A few weeks ago I was reading through Jan Harold Brunvand’s Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (Norton, 2001). It is a reference work that I recommend highly from one of the leading academic folklorists today. Brunvand provides the following definitions:
“myths” are defined as once-believed ancient accounts of deities and the creation of the world; “legends” as believed accounts of incidents in the historical past; and “folktales” as stories with fictional plots (fairy tales, jokes, tall tales, etc.) not to be believed literally. (111)
How many legends might have made their way into historical narratives in the Bible? Some Christians assume that divine inspiration would not allow any, but the actual arguments for that a priori conviction are rather weaker than the conviction itself. Anyway, while reading through Brunvand’s book I couldn’t help noticing the resonance between one particular disturbing urban legend and an infamous vignette from the Book of Judges.
To begin with, here’s “The Sheriff’s Daughter” recounted in full:
“Two patrolling policeman, a rookie and a veteran, stop to check out a tent that is pitched illegally on a beach or a car that is parked in a cemetary or some other illegal spot. The rookie cop reports back to his partner in the squad car that there’s a young couple inside “making out.” The veteran instructs him to tell the couple that they will get only a warning if both cops can have sex with the girl. The couple, terrified, agree. The rookie cop takes his turn first. When the veteran cop approaches the car he discovers that it is his own daughter inside.” (381)
Now the familiar passage of Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter in Judges 11:
29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. 33He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”
While there are literary parallels between the two stories, I’m not as sure about the moral parallels. The Sheriff’s Daughter story identifies the sheriff’s vow as both foolish and wicked. The Jephthah story identifies his vow as foolish, but whether it is viewed as inherently wicked is less clear. It is intriguing to observe across vast reaches of time and culture stories like this that have impressively similar elements. It brings me back to the vague memories of Jungian archetypes from my college days.
Anyways, I can say that I think the story of Jephthah and his daughter is much better as a legend than a historical narrative.