of men. He charges them, “Honour your chastity more than your life” (line 1013).
  • Euripides’ play Alcestis tells a story of a woman who gives up her life to save that of her husband. Awaiting her death, she weeps over the fate that has befallen her. In her lamentation, she looks upon her bed and declares, “O bed, where I lost my virginal maidenhood by this man for whom I die. Farewell!” (lines 177-179). Like Jephthah’s daughter she thinks of her virginity as she faces death.
  • Josephus, in Antiquities, 1.246, recounted the story of Rebekah from Genesis 24 and had her say, “They call me Rebekah. My father was Bethuel, but he is dead, and Laban is my brother and, together with my mother, he takes care of all our family affairs and is the guardian of my virginity.” The Genesis account does not explicitly cast Laban in this role, but the idea is one that both Jewish and Gentile readers of the time would readily have comprehended.
  • The story of the rape of Absalom’s sister Tamar by Amnon (2 Samuel 13) illustrates both how strongly young women felt about their celibacy and its significance for their reputation. In the story Amnon deceived his half-sister Tamar and raped her by force, then despised her and sent her away. Prior to this Tamar had worn a special garment that signified her virgin status, but after the rape she tore it in her grief. Even so, she would have been willing to marry Amnon, one of the vilest characters in the Old Testament, rather than live with the disgrace of being an unmarried woman who had lost her virginity.
  • Deuteronomy 22:13-21 describes a man who marries a woman but then begins to loathe her and to tell people that she has not come to the marriage as a virgin. It falls upon the woman’s family to produce evidence of her virginity (Deuteronomy 22:17). This confirmation evidently consisted of bedclothes stained with her blood on the wedding night, at which time she had purportedly lost her virginity. The elders of the town were to punish the man for slandering her (Deuteronomy 22:19). But had the woman actually engaged in intercourse before marriage she would have been stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:21).
  • The Hebrew Bible regularly refers to cities or countries by the term “virgin” (e.g. Isaiah 47:1, Jeremiah 31:4). This is because a virgin in ancient Israel was to be protected from outsiders. In the same way cities and countries were to be protected from invaders and kept inviolable.

Given this cultural background, it is clear that Jephthah’s daughter, like most Israelite girls, would have regarded the preservation of her virginity until marriage as central to her identity. This young woman would never obtain the goal of coming to marriage as a chaste bride.


 

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