Did Jephthah Kill His Daughter?

Posted on November 19, 2020

11


By David Ettinger

Introduction: Did He or Didn’t He?
If you’re not familiar with the story of Jephthah and his daughter from the Book of Judges, here it is in a nutshell. (I strongly encourage you to read Judges Chapter 11 before proceeding.)

jephthah

Jephthah became the military leader of Israel and was preparing to lead his army against Ammon. Though an able leader, Jephthah panicked and made a grievous vow. He tells the Lord that, in exchange for victory, he will give Him a burnt offering of the first thing that comes out of his door when he returns home (Judges 11:30-31).

Israel wins the battle. Upon returning home, what – or who – should emerge first from Jephthah’s house but his beloved daughter and only child? Bound by his vow, Jephthah sacrifices her (v. 39). Or does he?

Throughout the centuries Bible readers have debated this question, splitting down the middle. Those who oppose say God would not permit a human sacrifice to be made to Him. Those who take the view Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter say that though God did not endorse Jephthah’s actions, He chose not to prevent it. Let’s investigate.

A Vile Vow
What exactly did Jephthah have in mind when he made his vow? An animal sacrifice? Highly unlikely. Consider that animal sacrifices were common in his day. Offering the Lord an animal sacrifice was hardly a novel idea. The only other alternative for desperate Jephthah was offering a human sacrifice.

Making serious vows on the eve of battle was common practice in the days of antiquity. Generals sought to please their deity by offering something costly. With the stakes so high, an animal sacrifice wouldn’t do for Jephthah. But what about Israel’s clear prohibition AGAINST human sacrifice: “You must not worship the Lord your God in their way … They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:31); “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire …” (Deuteronomy 18:10).

jephthah 2

However, Jephthah grew up in Gilead (v. 1), a region east of the Jordan and bordered by wicked Ammon and Moab, where human sacrifice was common. Geographically, Gilead was much nearer these pagan hotbeds than to Israel’s religious centers. The same held true for Jephthah’s second home, Tob (v. 3), which was further east. Jephthah was far more indoctrinated into the pagan culture of Ammon and Moab than into the God-centered culture of Israel. At the height of his anxiety, Jephthah offered God a human sacrifice, in essence doing what came naturally to him.

A Repulsive Realization
When Jephthah returned home from victory, his daughter came out to greet him, dancing. It was a mortifying moment for the general: “When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, ‘Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.’” (v. 35). His daughter’s dutiful acceptance was oddly admirable: “My father … you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised” (v. 36).

Why such compliance? First, consider that she grew up in the same house as her father and that whatever shoddy doctrine, false notions, and ludicrous philosophy of life Jephthah possessed, she also possessed. Second, the fulfillment of vows was a universal practice at that time. No doubt she believed that the failure of her father to fulfill his vow would result in retribution toward him. Third, her father offering her as a human sacrifice was not at all unusual in her culture. She must have thought, If it is good for the god of Ammon, it must be good for the God of Israel. Besides, the God of Israel was gracious enough to deliver His people; this is the least I can do in return.

A Reason for Doubt
What happened next is why many believe Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed. She told her father: “But grant me this one request. Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry” (v. 37). Many scholars believe God overrode the sacrifice, allowing her instead to spend the rest of her life as a virgin, being childless a shameful thing in Israel. More importantly, being Jephthah’s only child, her virginity translated into the end of Jephthah’s family line.

judges

However, Scripture says what it means, and it is impossible to be any more direct than verse 39. To interpret it in any other way than how it is written requires a wrenching of the text. It says: “After the two months, she returned to her father, AND HE DID TO HER AS HE HAD VOWED” (emphasis added).

It cannot be more plain than this. Jephthah’s daughter had requested two months to “weep” [the sense here is to mourn] (v. 37). She had been granted this (v. 38). Her time of mourning was over and the moment of her terrible death was at hand. Though Scripture spares us the details, we are left downcast and disgusted by the senselessness of this episode.

No Way Around It
There is nothing in the text that even remotely hints at God canceling the vow. To the contrary, it clearly states that, “[Jephthah] did to her as he had vowed” (v. 39). What was that vow? “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” (vv. 30-31). This is what it says.

To further drive home the point that Jephthah’s daughter died as a human sacrifice, we have this: “From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite” (vv. 39-40). So tragic was the incident that a national ceremony arose from it. No ceremony would be instituted for someone merely devoting herself to lifetime celibacy.

Conclusion: Defending Deity
The notion that the God of Israel would ordain human sacrifice is odious. However, what God ordains and what He chooses not to prevent are two separate things.

The gut-wrenching account of Jephthah and his daughter should perturb us. However, there is no need to alter the facts of the account. The story of Jephthah and his daughter stands as a graphic demonstration of just how far people of all eras can sink when they cast off God.* May you and I proclaim the glories of a living Savior who brings life, not death; love, not violence; and redemption, not damnation.

*Note: Jephthah himself did not cast off God, though I believe his understanding of Him was greatly skewed because of his upbringing.