In any other book of the bible, this would be the most fucked-up chapter, but coming as it does in Judges, it's a distant second to chapter 19, which we will get to later this month.
Jephthah is the son of a harlot and a rich man of Gilead. When his father dies, his half-brothers cast him out and he seeks his fortune as a mercenary in Tob. As can be expected in any fairy tale, the Ammonites attack, and the elders of Gilead come to beg him to lead their army. He agrees, on the condition that he be made the political and military leader if he succeeds.
Jephthah's first act as president is to write to the Ammonite leader and ask why he's declared war against the Israelites. The Ammonite king makes the fair point that the Israelites are occupying his land. Jephthah writes back peevishly about all the kings that denied his people passage when they escaped from Egypt, until Sihon, where god finally gave them a victory in battle. He points out that both sides of this battle occupy land that their gods gave them, and the Israelites have been there for 300 years now, yet they've made no effort to recover it until now. Because he thinks this is a transcript, Jerry points to this passage as evidence of an early Exodus. I wish I had remembered this old but brilliant send-up of Mike Huckabee when I was covering Genesis, but it still seems apt here, too.
Anyway, the Ammonites ignore Jephthah and attack. Jephthah is seized by the spirit of the lord and makes a vow to god that 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. (v. 30-31)
Now, I started this project because so much of Western literature derives its sources from the bible. I haven't actually seen any parallels with the books I've read since Genesis, but finally this chapter has one, albeit with fairy tales.
Now a cynic, like some of the scholars cited in The Harlot by the Side of the Road, might think that Jephthah knows his daughter will be the first thing to come out of the house, and he reckons it'll be cheaper to do away with her than to part with a goat or cow. A less-cynical person might just think that this story is just an archetype, and his daughter comes out because that's what happens in a fairy tale.
Needless to say, Jephthah wins and returns home. Of course, the only person outside to greet him is his only child, a daughter, who is singing and playing music. He sees her and laments his vow, but she says he has to do whatever he promised, because he won. And this again is something one recognizes from hundreds of plotlines: it's easier to be the one who dies for the sake of many than to be the one who has to kill the one who dies for the sake of many.
She only asks him for two months to go up to the mountains to bewail her virginity with her friends. Again, Harlot has a few ideas as to what this might mean: she's part of a fertility cult, she's going up to have a two-month-long lesbian orgy, or she went around to the various rabbinical courts trying to get the vow annulled but never finds a loophole. Whatever she's doing up there, she comes back at the appointed time 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. (v. 39).
Jerry Falwell, great advocate of just reading the words and not interpreting them, interprets this verse to mean only that the daughter never married, because the whole point of taking over Canaan and doing away with the Canaanites was that they practiced child sacrifice. Plus, letting a dude kill and burn his own daughter as a tribute would be pretty fucking evil, and Jerry's god is both wholly good and wholly powerful, as this book has proven so well up until now. It would work if only we didn't also have the text of that original pesky vow, which seems pretty clear. So yeah, god is pretty fucking evil.
The very last verse informs us that the women of Israel have a 4-day mourning period for Jephthah's daughter every year.