To Kill and Take Possession, Part 4: Bargaining with God and the Devil

In these posts I've been thinking about how moral notions in the bible evolve by discussing the book To Kill and Take Possession: Law, Morality, and Society in Biblical Stories by Daniel Friedmann. We've looked at the praiseworthiness of guile, notions of responsibility, and divine versus human legal adjudication.

In this post I want to discuss bargaining with God and the Devil.

It is common knowledge that when humans get into a fix they often make bargains with the gods. In psychology, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her famous stages of dying, explicitly noted a stage called "bargaining" where people facing death attempt to make deals with the Divine. For those of you who don't mind some edgy humor, Kübler-Ross's stages are darkly portrayed in this funny short film (send the children out of the room before playing):

In church history, Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer, became a monk during a thunder storm. Scared he would die in the storm Luther prayed that if he were spared that night he would become a monk. He lived and, true to his word, he became a monk. On such things the history of the world turns.

In To Kill, Friedmann comments on how bargaining with the Divine has changed over time, even within the biblical witness. A pivotal story is the story of Jephthah and his daughter:

Judges 11
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior...when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. "Come," they said, "be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites."

...Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD : "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 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."

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

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. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break."

"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. 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."

"You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 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 custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

It is hard to tell how the biblical authors are viewing this story. It clearly is a tragedy. But nowhere in the story is Jephthah condemned for doing what he did. It's all very sad, but nothing seems immoral or wrong.

In To Kill, Friedmann notes how, as time passed, bargains with God began to seem illicit. Perhaps the story of Jephthah was a part of this trend, at least within the biblical tradition. As these bargains began to seem more, well, immoral, the bargaining partner remained but it was no longer God. The Devil began to be the bargaining partner. In the biblical tradition this is most clearly seen in the Temptation of Jesus. And in this story we see Jesus refuse to enter into any kind of deal with the Devil. Supernatural bargaining begins to seem illicit, superstitious, and, eventually, occult. In the Western Canon the story of Faust best illustrates this shift from Divine to diabolic deal-making.

Interestingly, in the blues music tradition there is a myth about meeting the Devil at the crossroads to sell one's soul for skill at the guitar. The famous Robert Johnson, whose music I love, is said to have done this:

And, of course, there is always the great Charlie Daniel's The Devil Went Down to Georgia:

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

One thought on “To Kill and Take Possession, Part 4: Bargaining with God and the Devil”

  1. For a long time I've thought that in interpreting the Gospels a choice needs to be made between seeing Jesus' life as it effected his time and place as exemplary and seeing the words and descriptions taken from that time and place as exemplary. The nature of the effect he produced at his time versus the state of the culture as he effected it. The first, I think, inclines toward inclusive, loving, progressive faith; the second toward exclusive, judgmental, conservative faith--overstated, no doubt, but I have thought it to be a crucial choice for the Church.

    Favoring the first, I've been stumped about how to make a good case for it, both since I have great respect for the Bible and because any case that does not respect the Bible will have no traction with most Christians. Making a compelling case that the Bible exhibits moral progress, I think, is the answer.

    You do important work here. And I like the condiment hermeneutic too.

    Thank you.


Leave a Reply