Today’s offering is a work entitled The Daughter of Jephthah by 19th Century French artist Édouard Debat-Ponsan. This painting has always been a favourite of mine, not least because, in his retelling of a truly grim biblical story (Judges 11.29-40 - also discussed in this blogpost), Debat-Ponsan seems to subvert more traditional readings of the text, which portray Jepthah’s daughter as an exemplary figure, accepting her father’s stupidity with a suitably feminine good grace. Instead, the artist offers us a portrayal of the young woman that allows us to imagine how else she might have responded to the news of her impending sacrifice. The scene depicted is narrated in vv.37-8, where Jephthah’s daughter spends two months before she is sacrificed wandering the mountains with her friends to “bewail” her virginity (the thing she’d be most upset about, in the narrator’s mind at least).
In Debat-Ponsan’s painting, Jepthah’s daughter sits centre-stage – her garments are rent in mourning, friends surround her, clearly sharing the grief of the occasion. Yet look at her face and read the emotion that is there. I don’t see resignation or acceptance; I can’t see any hint of the dutiful and subservient daughter we read about so often in the interpretive traditions of this text. Instead, I see a woman, staring straight at me, who is seething with a rage that is white hot in its intensity – a rage that is wholly justified but, tragically, also utterly impotent. Her father was the fool, yet she is the one who will suffer. Debat-Ponsan reminds us of the absolute injustice inherent within this story, depicting a woman who stares at us, daring us to join her on the mountain and rage along with her.