Jephthah’s Vow

judges11I’ve been asked recently, on a couple of separate occasions, about what I think of the odd story in Judges 11 regarding Jephthah’s vow. The story is as shocking as it is strange. I taught through Judges last year, and knowing folks have questions about this account, I thought I would sketch out my notes for the benefit of others.

Background – Judges 11

Jephthah was something of a shady character. His mother was a harlot that his father had fooled around with. When he got older, his half-brothers, born from the legitimate mother(s) ran him away from the family.

The Scriptures say that when he ran from his brothers he went into the land of Tob and there hooked up with worthless men– basically a gang of raiders and pirates. It was among those men that Jephthah made a name for himself as a leader. I guess one could say he became a “Jack Sparrow” like character.

When the Ammonites made war against Jephthah’s people, they were desperate for a man who could lead them against their enemy. Knowing Jephthah’s reputation, they called him to come rescue them and he reluctantly agreed.  After attempting to discourage the king of Ammon from going to war, the king refused and Jephthah, with the Spirit of God upon him (11:29), led the Israelites to victory.

The Vow

Immediately before the battle, Jephthah had prayed, asking God to deliver the Ammonites over to him and if that happened, he swore that he would offer up the first thing that met him from out of his house as a burnt offering.

Now it is not unusual to make a vow in dire circumstances. Hannah vowed a vow regarding Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11) and Israel vowed to God in Numbers 21:2, and Jacob made a vow at Bethel in Genesis 28:20-21. The difference with those vows and Jephthah’s is what he vowed. He agreed to offer up as a burnt sacrifice the first thing that came out of the door to greet him IF he was victorious in battle against the Ammonites.

This makes me wonder what it was exactly he expected to come through his front door? A goat? For surely it would more than likely be a person who would come out. Did he intend to offer up a possible human sacrifice?

The idea of a “burnt offering” normally refers to a non-human sacrifice, like a lamb. When the Bible speaks of human sacrifice it is generally described as “to cause to go through the fire.” That idiom is found in a number of OT references pertaining to human sacrifice made to a false god.

So the question is: Did Jephthah kill his daughter? An alternative view suggests that he committed her to perpetual service to the LORD at the tabernacle. Let’s consider each one beginning with the view that says he committed her to perpetual service to the LORD.

Jephthah committed his daughter to perpetual service at the tabernacle.

(That is a popular view.  For instance,OT commentator, Leon Wood, takes that position).

Rather than killing her, it is suggest that Jephthah, being Jewish, would have abhorred human sacrifice. He was “God fearing” enough to have respect for what the Torah taught regarding such things, so it is argued he gave her over to be in perpetual service at the Tabernacle. There are at least three reasons this is suggested:

– We have evidence of individual being given in service to the tabernacle in Samuel and the Daughters of Shiloh seen at the end of Judges and even Anna in the NT (Luke 2:36-38).

– Furthermore, Leviticus 27 provides stipulations and regulations regarding individuals who make a vow to serve the LORD.

– Judges 11:37ff. describe her going out to “bewail her virginity” with her friends. The idea is that she laments never being able to get married and implies she is going into perpetual service to the LORD like a nun.

However, though this view is a commendable attempt to tone down the harshness of what happened and save Jephthah’s reputation as a horrible father, there are some problems with it as we will see when I consider what I believe is the correct view of the story.

Jephthah offered his daughter up as a human sacrifice.

Jephthah’s life was one of a non-religious hypocrite. It may be that he was not even a practicing Jew, being half-Jewish. He lived a long way from the tabernacle across the Jordan in the area of the trans-Jordan tribes. He more than likely viewed YHWH much like the Canaanites viewed their gods, deities who needed to be manipulated and appeased.

It is also significant that he lived among men who practiced human sacrifice. He lived in a synchronistic culture that was not pure covenant faithfulness to YHWH. Judges is the record of Israel’s descent into apostasy and disobedience and much of that was evidenced by the people adopting the practices of the pagans which included human sacrifice.

Additionally, when Jephthah ran off from his half-brothers, he more than likely hooked up with Moabite men.  The Moabites did practice human sacrifice to their gods. In fact, in 2 Kings 3:27, the Moabite king, in a desperate hope for intervention by his idol god, sacrificed his oldest son, the heir to the throne, to Chemosh.

Now, did Leviticus 27 allow for perpetual service? Yes. However, there was also an “out” for what would be considered a “difficult vow.”  In fact that is what the language of Leviticus 27:2 suggests and a number of translations, for instance the NASB, render verse 2 as, when a man makes a difficult vow… In those instances, the person making the vow can bring his case before the priests and they, according to the formula provided in Leviticus 27, would arrive at a redemption price to release him from his difficult vow.

I would think that making a foolish and rash vow in the heat of a serious battle would qualify as a “difficult vow.”  In the case of Jephthah’s daughter, depending upon her age, he would have had to pay any where from 10 to 30 shekels for her redemption price if he had sought to be released from it. The issue is that he didn’t, which means he either was entirely ignorant of those Levitical stipulations or he was so religiously compromised he didn’t care.

I believe when you consider the sinfully compromised culture in which he lived, as well as the non-religious nature of the man himself, Jephthah offered his daughter up to be sacrificed.  Nothing suggests that he gave her over to perpetual service in the tabernacle nunnery as it were.


9 thoughts on “Jephthah’s Vow

  1. It’s troubling, but that is the most likely outcome, and nothing in the text suggests otherwise. In fact, we almost see this played out again when a wicked king makes a rash vow, and is ready to kill his righteous son to fulfill it, stopped only by the people (who themselves were eating bloody raw meat). If Saul was ready to do it, no reason Jephthah wouldn’t as well.

    As for why he thought it would be an animal, around Christmas you’ll see the rash of “we’ve got to ruin everything you think you know” articles about the nativity scene. They usually talk about how the animal living quarters would have been part of the house, with the living quarters above, the manger would have been accessible from the house, blah blah blah. So maybe animals and peoples would use the same door. No idea how accurate archaeologically that is, but articles about that get spread around every December.

    It’s especially tragic because all he needed to do was put a little qualifier on there: whichever animal comes out first gets sacrificed. Done. Wife and daughter are safe.

  2. So you think he actually intended to and did murder his daughter as a burnt human sacrifice to Yahweh, without textual comment or condemnation? Not an impossible view. But if so, for what act does Hebrews 11:32 lionize him?

  3. I should have addressed his mentioning in Hebrews 11:32. When I taught this portion of Judges I did mention it. I will add that his situation with his daughter wasn’t the only bad thing he did. Judges 12 also records how he overreacted to the threat of Ephraim against him.

    At any rate, in Hebrews 11, I think God mentions him in spite of his sin. What makes him “faithful” is his defeat of the Ammonites and coming to the aid of the people who cast him out. The same passage mentions Samson, too, and he was a notorious womanizer and used his spiritual anointing as a means to obtain personal vengeance against his enemies (though God raised up Samson for the purpose of stirring up the Philistines).

    I am just trying to be faithful to what the text indicates and knowing the history of the time of Judges, the full on apostasy of the people, and the adoption of pagan practices in their religious worship, I can see how him killing his daughter is extremely plausible.

  4. Fred I’ve seen anti-christian writers use this among other verses to suggest that God condones human sacrifice. Would your view on the apostate nature of the people in the time of Judges and Jephthah’s own character flaws be enough in your opinion to silence this criticism especially since Hebrews 11:32 lists him as one of the faithful.

  5. I think when you survey the whole of Scripture, it is clear God never condones human sacrifice, particularly in the context of what happened to Jephthah. Hebrews 11:32 is commending his faith, which when understand “faith” is reliance and trust in what is known to be true regarding God. Jephthah certainly did that and I would say Hebrews 11:32 is praising that aspect of his “faith.” That however does not equate to God commending his overall character and the tragic, sinful road he followed concerning his daughter.

    Of course, non-Christian writers, depending upon where they are coming from philosophically and “ethically” have to explain from their own view why human sacrifice is wrong.

  6. Agree that this is likely what happened, especially when we consider the pagan background of that society.

    I heard the other explanation years ago (about the daughter going into nunnery) at the local church, and found it somehow unsatisfying — that nagging feeling that “that isn’t what the text says” and that the text could have been clearer if that was what happened. When I realized later on how liberal that pastor is in his overall hermeneutics approach (on many scriptural texts, especially the obvious doctrines but even on lesser teachings), I reconsidered this text as well. And the literal understanding in this case makes sense, fitting with our overall approach to scripture as meaning what it says and not to be re-interpreted by us when the “obvious” meaning would be disturbing and seemingly contradictory (in this case, human sacrifice, yet Jephthah commended for his faith).

  7. One other observation extracted from the margins; Jephthah was not punished or accused of murder as a result of the action. True, the spiritual temperature was cold, but this would have been a way for the town to get rid of the gunslinger they held in contempt after the Ammonites were vanquished. We are left, in this view, infering a similarly low ethical code of the nation to countenance Jephthah carrying out the abhorent act.

  8. Like all good men, I suspect he made a vow to sacrifice his wife. It would be consistent with the behavior with many of the men in OT, including Adam.

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