The Existential Crisis of Barrenness in the Hebrew Bible

Posted by Vlad October - 29 - 2009 - Thursday

Being the curmudgeon I am, I’ve previously tried to argue that Jephthah may not have literally burned his daughter to death, but that the sacrifice was deferred and in a sense became the loss of progeny.¹ There’s no particular theological consequence to this, rather I simply find it to cohere well with the account as a whole. Here I’d like to bring to bear an example adduced by Jon Levenson as he articulates his thesis of familial immortality. Writing that losing, or not having, children is a form of the death of one’s self, he writes:

The book of Job is an instructive case in point. Job’s miseries begin not with lack of children, like Abraham’s, but with the loss of his children, which provokes suicidal thoughts and an existential and theological crisis that has continued to reverberate through the millennia (Job 1:13-19; Job 3). Here, bereavement of progeny is the functional equivalent of death, and here, too, the patriarch’s restoration inevitably entails his recovery of his seven sons and his three daughters (Job 42:13; cf. 1:2). […] The tragedy of the mortality of individuals cannot but attract the attention of the modern reader. The interest of the ancient narrator lies, rather, in the restoration of Job through the return of his family.²

Levenson then pivots on the point that “childlessness is the equivalent of death.” Though I acknowledge that this also goes well with the standard understanding, it seems to me an excellent explanation for the reaction of Jephthah, his daughter, and the “daughters of Israel.” It seems likely that they annually recounted not the death of a single maiden, which was of no great consequence, but the giving up of the name of the house of Jephthah in obedience to a vow.

[1] Jephthah’s Holocaust
[2] Jon Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life (Yale University, 2006), 115.

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