Chapter 4: Murder They Wrote: Ideology and the Manipulation of Female Presence in Biblical Narrative, by J. Cheryl Exum

The Pleasures of Her Text
by Alice Bach

Chapter 4: Murder They Wrote: Ideology and the Manipulation of Female Presence in Biblical Narrative, by J. Cheryl Exum

J. Cheryl Exum is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Boston College, has published widely in the area of biblical criticism. She is the editor of several volumes on biblical poetics, including Reasoning with the Foxes: Female Wit in a World of Male Power (Semeia 42) with J. W. H. Bos, and Signs and Wonders (Scholars Press, 1989). She is at work on a literary study, Arrows of the Almighty: Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Nobody seems to go through the agony of the victim. . .

Agatha Christie

In this paper I want to investigate two literary murders. One is a sacrifice, which has all the appearances of a murder, except that the victim does not protest. In the other case, the victim does protest, but the murder does not take place in the story, but rather by means of the story. The story is the murder weapon, so to speak. The stories are those of Jephthah’s daughter, offered by her father as a sacrifice to the deity, and of Michal, Saul’s daughter and David’s wife, denied offspring and voice in one fatal stroke, and thus killed off as a narrative presence. One victim is nameless; the other, named, but both are identified in terms of men: one, as a daughter; the other, as "the daughter of Saul" and "the wife of David," but never without one or both of these epithets. They thus illustrate the familiar position of women in biblical times, as under the authority of their fathers before marriage and of their husbands after marriage.1 Neither functions as an independent agent in the sense that, for example, Deborah, Rahab, Delilah, and Jael do. Jephthah’s daughter makes no real attempt to act autonomously, whereas Michal unflinchingly asserts herself, with deadly consequences.

The "stories" of these two women are parts of men’s stories, part of the "larger story" that we take as the story. David Clines has argued that there is no "Michal story," that focusing upon a minor character in a story results in a distorted, or at least skewed reading of the whole.2 He is right, of course, that there is no "Michal story," nor is there a "Jephthah’s daughter’s story," and for feminist criticism of biblical narrative that is precisely the problem. But one can nonetheless discern the submerged strains of Michal’s voice and Jephthah’s daughter’s voice, and the challenge for feminist criticism is to reconstruct a version of their stories from that voice. This can be done at least partially, I think, by deconstructing the dominant (male) voice, or phallogocentric ideology of the narratives.

I do not speak of these women’s stories in any absolute sense, as if by deconstructing the male voice, we will be closer to the "truth" or "the real story." To suggest that there is one proper way to read the text results in an authoritarianism characteristic of phallocentric criticism — a position that feminist criticism rejects in its recognition (and celebration) of contradiction and multiplicity. A feminist reading will not be a neutral reading, "neutral" or "objective reading" usually being terms for what turn out to be androcentric readings. The relation of reading to truth involves the issue of interests, and our interests determine the questions we ask of a text.3 In this quest after literary murderers, I am no more capable of telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, than the biblical narrators. Rather I shall use my interests to expose and undermine theirs, in the interest of possible truth.

For purposes of this study, I wish to set aside the question of who produced these stories, of whether or not, and to what degree, women might be considered responsible for these traditions. In my opinion, that question is secondary to the issue of gender ideology in biblical material. Feminists have long recognized that men control symbolic production. Theirs is the dominant world-view that also controls literary production, with the consequence that the female perspective will be muted, if not altogether excluded.4 Since in patriarchal texts women are frequently made to speak and act against their own interests, an important question faces us: what patriarchal function do these narratives serve?5 What is the motive for these murders? Pursuit of an answer to this question is one option among other possibilities for feminist analysis, and one that brings to light important facets of these two women’s stories. Finally, I hope to show how the female perspective, the female voice, cannot be silenced, even by literary murder. The crime has been committed, the evidence is the text, and the female perspective provides our clue for deconstructing it.

Literary murder is, of course, different from the real thing, and both of our cases can be construed as something else, which may explain why the perpetrators have gotten away with murder for so long. In the case of Jephthah’s daughter, the ritual act of sacrifice transforms murder into a socially acceptable act of execution.6 We do not witness Michal’s actual death; there is no need for its description, for by the end of 2 Samuel 6, she has ceased to play any role in the Davidic house. As we shall see, poetics and ideology conspire to remove Michal as a narrative presence. There is no similar ideological necessity to get rid of Jephthah’s daughter. She is the innocent victim of her father’s vow. Since by accepting her death at the hands of the father, she poses no threat to the patriarchal system, her memory is allowed to live and to be celebrated within the story. This cannot, for reasons we shall explore below, be the case with Michal.

The Case of the Dutiful Daughter

The story of Jephthah and his daughter appears in Judges 11. In return for victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah vows to sacrifice to YHWH "the one coming forth who comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites" (11:31). His daughter is the one who meets him, and the alarming similarity in vocabulary brings out the dramatic impact: "when Jephthah came to Mizpah to his house, behold, his daughter coming forth to meet him. . ." (11:34). Jephthah’s response, rending his garments as a sign of mourning, and his awkwardly expressed agony and consternation, make it clear that he had not expected his daughter to be the object of his vow.

When he saw her he rent his garments and said, "Ah, my daughter, you have brought me very low and have become the source of my trouble. I have opened my mouth to YHWH and I cannot take it back" (11:35).

It has been frequently pointed out that rather than offering solace, the father accuses his daughter — a classic case of blaming the victim. But his words also, in my opinion, express his feeling of not being solely responsible for this awful turn of events.7 Just as Oedipus did not intend to kill his father and marry his mother but does so only because he does not know their identity, so too Jephthah did not intend to sacrifice his daughter, but utters his vow without knowing who will be "the one coming forth." Both she and he are caught up in something beyond their control.

The very act of making the vow occurs under ambiguous circumstances. Jephthah’s success in battle against Ammon and his future as chief over Gilead rest upon divine favor. His attempt to settle hostilities diplomatically meets with failure and the battle lines are drawn. The spirit of YHWH comes upon Jephthah before he makes the vow, and it is not clear whether or not he utters his vow under its influence.

The spirit of YHWH came upon Jephthah and he crossed over Gilead and Manasseh, and he crossed Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he crossed over to the Ammonites. And Jephthah vowed a vow to YHWH. He said, "If you will indeed give the Ammonites into my hand, then the one coming forth who comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be YHWH’s and I shall offer him [generic] up as a burnt offering" (11:29-31).

Is the spirit the driving force behind all of these events, or only some of them, and if so, which ones? To complicate matters even further, the next verse tells us, "Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight with them and YHWH gave them into his hand." If not a tacit acceptance of Jephthah’s terms, this statement at least implicates the deity. There is otherwise no divine action in the story and, disturbingly, no divine judgment upon Jephthah’s act of human sacrifice. The imposition of the vow between the coming of the spirit of YHWH upon Jephthah and the victory renders it impossible to determine whether victory comes as the result of the spirit, or the vow, or both.

The problem lies not so much in the making of the vow as in its object. Had Jephthah vowed to build an altar to YHWH, as Jacob does in Gen 28:20-22, or to dedicate to YHWH the spoils of battle, as Israel does in Num 21:2, it is unlikely that his vow would have elicited much critical commentary. Even the vowing of a person to the deity is not unthinkable, as seen in Hannah’s vow to give Samuel to YHWH all the days of his life (1 Sam 1:11). But Jephthah vows the ultimate in order to ensure success, something from his household that will cost him dearly. What is sacrificed must be precious to be meaningful (cf. David’s avowal, "I will not offer burnt offerings to YHWH my God that cost me nothing," 2 Sam 24:24). Not until the last two words in the Hebrew (weha alitihu olah, "I will offer him up as a burnt offering") do we discover that Jephthah intends a live sacrifice.8 By holding us off until the last possible moment, the text alerts us to this unusual aspect of the vow and intimates its horror.

Yet the vow alone does not determine the tragic outcome. Tragedy is assured when Jephthah’s daughter, his only child, comes out to meet him. The conjuncture of these two events, the vow and the daughter’s appearance, seals two fates: she to die and have no progeny; he to have no progeny and to die.9 Jephthah takes her life "according to his vow" (11:39). There is no last-minute intervention by the deity to save the child, no ram in the thicket. In the story Jephthah carries out the murder, and the deity is implicated.10 And since this is a literary murder, we shall accuse the narrator of complicity in this crime.

How the young woman knows or surmises the terms of her father’s vow is not stated. Her readiness to accept the inevitable is striking.

She said to him, "My father, you have opened your mouth to YHWH; do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth now that YHWH has granted you vindication against your enemies, the Ammonites" (11:36).

The daughter submits to the authority of the father. His word is not to be countermanded but simply postponed: she asks only for a two-month respite before the vow is carried out. After a time of lamentation in the mountains with her companions, she returns to her father, and the text states, "he did to her according to his vow which he had vowed" (11:39). We are spared the details, for we could hardly bear them (compare, for example, the piling up of details in the account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac, where a deus ex machina assures a happy ending). A young woman’s life is snuffed out in its prime. Yet it would be myopic to see what happens as any less Jephthah’s tragedy than his daughter’s, for his family line comes to an end when he is forced to take his daughter’s life. To commemorate Jephthah’s daughter, the women of Israel hold a yearly ritual four days each year.

The Case of the Nagging Wife

Michal’s "story" must be gleaned from scattered references in 1 and 2 Samuel, where she plays a significant but minor role in the events surrounding the demise of Saul’s house and David’s rise to the throne. For my purposes here, I will focus on Michal’s fatal confrontation with David in 2 Samuel 6, though some summary of what happens earlier will be necessary.11 Michal is King Saul’s daughter, who loves David and becomes his wife. Saul and his house have been rejected by YHWH (1 Samuel 13 and 15), and David has been secretly anointed king by Samuel (1 Samuel 16). David becomes a popular hero after his defeat of Goliath (1 Samuel 17 and 18) and Saul very early realizes the threat David poses to his kingship.

"They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?" And Saul eyed David from that day on (1 Sam 18:8-9).

When he learns that his daughter Michal loves David, Saul is pleased and uses the opportunity to dangle a desirable prize before his rival, "become the king’s son-in-law." He hopes that David will be killed trying to meet the bride price of a hundred Philistine foreskins. But why should it matter to Saul that Michal loves David? What do the woman’s feelings have to do with it? Saul had already tempted David with his older daughter Merab — where love is not mentioned — but he gave her to another (1 Sam 18:17-19). In fact, the reward for killing Goliath was rumored to be marriage to the king’s daughter (1 Sam 17:25). Thus for the charmed third time, David has a chance at what Saul seems unwilling to let him have. From Saul’s perspective, Michal’s love for David may be convenient but otherwise largely gratuitous. I think it is largely gratuitous from David’s perspective as well. The situation is one in which the men’s political considerations are paramount, while regarding the woman, we hear only that she loves. Already the text perpetuates a familiar stereotype: men are motivated by ambition, whereas women respond on a personal level. It would be much more to Saul’s advantage if David loved Michal — but that is precisely what the text leaves unsaid, suggesting that David’s motives are as purely political as Saul’s. Note that the text tells us "it pleased David well to be the king’s son-in-law," not that it pleased him to have Michal as his wife. Saul even appears to recognize the threat Michal’s love for David poses for him,

When Saul saw and knew that YHWH was with David, and that Michal Saul’s daughter loved him, Saul was still more afraid of David,12

and rightly so, for in the next chapter, Michal defies her father by helping David escape Saul’s attempt on his life (1 Sam 19:11-17).

In saving David from Saul, Michal loses him, for he leaves his house-within-Saul’s-house, his advantageous position as the "king’s son-in-law," never to return. He does return to meet Jonathan and to conspire with him to discover Saul’s intentions (1 Samuel 20) and he hides for three days until Jonathan brings him news — but all this time, he apparently makes no effort to see Michal. David becomes a fugitive and an outlaw, futilely pursued by Saul, and he manages to gain not one, but two wives while roaming about the countryside (1 Sam 25:42-43). At this point we learn that Saul had given Michal to Palti, the son of Laish (1 Sam 25:44).13 Saul’s political motive seems clear enough, to deny David any claim to the throne through marriage. Time passes, Saul is killed in battle at Gilboa (1 Samuel 31), and David is anointed king over Judah. About Michal we hear nothing until David is offered the opportunity to become king over the northern tribes. (In the meantime David has acquired more wives and many children, 2 Sam 3:2-5.) Then he does precisely what Saul had sought to prevent; he demands the return of his wife Michal as a symbol of his claim to Saul’s throne. The description of her grief-stricken husband Paltiel, who follows in tears as Michal is being taken to David, draws attention to the absence of information regarding Michal’s feelings. Michal’s reunion with David is not reported, a highly significant textual silence that suggests a volatile subtext.

It is little wonder, then, that when Michal has her big scene in 2 Samuel 6, it is a veritable emotional explosion.14 In the only dialogue that ever takes place between them, Michal accuses David of blatant sexual vulgarity, and he responds with a devastating rebuke. Immediately thereafter the narrator laconically informs us, "Michal Saul’s daughter had no child to the day of her death."

A review of Michal’s story reveals that only twice does she appear as an agent in her own right, here and in 1 Samuel 19, where she saves David’s life. Elsewhere she neither speaks nor initiates action but is rather the object of the political machinations of the two men, her father and her husband, locked in bitter rivalry over the kingship. When used as a symbol to represent their conflicting interests, Michal is referred to as both Saul’s daughter and David’s wife (1 Sam 18:20, 27, 28; 25:44; 2 Sam 3:13, 14). The intense nature of the Saulide-Davidic rivalry, however, the exclusiveness of each’s claim to the throne, makes it impossible for Michal to belong to both houses at once. She becomes a victim of their prolonged conflict, and her two attempts to act autonomously by choosing her own allegiances result only in her own losses. In 1 Samuel 19, Michal is called "David’s wife," for she allies herself with her husband over against her father. She orchestrates David’s escape into freedom by letting him down through the window when Saul seeks to kill him. But she thereby, in effect, loses her husband, who does not come back for her or seek her return to him until it is politically expedient. In 2 Samuel 6, she becomes once again "Saul’s daughter," for she speaks as the representative of her father’s house, and by doing so, forfeits her role in the house of King David.

In 2 Samuel 6, David and "all the house of Israel" bring the ark of YHWH to Jerusalem amid great rejoicing. Michal, however, is inside, watching the fanfare through the window. From her perspective we see "King David leaping and dancing before YHWH," and for the first time since telling us Michal loved David (1 Sam 18:20), the narrator permits us access to her feelings: "she despised him in her heart" (2 Sam 6:16). That her love has turned to hatred serves as a pointed indication of her suffering at David’s hands. It has been suggested that as a king’s daughter, Michal finds the behavior of the present king beneath the dignity of that office. But her heated exchange with David when she goes out to confront him reveals much more. It doesn’t take a psychologist to recognize that David’s attire, or lack of it, is not the real issue.

David returned to bless his house, and Michal the daughter of Saul went out meet David. She said, "How the king of Israel has honored himself today, exposing himself today in the eyes of his subjects’ maidservants as one of the worthless fellows flagrantly exposes himself" (2 Sam 6:20).

That nothing less than the kingship is involved can be seen from Michal’s reference to David as the "king of Israel," and from David’s reply, where he first takes up the subject of kingship and only then turns to the subject of his comportment.

David said to Michal, "Before YHWH who chose me over your father and over all his house to appoint me king-elect over the people of YHWH, over Israel — I will dance before YHWH. And I shall dishonor myself even more than this and be abased in my eyes, but by the maid-servants of whom you have spoken — by them I shall be held in honor" (2 Sam 6:21-22).

Notice the pointed references to Saul’s rejection — "over your father," "over all his house" — and to David’s authority "over the people of YHWH," and "over Israel." David’s response to Michal touches on a critical issue that the narrative has repeatedly repressed but never really resolved: David’s taking the kingship from the house of Saul.

With regard to what Michal considers his shameful behavior, David promises to go even further. How will he dishonor himself? I suggest the next verse hints at an answer: by ceasing to have sexual relations with Michal, by putting aside the woman who once risked her life to save his.15 The juxtaposition of David’s rebuke and the narrator’s statement that Michal had no children invites us to posit a causal connection. Significantly, however, the text carefully avoids this connection. Do we have here a case of male solidarity between the narrator and David? Or should we consider other possibilities? Since it is YHWH who opens and closes the womb (Gen 20:18; 29:31; 30:2, 22;1 Sam 1:5, 6; Isa 66:9), perhaps the deity bears responsibility (it has been suggested that Michal’s childlessness is her punishment for speaking out against YHWH’s anointed). No one to my knowledge has proposed that Michal refuses to have sexual relations with David, yet it would not be out of character for her. The very ambiguity hints at the text’s unease about locating the responsibility.

The rift between David and Michal is not only inevitable, given the resentment Michal must surely feel toward David, from a narrative point of view it is essential, for any possibility that Michal and David have a child, who would symbolize the uniting of the two royal houses, must be precluded. The transfer of the monarchy from Saul to David is far from smooth and requires justification.16 To be sure, Saul has been rejected as king by YHWH and David elected, but Saul has no intention of relinquishing his kingdom without a struggle, and after Saul’s death, "there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David" during which "David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker" (2 Sam 3:1). One well-established political solution to the rift between the two houses would be their union through marriage and a child, who as a scion of both royal houses might someday reign. Theologically, however, that solution is unacceptable, for YHWH has declared that no descendant of Saul may sit upon Israel’s throne (1 Sam 13:13-14). Saul’s house threatens David politically and YHWH theologically. Accordingly, Saul’s family is systematically eliminated. Jonathan and two of his brothers are killed in battle with their father (1 Samuel 31). Abner and Ishbosheth are treacherously murdered, and the narrator goes to great lengths to declare David’s innocence (2 Samuel 3 and 4).17 Shortly thereafter, we learn that Michal will remain childless, and the way is thus cleared for 2 Samuel 7, where YHWH promises David an eternal dynasty, a dynasty in which Saul’s house will play no part.

Poetics and ideology work together to remove Michal from the narrative. The rejection of Saul’s house requires that Michal have no children. But the narrative goes beyond simply reporting her childlessness; it chronicles in painful detail her humiliation and elimination~• The woman provides an opportunity for narratively displacing a strategic and embarrassing problem at the political level onto the domestic level, where it offers less of a threat. The animosity between the houses of Saul and David is then symbolically resolved as a marital conflict. In it David directs toward Michal the hostility one would have expected him to show toward Saul, who sought his life, and toward Jonathan and other members of Saul’s family, who to varying degrees stood in his way. Michal, for her part, becomes the spokesperson for Saul’s house (she speaks as "Saul’s daughter" not as "David’s wife") and her rebuke of David the king functions as a protest from Saul’s house against David’s usurpation of royal prerogative. As we proceed to reconstruct Michal’s story, we shall seek in her protest another level, one that symbolizes the victim’s outcry at being (literarily) murdered.

Words as Weapons

It is no criminal coincidence that in both our stories words make potent murder weapons. Not only are the words spoken by the male characters deadly instruments of power over women, but the storyteller also uses the women’s own words against them. The central role words play in extinguishing the authentic female voice underscores the appropriateness of "phallogocentric" to describe the narrative ideology. The seriousness of words and their power, especially in cases of blessings and curses, oaths, and vows, is well-documented in ancient Near Eastern literature and assumed in Judges 11. Thus Jephthah makes no attempt to modify the terms of his vow by which he is bound to sacrifice to God his only child; nor does his daughter challenge its inviolability.18 The word kills. The vow cannot be retracted ("I have opened my mouth to YHWH and I cannot take it back," Judg 11:35), and both Jephthah and his daughter are caught up in its immutable course toward fulfillment. But if words can kill, they can also heal. The destructive power of language is counterbalanced in this tale by its sustaining capacity.19 Jephthah’s daughter asks that one thing, haddabar hazzeh, "this word," be done for her, that she be given two months during which to grieve in the company of her companions. After her death, the women of Israel commemorate Jephthah’s daughter in a yearly ritual, understood as a linguistic act, not a silent vigil. Jephthah’s daughter finds life through communal recollection, though different, to be sure, from the life she might have had through family and children, the life her father took away.

I shall return below to the subject of the women’s commemoration of Jephthah’s daughter and its complex effect on this story. For now let us consider Jephthah’s daughter’s voice. How does she speak against herself? By neither questioning the man who consigned her to death nor holding him accountable. In encouraging her father to carry out his vow, she subordinates her life to the communal good. The seriousness of the vow is upheld, the need for sacrifice is satisfied,20 and paternal authority goes unchallenged. It might be argued that she does not protest her fate because it would be useless. The futility of protest, however, does not deter Michal, who thereby lays claim to her own voice.

Michal and David engage in a battle of words in which David has the last word because he holds the power. These are the only words he ever speaks to her, words of rebuke, and they have the effect of critically wounding their victim. Unlike Jephthah’s words, however, David’s do not kill. Here the narrative serves as the instrument of murder, accomplishing the deed in one blow. Depriving her of children is a symbolic way of killing Michal. Denying her a reply to David kills her off as a narrative presence. By representing her as challenging the king from a position of weakness, the narrator has Michal essentially commit verbal suicide. Notice how negative her portrayal seems at first glance. A king’s daughter and a king’s wife, Michal appears not as a regal figure, but rather as a jealous, bitter, and worst of all, nagging woman. She has overstepped her bounds, she dares publicly criticize the king’s behavior, and we should not be surprised to see her put in her place by an angry and dismissive husband. On the surface her criticism sounds petulant and exaggerated — so what if the king makes a fool of himself? But we have seen that her words only barely cloak the real issue, the political problem that the narrator downplays by foregrounding the domestic dispute.

The Danger of Going Out

Jephthah came to Mizpah, to his house, and behold, his daughter coming out to meet him. . . (Judg 11:34).

David returned to bless his house, and Michal Saul’s daughter came out to meet David . . . (2 Sam 6:20).

Both our victims meet untimely "deaths" when they leave the security of the house to meet the man who will be instrumental in their murder. The house is the woman’s domain; here she is safe and can even exercise power, while outside in the larger world, men wield authority.21 The men are the leaders, the heroes whose actions have far-reaching consequences effecting whole peoples. Jephthah has gone to battle, made a vow, and returned victorious; David has consolidated his kingdom and brought the ark to Jerusalem. The men have acted; the women respond and are caught up by forces beyond their control, though somehow apparently still under the control of the men. That is to say, both Jephthah and David could have reacted differently: Jephthah by seeking an alternative to the actual sacrifice; David by treating Michal with respect.

When Jephthah returns victorious from battle, his daughter goes out to meet him dancing and with timbrels. It may have been customary for women to celebrate military success in such a manner. In Exod 15:20 the women acclaim the victory at the sea with timbrels and dancing. In I Sam 18:6, after David’s victory over Goliath, the women of Israel come out singing and dancing, with timbrels and musical instruments. Possibly Jephthah anticipated being met by a woman — more expendable than a man (?) — though as his response indicates, he did not expect his daughter. The tragedy set in motion by Jephthah’s vow is sealed when his daughter comes out to meet him. When David and all Israel bring the ark of YHWH to Jerusalem, Michal watches from the window. Earlier she had let David down through the window, out of her domain, where he was in danger,22 to meet his destiny in the man’s world of power. Having secured his position as king, David now has no need of Michal. In 2 Samuel 6, Michal occupies the private sphere of the home, safe, but excluded. References to "all Israel," "all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women," and "all the people" underscore her isolation inside. When she goes outside to confront David in the public arena, she meets rebuke and greater exclusion — losing any role she might have had in the future of David’s house.

The men return to their houses, to the domestic order preserved by women. Without the house, there is no "outside"; the men need what the house represents and what it makes possible for them, the freedom from domestic responsibilities that allows them to concentrate on affairs of state. The house is both place and lineage, shelter and posterity. When the women go outside, houses are cut off. By sacrificing his daughter, Jephthah destroys his house (thus when the Ephraimites later threaten to burn Jephthah’s house down over him, the remark is grimly ironic, since his house — his lineage — has already been destroyed by fire). Michal’s childlessness brings to an end another branch of Saul’s house; in the end only the crippled Mephibosheth and his son Mica will survive. Yet with Michal’s removal, the future of David’s house is secured. With Saul’s house out of the way, David receives from YHWH the promise of an eternal dynasty.23

Virginity and Childlessness: The Politics of Female Sexuality

She had not known a man (Judg 11:39).

Michal Saul’s daughter had no child to the day of her death (2 Sam 6:23).

What is particularly striking about these statements is that both occur at the end of the story, as a kind of closure sealing the women’s fates; both are stated categorically, as if they were entirely neutral observations; and both are necessary. As sacrificial victim, Jephthah’s daughter must be a virgin for reasons of sacrificial purity;24 Michal, as we have seen, cannot have children for ideological reasons. Since one lived on through one’s progeny, having offspring — many offspring, especially sons — was important both to men and to women (witness, for example, Abraham’s concern over his childlessness). Understandably it mattered significantly to women, since women did not have other opportunities, open to men, to leave their mark on the world.25 That the fates of both Michal and Jephthah’s daughter involve childlessness indicates the extent to which patriarchal texts identify women in terms of reproductive function. Without children, the women are somehow incomplete; they have not fulfilled their role as women. If to have no children means to die unfulfilled, it also means that the women have no one to stand up for them, no go’el to plead their cases. They can be eliminated without fear of reprisal.26

The categorical way in which Michal is denied offspring masks, as I indicated above, a narrative discomfort. Does David put Michal aside, so that she, like other of his wives later, will be shut up "until the day of [her] death [the same phrase as 6:23], living as if in widowhood" (2 Sam 20:3)? I suspect so. Regarding Jephthah’s daughter, the text states, "she had not known a man." What is not an issue in patriarchal texts such as these is female sexual pleasure. Indeed, patriarchal literature, and thus the Bible in general, reflects the underlying attitude that woman’s sexuality is to be feared and thus carefully regulated.27 Patriarchy severs the relationship between eroticism and procreation. As Julia Kristeva observes, it affirms motherhood but denies the mother’s jouissance.28 Eroticism is not associated with the mother but rather with the whore, the woman whose sexuality is commensurate with her availability. To intensify our critique we need only to acknowledge the importance of sexual fulfillment for women. In our examples, the women are denied not just motherhood, the patriarchal mark of female fulfillment, but also the pleasure of sex, the right of passage into autonomous adulthood that opens the eyes with knowledge (cf. Genesis 2-3). Jephthah’s daughter will know no sexual fulfillment; Michal will have only memory of it.

As a related point of interest, it is ironic that a women’s ritual (Judg 11:3940) serves to honor a virgin. It has been frequently suggested that the story of Jephthah’s daughter is aetiological, aimed at explaining the women’s ritual. There is, however, no evidence of such a ritual apart from this story. We shall explore below the androcentric interest served by the women’s commemoration of Jephthah’s daughter. Is this really the kind of ritual women would hold, or simply a male version of a women’s ritual? We do not know. We can only speculate about what form a genuinely female ritual might take were free expression of female sexuality possible. Might it be celebration of female eroticism, of uniquely female power, the power to give birth? (Already in Genesis 2-3, in a classic illustration of womb envy, the creative power of women is appropriated by the prototypical Man who, like Zeus birthing Athena from his head, symbolically gives birth to woman with the help of the creator god [no creator goddess is involved].) Is, then, the commemoration of the death of a virgin an androcentric inversion of female expression?

Opportunity and Motive, Or Whose Interests Are Being Served?

The women occupy narratives that, like father or husband, seek to subordinate, and finally control, them. Jephthah’s daughter accepts her fate with alarming composure. The vow is carried out, but the unnamed young woman who leaves behind no children as a legacy is not forgotten. Her memory is kept alive by the ritual remembrance of women. Because she does not protest her fate, she offers no threat to patriarchal authority. And because she voluntarily performs a daughter’s duty, her memory may be preserved.

It became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to commemorate Jephthah the Gileadite’s daughter, four days each year (Judg 11:39-40).

Patriarchal ideology here coopts a women’s ceremony in order to glorify the victim. The phallocentric message of the story of Jephthah’s daughter is, I suggest, submit to paternal authority. You may have to sacrifice your autonomy; you may lose your life, and even your name, but your sacrifice will be remembered, indeed celebrated, for generations to come. Herein lies, I believe, the reason Jephthah’s daughter’s name is not preserved: because she is commemorated not for herself but as a daughter. If we translate the difficult wattehi hoq beyisra’e1e at the end of v 39 as "she became an example in Israel"29 rather than "it became a custom in Israel," her value to the patriarchal system as a model is underscored.

Michal, in contrast, opposes the system that would have her remain inside, in her place, doubly subordinated as subject to her king and as woman to her husband. Here the message is: refusal to submit leads to rebuke and humiliation. Michal speaks out against the figure of authority — the husband/king — and is silenced. Unlike Jephthah’s daughter, who participates in the patriarchal system, Michal cannot be honored because she speaks against male authority. I referred earlier to women’s identification in terms of their relation to men, as daughters or wives or both. Jephthah’s daughter performs her function as a daughter, and is rewarded with commemoration as a daughter by the "daughters of Israel." Michal, on the other hand, is punished by being denied her function as a mother. (She also loses her status as "David’s wife"; the narrator calls her "Saul’s daughter," and thus she, too, is reduced to being a daughter.) Submission is rewarded; opposition, punished. The women are sacrificed to patriarchal interests that the system remain intact and function properly.

The Speaking Subject: Deconstructing the Dominant Narrative Voice

To expose the phallogocentric interests served by these stories is not to accuse the biblical narrators of blatant misogyny but rather of reflecting a culturally inherited and deep-rooted gender bias. Thus the present inquiry seeks to read these stories without censoring them but without being confined to them.30 The muted female voice provides the means for deconstructing the dominant, male narrative voice. What is repressed resurfaces in another form. In her speech, Jephthah’s daughter submits to the authority of the father; in hers, Michal opposes the authority of the husband. If speech confers autonomy, we shall need to look closely at how, and to what extent, these women (re)claim their stories through speech. But first, let us consider the other women in these stories, women who do not speak but who play a key role.

The women of Israel commemorate Jephthah’s daughter for four days each year. Exactly what their ritual involves is not clear. The Septuagint and the Vulgate understood the verb to mean "to lament" or "to mourn"; however, the only other occurrence of the word, in Judg 5:11, refers to recounting the victories of YHWH. This usage suggests that the women recite Jephthah’s daughter’s story. These women, however, do not actually speak in the narrative. They remember, and their yearly ceremony is used by the narrator to keep alive the memory of the victim (only the narrative bears witness to their witness). Jephthah and the women of Israel represent two poles: he blames his daughter, 11:35; they praise her through memorializing her. Praising the victim can, however, be as dangerous as blaming the victim. The problem lies in the victim-victimizer dichotomy, a way of structuring experience that ignores the complicity of the victim in the crime.31 If we make Jephthah the callous victimizer and his daughter the innocent victim, we fall into a patriarchal pattern of thinking. If we allow the women’s ceremonial remembrance to encourage glorification of the victim, we perpetuate the crime.32 How do we reject the concept of honoring the victim without also sacrificing the woman? We must recognize that guilt and innocence are not clear-cut. As I indicated above, Jephthah, like his daughter, is a victim of forces beyond his control; a vow made in ambiguous circumstances and in ignorance of its outcome forces his hand. Nor is the daughter innocent; she did not resist. She speaks on behalf of the sacrificial system and patriarchal authority, absolving it of responsibility. And the women of Israel cooperate in this elevation of the willing victim to honored status.

The role of other women in the account of Michal’s rejection is not to immortalize, but to isolate through contrast. Who are the "(male) servants’ women servants" (amhot abadav), who, according to Michal, have relished David’s sexual display, and by whom David avows he will be held in honor? These women are doubly subordinated — by sex, to all of David’s male subjects or servants, and by class, to the royal couple, whose mutual rebukes derive their sting from the imputation of inferior status to these women. Whether or not Michal means to include the "(primary) wives of the free Israelites" in her reproach,33 by implying that these women are below her dignity, she aims to disgrace the king, who turns her words around ultimately to shame the queen. A class issue intrudes to set the women over against each other and to obscure the gender issue. It has been argued that using class to divide women is one of the strategies of patriarchal ideology.

The division of women into "respectable women," who are protected by their men, and "disreputable women," who are out in the street unprotected by men and free to sell their services, has been the basic class division for women. It has marked off the limited privileges of upper-class women against the economic and sexual oppression of lower-class women and has divided women one from the other. Historically, it has impeded cross-class alliances among women and obstructed the formation of feminist consciousness.34

Despite its possible anachronism, this citation is relevant to our text. Michal’s privilege as a king’s daughter and a king’s wife isolates her from the other women in her story. By having her oppose herself to these women, the narrator leaves her to stand alone against the authority of her husband the king. Moreover, the sexually charged language Michal and David use in connection with these women and David’s "disreputable" behavior implies, perhaps, that Michal means to represent the "(male) servants’ women servants" as not respectable. That is, the narrator has Michal introduce the distinction between women in a way that makes her appear haughty and elitist, thereby sharpening the unflattering picture of her. The "(male) servants’ women servants" have been "outside" and gotten an eyeful of the king. Yet the "respectable" woman will not receive society’s reward, motherhood.

Michal’s going out to confront David is an act of self-assertion. Such boldness on her part cannot be tolerated; the narrator lets her protest but robs her of voice at the critical moment, allowing her no reply to David and no further speech. Whereas the narrator uses Michal’s protest to eliminate her, her protest can be used against the narrator to bring to light the crime, to expose the gender bias of the story. By speaking out, Michal lays claim to her own story. She cannot avoid her fate, but she can protest it. She goes to her literary death screaming, as it were. Her protest thus serves as an indictment of the phallogocentric world view represented in and reflected by the narrative.

I have said that in 2 Samuel 6, Michal is eliminated from the narrative, but this is not quite the case. She reappears in an unexpected context in 2 Sam 21:8, to contradict the narrator’s earlier claim that she had no child.

The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal, the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite; and he gave them into the hand of the Gibeonites, and they dismembered them on the mountain before YHWH (2 Sam 21:8-9).

The usual solution is to read "Merab" instead of "Michal," with a number of ancient manuscripts, since Michal’s sister Merab was the wife of Adriel the Meholathite. But this avoids pressing the embarrassing question of how Michal’s name got here in the first place. Is this a simple case of confusion of women (who are notoriously hard to tell apart): Saul’s descendants are killed off, so what difference does the mother’s identity make? Or is it a Freudian slip that convicts the biblical narrator, an aporia we can read as Michal’s refusal to be written out of the narrative? If so, the narrative still has the last, cruel word: it gives her children only to take them away again.

In contrast to Michal, Jephthah’s daughter remains within the confines of the patriarchal word. Though she does not lay claim to her story, she makes some motions toward self-assertion. The two parts of her speech pull in different directions. In the first part, she surrenders volition. In the second, within the boundaries set by her father’s vow, boundaries she accepts, she attempts to define herself, to lay some claim to her own voice: she asks for a period of two months in which to grieve, accompanied by her female companions.

She said to him,

"My father, you have opened your mouth to YHWH, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that YHWH has vindicated you against your enemies the Ammonites."

And she said to her father,

"Let this thing be done for me, let me alone two months

that I may go and wander upon the hills

and bewail my virginity, I and my companions."

Mieke Bal wants to posit a connection between the phrase which she translates, "to lament in confrontation with my nubility," and a rite of passage, "a phase of transition that prepared her for marriage."35 She finds here the woman’s own point of view in contrast to the narrator’s androcentric perspective, "she had not known a man," and she then proceeds to deconstruct the male concept of virginity via a detour into Freudian theory. Her resultant (re)reading of the entire story, a counter-reading, challenges the more traditional interpretations found within biblical scholarship and illustrates one way to reinscribe a female perspective. Another possibility of reading a different meaning into the phrase, "bewail my virginity," presents itself if we suppose the young woman’s familiarity with the sacrificial system (i.e., her better knowledge than ours about human sacrifice in the ancient Near East).36 She laments not just unfulfillment but the clear and brutal fact of imminent death, recognizing that if she were not a virgin daughter, her father could not sacrifice her.37 Such an argument, informed by anthropology and Girardian theory, involves the same kind of retrospective reasoning as the rabbinic objection — what if the "one coming forth" had been a camel, a donkey, or a dog (Bereshit Rabbah 60:3; Wayyiqra Rabbah 37:4) — based on purity laws. I have already suggested that narrative necessity determines the outcome. The daughter’s tragedy is that she — not another — is the one to come forth to meet Jephthah, and that she is an (I would even say, the) acceptable sacrificial victim. This takes us back to my earlier remarks about the coincidence between the terms of the vow and the daughter’s appearance, a conjunction of events apparently beyond human control.

The most interesting feature of the daughter’s ceremonial lamentation is her inclusion of other women in the event. Only at the conclusion of her speech does she reveal that, unlike her father, she has companions with whom to share her distress. Ra yotay "my companions," is her last spoken word in the narrative; abi, "my father," was her first. Symbolically, through speech, she journeys from the domain of the father who will quench her life to that of the female companions who will preserve her memory.

Ultimately the text denies autonomy to Jephthah’s daughter and confines her voice within patriarchal limits, using it to affirm patriarchal authority. Yet her voice transports her to a point of solidarity with her female friends and with other daughters, the "daughters of Israel," who refuse to forget (compare Michal’s isolation). The resultant image is too powerful to be fully controlled by androcentric interests. The (androcentric) text segregates women: the daughter spends two months with female companions, away from her father and the company of men; the ritual of remembrance is conducted by women alone.38 But as Gerda Lerner points out, when women are segregated ("which always has subordination as its purpose"), they transform such patriarchal restraint into complementarity and redefine it.39 We can choose to read this story differently, to expose its valorization of submission and glorification of the victim as serving phallocentric interests, and to redefine its images of female solidarity in an act of feminist symbol-making.

By exposing the phallogocentric bias in the stories of Jephthah’s daughter and of Michal, I have sought to hear the women’s voices differently, and by doing so to give the victims of literary murder a voice that identifies and protests the crimes against them and that claims for them a measure of that autonomy denied them by the larger story.



1. For a helpful discussion, see Phyllis Bird, "Images of Women in the Old Testament," in Religion and Sexism ed. R. R. Ruether (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1974) 41-88.

2. "The Story of Michal, Wife of David, in Its Sequential Unfolding," paper read at the 1988 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

3. Mieke Bal, "How Does an Author Become the Author of a Crime," paper read at the 1988 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.

4. See Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) 5-6, 199-211, 231-233 et passim. The challenge for feminist analysis is to find women’s (sub)texts within these phallocentric texts; cf. the important work of Mieke Bal, Death and Dissymmetry: The Politics of Coherence in the Book of Judges (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

5. Pace Carol Meyers, Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) 24-26, I am not willing to forgo the use of the term "patriarchal" to describe the male gender bias of narrative; this usage is widespread in feminist literature.

6. This is not to say that we are to condone Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter, but only that human sacrifice was practiced. No outright condemnation of Jepthah’s sacrifice appears in the text, but I think hints of disapproval appear in the disastrous episode with the Ephraimites that follows the sacrifice; see my "The Tragic Vision and Biblical Narrative: The Case of Jephthah," in Signs and Wonders: Biblical Texts in Literary Focus, ed. J. C. Exum (Decatur, GA: Scholars Press, 1989) 71-72.

7. See Exum 67-69.

8. On the debate whether Jephthah intended a human or animal sacrifice, see David Marcus, Jephthah and His Vow (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1986) 13-18; cf. Exum 67.

9. His death is reported in Judg 12:7.

10. There are many parallels where a parent promises to a supernatural figure what turns out to be his or her own child; see Marcus 40-43; Exum 68 n. 5.

11. For a detailed discussion of Michal’s fate, see my forthcoming study, Arrows of the Almighty: Tragic Dimensions of Biblical Narrative.

12. I prefer to follow the Hebrew here; instead of becoming a snare to David, Michal’s love becomes a snare to Saul.

13. Reading the verb tense as past perfect.

14. See the perceptive analysis of Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981) 123-125.

15. That Michal’s life might have been in danger had Saul discovered her role in David’s escape (1 Samuel 19) is suggested by Saul’s response of throwing a javelin at his son Jonathan, when Jonathan takes David’s part (1 Sam 20:33).

16. Jonathan plays a major role in effecting the transition; see David Jobling, The Sense of Biblical Narrative, vol. 1 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1978) 4-25.

17. The so-called "History of David’s Rise" has been seen as an apology for David; see P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., "The Apology of David," JBL 99 (1980) 489-504; 1 Samuel, AB 8 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980) 27-30.

18. The present story assumes the inviolability of Jephthah’s vow, whereas Lev 27:1-8 stipulates monetary payment by which a person vowed to God could be released. In the midrashic literature, one finds various attempts to explain Jephthah’s ignorance of the law in this case; see Marcus 46-47.

19. For fuller discussion of this theme, see Arrows of the Almighty, chap. 3.

20. See Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977).

21. Proverbs 31 offers a good example. The woman has considerable power over the household, while her husband "sits among the elders of the land" (v. 23). The distinction between power and authority is helpful; authority is legitimate power, power recognized by society. See Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo, "Women, Culture, and Society: A Theoretical Overview," 21-22; and Louise Lamphere, "Strategies, Cooperation, and Conflict among Women in Domestic Groups," 99; both in M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds., Women, Culture, and Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1974). See also Jo Ann Hackett, "In the Days of Jael: Reclaiming the History of Women in Ancient Israel," in Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality, eds. C. W. Atkinson, C. H. Buchanan, M. R. Miles (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985) 17-22; Meyers 40-44.

22. In Arrows of the Almighty, I explore the sexual symbolism in 1 Samuel 19, where Michal figuratively births David into freedom.

23. For very different, but fascinating analyses of the complexity of the symbolism of the house in this material, see Bal 169-196; Joel Rosenberg, King and Kin: Political Allegory in the Hebrew Bible (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986) 113-123.

24. The situation of the sacrificial victim is somewhat more complex, but need not detain us. Married women are not good candidates for sacrifice because a married woman has ties both to her parents’ and her husband’s families, either of which might consider her sacrifice an act of murder and thus take vengeance; see Girard 12-13. On the opposition between sacrificial purity and the pollution of childbirth, see Nancy Jay, "Sacrifice as Remedy for Having Been Born of Woman," in Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality, eds. C. W. Atkinson, C. H. Buchanan, and M. R. Miles (Boston: Beacon Press) 283-309. Girard argues that anyone who does not have a champion makes an appropriate sacrifice.

25. Deborah is an important exception who proves the rule.

26. This is crucial according to Girard 13.

27. In The Creation of Patriarchy, Lerner traces male control of female sexuality from its locus within the patriarchal family to regulation by the state. On woman’s sexuality "not so much as part of her feminine being but, rather, as an exclusive form of male experience," see Nehama Aschkenasy, Eve’s Journey (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986) esp. 123-124. Within the Bible, the Song of Songs is the great exception.

28. About Chinese Women, tr. Anita Barrows (New York: Marion Boyars, 1986) 26. On patriarchy’s division of eroticism and procreativity, see Lerner, esp. chap. 7.

29. Marcus 34.

30. I adopt this concept from Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. L. S. Roudiez, tr. T. Gora, A. Jardine, and L. S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980) xi.

31. Cf. Lerner’s remarks on the complicity of women in patriarchy 5-6; 233-235.

32. Thus a reading such as Phyllis Trible’s, that makes Jephthah all-bad, irredeemably guilty, and wholly responsible for the crime of murder, and his daughter helpless and totally innocent, simply reinforces the victim-victimizer dichotomy; see Texts of Terror (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984) 93-109. Bal, in contrast, completely reinterprets the daughter’s death and the meaning of the women’s remembrance; see 45-68, 96-113, 119-122, 161-168 et passim.

33. The phrase, "Hauptfrauen der freien Israeliten," is Frank Crusemann’s ("Zwei alttestamentliche Witze: I Sam 21:11-15 und II Sam 6:16. 20-23 als Beispiele einer biblischen Gattung," ZAW 92 11980] 226), who thinks the remark refers only to lower class women. Cf. McCarter, 11 Samuel 187, who believes Michal refers to "all the young women of Israel, whether slave or free."

34. Lerner 139. See esp. chap. 6 for a fuller argument.

35. Bal 49. Her argument appears mainly in chaps. 2, 4, and 5.

36. For discussion of this topic, see Alberto R. W. Green, The Role of Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1975) 199. Green observes, "During the formative period of the Federation of Israel, there is the strong implication that human sacrifice was practiced by the people as an acceptable aspect of their Yahwistic belief."

37. I thank my colleague Ellen Ross for suggesting this idea. As my discussion above indicates, if Jephthah’s daughter were married, her husband, not her father, would have power over her. If she had borne children, she would not be sacrificially pure; see Jay.

38. The Israelite women engage in ritual whereas the men are busy fighting, in the war with Ammon (10:17-11:33) and among themselves (12:1-6).

39. Lerner 242.