How many of us know there are just a few difficult passages in the Scripture to comprehend, especially in the Old Testament? One complicated account is found in Judges 11:29-40.
When going out to battle against the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow saying:
If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 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. (vs30-31).
And we find the fulfilment only a few verses later:
After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. (vs39)
At first read, it seems that Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter. But we also know from Scripture that human sacrifice was an abomination (Lev 18:21; 20:2-5: Deut 12:31; 18:10). What is going on here?
For many, this passage has been dealt with by acknowledging that human sacrifice is an abomination before the Lord. But God also takes vows very seriously (i.e. Num 30:2). Consequently, because Jephthah made a vow before the Lord, he was obligated to keep it, even if it meant that he sacrifice his daughter.
The moral of the story, then, becomes: Be careful what you vow.
But I’m not sure this fully appeases one’s curiosity. So let’s look at a few things a little more closely.
The first point to note is that the overall story of Jephthah is one of commendation, not condemnation. Interestingly enough, he is even recorded in the ‘hall of faith’ in Heb 11:32. Why would Jephthah be commended in the end for such a heinous act, one for which king Manasseh was condemned (2 Kgs 21:6)?
Another thing to keep in mind is that the animals of Jepthah’s time (sheep, cattle, etc) were not domesticated. Thus, I think it safe to assume that he was not expecting an animal to come out of his house. He was expecting a human being. Probably one of his servants, rather than his daughter. Nonetheless, he knew a person would walk out his door, not an ox or sheep. Therefore, a better translation of vs29 would be: ‘whomever comes out of the door of my house to meet me’ (see the RSV).
A third point is that the account tells us that the person was to be offered up as a burnt offering (vs31). At first take, this might give one images of the prescriptions for sacrifices found in the Levitical law. Yet, the focus of the Hebrew word for burnt offering (olah) is that of an offering being wholly given to the Lord, rather than partly given to him. As a result, we begin to recognise that this person would be given fully to the Lord’s service, not necessarily sacrificed and burned, as again, child sacrifice was disgusting in the eyes of God. It’s comparable with Hannah’s prayer to the Lord for a child (see 1 Sam 1:11).
Finally, when Jephthah’s daughter asks if she can go to the mountains and mourn, the reason she wants to mourn is ‘because I will never marry’ (vs37), not because she was going to die. Also, in vs39, after reading that Jephthah did to her as he had vowed, we find these words: ‘And she was a virgin’. This shows that the vow was not fulfiled by her death, but by her remaining a virgin all the days of her life. The account speaks continually about her remaining a virgin and not marrying, but it never once mentions that she was killed.
Thus, from a little knowledge of the Hebrew and historical situation, we are able to more clearly understand this passage. Now, if only every passage in Scripture were that easy to dissect and comprehend!