The Book of Voices

Biblical Microfictions by Joseph Zitt

Jephthah’s Daughter

(Context: Judges 11:40)

I am dead, dead to the world, dead to my father, dead to myself. Here, lying on this cold stone slab atop Mount Moriah, I have sworn to leave this world, to give over my spirit to my father’s god, to abandon this weary body and let my soul sink down into whatever fate this unyielding god has planned.

I have always been only my father’s daughter. No one calls me by my own name. I have only seen what he let me see, learned what he let me learn. And now I am to die, by simple trivial fate: He went to war. He swore to his god that if he won, he would sacrifice the first living thing that came through his gate toward him when he returned. I saw him coming home. I ran out to greet him. So now I am to die.

It is dark here, under this shard of the new moon, and nearly silent. The only light comes from the stars. The only sounds are those of wind, of distant frogs, and of a single repeating bleating from nearby.

I want to fade, to silence my mind, but the repeating sound keeps calling me back, holding me here. I try to silence it in my soul by breathing in its rhythm, but that makes it stronger rather than causing it to blend and disappear. So be it. I open my eyes, sit up and trying to find the sound.

I look to my left and, despite my grim heart, hear myself laugh. Yes, it is a bleating. There, in a thicket, a ram is caught, the brambles tangled with its fleece, its horns. Yes, a ram, here on Moriah where another ram, long ago, had appeared for Isaac. I laugh again, stand, and walk over to it.

It looks at me as I approach, silent now, great dark eyes comforting and pleading at the same time.

“You would like to be free now, wouldn’t you?” I say, and, improbably, it seems to nod. “So would I. But it seems that you must be free first.”

I reach down carefully into the thicket, grasp a bramble at a bare spot without thorns, and pull it free of the ram’s wool. Some strands tear away from the ram as I pull. They hang in the breeze as if an absent-minded spider had abandoned its web there. I pull another branch, then another, becoming bolder with each tug, as with each loosed bramble the ram becomes free of the branch, the branch becomes free of the ram.

Finally only the horns are tangled. I grasp the bunch of branches that are holding the left horn (some thorns scraping my palms, but I do not care). I slide them carefully toward the end of the horn. “You have to move your head down,” I say to the ram. It does, and this somehow does not strike me as odd. “Now left… now up…”

Together, we free its left horn, then its right. It rises to its feet, steps out of the thicket, and stands to my side. It bows its head and butts me very gently, in seeming thanks.

I pat it on its head. “You are free now. You can go.” It nods its head again, but, rather than leaving, settles down onto the ground. I look at it for a long moment, then return to the slab and lie back down. I try to give myself permission to drift toward death.

Time passes. I remain alive, remain almost awake, though with the images and phantoms of the realm between waking and sleep drifting through my mind.

Then I feel a bumping against my side and open my eyes. It is night (again? still?). The ram has walked over to me and is butting me again, gently, though less so than before. “What do you want? You are free,” I say. “We are finished.”

It raises its head and looks deeply into my eyes. Then it looks down again, and, pressing its head against my side, gives a sharp shove.

I tumble off the slab and fall to the ground. “Why did you do that? What do you want?” I ask, standing.

The ram walks a few steps to the north, looks down the mountain, and bleats, twice, three times. It then walks back to me, walks behind me, and once, twice, butts me forward.

“Do you want me to go somewhere?” I ask. It bleats, again steps north, and looks back at me.

“Well, it seems that you will not leave me at peace here.” I sigh and follow.

We walk for a long time, the ram usually by my side, though occasionally scouting ahead. Sometimes it pushes me onto or away from a mountain path.

We end up deep in a valley, by the steep rock wall of another hill, sheltered by the darkness, the branches of an asherah grove. “What now?” I ask the ram. “This is the end of the path.”

The ram nods toward the rock wall, as if gesturing for me to continue walking, then settles again onto the ground. I sit alongside him and stare at the wall.

As the dawn brings more light into the grove, onto the wall, I look more closely. There is no way past it, around it, over it. “Why have you wasted my time?” I say to the ram. “I have no reason to be here. You should have let me die on the mountain.” I stand, turn, and prepare to head back the way we came.

The ram leaps to its feet and runs in front of me, blocking my path. “Let me go. Now.” I say.

The ram lowers its head, paws the ground, its muscles tensing.

“So this is how it happens? You use your horns to ram me now, to kill me?” I don’t understand how this god could want this, but then, I have never understood this god at all.

I stand tall before him and open my arms wide. “Then do it now,” I say. I close my eyes then open them, glaring into the ram’s eyes. “I am not afraid.”

The ram backs up the hill, pauses, then, with one long, loud bleat, rushes toward me. I see him coming, catch my breath, tense my muscles then release them waiting for the impact. But at the last moment, the ram dodges to the right, darts around me, and heads straight into the rock wall. I spin around, looking, listening for the collision, the viscous crash of flesh, horn, and bone against the rock.

And right at the point of impact, at the moment that the rock should have stopped the ram, I hear a rushing, see a shimmering. The rock shudders, becomes smooth, becomes a mirror, becomes glass, becomes water, becomes air. The ram passes through into the dim darkness behind it.

Then the shimmering fades, and the wall is once again silent stone. I walk up to the wall, look closely at it, slap my palm against it. Nothing changes. In confusion, in despair, I rest my hands softly against the wall, rest my forehead against the cool stone.

And I, too, feel myself falling forward. Instinctively, I step forward with my left foot and feel it pass through what had been rock, feel it rest against a flat smoothness, not grass, not dirt, not sand. With its unbraked momentum, the rest of my body follows, and I am inside.

It is dark, though not as dark as it should be, in this silent room surrounded by rock and earth. The distant walls appear to have high windows, though I see nothing through them other than streams of a moon-like light. My feet feel the floor as cool, dry wood. The air has the slight chill of morning, warm enough for comfort as I wear my simple funereal robe.

In the center, I see a simple stone table, similar in shape and size to the stone slab on which I had recently lain. And a body rests on it, as still as I was, in a robe like mine.

I step toward it gingerly, afraid of where I might be, afraid of what I might find. As I get closer, I see it is a woman, ancient, still, her breast rising and falling in the rhythm of sleep.

And then she speaks: “Yes, I am alive. And yes, you, too, are still alive.” Her eyes open, and she slowly shifts until she is sitting up. Her white hair glistens in the apparent moonlight, her green eyes seeming to look deeply into my soul.

“What time is this?” she asks.

I frown. “It is—Outside it was just past dawn.”

She shakes her head. “What year is this? What era? Who is king in Israel?”

“What year? I am seventeen years old. I don’t know any other way of counting years. And we have no king, nor do I think that we ever have.”

She nods. “So these are the years before Samuel, before Saul. What is your name? What is your father’s name?”

“My name is Sheylah,” I say. “Or at least it was. And my father’s name…” I pause, find it hard to think of him, hard to say his name. “My father’s name is Jephthah.”

“And your father has not yet—” She stops suddenly.

“Killed me? No, though he is to do so soon. It is my fate.”

“And you would let him do this? Would it not break his heart to have to kill his daughter?”

“I am resigned to death. No reason remains for me to live. And he would have less pain in killing his own daughter than in breaking a vow to his god.”

She sits silently for a while. “Good,” she says, “this is good. You are still alive, and are here. The story cannot be changed, but all is not lost. Give me your robe.”

“My robe?” I say. “But—”

“Oh, yes,” she says. “Not yet.” She stands, turns, and rests her hands on the stone table. It shimmers in the dim light and becomes a wooden cabinet.

She places her hands under the lip of the cabinet lid and slides it back. Reaching inside, she pulls out a neatly folded robe of simple white linen.

I take it from her, look around to confirm that no one else is there, then quickly remove my old robe and put on the new one.

“Give me your hands,” the woman says.

I reach out to her, palms up. She takes each of my hands in hers and touches my palms where the wounds from the brambles remain. Each of the wounds, painlessly, begins again to bleed. She rubs my hands together until each of my palms is covered in blood, then, picking up my fallen robe, presses them to its cloth.

She releases my hands and the robe drops again to the ground, two fresh palmprints of blood bright against the dark fabric. I look at the robe, then at my hands. The wounds have healed.

The woman slides the lid on the cabinet closed then knocks on it. The sound echoes quickly in the emptiness of the room. The ram emerges from a dark corner.

She folds my old, bloodied robe into a small bundle. With its cloth belt, she ties it to the ram’s neck. She leans down in front of the ram, whispers to it, then playfully bumps her own forehead against the ram’s.

The ram nods to her, then to me, then walks over to the wall through which we came. It calmly walks through the wall and disappears.

“The ram is headed to your father,” the woman says. “Wben he touches the robe, he will believe that you are gone, will have the memory of having met you at Mount Moriah and sacrificed you as he had promised. This is the story that he will tell, the story that people will believe.”

“And what of me? Do I continue to live as if dead, alone?”

“You are not dead. And you are not alone. You remain here, with me. I teach you what I know of time, of magic, of prophecy. And more will join us: this day, on which you are said to have died, becomes the women’s holiday. For four days each year, your friends, then their friends, then women from across all these hills and deserts leave their towns to be alone, to be together, to remember who you were and who they are.”

“Do I join them?”

“No. You do not get to leave this place. But each year, some women depart from the crowd. The lost, the lonely, those who feel that they cannot bear to continue with their lives as they have been, walk away to sit, to live, to die in silence. And the ram listens for them, finds them, and guides them here.”

“Will this continue forever?” I ask.

“Not forever,” she says. “Traditions do fade, and are forgotten over time. But by that time, we will have become a community, a school, the place where women come to learn to be teachers, to be prophets, to work wonders and to help to heal this broken world.”

I nod. We stand still, looking around, until the silence is broken by my stomach’s growl. Startled, embarrassed, I look away.

The woman laughs. “Yes, you would be hungry. We must have food.”

I hear myself laugh, too. “There is food here?”

“Not yet,” the woman says. “We must bring it into being. We have incantations to do that: the same words that function as prayer in the outside world, function as incantations here.”

She reaches into a pocket of her robe and pulls out a scroll with brief writings on it. “Can you read this?” she asks. “Have you been taught to read?”

I shake my head. “I have never been taught much at all.”

“Then you will soon learn. There is much to read.” She gestures around us. I suddenly realize that the smooth wooden floor is full of inscriptions, in complex patterns that I cannot yet understand.

She rolls up the scroll and puts it away. “All wonders, all wisdom,” the woman says, “begin by blessing the Lord.”

“I am to bless the Lord?” I say sharply. “The same god who fated me to die? How would I bless a god, and why?”

“The Lord did not condemn you to die,” she says, speaking as sharply as I had just spoken to her. “That was your father. The Lord does not demand the lives of those who believe in him. And,” she says more softly, ” as you may have noticed, you are still alive.”

I look down at myself and nod. “Yes, alive,” I say.

“Good.” The woman smiles. “And now we will bless the Lord, because the Lord needs to be whole, needs to be loved, as we need to believe that he loves us. These are the words that we speak.”

And I listen carefully and repeat after her, feeling the first glimmers of a slim, healing thread of love begin to form, flowing from me, flowing from this god, from the Lord, who could have taken my life, but has kept me alive, has brought me to a new life. “You are blessed, Lord,” we say, “our god, ruler of the world, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

I close my eyes and breathe deeply, and smell the scent of fresh bread. I look down at the top of the cabinet, and see a pitcher of water and two simple loaves. The woman and I each take one loaf, tear off a chunk of bread, and place it in our mouths.

And I feel my soul return. Apart from fate, distanced from what that person had promised to this god, hoping to feel what the Lord has promised to all people, I fall into, absorb, am absorbed my the simple warmth and sweetness of the bread upon my tongue, of the fresh robe upon my body, of the smooth wood against my feet.

“Yes, I am alive,” I say aloud, again, to the woman, to this god, to myself. “Yes, alive.”

(Next: Seraiah)

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March 22, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

2 Comments »

  1. I knew that I was going to address the story of Jephthah’s daughter at some point. The story had stuck in my mind since I first read it in elementary school, since it seems so incongruous. The version of the story here lessens the incongruity somewhat (though others have approached it elsewhere in ways that highlight its harshness and raise important questions about its context), while connecting it with other stories in the series in ways that may become clearer when I rework the whole thing after this first draft.

    Jephthah’s daughter is one of many women in the Bible whose names are never mentioned. I took her name here from Ginzberg, who took it from Pseudo-Philo, though I changed its spelling (since the original “Sheilah” is also a name from another tradition, which might be confusing).

    As of this posting, I don’t yet know exactly who the next voice will be. It will be someone present at the destruction of the First Temple, but I haven’t yet researched which named Biblical character might be likely to have been there. (I know that legends place Ezekiel and Jeremiah at the scene, but I’ve already written pieces about them.) Stay tuned…

    Comment by bookofvoices | March 22, 2008 | Reply

  2. Wow. Impressive.

    Comment by John Cowan | March 22, 2008 | Reply


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