The Ad Astra Music Festival concludes a very enjoyable 2016 season with the presentation of Handel’s Jephtha. Come and enjoy this suspenseful drama sung by the Ad Astra Chamber Choir and Festival Orchestra with some fantastic soloist. It will be presented two times this weekend.
The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth wrote of “The Strange New World of the Bible.” Strange indeed is the story of Jephtha found in the book of Judges chapter 11. This suspenseful story immerses the reader in a life filled with ambiguities and moral dilemmas. Jephtha, the son of a prostitute, was an outcast in the Israeli society. He also had some skills — he was a good military leader. In Judges chapter 10 and 11, we read that Israel is in dire straights and in danger of loosing everything to the Ammonites Israel needs a military leader to lead their army into battle. They ask Jephtha and he agrees with some conditions attached, not unusual, but then he makes a very unusual vow. He vows that if God gives him victory that “whatever 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.” Israel is victorious. Jephtha returns. If only he could have texted ahead and told the family to open the door and push the goat out first but instead, his only child, his daughter comes out to greet him. The thought of sacrificing your own child is repulsive and strange to us in itself but I find the story is more strange when one realizes that child sacrifice was central to the god Molech, the god of the Ammonites, the very people against whom Jephtha was fighting. The narrator of Judges does not give any details on the actual sacrifice leaving this text open to a number of interpretations – which is very interesting. Maybe the writer did this on purpose to draw the reader into the story so we can think about the times in life when we sometimes find ourselves struggling with ambiguity and tough decisions.
This is the subject of Handel’s final Oratorio. First performed in 1752, Handel, amidst going blind following an unsuccessful cataract surgery in 1751, retells the story with an angel saving the day just when Jephthah was about to kill his daughter. The Angel sings:
Rise Jephtha. And ye reverend priests, withhold the slaughterious hand. No vow can disannul the law of God, nor such was its intent, when rightly scanned, yet still shall be fulfilled. Thy daughter, Jephtha, thou must dedicate to God, in pure and virgin state for ever.
Artistic director, Alex Underwood, has done his research and chooses to end Handel’s three-act Jephtha with the daughter of Jephtha, Iphis, singing an emotional goodbye before being sacrificed. She sings, “brighter scenes I seek above, in the realms of peace and love” with no hope of an angel rescue but only her willingness to give her life, the ultimate sacrifice, for a greater purpose.
Trinity United Methodist Church
First Presbyterian Church