We’re living in one of horror’s golden ages. There’s always a scary movie arriving at the theater or on our streaming services. Recently it was the new Scream, followed by the reboot of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, soon to be followed by Jordan Peele’s next mind-bender, Nope, and horror invading the Marvel Universe in Morbius.
Horror has always leaned on religion to provide the backbone for its explorations of evil, even before the first time Dracula cowered in fear at the sight of a cross. But religion doesn’t just inspire the horror genre, it utilizes it, too. The Bible is full of horror. Sometimes, one of the best ways we can make sense of the Bible’s most difficult passages is to read them like we would a horror story. Let’s dive in:
Jacob has been taking advantage of his brother, Esau, since they were born. He’s finally pushed Esau too far, and Jacob is worried he might actually face some consequences for his actions. Amid the drama, Jacob takes a nighttime walk along the Jabbok stream (whenever anyone in a horror movie goes on a late night solo stroll, there’s trouble brewing). He’s alone until the text dryly tells us, “[A] man wrestled with him until daybreak” (32:24). The narrator treats this like it’s no big deal: This man just appears, without any description — or ominous music — to set the scene for us. Then he and Jacob start wrestling. The identity of the man is never really explained, but further on the speaker and Jacob both seem to agree that he’s divine in some way. We never learn why this stranger engages Jacob in a wrestling match; we just know that Jacob refuses to yield until he receives a blessing. This stranger both blesses Jacob with a new name (Israel, which might mean something like “God wrestles”), and also taps him on the thigh (or hip), injuring Jacob and causing him to limp for the rest of his life. Wrestling with divine beings can bring great reward, but also comes at a great risk.
It’s a pretty baffling passage. But when we realize that it has all the elements of a horror story, we can at least get a hint of how we might read it. Our main character is in a stressful situation to begin with, like so many horror protagonists who start off the story with a relationship going sour (The Shining), financial problems (The Amityville Horror), or struggling to recover from a recent loss (The Babadook). And he finds himself in a scary place — a riverbank — at night, all alone. Seemingly out of nowhere, he’s accosted by a stranger who wants to fight. And this struggle leads to new self-knowledge, but also comes at a cost. We might think of the Crain family in the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, who is able to make peace with the ghosts of the house and the trauma of their past, but only at the cost of two of their family members. Horror frequently reminds us that the world isn’t necessarily a safe place — a reality that Jacob confronts that night on the riverbank. Rather than finding a loving, compassionate God, Jacob finds a divine being who’s more interested in wrestling, and only gives a blessing after injuring Jacob. So when we read this as a horror story, we can be open to its message that the God presented here isn’t the God of our Sunday school classrooms, a God who has nothing but kind words and hugs for us. The God of this story is waiting to ambush Jacob so he can fight him. If we’re honest about our own faith journeys, I imagine most of us, at times, experience God in the same way. Sometimes God speaks in a still, small voice; other times, God opts for the sledgehammer.
Judges 11 is one of the stories that feminist Bible scholar Phyllis Trible has famously called a “Text of Terror” for the way it punishes its female characters. Jephthah is described as a “mighty warrior,” who leads Israel against the armies of the Ammonites. After emerging victorious, he vows to sacrifice to YHWH the first thing that crosses the threshold of his doorway when he comes home. Since livestock often lived in the family home, it seems like he was imagining a goat or a cow to come running out to greet him, but he’s instead met by his daughter. She’s granted a few months to mourn her maidenhood with her friends, then returns to meet her fate. Throughout this text, there’s little to indicate that God thought one way or another about the events unfolding.
Clearly, this is a tale of horror — the genre is replete with examples of poor choices with enormous ramifications that are carried out with a sense of terrible inevitability. One might think of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, which follows the consequences of a father’s misguided decision to bring his son back from the dead. In the novel, he resurrects his son, but quickly realizes that his son has returned without his humanity. The story of Jephthah and his daughter is almost the inverse: Instead of thoughtlessly raising his son from the grave, Jephthah has thoughtlessly condemned his daughter to death.
Genre is crucial here. If read as an edifying morality tale, one might walk away with the demented conclusion that God desires the burnt offering of daughters. But horror frequently shows us the world not as we wish it might be, but as we’re afraid it actually is. When we approach the Bible, many of us are expecting to find the wisdom and grace of the reign of God. But here in the story of Jephthah’s daughter, and in many other places in both testaments, the world we see isn’t the world as God desires it to be. Instead, we get a bleak, raw portrait of the world as it sometimes is: A place where different nations are warring with each other, and fathers don’t always look out for their children. And a world in which people make poor decisions, and aren’t always saved from the consequences through some kind of divine intervention. Judges 11, like many other passages in the Bible, presents us with that horrifying world.
While it’s a kind of darkness many of us would prefer to turn away from, acknowledging the realities of the world is an important part of the life of faith. Scripture certainly has blind spots, but I believe the writers and editors of the Bible were wise enough to try to include as wide a range of human experience — and human interaction with God — as possible. Sometimes, it seems like our own lives are governed by a loving, benevolent God, and other times, when everything seems to be collapsing around us, it seems more like God isn’t paying us much attention, or even like God is waiting at the edge of some dark river bank to fight us. These stories in the Bible honor that experience. Our faith ancestors have been horrified by the world around them for generations. Sometimes they wrote their theological wrestling down in the form of horror stories. In order to connect with that wisdom, I’d suggest that we read these stories expecting to be scared, and with an openness to what the experience of horror might be able to teach us.