By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: In Judges 11:29-40, did Jephthah offer his daughter as a burnt offering? Or, was she devoted to God in some other way?
Reply: The setting for Jephthah’s vow was during the period of the judges. The Ammonites made war against Israel and the elders of Gilead came to Jephthah, asking him to be their leader in this struggle (Judg. 11:6). He became not only a military leader but also a judge (Judg. 12:7), this dual role having also been true of Deborah and Gideon. Before fighting the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow to Jehovah. Our attention is given to this vow, found in Judges 11:30,31: “And Jephthah vowed a vow unto Jehovah, and said, If thou wilt indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatsoever (or whosoever, footnote in ASV) cometh forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return to peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be Jehovah’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. “
This passage is very controversial. Bible expositors widely disagree as to how Jephthah fulfilled his vow. There are two general positions taken. Some believe that Jephthah actually killed his daughter and offered her up as a burnt offering, while others believe that she was devoted to perpetual virginity and service to God. A good case can be made for either position, but it seems to this writer that the evidence is weightier for the latter view. A few considerations are hereby presented, which to this scribe, support the idea that Jephthah dedicated his daughter to the service of God.
Some assert that Jephthah made a rash vow, even though he was knowledgeable of God’s law which prohibited human sacrifice. But it can hardly be said that Jephthah was a rash and thoughtless leader. Earlier he had tried to reason with the Ammonites, rather than going to war with them. From this, it was more in the character and disposition of Jephthah to reflect carefully. Considering that there was even a strong possibility that his own daughter (his only child, v. 34) would be the one to meet him when he returned from battle, would not be compatible with a rash vow.
Others contend that Jephthah lived in a heathen land where human sacrifices existed, and being ignorant of God’s law, was influenced by this wicked environment to offer up his daughter as a burnt offering. To the contrary, there is no evidence that Jephthah was destitute of God’s law. On the other hand, he looked to Jehovah to deliver the Ammonites into his hand (v. 9), making a treaty with the elders of Gilead “before Jehovah” (vv. 9,10). Does it seem reasonable that a man so dedicated and dependent upon God would offer up his daughter as a bloody human sacrifice? And, are we to suppose that Jehovah would select a man to the responsible position of a great leader who would engage in the worship of Moloch, in which the people offered their children as human sacrifices? Even before he made his vow, it was said of him, “Then the Spirit of Jehovah came upon Jephthah. . .” (v. 29). This would hardly be said of one who would offer up his child as a human sacrifice. The evidence points to Jephthah as a Godfearing man.
Human sacrifice was sternly and repeatedly condemned by the law of God (see Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; 18: 10). In the history of Israel, before the wicked reigns of Ahaz and Manasseh (2 Kgs. 16:3; 21:6), there is no record of human sacrifices – not even by those who committed the sin of worshiping Baal.
Jephthah is listed with the heroes of faith (Heb. 11:32). Had he slaughtered his own child, a detestable act in the eyes of God, can we conceive of him being approved in Hebrews 11 as one of the great heroes of faith?
The Hebrew text itself does not necessitate a literal human sacrifice. Several scholars say that the correct translation of our text is: “It shall surely be the Lord’s or I will offer it up to him as a burnt offering.” The Hebrew term used to express Jephthah’s vow is nedir, which means “a consecration” and not cherem which means “destruction.” Adam Clarke states that the translation of the most accurate Hebrew scholars is: I will consecrate it to the Lord, or I will offer it for a burnt offering; that is, “If it be a thing fit for a burnt offering, it shall be made one; if fit for the service of God, it shall be consecrated to him” (Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 2, p. 151).
Those who believe that Jephthah had a human sacrifice in mind when he uttered his vow, observe that one of the household would be expected to come forth, not an animal (see Albert Barnes and others). However, Keil and Delitzsch make this significant comment: “The father fulfilled his vow upon her, and she knew no man; i.e., he fulfilled the vow through the fact that she knew no man, but dedicated her life to the Lord, as a spiritual burnt offering, in a lifelong chastity” (Biblical Commentary on The Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, p. 393).
Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew not man” (v. 39). These words presuppose that Jephthah offered his daughter to Jehovah. That he actually slew her and offered her up as a burnt offering is incompatible with his character, and would be diametrically opposed to the law of God; such an act would have been subject to God’s punishment.
Before performing his vow, Jephthah sent his daughter away for two months: “and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains” (v. 38). As Keil and Delitzsch put it: “To mourn one’s virginity does not mean to mourn because one has to die as a virgin, but because one has to live and remain a virgin” (Ibid., p. 392). She could never be a mother. The expression, “she knew no man” (v. 39) would have been a pointless remark had she been put to death.
Leviticus 27 is devoted to vows. Verses 1-8 concerns persons, verses 9-13 animals, verses 14,15 houses, and verses 16-25 land. Leon Wood, in his excellent book Distressing Days of the Judges, makes it clear what was to be done by a person or thing set apart for God by a vow. Concerning persons (vv. 1-8) he comments: “When a person vowed himself, or someone else, to God, that person came to be ‘for the Lord’ in the sense that an ‘estimation’ or evaluation was placed upon him by the priest. ” He further remarks: “A man so devoting himself, could not become a sacrifice like an animal, because human sacrifices would not be permitted, nor could he be normally used in service because the priests and Levites were assigned to do this; nor could he be sold like a house or animal. The alternative was that he be valued in terms of money and then pay that amount to help in the Tabernacle service. One exception to this existed regarding a woman, in the light of Exodus 38:8 and I Samuel 2:20, as noted; namely that she could be devoted for Tabernacle service since she was a woman and could do things there which only a woman could do better than men” (p. 293). Women “assembled” at the tabernacle (Ex. 38:8), and the Hebrew word translated “assembled” actually means “served” (root, Isabal. Should it be questioned that the women who served in this capacity were virgins, though it is not directly stated in the law, there is a point for consideration. The “daughters of Shiloh,” who were captured as wives for the Benjamites (Judg. 21:19-23), were at Shiloh where the tabernacle was located. They may have been servants at the tabernacle. If they were, this is evidence that they were virgins because they were taken as wives for the Benjamites.
Keil and Delitzsch propose that “if Jephthah, therefore vowed that he would offer a human sacrifice to Jehovah, he must have either have uttered his vow without any reflection, or else have been thoroughly depraved in a moral and religious sense. But what we know of this brave hero by no means warrants any such assumptions” (Ibid., p. 389).
If any contribution has been made to the study of this very controversial subject, our time taken for this research has been rewarded.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 10, pp. 293-294
May 15, 1986