Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Month of Poetry #14: Sacrifice

Today's poem is about one of the more truly unfortunate women of the Bible (and that's saying something in an exceptionally strong field) - Jephthah's daughter. Her story is given in Judges 11, and is, depending how you read it, either a complete horror show or else just mildly appalling.

It goes like this: Jephthah, a judge / warrior of Israel, is hard pressed in battle, so proclaims a promise to God that if the Ammonites are delivered into his hand, he will sacrifice the first living thing he sees on his return home. He defeats the enemy, comes home, and is greeted by ... his only child, a daughter, who comes dancing and singing from the house to meet her victorious parent. He isn't thrilled with himself, but the unbelievably forebearing girl philosophically accepts her fate and asks merely for 2 months to go away with her friends and "bewail her virginity", after which she comes home and he "does with her as he said he would."

The devil, of course, is in the detail - is the sacrifice a literal one (making this a very nasty inverse of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac) or is it, as many commentators suggest, implying that Jephthah gave his daughter up to a life of religious service / celibacy? If the former, it's one of the darkest stories in the Old Testament, in my view; if the latter, it's still not awesome, but less bloodthirsty at least. I thought it might be quite interesting to leave the poem ambiguous on this central point.


From the house, dancing; my hero father
Home safely, crusher of the horde of Ammon -
Why does he look so, like a warrior speared to the heart?
Is not my cymbal a joyful noise? Is not my dance an honour to him?

His voice is cracked as summer clay as he stumbles out the thing he has done
This thing he has promised
The sun, uncaring, is still as bright, but my eyes see only shadow now
Now it is my heart laid open by the blade of the Lord

Can I have a little time, then, to mourn my lost life?
A small space of time to farewell all the future I might have known, had my father -
(A hero of Israel! A man of the Lord!) -
Had he been more temperate in his battle vows

Two months in the desert with my dearest friends;
Such a lot of wailing and weeping; it exhausts us all
None of it brings about the miracle, but it is good to do
A way to mark the mark that lies on me

Back now to the house, so my father can fulfill his promise
The road is long, but not, in truth, long enough
My eyes see the sharpness of birds against the cloudless sky; ravens?
They have followed me home from the desert

The portal is close, so close; I can see my mother, ululating by the grove
I am heavy with fear, but I cannot stop. How can I stop?
My father the hero made a promise. My father the warrior
Debts must be paid, and I will pay it -

- Kathy, 14/1/15

No comments:

Post a Comment