From the Category, “The Eastern Eye”
[The Bible is an “Eastern” book. It was written many years ago in the “East” which today we refer to as “The Middle East.” As such, there are many customs and idioms that are not familiar to the “Western” mind.]
In understanding the Scriptures it is important for us to understand the culture, but it doesn’t mean that we should necessarily follow that culture. Rather, it is in the understanding of the Eastern culture that we gain light and understanding about many things in the Bible.
There is a section in the book of Judges where understanding the culture sheds light and understanding. It is the record of Jepthtah making a vow unto the Lord. He promised to give in service the first to come out of his house if God would help him win a battle.
The Ammonites and Israel were at war. Before Jepthtah went to battle, he made a vow to God. He said to God, “If you give me victory, when I come back victorious, the first who comes to meet me, I will give unto You as a burnt offering,” meaning give them to God for service to God for the rest of their life.
God granted Jepthtah the victory. But it was his only child, his daughter, who came first, rejoicing to meet her dad, with instruments of music. Seeing her, he immediately “rent his clothes.”
Rent His Clothes
This expression in the Bible means to tear one’s mantle. It doesn’t mean that they ripped or tore their other clothing. They ripped or tore their mantle, as an outward sign of either anger or sorrow. In this case, it was to indicate sorrow. sorrow.
So, because it was his daughter who first met him, he rent his mantle. He then told his daughter that he had opened his mouth unto God and could not go back on what he told God. His daughter understood what he meant. She asked him if she could first go and “bewail her virginity.”
Bewail Her Virginity
A woman who wants to give herself in service to God must be a virgin. The expression “bewail her virginity” means that she would spend two months in preparation before joining herself to the Temple. She would go with her close friends to see relatives and other acquaintances, and say her goodbyes.
She would also spend time with those close companions in prayer, sanctifying and consecrating herself in preparation for leaving that life behind, and coming to the Temple to give her life in service to God. This she would do for two months.
The “bewailing of virginity” simply means preparing to be a servant in the Temple.
After two months her father takes her to the Temple. At the door of the Temple her head is shaved, and she puts a veil on her head. She then works and lives there in the Temple. She never leaves.
A Burnt Offering
The record in the book of Judges mentions that Jepthtah told God that he would offer the person as a burnt offering. One meaning of burnt offering is to kill at the altar. The other meaning is to give oneself to serve in the Temple, which is what it means in the record we are considering.
It is referred to as a burnt offering because a young woman given to service in the Temple suffers. She can never marry which in that culture was a disgrace and humiliating. That is part of the shame that she suffers.
She also cannot have children. That is also very humiliating to a woman in that culture. Those who chose to give their lives in service to the Temple endured that shame. Thus, it is referred to as being a burnt offering.
This record in Judges ends by saying that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah. This is a pretty poor translation. Because of the word “lament” and a misunderstanding of the two types of burnt offerings, some have erroneously concluded that this means that Jephthah’s daughter was sacrificed, that she was brought to the Temple and killed.
The word “lament” does indicate that someone has died. But the Hebrew word that is translated “lament” would be much more accurately translated “talk with,” not “lament.” It means to talk with, to rehearse a matter. The root word in Hebrew means to attribute honor.
Her friends came to see her for four days every year. They would certainly have praised her for all she was doing in keeping her father’s promise to God. They would have praised her for agreeing to suffer the shame of not being married or having children.
In that culture the children were trained to follow what their father says. Their father’s word was to them God’s word. That is their culture. That is why she told her father, Jephthah, that whatever you told God, then that is what I will do.
And so her friends would come and talk to her, and praise her and make her feel glad. It must have been a very special time of the year for her.
I Cannot Go Back
The most striking and inspiring thing to me in this record is that Jephthah says that he could not go back on his word, on the promise he made to God. How many times have we made a promise to God and have gone back on our word? In that culture, what you said, you must do, at all costs.
Jephthah was a king with only one child. Everyone would know that his daughter was not married. He would endure the disgrace to the throne that would bring. People would say that his throne was cursed because his only daughter was not married.
He did not go to God and ask for a compromise. He did not try to explain to God that she was his only daughter and what all the ramifications would be not only to her, but to his throne. There are a lot of things he could have said to God, but instead, he kept his word. “I cannot go back!”
Are We Salted?
Perhaps we can begin fresh today and resolve that what we say unto God, we will keep our word. We may need to stop and think before we speak, and when we do speak, we ought to remember that we are talking to the Almighty.
And perhaps we could even carry it over to those we come in contact with. We can resolve to say what we mean and mean what we say. Biblically, that means that your words are salted.
The Apostle Paul wrote in Colossians, that our speech should be seasoned with salt. In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say.
Again, with a little understanding of the times and culture in which the scriptures were written, the Bible becomes clear, and its richness shines brightly.
Judges 11:30 – 40:
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 cometh 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 the 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 he had neither son nor daughter.
And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, 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 the LORD, and I cannot go back.
And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast 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.
Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer every man.
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There are a number of books that you can read to get insight on customs, manners, idioms and meanings from the Eastern culture in which the Bible was written. The best I know of were written by Bishop K. C. Pillai. I have had the pleasure of listening to many recorded teaching by him.
He wrote three books, and they are hard to find, and are usually over priced. But, if you want to you can check this link to see what Amazon has to offer. Light Through an Eastern Window
Another great resource that I have used for years is a book called, “Manners and Customs of the Bible,” by James Freeman. Mine was printed in 1972 and I know they have newer additions. For the newest edition, just click the link and it will take you to Amazon. The New Manners and Customs of the Bible (Pure Gold Classics)