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A crucible of mourning — past and present

15 October 2021

Vigils for murdered women have echoes in the Bible, says Christie Gilfeather


Jephthah is confronted by his daughter, an engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

Jephthah is confronted by his daughter, an engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)

THE scene has become familiar to us: women gathered to mourn the loss of one of their own. There are tears and sadness, but there is also solidarity and anger. Their gathering is an act of protest against the threats of violence that they face day by day. They count the lives lost, and refuse to forget a single one.

This could easily be a description of the vigils that have taken place in recent months to honour and mourn the lives of Sabina Nessa or Sarah Everard, two women killed in London in separate incidents. But this description is, in fact, one that has a biblical scene in mind: the story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11.

The story is well known as one of the most troubling narratives in the Hebrew Bible, called a “text of terror” by the biblical scholar Phyllis Trible.

In the story, Jephthah is engaged in a battle against the Ammonites, and seeks to bargain with God to ensure his victory. He says that, if the Lord permits him victory over the Ammonites, “then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (Judges 11.31).

He is, indeed, victorious and leaves the battlefield for his home. When he arrives, his daughter emerges to greet him “with timbrels and with dancing”.

It is a sickening moment in the narrative. Jephthah is overcome by his stupidity, and tears his clothes in despair when he sees his daughter.


IN HER recent commentary on Judges, Isabelle Hamley suggests that the scene that Jephthah discovers on returning home “is what ancient readers would expect: his daughter leading celebratory dances, coming out to meet the successful warriors”. This is one of the reasons that he was so foolish to make the oath in the first place.

Jephthah accuses his daughter of having “brought him very low” — essentially placing the blame on her. This example of victim-blaming brings to mind all of the ways in which women are instructed to protect themselves as they move through the world.

Both Jephthah and his daughter believe that the oath he has made to the Lord must be kept. None the less, she requests to be allowed to go into the wilderness with her companions for two months so that they might mourn together.

Today, given the violence against women which we bear witness to again and again, this collective mourning is deeply important. It provides us with a model, first and foremost, to honour the lives that have been senselessly and cruelly lost.

Second, gathering to mourn makes a statement about the unacceptable nature of the events themselves. Although Jephthah’s daughter appears to be compliant in the narrative, to what extent should we assume that this is the case? How could she passively accept the fate that her father has subjected her to?

If she were really the innocent and passive figure that some commentators would have us believe, then she would have accepted her fate and been led to her death straight away. But she does not. She claims the right to mourn the loss of her life, of the experiences that she will never have, the adult woman that she will never become.

There is an edge of protest in her demand. Not only does she rightfully mourn her losses, but she invites others to join her. They bear witness to her pain, and to the unacceptable nature of the sacrifice that she is called to make.

Hamley points out that Jephthah’s daughter was the first women in Judges to “be killed by one who should protect her”. This reminds us of the reality that much violence against women is committed by those who know them. Of the 149 women murdered in 2018, 61 per cent of them were killed by a current or former partner. Sarah Everard was killed by a police officer, whose job was to protect the public. These women, too, were killed by those who were supposed to protect them.


THE women described in Judges 11 are not the only female mourners in the biblical text. In my doctoral studies, I research the figure of the widow in the Hebrew Bible. One of the things that I have discovered is the significant relationship between women and mourning in scripture.

One of the best examples of this can be found in the description of the “wailing women” in Jeremiah 9. In this text, the prophet is calling people to mourn the destruction of Jerusalem and the events. Verses 17-18 say: “Call for the wailing women to come. . . Let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water.”

Who are these wailing women? Scholars believe that they were a group of professional mourners, common in the ancient Near East. They were women who were skilled in the art of public mourning, and leading others in their personal experience of grief.

The Bible scholar Julia Claassens says: “By means of a combination of tears and well-chosen words and metaphor . . . wailing women helped people break through their silence toward a basic, often raw, vocalising of grief.”

She goes on to describe the way in which these women fulfilled a “therapeutic role in society”, which enabled people to “deal with the trauma of their lives”. In this instance, the trauma was that of the Babylonian exile, which led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the mass deportation of the Israelites to Babylon.


AT A time of deep national grief, women enabled the public processing of collective pain. In the context of our pandemic-weary world, who is doing that for us?

This is something that I have thought about a great deal since the pandemic began. To a greater or lesser extent, we have all experienced grief. Whether a loved one died from the virus, or we simply missed out on significant events, there is something for everyone to mourn.

In addition to personal dimension, each day we saw the national and global death-toll grow to numbers that we could barely understand. We were mourning for people whom we never knew and may never have met.

Where did all of that grief go? It seems that, without people willing to enable our grief publicly and lead us through it, we are at a loss. The grief has not gone away — how could it have? Without spaces in which to process it, we are simply carrying it around with us: not forgetting, but without ways to remember publicly.

In the Hebrew Bible, women bear particular responsibility to facilitating expressions of grief. The reasons for this are unclear, but the service that they offered to their communities was vital. In a similar way, the women gathering to lament the murder of women in our communities today are an example to us in our grief-poor society.

It is not, and should not be, the responsibility of women alone to mourn these deaths. All should be lamenting the injustice of lives cut short by violence.


THERE is something particularly striking about the way in which women acted as leaders of lament in the ancient world.

The end of Judges 11 tells us that the daughters of Israel went out into the wilderness for four days every year to lament the death of Jephthah’s daughter. They refused to forget her. This is a precious detail. We’ll never know exactly what happened at these gatherings, but they were clearly important expressions of female solidarity in the face of terrible violence.

Violence against women did not end with the book of Judges, and at this time we are painfully aware of its prevalence in our society. As Hamley says, in the “gathering and remembering” enacted by the women in Judges and the women holding vigils today, “there is the possibility of lamenting injustice and oppression, imagining a better world.”

Can we imagine a better world in which women are not murdered while they walk home at night? Can we imagine a world in which the deep grief we have experienced as a society is honoured and seen?

The mourning women of the Hebrew Bible are an example to us in this. May we follow in their footsteps as we protest against the loss of life, and hope for a better future.

Christie Gilfeather is a Ph.D. candidate and an ordinand at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.

Online Comment: How scripture bears witness to violence against women

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