Leilani became a princess when she was thirteen.
Leilani’s father, Jephthah, was a terrifying man with dark hair, thick black eyebrows, piercing eyes, stern mouth and broad shoulders. Born to a prostitute, raised in his father’s home until old enough to flee the hatred of his step-mother and step-siblings, Jephthah lived as a wild man in the forest. He gathered around him a band of outlaws, and together they raided enemy villages and attacked travelers. Thus he had become wealthy, built a house, and after Leilani’s birth to his favourite prostitute, had employed staff to create a home for the child.
Only the raven-headed rosy-cheeked Leilani could melt this iceberg of a man into some semblance of humanity.
Waves of excitement rippled through the house the day messengers arrived from Leilani’s grandfather. Leilani quickly sent for her friends. They huddled together, giggling and whispering behind the slightly opened great oak door of the dining room, peering through the crack.
Jephthah’s brigade of outlaws laughed raucously as they gorged themselves on baked lamb and flat breads. Finally, Jephthah stood to his feet and called the group to order.
“My so-called father is desperate. He begs our help to throw off the enemy. I’ve told him that if we succeed, they must recognize me as leader of the clan. Who will fight with me?”
Stools scraped as the men stood to their feet, raising their frothy beer glasses.
Leilani slipped into the room and sidled up to her father. “Will you be safe, Father?”
“Safe?” Jephthah roared with laughter. He cupped Leilani’s chin in his huge scarred hand. “With God’s help, I will come back like a king amongst our people. You will be a princess and we will find a prince for you to marry, sweet child. Now, get out of here before these good-for-nothings get the wrong idea – you’re much too pretty!”
Within minutes of leaving the house, all domestic concerns left Jephthah’s mind. This was a bigger battle than he’d anticipated. Days later, he knelt in front of an altar to Israel’s God, a burnt lamb’s carcass smoking on it. “Great Conqueror, if you grant me victory, I will offer as a burnt sacrifice the first living thing that greets me when I return home.”
Months later, dressed now in a general’s outfit, riding his faithful mount, surrounded by his band of men, met in every town by cheers and banners, Jephthah’s dark eyebrows were knotted together. Surely one of the dogs would greet him. Probably not the staff … they’d be too busy preparing a sumptuous feast. His precious daughter? Absolutely impossible.
He approached the bend and pulled his horse to a halt. Wafting in the breeze was the sound of bells and singing.
The voice was sweet and clear. “My father is the greatest of all warriors; my father is brave and handsome and strong; my father….”
Jephthah covered his ears and roared.
“STOP! GO AWAY!”
Finally, opening one eye, Jephthah saw the sight he’d not dared envision even in his worst nightmare.
Ribbons through her hair, tender skin exuding exotic scents, dressed in layers of coloured silks, tambourine clasped to her chest, she stared up at her father from under heavily painted eyelids. Her friends stood at a distance.
“But Father, I wanted to welcome you home. You’re going to find me a prince…. Daddy, please don’t cry.”
The great military general dismounted. Holding his daughter so tightly she couldn’t move, he sobbed violently. Finally releasing her, with a trembling voice, he explained the situation.
Leilani stood tall. “What you promised the LORD, you must do. But may I have two months to run free in the hills with my friends, grieving for the marriage I’ll never have?”
Jephthah sent the girls away, hoping desperately never again to see his daughter. Surely the LORD would release him from that foolish vow.
Like a true princess who does what is right regardless of the cost, Leilani turned up at the door that dreadful autumn day. Her friends stood at a distance with armfuls of firewood.
Leilani took Jephthah’s hand.
For generations afterwards, local girls spent four days each year roaming the mountains, mourning Leilani’s untimely death. Jephthah’s daughter became a hero in her own right.
Jephthah accepted the role as leader of his people, but grew only harder and more ruthless. Mercifully, he died six years later, and was given a hero’s burial in his father’s town.
(Based on Judges 11)
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