The high emotional content of the story of Jehpthah’s vow has sparked the imagination of countless people over hundreds of years. It’s emotional content, both real and imagined, has produced controversy from ancient rabbis to present day scholars to ordinary church members. At least 300 literary items have been produced on the theme from just the middle ages to the 1940s; that number has increased since then. It has inspired sculpture, paintings, music, opera, plays, engravings, tapestry, articles, pamphlets, etc. It remains a topic of discussion, confusion and debate.
Most of the inspiration for all of these artistic and literary efforts can be traced to a literal view that Jephthah killed his daughter and offered her as a burnt offering. My opinion is that this was concluded because it produces the highest drama, which is what people wanted more than any other conclusion. Two questions: Did Jephthah actually kill and offer his daughter as a burnt offering to God? Was that really the nature of what he vowed? Whatever the vow involved, Jephthah did with his daughter according to what he had vowed. And, here is the vow, Judges 11:31, KJV—
“...then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be Jehovah’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering.”
To begin with, we should understand the following facts.
(1) Some authors have said that at that time in Israel, human sacrifice was somewhat acceptable; or the area where Jephthah lived was under Syrian influence that did accept human sacrifice; or Jephtath was ignorant of God’s restrictions on human sacrifice. These and other proposed ideas are nothing but imaginative speculation. The spirit of the Lord had come on Jephthah, a judge in Israel, vs. 29, who obviously had the approval of God for what he did. God gave Jephthah that for which he asked, victory over the Ammonites. Combine that with the fact that there was no objection from God regarding either the vow or its fulfillment.
(2) God specifically prohibited human sacrifice to Himself; it was an abomination to Him. There are several scriptures that say this. Here is just one that makes the point, Deuteronomy 12:31-32—
“Thou shalt not do so unto Jehovah thy God: for every abomination to Jehovah, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods. What thing soever I command you, that shall ye observe to do: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.”
That is very plainly stated—“Thou shalt not do so unto Jehovah thy God.” Human sacrifice by the Israelites was forbidden, and they could not add to nor diminish from what God told them about it.
(3) Whatever Jephthah vowed, he did not expect his daughter to come out to meet him but to the contrary. We can see this from the distress he suffered when she did appear, verse 35. The statement of the vow shows that he did expect some human, not an animal, to come out of his house to greet him. Indeed, it was not unusual in Israel to be greeted with timbrels and dancing when returning from victorious battle. See Exodus
15:20, I Samuel 18:6. The phrase, “he will belong to the Lord” is used in scripture only of people. See also Numbers 3:12, Jeremiah 24:7 and Malachi 3:17. It has to do with consecration to divine service in some way and not to sacrifice.
(4) There were rules in the Law of Moses governing both men and women who were dedicated to God, even with a prior vow involved. So, there was such a thing in practice as what Jephthah did. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, vowed such a promise to Jehovah and she fulfilled her vow, I Samuel 1:11, 22-28. We are not specifically told in scripture just what Jephthah’s daughter would do in being “Jehovah’s.” Some have supposed it involved temple service in some way, but we don’t know for sure for no evidence is presented for it.
(5) The context of Judges 11 tells us of the fate of Jephthah’s daughter. First, she went away to bewail her virginity and then verse 39 says this—
“ And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew not man.”
Nowhere in the text does it say that he actually killed, dismembered and offered his daughter as a burnt offering to Jehovah. To the contrary. Note that it says “he did according to his vow and she knew not a man.” There is no doubt that the second part is a consequence of the first part in anyone’s interpretation. That fits only a consecration to Jehovah, not a burnt offering. It does not say that “he did according to his vow and killed her.” To reinforce nothing but the opinion of the translators, without justification, the New English Bible renders it, “she died a virgin.”
As has been said by others, one only bewails what they lose or are about to lose. She was losing a married life and children, a life’s fulfillment for an Israelite woman. Being dead, she certainly would not know a man. If his intention was to kill her, it would be as ridiculous as saying he did according to his vow and she never scratched her nose again. Well, she couldn’t scratch her nose, eat, or do anything else, if she were dead. And, why go away to bewail her virginity and not her death? Now, notice verse 40—
“And it was a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to celebrate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.”
An alternate footnote reading in my ASV Bible gives us, in the place of “to celebrate,” the meaning of “to talk with.” This same term is found only one other place and translated, “rehearse, and that is in Judges 5:11—
“Far from the noise of archers, in the places of drawing water, There shall they rehearse the righteous acts of Jehovah, even the righteous acts of his rule in Israel.”
The word “rehearse” here means to talk with. This is what the women of Israel did four days every year, i.e., it could well mean that they went “to talk with the daughter of Jephthah.” That could only be possible if she were still alive. She was much admired for the sacrifice of foregoing a husband and children so that she could honor her father’s vow and give her time and attention to the service of Jehovah.
The reason this all was so upsetting to Jephthah was she was his only child. Her remaining a virgin would mean his family line would end there. There would be no posterity for him. This was especially a disaster for an Israelite male as it was for the female.
There is no evidence Jephthah gave up his daughter as a burnt offering to God. We must look elsewhere to make some sense of the wording of Judges 11. Altogether, given the ambiguity of the Hebrew wording, only suggestions can be made. There are three possibilities.
First, “vav” (and) can be translated various ways, depending on the context. It can mean but, even, and, or, also, then, with, but with, when, that, as and perhaps some others. Indeed, the Hebrew Lexicon by Julius Fuerst, page 378, says—”Generally it has many meanings, according as it is explanatory, adversative, etc., according to its position before clauses which involve the cause, the consequences, the aim, etc.” See also the Hebrew Lexicons by Gesenius, page 235; BDB, page 252; Parkhurst, page 159.
We will focus on one of these meanings, “or,” a disjunctive conjunction, meaning to express a choice between two possibilities. Vau is translated “or” in a number of places such as the following—
“If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and he deal with him as a slave, or sell him; then that thief shall die: so shalt thou put away the evil from the midst of thee.” Deuteronomy 24:7.
Indeed, the center column reference for this conjunction in my KJV Bible gives “or” as an acceptable alternate translation of “and” in Judges 11:31. Thus, with this meaning, the vow would detail a choice dependent on what came to meet him. If human, they would be dedicated to the service of God. If it be a clean animal it would be offered as a burnt offering to God. Seeing it was his daughter who came out to meet him, Jephthah was bound by his vow to consecrate her to the Lord.
Second, a variation of that thought is found in Green’s Interlinear Hebrew English Bible, volume 1, page 669. He translates the Hebrew phrase as “(instead of) a burnt offering.” This places emphasis on the determination to dedicate to the Lord a human of his household in the place of a burnt offering.
Third, this possibility looks at the verb to which the conjunction, vau, is prefixed and retaining the “and” as a proper translation. However, it changes the neuter, “it,” to a masculine “him,” seeing that the verb is masculine gender. Thus, it would be translated, “and I will offer unto him a burnt offering.” This would mean that he would offer a burnt offering to Jehovah in addition to dedicating whoever came out to meet him. This is my preference for the meaning as it makes more sense in the context. Julius Bate, in his volume, Critica Hebraea, page 162 does translate the vow as, “Whosoever shall come forth of the doors of my house to meet me, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer up to him a burnt-sacrifice.” There is scriptural precedence for this meaning of the term, such as I Kings 20:9—
“And the messengers departed, and brought him word again.”
Note, “brought him word again.” That is literally, “brought to him word again.” The construction of the conjunction and verb is the same as Judges 11:31. Thus, we would have Julius Bate’s rendering of the vow. In this understanding, both phrases in the vow are true. The person who came out to meet him would be consecrated to the Lord and in addition, Jephthah would offer a burnt offering.
In response to the position taken in this article, that Jephthah did not kill his daughter, a couple of arguments have been made that we will notice.
Objection one: It is rightly said that God ordered Israel to destroy many thousands of people, including women and children. This is what Jephthah did to the Ammonites.
From this, it is implied that for Jephthah to kill his daughter to satisfy his vow would be justified, even nothing compared to the slaughter God ordered on others. His vow took precedence over anything else and acceptable to God seeing He was not opposed to killing women. Several things are wrong with this.
(1) It contradicts God’s decree in Deuteronomy 12:31-32. It wouldn’t matter whether or not the individual was male or female, it was an abomination for Israel to offer human sacrifice to Jehovah.
(2) God destroyed the world with a flood because of the people’s extreme wickedness. He destroyed the entirety of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their evil ways. He destroyed whole nations for the same reasons and for setting themselves in the way of God’s plans, even the Ammonites. God struck Ananias and his wife dead for lying to Him. But, none of these were offered as sacrifices to God. They were punishments required by God’s justice.
Objection two: Jesus was a sacrifice offered to God for us. If He could be offered as a sacrifice, then it is reasonable to believe that Jephthah’s daughter was also. Really?
(1) Jesus was not just a human. He was not offered as a sacrifice to God by either the Jews or Romans. From their perspective, He was a condemned criminal and they were punishing Him.
(2) Jesus was not “offered up” to God to placate an angry deity, as the pagans or the substitution theory proposes. The death of Jesus is in a class by itself with numerous reasons why He died and was resurrected. The fact is, that if Jesus had only died on the cross, it would have meant nothing regarding our salvation, I Corinthians 15. He had to die in order to be raised and fulfill everything else that was necessary for our redemption. Jesus’ death is no support to the conclusion that Jephthah killed his daughter. It must first be proven that Jehpthah did offer his daughter as a burnt offering to God and even that could be established there would be no connection with Jesus’ death. For a full discussion of the subject of the death of Jesus, including a chapter on Blood and Sacrifice, see my book, “Reconciliation.”
There may be much more that could be said on this subject but I conclude that the worst case scenario is not required by the text. Jephthah’s daughter lived out a life of consecration to God as a virgin.