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State of American History, Civics, and Politics

Remember the Titans: Jephthah’s Daughter and Sons of Bitches

Ryan Hurst as Gerry Bertier and Wood Harris as Julius Campbell in "Remember the Titans" (sky.com)

The story of Jephthah’s Daughter is a short one in the Book of Judges, Chapter 11. Within biblical scholarship, it has been identified as a “text of terror,” a designation coined by my own biblical professor. This fearsome sobriquet derives from the deadly end experienced by the young woman. She was sacrificed to the Lord by her father in fulfillment of his vow beseeching God for military victory. He won and the price he paid was his daughter.

What does this have to do with sons of bitches?

No individual was hurt in the creation of the story. Nor was historical Jephthah’s actual daughter sacrificed assuming he even had one. The story is a political polemic. In other words, the story addresses a political issue in the time of its creation through the historical person of the Jephthah and the symbolic figure of his daughter. It is not that the life of this young woman was in jeopardy due to her father, it is that what she represented (We the Israelite people) was endangered due to the historical figure in the present expressed in the form of Jephthah in the story.

A modern equivalent is Spartacus. There was an historical Spartacus. Various other people in the book and the movie also were real people in history. And the story is about real events in history. Spartacus did rebel, lose, and was executed crucifixion style. The famous and still-moving “I’m Spartacus” scene however is not likely to be historical although it makes for great storytelling. Similarly the slave girl Virinia is another act of fictive creation. She is no more real than Jephthah’s daughter. Her movements back and forth between the two male leads do not reflect a woman torn between two potential loves. She is We the American people, caught in a battle between two forces. As a woman, she has decided on her one true love, the hero of the story, the same decision we the audience are expected to make.

What does this have to do with sons of bitches?  

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss theorized the origin of human communication was when two men were in dialog over a woman. Because of the incest taboo, a male needed to go outside his family to find a suitable mate. That necessitated a conversation with another male over second’s male sister or daughter becoming the wife of the first male. In so doing, an extended kinship group was formed and unrelated males became “brothers” or family who would not fight each other.

All this is well and good, but it overlooks the flipside of the dialog. It ignores the possibility of the conversation failing and the optimistic good ending not being reached. Males like Crassus and Spartacus can be opposed to each other. In their situation, the historical antipathy is expressed in story form through the battle over a woman. In fact the storytelling battleground may be an historical woman as well as in Cecil B. de Mille’s Nefretiri between Moses and Ramses II.

The alternative to Lévi-Strauss’s positive communication is a negative exchange between men. The popular name for this form of dialog is “Your Momma.” Readers may be familiar with this type of communication. In fact readers may even have been the instigators of “Your Momma” words or perhaps a recipient. Frequently “Your Momma” involves disparaging remarks by one male about the mother of a second male by trash talking her. The weakness of the second male is exposed when he cannot successfully defend his mother from attack.

What does this have to do with sons of bitches?  

In the political polemic of the story of Jephthah’s daughter, let’s examine how one male, the author, ridiculed a second male, the person represented as Jephthah. One should keep in the mind that the historical figure behind the character of Jephthah is quite likely to have been able to figure out that he was being attacked through the story about his counterpart’s sacrifice of his daughter.

Judges 11:2 And Gilead [Jephthah’s father]’s wife also bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they thrust Jephthah out, and said to him, “You shall not inherit in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.”

So Jephthah is an illegitimate child. Eventually the legitimate children expel the illegitimate child from the household.

Judges 11:3 Then Jephthah fled from his brothers…and worthless fellows collected round Jephthah, and went raiding with him.

Then the supposed hero of the story flees from the civilized world, collects a band of fellow reprobates around him, and engages in criminal activity. Still think he is the hero of the story?

When his people need help against the enemy Ammonites, they turn to this fugitive with the prerequisite military skills and beseech his assistance. Jephthah agrees to help for a price.

Judges 11:9 Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and the LORD gives them over to me, I will be your head.”

So he will help not because it is the right thing to do. He will not rise to the occasion and help his people because he is patriotic. His actions are strictly transactional in nature. He will help only if in return he is made king. So while the vow leading to the sacrifice of his daughter garners all the attention, the author certainly meant for us to recognize that Jephthah was not an admirable character to begin with. He was neither Gideon nor George Washington but a “what’s in for me” type.

And his vow was pretty stupid too. Offering to sacrifice whoever comes forth from his house first when he returned from battle was the vow of a moron. Of course it was going to be his daughter. Didn’t he think before he spoke? The author mocks the intelligence of the military hero.

What does this have to do with sons of bitches?  

There is one final description of the lead male character who is not a hero in this story. We know he is not legitimate but what kind of woman was his mother. The English translations refer to her as a harlot, maybe a concubine or prostitute but bitch would work just as well using our terminology.  Regardless of the translation, we are not dealing with star-crossed lovers here separated from each other by cruel circumstances and heartless figures of authority. Instead Jephthah’s father had sex with a woman whose job it was to have sex with men to whom she was not married.

Feminists like to put a positive spin on this story. Oh, isn’t it wonderful that the son of a woman from the wrong side of the tracks can grow up to be a leader of the people? What a case study for “Social Mobility of Oppressed People in Iron I Israel” this story makes. Such analyses are oblivious to “Your Momma” and fail to recognize that calling Jephthah a son of a bitch was a deliberate attempt to insult a figure in the present represented by the historical Jephthah in the story. I suspect the actual target successfully discerned that he was the target, his mother and his manhood were being mocked, and that he reacted against the author accordingly.

What does this have to do with Remember the Titans?

Remember the Titans tells the story of the 1971 integration of a football team at a Virginia high school. The movie contains all the elements that dominate in our professional wrestling trashtalk political arena today. There are (male) athletes, football, black and white, locker room banter, and derogatory comments about women. In fact, the latter occur in a scene of locker room banter. In it, a black male athlete makes mocking comments about the mother of a white male athlete. The latter is not too pleased and is about to respond in a physical manner. Thanks to the intervention of his male black athlete friend, he pauses and understands what is really happening. You can see the look of understanding of Gerry (pronounced Gary) Bertier’s face when he realizes that the “Your Momma” trashtalk means the team has become one. He is not being insulted; instead the black athlete is demonstrating his trust of the white athlete. We are family.

The movie begins with the two racial groups divided into two tribes. The movie tells the story of the coach’s efforts to overcome that divide. The locker room banter scene marks the moment when those efforts have proved successfully. The warring tribes have become a band of brothers through their shared experiences on the field of battle. Because they have gained the respect of each other, they can engage in “Your Momma” without any negative connotations. That relationship between real athletes has to be earned.

The mother scenes in the movie trace the change. At first, Gerry’s mother opposes her son having anything to do with the people from the other tribe. When she is finally willing to meet her son’s black friend Julius Campbell, he sweeps her off her feet and he twirls her around. In the concluding scene, the white mother and her son’s black brother stand arm in arm, hands clasped at her son’s funeral. Gerry died about a decade after that championship season from complications due to a traffic accident at the end of that season. While it is not exactly Gilgamesh and Enkidu, it works as an American story.

There are times when “Your Momma” is meant to hurt and there are times when “Your Momma” shows the trust unrelated people have for each other. These athletes have earned the respect of each other and become a family of unrelated people through shared experiences on the field of battle and in overcoming adversity.  It can happen in real life. It didn’t happen this time.

One thought on “Remember the Titans: Jephthah’s Daughter and Sons of Bitches

  1. Peter,

    Interesting academic exercise……reminds me of my freshman English lit class at Rutgers…..but as always….to what end?

    The parables and subsequent symmetry to real…even present life (I suppose) are again interesting.

    Life is complicated for sure….but again, to what end.

    The one very real and important truism is – when we go through hell and back…those we traveled with on that journey become our brothers and sister no matter their color, religion, ethnicity or side of the tracks they are from….all perceived barriers are cleared away and all new true life-altering bonds are forged. This is truly amazing how we can be remade. The blood of sharing is much thicker than water.

    Sue-Jane and I just finished watching Ken Burns “Vietnam”. Though I didn’t ever serve in Vietnam but was on active duty 1965 – 1968 but in Korea….we lived with the impact of those who did serve there and in some regard managed to survive though many were gravely injured.

    Returning state-side, we were treated to the same indignities that those returning from Vietnam endured.

    I understand the so called “Band of Brothers”.

    Peter Evans
    County Historian
    Wayne County Historian
    Public Safety Building 7376 State Route 31, STE 0100 Lyons NY 14489

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