Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bewailing her Virginity

"So [Jephthah’s daughter] said to him, “My father, if you have given your word to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon.” Then she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.” So he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two months; and she went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man. And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite." Jdg 11:36-40

For the last several weeks I have been writing an essay for the Omnibus V curriculum on a medieval English historian by the name of William of Malmesbury. William was a monk who lived in Malmesbury Abbey for most of his life, serving as the librarian there. He wrote a history of England in an attempt to continue the Venerable Bede’s story up to William’s own day – the middle of the 12th century and the reign of Henry I.

As always in reading an old book there is a refreshing breeze which blows through one’s thinking. William is decidedly un-modern. For example, he thinks the First Crusade was a grand endeavor and explains at length the benefits that it brought to the Christians. Another area where William reveals his un-modern stance is in his approach to the topic we discussed last week – virginity. He routinely praises women who preserved their virginity and in this honors the principles we discussed last week.

But one of the things that William reveals is a distortion that entered into the Church regarding this topic of virginity. Paul had written that it was good for a man or a woman to remain single so that he or she may be able to serve Christ more effectively. The medieval church took this and insisted that Paul’s words meant that perpetual virginity was the ideal state. One’s virginity was intended to be preserved entire for the Lord. Monasticism, of which William was a part, was the result.

Of course, as with any misuse of the biblical text, there is an element of truth in this medieval distortion. Paul’s comments continue to have application even now – there are ways that single people, who remain perpetually celibate, can serve Jesus that married people cannot. And praise God for those to whom He gives this gift. We need men and women who are able to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the advancement of the kingdom. However, this acknowledgement is a far cry from the medieval exaltation of virginity into the most blessed state. For men and women to marry and have children was, by and large, viewed as a compromise, a forfeiture of God’s ideal.

And this brings us back to our text today. Jephthah, you may recall, made a rash vow, swearing that if God granted him victory over the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house upon his return. God granted him the victory. Unfortunately, however, Jephthah’s daughter was the first to exit the home upon his arrival.

Whatever happened to Jephthah’s daughter – whether she was actually offered up as a human sacrifice (which would have been an abominable thing) or whether she was dedicated to the Lord’s service in the tabernacle – I want you to notice the way his daughter responded to his oath. She insisted that Jephthah must fulfill his vow but requested that she be given a period of two months to go out to the hills with her friends. Why? So that she might bewail her virginity. Now why would she do this? Because she understood that virginity, in Scripture, is not normally a gift to be kept to oneself for a lifetime but is normally intended to be given to a man as a gift. And when a young woman gives this gift, that God has given her, to a man, God frequently gives back to her in the form of children and a family. Jephthah’s daughter, in other words, wanted to be a wife and a mother, and this was a good thing. Indeed, so good, that from this day forth, all the virgins of Israel would go into the wilderness for four days each year in remembrance that Jephthah’s daughter was unable to give her virginity as a gift.

Today is Mother’s Day – a day in which we celebrate that many virgins of the past gave the gift of their virginity to a man so that they might have children and raise a family. Let us praise God for this. And, praising Him, let us be reminded of our tendency to distort the Word of God and fail to remember that our mothers gave a gift to conceive us and that when we give away that which God gives to us, He gives us even more in return. So let us kneel and confess our sins to the Lord.