Bat Jephthah: A Conversation with Artist Madison Horton

Feb 07, 2023

This week's blog features artwork by Madison Horton. The piece featured above she has titled "Bath Jephthah" in honor of the biblical narrative of Jephthah's daughter in Judges 11. We had the opportunity to interview Madison about her reflections on the crafting of this painting and about art as a form of biblical interpretation. 


My name is Madison and I am a creative - cultivating curiosity all around me where others feel safe to explore. I am a student at Portland Seminary currently on track for a Masters of Arts in Theological studies. I have a background in sociology with a concentration on gender studies and experience with trauma-informed work. Art, writing, culture, and psychology inform the ways I explore the Bible and Theology.

What inspired the Bat Jephthah piece? Why did you choose this woman from Scripture to feature in your piece? Can you explain the meaning behind the piece?

Last semester, I enrolled in a class on the book of Judges and gender violence, taking a special interest in the “texts of terror.” These are texts that so many of us fear, the ones that create cognitive gaps in our exploration of Scripture because they can’t quite be explained away. Judges 11, the story of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter, became a central theme in my studies. I have asked my colleagues what is hard for them in this story, and a majority of the responses can be summed into one word: theodicy. Where was Yahweh in the sacrifice of Bat Jephthah? Did God do this or did God allow this? In this painting, I unify feminist and Christological hermeneutics to hypothesize the journey from the mountain and to the altar by Bat Jephthah and women in her community.

The journey is long, and begins first with Jephthah. I use embodiment as a core foundation of the interpretation. Trauma in this story begins with Jepthah’s mother, a sex worker. In his upbringing, Jephthah seems to carry the banner of “outsider” to the rest of the community around him. Once he is made part of the in-crowd, his incessant need to prove himself is evident in his leadership. A desire which causes him to make a deal with Yahweh that results in the death of his daughter: Bat Jephtah. I wanted to first paint this to condemn him, as is the temptation (neither right nor wrong) with feminist hermeneutics. Ultimately, I decided to pivot toward a woman-centric feminist narrative, which means deplatforming the oppressor. This is a technique I derived from Wil Gafney.

She is not given a name in the text, so I call her Bat Jephthah to restore a tiny bit of dignity. Upon her death sentence, she questioned nothing, but went to be with her community of women. The woman with no name, much like Hagar, is cast out. Only this time, Bat Jepthah has her friends. What would her journey be like? Her friends, leaving their families to enter into suffering with Bat Jephthah. It's reminiscent of women who gather to support one another in times of suffering. I recall the bold acts of a friend who has wiped my face or cleaned my kitchen in grief.

Scripture does not record what happens on the mountain between Bat Jephthah and the other women. I imagine there was sweaty weeping, snot-nosed tears, laughing, prayer, and reminiscing. I imagine there was a moment when she asked to be alone with Yahweh. Like many of the Old Testament greats, I believe that Yahweh met her there. Did she cry out to Yahweh? Was she angry? Did she beg for an alternative route? Did Yahweh know her name? In this part of her story, something strange happens, she begins to resemble Christ. In the desire for justice, I began with the feminist lens, but what I realized is that the justice is in her encounter with Yahweh on the mountain. It harkens the moment of suffering Christ endured as he sat in the garden with Yahweh. The matters of providence and suffering in the faith are deeply confusing and nuanced, especially in the realms of justice for women. In her story, the suffering cost her life and vocation, but the providence was that on her way to suffering, Yahweh was present. This was a presence which she longed for, like we do, when we read texts of terror. The sentiment of providence in suffering is offered by Christians in a haphazard way at times. What I am proposing is not the romanticization of suffering. What I am proposing is that the mysteries of God are sometimes, unfortunately, revealed to us in our searching and suffering.

Tell us more about what goes into your thinking when you consider how to portray a woman from the Bible? What about the story of Jephthah did you want to capture and render in your interpretive piece?

As I thought about the composition of this piece, I had to pivot multiple times in the portrayal of Bat Jephthah. I knew in this portrait she would have a halo, representing the concept of Uncreated Light. Because Bat Jephthah would have been a woman of color, I took influences from South American and African folk art for her face and the scale of the piece. The drama found in color and brush stroke is intentional, depicting the sincerity of emotion in the story. Her hair covers her face to depict common grief practices of the Ancient Near East, a time to appear disheveled in public. The expression on her face, solemn, yet peaceful, holds the encounter with Yahweh and her journey to sacrifice in tension.

Do you think that artists who portray biblical characters are interpreters of the Bible or sacred literature? In what way? How does it feel to interpret sacred literature as an artist and what kinds of considerations are important when creating a piece? Is this something that you do often?

I have considered creating a series of women in Scripture with complicated stories, however, this is the first! To interpret a sacred text as an artist feels like the greatest honor. If Bat Jephthah were a person that I would show this to, I would want her to feel honor. This is why a woman-centric depiction of her time between the mountain and the altar is important. The act of artistic interpretation requires a knowledge of your hermeneutics, as we all use them in our paintings. Some of my favorite art pieces take a story from the Bible and propose an alternate interpretation. Images connect with folks in a way that sometimes words cannot. Words have connotations, and the ability to unite or divide. Images as interpretation are an invitation to something that is already stewing inside the beholder. This piece, for example, could mean a myriad of things to you.

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