June 17, 2015

"On the face of it, 35-year-old Ben Cnaan has painted a friend, stepdaughter and their dog all looking equally pensive in the blistering sunlight of Israel’s Jezreel Valley."

"Another way of seeing it is defiance in the face of impending tragedy. Ben Cnaan’s portrait is based on the story of Jephthah, a judge who led the Israelites into war with the Ammonites and vowed to God that, if he won, he would sacrifice the first thing he saw on his homecoming. He expected it to be the dog. To his horror, it was his only daughter who rushed out to greet him."

From "Israeli artist Matan Ben Cnaan wins BP portrait award/Top prize of £30,000 awarded for painting that struck judges with its ‘engaging filmic narrative’ inspired by biblical story of Jephthah" in The Guardian.

You can discuss the art and politics angle on this — the Brits giving the Israeli the award perhaps because it could be read as anti-Israel — and the quality of the art — realism achieve through precise copying of a photograph that itself would not have seemed especially great. But I'm going to go right to the Bible story. There are 2 problematic elements to this story:

1.  If Jephthah thought he'd only have to kill his dog and he was thus not offering God that much, he was trying to con God. If he really believed in God and thought God hears and responds to prayers, he should have thought that God knew he was only offering a dog. That should have rendered the prayer ineffective or even put him in a worse position than if he hadn't prayed at all.

2. If Jephthah didn't want to have to kill his only daughter, he should have been a hell of a lot more sure that the dog always comes out first. Don't little children come running impetuously toward the father who is returning from war?

I was going to say that these are 2 defects in the story which render it inherently unbelievable. But I changed my mind as I wrote this. Here's my theory for how the 2 seeming weaknesses in the story can be seen actually to strengthen it. Jephthah was sure the dog would come out first and God knew it and caused the daughter to run out first so Jephthah would get what he deserved for trying to get God's support on the cheap.

25 comments:

Bob Boyd said...

Somehow the dog knew.

Louis said...

The meaning of the story is that God doesn't get conned. Its a good lesson.

Louis said...

The story gives me pause as I consider the circumstances in which man will be responsible for birthing God. When we build the first strong AI, isn't it entirely too likely the government scientists will try to con it? To lie to it, to cage it, to experiment with its pain centers. Hubris is our lot in life. We never learn. But, eternally, vengeance is the Lord's. I can only hope God spares us little ones.

SJ said...

Oddly, there is no reference to a dog in the tale of Jephthah. But I can see why a modern culture with domesticated dogs would use a dog as a symbol in that form.

I doubt that domesticated dogs were common in the culture of the children of Israel during the time of the judges. (Centuries later, Psalm 22 uses "dog" to describe enemies circling around the Psalmist. The only other mentions of dogs that I can remember was during the deaths of Ahab and Jezebel.)

I don't know what Jephthah expected to sacrifice when he returned home. During the period of the Judges, most sacrifices were of sheep or cattle.

And the children of Abraham have long thought that the story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of his son Isaac on Mount Moriah was a rejection of human sacrifice.

(In counterpoint: later prophets, especially of the post-Davidic Kingdom, speak against people blending worship of the God of Abraham with worship of other deities. Especially the Caananite deity that was worshiped by sacrifice of children. Manasseh, son of Hezekiah, reputedly burned a child of his own in such worship. Thus, the lesson may not have sunk in fully until much later.)

Unknown said...

AA is mean.

EMD said...

I was prepared not to like the painting. I like the painting.

sydney said...

The painting looks like a portrait of a Mexican drug lord to me.

The Cracker Emcee said...
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The Cracker Emcee said...

My children used to run to greet me when I came home. Now it's just the dogs. If Jephthah's daughter was 15 there wouldn't have been a problem.

William said...

I never head this story before. For obvious reasons, it doesn't get taught much in Sunday School. From the child's point of view, it would be hard to find an instructive and edifying moral in this story........Even the story of Abraham is kind of unsettling. How do you interact with Daddy Dearest after such an incident?

EMD said...

Jephthah should've got his daughter an iPhone. Duh.

The Godfather said...

Some translations say "whoever" comes out first will be sacrificed, and others say "whatever". My understanding is that in the Hebrew the word could mean either a person or an animal.

The notion that it was supposed to be a "dog" doesn't seem to have any scriptural support. A domestic animal would have been a perfectly appropriate sacrifice, so I don't think there's a basis for accusing Jephthah of trying to cheat God.

Big Mike said...

So which story is older? The story of Jephthah or the tale of Agamemnon and his daughter Iphigenia in the "Illiad"?

There are only so many plots.

Michael said...

Yeah, even The Message (!) doesn't mention a dog or really what Jephthah expected to come out of his house at all. Perhaps the artist could put a kitten in the Abraham/Isaac story?

sydney said...

The story of Jephthah's daughter is unsettling me. I always thought that the story of Abraham and Isaac meant that God did not accept human sacrifices. Jephthah is from a time after Abraham and Isaac. It's upsetting the narrative. I don't know my bible or theology well enough to know if Judges took place in a time when the people of Israel were not following the laws so well.

Ann Althouse said...

Yeah, you're right. There is no dog in the original text! It's Judges Chapter 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, 31 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.’

32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. 33 He 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 tambourines! 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.’

36 ‘My father,’ she replied, ‘you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request,’ she said. ‘Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.’

38 ‘You may go,’ he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.

From this comes the Israelite tradition 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

joeknows said...
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sydney said...

This website suggests that during the era of Judges, the Israelites had slid into apostasy. Even their heroes were not following the faith:

They had forsaken the covenant established at Mount Sinai. In Judges, He disciplined them for following other gods, disobeying His sacrificial laws, engaging in blatant immorality, and descending into anarchy at times. Yet because they were His people, He listened to their cries for mercy and raised up leaders to deliver them. Unfortunately, even these godly individuals did not wield sufficient influence to change the nation’s direction. The people’s inability to resist sinful Canaanite influences eventually revealed their desire for a centralized monarchy, led by a righteous king whom God would choose as His intermediary.

Howard said...

The winning painting lacks basic edge control, e.g. too many hard edges surrounding very soft surfaces. Also, the rubble is too regular to be real. Most importantly, the subjects look posed, unnatural. More constipated than angry.

The third place painting is portraiture that evokes the tired stoicism of Degas, although the drip framing is a bit cliche.
Third Place

Degas Absinthe Drinker

Eustace Chilke said...

Never mind all that. The man in the painting is wearing long pants. Let's keep our eyes on the really important stuff.

Terry said...

Jephthah got two things from God for his part of the bargain: he was outcast, and he was made chief of Gilead, and he defeats the Ammonites. In return for that, he offers a dog?

FWBuff said...

Another lesson from Jephthah: Don't make a rash vow.

Unlike in the Abraham/Isaac story, God didn't initiate the sacrificial bargain -- Jephthah foolishly did. Vows were serious business under the Law of Moses, as Numbers 30:2 says: "When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said." Jephthah didn't have to make the vow, but once he did, he had to fulfill it.

Jim in St Louis said...
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Jim in St Louis said...
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Phil 3:14 said...

That passage says more about Jephthah than God.