Jephthah made a foolish vow. Whether he killed his own daughter has been a troubling debate about this chaotic period. Did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter?
During the period of the Judges, the Israelites again and again broke their agreement with God and ended up suffering at the hands of their enemies. When they cried out to God, He mercifully sent a judge to deliver them (Judges 2:16-19).
Who was Jephthah?
One of those people God used to deliver Israel was a man of the tribe of Manasseh by the name of Jephthah. His family was a part of the two and a half tribes that had chosen to settle on the east side of the Jordan River.
Not a lot is known of Jephthah’s early years. According to Judges 11, Gilead, his father, had engaged in an illicit relationship with a harlot. It’s possible Jephthah’s mother was a non-Israelite. In those early years he lived with his father’s family, but his half-brothers eventually drove him away to prevent him from sharing in any of the inheritance.
Jephthah settled in the land of Tob, where he was joined by a gang of “worthless men” who fought and stole from others (verse 3). Tob was likely located in the desert east of the family home.
In the meantime, Israel came under attack by the Ammonites. His family remembered his prowess as a fighter, so they sought his help against this impending military assault.
“And so it was, when the people of Ammon made war against Israel, that the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. Then they said to Jephthah, ‘Come and be our commander, that we may fight against the people of Ammon’” (Judges 11:5-6).
He replied that he would return and fight for them only if they agreed to make him their leader if God gave him the victory. They agreed.
Interestingly, the Bible says Jephthah spoke the words of this agreement “before the LORD.” He was looking to God for the victory (verses 9-11).
It seems God assured Jephthah of that victory by pouring out His power upon him. “Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and passed through Mizpah of Gilead; and from Mizpah of Gilead he advanced toward the people of Ammon” (verse 29).
This should have been convincing enough, but like many of the judges of Israel, he felt he needed to do more to be sure the Lord would give him the victory. So Jephthah made a vow. It was unnecessary and foolish.
“And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, ‘If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering’” (verses 30-31).
God gave him victory over the invading army of the Ammonites. “So Jephthah advanced toward the people of Ammon to fight against them, and the LORD delivered them into his hands. And he defeated them from Aroer as far as Minnith—twenty cities—and to Abel Keramim, with a very great slaughter. Thus the people of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel” (verses 32-33).
What the Bible says about Jephthah’s return
When Jephthah returned home, his daughter was thrilled at the success of her father and came running out the door to welcome him back. But Jephthah was horrified to see her running to meet him, remembering his vow to God.
“When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot go back on it’” (verses 34-35).
His daughter, understanding that a vow made to God must be carried out, told her father to go ahead with it but to give her a couple months with some friends first.
“Then she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I’” (verse 37).
“So he said, ‘Go.’ And he sent her away for two months; and she went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man” (verses 38-39).
We are left with many questions about a man God used to deliver Israel and who then served as their judge for six years.
Questions about Jephthah
Did Jephthah take the life of his daughter, offering her as a burnt offering? Why did he make such a vow that seems to include a human sacrifice? What had he expected would come through the door of his home upon his return? Would God sanction such an offering?
Theologians are divided on the answers to those questions. Some would say the wording demands the offering of his daughter. They say that from the time of his vow he had a human sacrifice in mind and believed such a great offering would obligate God to give him the victory.
Others say that his intent was not a human sacrifice, but to dedicate the rest of the person’s life in service to God in the tabernacle, similar to how Samuel was dedicated by his mother.
Though Jephthah was guilty of making a foolish vow, was he guilty of such a heinous act as killing his own daughter? Other than this rash vow, Scripture is mostly positive about this man who went on to judge Israel for six years. Did he instead give his daughter over to a life of service in the tabernacle?
Did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter? Biblical factors to consider
There is no specific scripture that gives us a definite answer to those questions, but from clues embedded in this chapter and other scriptures, it is possible to find how this event in Israel’s checkered history may have ended.
First, Jephthah is mentioned in the book of Hebrews as a man of faith. “And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions” (Hebrews 11:32-33).
Many of those men and women had some character flaws, yet would God have included someone who committed the abomination of human sacrifice?
Jephthah was knowledgeable of the Pentateuch. He quoted from it in debating the validity of the Ammonites’ claim to a portion of that part of Israel (see Judges 11:12-28). Given his knowledge of the history of the people of Israel, he would have known that human sacrifice was forbidden.
We could also ask, Couldn’t Jephthah have redeemed her? Surely her life would have been worth doing that.
When God tested the faith of Abraham, He did not allow him to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
Having God’s help and blessing was important to Jephthah (verses 11, 24). He even referred to the Lord as “our God.” Thus it seems unlikely he would have thought that doing such a horrible and forbidden act would have been pleasing to God.
God also approved of his leadership of the army by placing His Spirit upon him.
“Bewail my virginity” meaning
Jephthah’s daughter asked for two months to go into the mountains to bewail her virginity before he carried out his vow.
“Then she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.’ So he said, ‘Go’. And he sent her away for two months; and she went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains” (verses 37-38).
Is it significant that it doesn’t say she wanted the time to bewail her death?
“Bewail my virginity” means that she would never enjoy the blessing of marriage and children.
Then in the next verse after the vow was carried out, it states, “She knew no man.” This seems like kind of a senseless statement if she had been killed!
But doesn’t the language of Jephthah’s vow clearly imply that he is thinking of the sacrifice of some human, perhaps of a household servant?
What commentaries say about the translation
Some theologians state the Hebrew wording could be understood in a slightly different way, allowing for Jephthah dedicating his daughter to serve at the tabernacle rather than sacrificing her.
Treasury of Scripture Knowledge notes scholars who contend that the end of Jephthah’s vow should be translated as “[and/or] I will offer Him [that is, God] a burnt offering.”
The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary also notes the “and” could be understood to mean “or.” This would mean, if it were an animal, it would be offered as a burnt offering or, if a person, given to God (as His servant in the tabernacle).
Adam Clarke’s Commentary says: “The translation of which, according to the most accurate Hebrew scholars, is this: 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.’ That conditions of this kind must have been implied in the vow, is evident enough; to have been made without them, it must have been the vow of a heathen, or a madman. If a dog had met him, this could not have been made a burnt-offering; and if his neighbor or friend’s wife, son, or daughter, etc., had been returning from a visit to his family, his vow gave him no right over them.”
We believe it is unlikely Jephthah sacrificed his daughter
No vow that violates the law of God is binding upon an individual. This would be inconsistent with the character of God.
But why would Jephthah be so distraught over sending his daughter away to serve God in the tabernacle? Because she was an only child, and Jephthah’s family line would now cease.
What Jephthah’s expectation or intent was when he made the vow remains a mystery, and it is not possible to answer with certainty if he sacrificed his daughter. But looking closely into the things stated in the Bible, it seems unlikely that he would have killed his daughter and burnt her as an offering to the Lord.