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There are two stories behind Handel’s Jephtha – the Biblical account of Jephtha himself, and the story of Handel’s creating the oratorio – and neither of them ends very well.

The story of Jephtha may be the weirdest and most troubling in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Judges cryptically tells of the illegitimate son of a prominent Israelite and a prostitute whose legitimate brothers drove him out of Gilead into a neighboring land, where he gathered other outcasts around him and became known as a warrior. Eventually the Israelites, going to war against the oppressing Ammonites, chose him as a leader. As the story is commonly understood, before going into battle he made a vow to God: if he returned victorious, he would sacrifice the first thing he saw coming out of his house. It turned out to be his daughter. Jephtha was distraught, but said he could not break his vow, and his only child agreed. She asked for two months to roam the hills and weep with her friends, “because she would never marry.” When she returned, Jephtha “did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.” Chapter 11 of Judges concludes by saying that each year the young women of Israel “go out for four days to commemorate Jephtha’s daughter,” though, oddly, it never gives her name. Jephtha died six years later.

To Biblical-era Jews, two things were clear: Jephtha did indeed sacrifice his daughter, and doing so was a terrible crime. The Bible unequivocally forbids human sacrifice, and its practice by neighboring pagans was a reason for the frequent divine commands that they be wiped out. Oral tradition had it that God punished both Jephtha (with physical afflictions the rest of his life) and the high priest who failed to stop the sacrifice. The story’s presence in the Hebrew Bible is puzzling; it seems like an unlikely import from Greek mythology. (King Idomeneus of Crete, returning from the Trojan War, makes a vow to Poseidon that if he is delivered from a storm he will sacrifice the first creature he sees when he lands, which turns out to be his son. When he goes through with the sacrifice, angry gods send a plague to Crete.)

The Jephtha story was about 3,000 years old when Thomas Morell wrote the libretto for Handel’s oratorio, and it needed some fleshing out for the London theater. Morell appropriated the angel and Jephtha’s wife (who is not mentioned in Judges) from a 16th-century Latin play about Jephtha, from which he also lifted the Greek names Storgè (meaning “familial love”) for Mrs. Jephtha and Iphis for the daughter. He also turned Jephtha’s half-brothers into one character, invented a love interest for Iphis, and gave them names, Zebul and Hamor, taken from obscure Biblical figures.

Morell’s biggest decision was not to kill the daughter. A typical translation of Jephtha’s vow in Judges 11:31 would be, “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.” Morell instead has Jephtha vow, “What, or whoe’er shall first salute mine eyes, shall be forever [God’s], or fall a sacrifice.” Use of “or” rather than “and” signified two alternatives: dedicating a person to God’s service (as the prophet Samuel was dedicated by his mother before he was born), or sacrificing an animal. Morell has an angel appear at the last minute to announce that the vow does not require a human sacrifice; what Jephtha’s vow really meant was that his daughter is to live a virgin, dedicated to God. While this is obviously news to Jephtha, and the audience, it fits neatly with the story in Judges, with its lamentations about the daughter’s virginity and its absence of any clear statement that she was actually sacrificed. The rejoicing is general, if not entirely convincing: in particular Hamor, whose considerable courage in combat stemmed from his desire to win Jephtha’s daughter’s hand, ought to be less than ecstatic.

Morell didn’t pull the non-sacrifice ending out of his hat. Jephtha’s vow is one of many ambiguous passages in the Hebrew Bible, and the sacrifice-or-dedication reading has some support among scholars, as the Rev. Morell (a secretary of the Antiquarian Society, and Anglican curate with a Cambridge doctor of divinity degree) probably knew. Of course, Morell likely also knew that ancient Israelites had no concept of consecrating a woman to priestly work and believed that everyone should be married (as observant modern Jews and all modern Jewish mothers believe) and virginity much into adulthood was therefore a cursed condition, but Morell either had a different view of celibacy or simply figured it was better than being a burnt offering.

Jephtha is the most restrained of Handel’s oratorios. The instrumentation is sparing and there are few of the big, breathtaking choral moments that so define Handel for us, if not for his contemporaries. The subject may not have lent itself to brilliance, but a bigger reason was that Handel was not in the mood for it. 

He was 65 and in declining health when he started composing the music in January 1751, just before an oratorio season in which he offered almost no other new music. On February 13 he noted in the score that he was unable to continue because he was losing sight in his left eye. He was in the middle of composing the chorus “How dark, O Lord, are thy decrees, all hid from mortal sight” at the end of Act II. After more starts and stops, he finished the oratorio in August. It was his last major composition, and perhaps his last composition of any sort. Within a year he was blind. 

Blindness need not make a composer stop composing, especially if the composer is wealthy and can afford to pay someone to transcribe what he composes. Handel was not otherwise physically disabled: he continued to play organ concertos between acts of his oratorios until shortly before his death in 1759. But losing his sight cast him into depression, and with his other health problems, he must have felt played out. He, or more likely his assistant John Christopher Smith, produced “new” works that consisted of old music with new words, but there is no known new music after Jephtha.

In retrospect, Jephtha seems an oratorio about fate and resignation to it. To be sure, it was Morell, not Handel, who made the oratorio’s first words Zebul’s “It must be so,” and put the same sentence in Jephtha’s mouth. But it was Handel, returning to the close of Act II after the first eyesight-related hiatus, who composed the painfully insistent music for the fatalistic maxim “Whatever is, is right.” (The sentence is from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, and was a change from Morell’s original “What God ordains, is right.”) It’s easy to come away with the impression that he felt even more trapped than Jephtha and his daughter, with less chance of rescue.

Howard Posner plays lute and baroque guitar and practices appellate law in Los Angeles.