Jephthah Sacrificed His Daughter?

jephthah_daughterHow 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 vs31 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!

7 thoughts on “Jephthah Sacrificed His Daughter?

  1. Good job. This is one of those passages that Bible naysayers like to throw in our faces claiming the Bible tells us God makes His followers do terrible things when it suits Him.

    It’s always a matter of understanding the culture and the context, isn’t it?

  2. Ken –

    It is mainly understanding the culture and context. Both those will help our hermeneutics of understanding Scripture. Having said that, it is still not perfect in answering all the questions. Hence the last sentence of my article. One could easily look at the passages where God commands the Israelites to slaughter the Canaanites. That’s a hard one. I know plenty of normal evangelical approaches to that enigma, ones I’ve taught myself. But I am starting to rethink how this fits into the full picture of who God is and his nature, and what it meant for God to graciously reveal himself in such an ancient culture.

    No doubt difficult, but God is still good and Scripture still remains God-breathed.

  3. Scott, I appreciate your tackling such a difficult passage, but I can’t agree with your analysis of Judges 11.

    First, though least important, I’d need you to confirm your knowledge of the Hebrew and historical situation. Do we mean the front door of Jepthah’s house, or the entrance to his estate? Can he even dedicate a servant to the Lord? The way I read it that would violate the rights of a male or female Hebrew (Exodus 21:2-11) and a foreigner seems unsuitable for your kind of dedication. So that leaves just his daughter, his wife and any bondservants, in which case why is he surprised to see her? How strong is the precedent for dedication as a servant in comparison to dedication as a burned sacrifice? In Samuel’s case it’s clear from the text that this is what is intended; but Judges mention of any such life. So there’s a bit more work to do to establish that precedent.

    Secondly, the story doesn’t make as much sense to me that way around: Jepthah rending his clothes, the difficulty of fulfilling the vow, the two months of mourning, the annual commemoration. (Although interestingly Young’s does have a translation of v. 40 very much along the lines you suggest.) I will allow, though, that her continuing virginity is a particular tragedy since she is Jepthah’s one and only child and natural heir.

    Thirdly, and more significantly, Jepthah here is being commended for his faith (Heb 11, as you point out). We know that Abraham was considered righteous because his faith led to the good work of offering Isaac on the altar (James 2:21-23). Abraham did not know that God was going to rescue Isaac, except through faith and he was quite definitely ready to physically kill him. Just like Jepthah, Abraham was willing to offer his one and only child and heir.

    This, by the way, is quite different from the sacrifices made to Molech, where parents (fathers?) sacrificed their children in contradiction to God’s word. Neither Abraham’s sacrifice nor Jepthah’s was undertaken at their own initiative. This is clearest in Abraham’s case since God specifically asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. But it does also seem clear that both Jepthah and his daughter both shared an understanding of the necessity of the sacrifice (vv. 35-36); and it is difficult to argue that their understanding lacked faith.

    Here Jepthah’s daughter does differ from Isaac, who did not realise he might die and trusted his father only as a child. So perhaps Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is not quite the best example after all …

    It’s understandable that you (and I) would like a different interpretation of Judges 11 because we cannot countenance a good father putting his only child to death, nor understand why this should be necessary. But this is just the heart-wrenching decision that the father himself faced when he sacrificed his one and only son for us; and I dare not suggest that any other kind of devotion would have sufficed. So when Jepthah sacrifices his daughter, they properly belong in Hebrews 11 amongst those who share God’s heart and are commended for their faith.

    But that’s not the miserable end of the story. Abraham (figuratively speaking) did receive Isaac back from the dead, figuratively speaking (Heb 11:19). Jesus rose again on the third day, incorruptible. And Jepthah’s daughter will enjoy an everlasting life, so much better than the one she lost.

    • Duncan –

      Thanks for stopping by to comment.

      Obviously others want to argue that Jephthah did “sacrifice” his daughter by putting her to death. It’s not an unknown conclusion to the text. But I still believe this is a much more plausible approach. Not to make God or the Scripture look neater and cleaner. There are plenty of difficult passages in the text that would make evangelicals very, very uncomfortable. It’s just that we don’t always catch the details in the text. The little hints – I could point out another account in Judges with Samson. So a “plain” read to us might seem to suggest he sacrificed his daughter. But it isn’t so “plain”, as the points I put forth suggest this very much.

      As you write yourself, I think this is the significant point for me: I will allow, though, that her continuing virginity is a particular tragedy since she is Jepthah’s one and only child and natural heir.

      The whole tragic emphasis of the account is that of the only daughter not being able to marry, remaining a virgin, not able to carry on her father’s line, etc. Nothing is ever mentioned about death. The inability to carry on the family line would have been a devastating reality for an ancient culture, as it would be for some cultures today in varying parts of the world.

      And I don’t see this account being typologically Christological in any way. Even in the Abraham-Isaac account, it’s not Isaac that is the Christ figure. It’s the ram that falls in the place of Isaac. So I think we are working a bit too hard with Judg 11 if we try and put forth a typology of Christ and his sacrifice.

  4. Pingback: Around the Blogosphere (07.06.2012) | Near Emmaus

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