Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie, but I have read the trilogy. There will be some spoilers from the books in this post.
There is a lack of good female role models in both the Bible and in most general literature. When it comes to heroines, and I’m writing in terms of comparing with male counterparts—the ones who survive, who are triumphant, who despite the challenges and difficulties and limitations they have faced, they have succeeded—there are surprisingly few. Generally speaking, our movies and books are full of heroes, male leaders who inspire and lead and who we look to and say “I want to be like that” or “I want a leader like that.” Our Bible is packed with them, from Joshua to David and even Daniel in the lion’s den.
I am a peace-loving activist but I do enjoy adventure stories, specifically science fiction and fantasy, and often the heroes and heroines have to fight to survive. But there are stories where the heroes are not necessarily heroic in the death and trauma they cause—I think of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins of Tolkien’s creation, unlikely heroes—Bilbo works to create peace behind the scenes, even at the wrath of his friends, and Frodo gives of himself, to the point of sacrifice, to save the world. There are unlikely heroes in the Bible as well. I think of Joseph, betrayed and left to die by his brothers, betrayed by the woman he worked for, who rises to power and uses his power to help others and eventually the very family that abandoned him.
Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy is a heroine who has to fight to survive. However, rather than as a trained warrior, she is the girl who volunteered to take her sister’s place in a government-sanctioned act of child sacrifice. She is the girl who hunted to provide for her family and now uses those skills in an attempt to survive, a promise kept to her sister, but all the while knowing that she will most likely die. Throughout the trilogy, when she acts in violence to save herself or others, she takes no pride or joy in it. Throughout the books she remembers that it is a system of violence that she has been thrown into that forces her to fight, and it is the system that is the enemy, not her fellow tributes caught in this systemic act of sacrificial violence.
When I read the trilogy, I could not help but think of the Book of Judges in the Bible. At first, I remembered two heroines from chapters 4 and 5: Deborah and Jael. Deborah who is a judge, a leader of Israel in the early days, and Jael, a non-Israelite woman who helps Israel gain victory over King Jabin of Canaan by driving a tent peg into the head of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army. It’s bloody and violent, but it’s the first and only time a woman—two women for that matter—rule and claim a tactical victory.
As a youth I was drawn to this story in the Bible that was never read aloud in church or in Sunday School—I happened to discover it during a year when I read through the Bible myself. Heroines presented to me in Sunday School included Esther and Ruth—yes, both were cunning and used their wits to survive, but neither ever led their people the way Deborah did or used a tent peg as Jael.
However, as I continued to read the trilogy, my thoughts shifted from chapters 4 and 5 to chapter 11, the story of Jephtah and his unnamed daughter. Jephtah, another judge of Israel, in a stupid act of trying to appear pious (my interpretation) makes a rash oath to sacrifice to God “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me” (vs. 31). Jephtah has followed God, had claimed victory, has felt the spirit of the Lord upon him, and then he says those words. And of course, the first thing to come out of his house is not a goat or a lamb, but his only child, his daughter. She assures him that he must fulfill his oath and after a time of mourning that she will never marry or have children, she is sacrificed to God, the same God who makes it clear to Israel that God does not want human sacrifice, especially of children (remember Genesis 22 when God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac).
The whole point of the sacrificing of tributes in a bloody sport in the Hunger Games trilogy is to remind the people of the last war they fought and that war is pointless (mainly because there is a superior force in the Capitol that will defeat them, but the general sense is that the last war, along with previous wars, were terrible bloodbaths that were also detrimental to the environment, and that war is not the answer—but to remind them of that, they sacrifice children). Jephtah’s oath was made as an act of devotion, to show God and everyone that Jephtah was true to God’s ways—but his oath turns into the ultimate act against God, a sacrifice of a child.
The use of violence to create peace is the ultimate oxymoron—as evidenced by the “Peacekeepers” in the Hunger Games trilogy. The sacrifice of children is the punishment of the future generation for the sins of the past.
Judges takes place after the Israelites have entered the land that was promised to them, but before they have a king. Judges is part of the great historical collection of the Bible that was edited by the Deuteronomist, interpreting the history of Israel through the understanding that when the people, especially their leaders, followed the laws and commandments of God as retold in Deuteronomy, the people were blessed, and when they did not, they faced punishment. Much of the book of Judges claims that the Israelites did what was evil in the site of the Lord, and therefore they face attacks and wars from other nations, because they did not stay true to God’s ways. Now, we know as readers we must understand the historical context and the need to explain why bad things happened to the people, and that through historical scholarship we understand that the Deuteronomist editor interpreted the reasons for these wars and battles and tragedies were because the people turned away from God’s ways as dictated in the Law, as recorded by the Deuteronomist.
The same kind of reasoning was used by the Capitol government in the Hunger Games trilogy to support the Hunger Games—that because the people of the districts rebelled in the past against the Capitol, this child sacrifice in the Games was a just punishment. History gets reinterpreted to justify the violence that has occurred and continues to occur.
But back to Katniss and our heroine. The Hunger Games is told in first-person narration. So while we hear the history of Panem, this country that has arisen from the ashes of what was North America centuries into our future, and while we hear Katniss’ account of why the Hunger Games exist, we also get to hear her questions, her objections, and her protests. And the greatest acts of her protest comes in the times she chooses not to resort to state-sanctioned violence. Perhaps the greatest act of rebellion she commits in right in the very beginning, when she volunteers in her sister’s place, to save her sister’s life. Unlike Jephtah, who sacrifices his own daughter, Katniss is willing to sacrifice herself, to give herself over to save her sister, and as we discover, she is willing to sacrifice herself to save others as well, even though the will for self-survival also remains strong, the desire to not participate in the system of violence is even stronger.
And while I could as a Christian write about the similarities between this and the great hero we call the Savior, I choose to write about Deborah and Jael and Jephtah’s daughter. Deborah, who had the wisdom and guidance of God to lead her people; Jael, who did act in violent deception, which Katniss also falls into (I didn’t say she was a perfect heroine, and there are times she participates in systemic violence, but not without regret, shame, and harm done to herself, which she recognizes); and Jephtah’s daughter, for Katniss is sent for sacrifice by the rashness of a system that does not understand it is doing the very thing it is trying to prevent: by punishing the future generation, they guarantee a future war instead of preventing one.
So what did I learn from this comparison? Besides the obvious fact that our heroines and heroes aren’t perfect, the truth is we still continue to live out the Book of Judges and our own Hunger Games. At times, we turn away from God and do “what is right in [our] own eyes” (Judges 17:1; 18:1; 19:1 and 21:25). We create unjust systems for our own kind of retributive justice, punishing the next generation for the sins of the current generation. But the greatest heroines and heroes, the people we should look up to, are the ones that buck the system of violent retribution and say no more. They are the Oscar Romeros and the Dorothy Days, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Ghandi’s and Aung San Suu Kyi’s. They are the former gang members and the Veterans for Peace. And they are the ones who have seen the face of violence, the pain and suffering in our world, and have said no more to violence. And we can be like them.