I’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.
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.