We recently received numerous responses to the article I wrote concerning Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11. I argued that I believe Jephthah did actually sacrifice his daughter to fulfill his rash vow. Most of the correspondence has been very civil, some have asked for clarification while others have steadfastly defended the idea that Jephthah merely dedicated his daughter to the Lord’s service, in which she would live as a virgin all of her days. This feedback will answer the questions we received and address the challenges to the position advocated in the original article.
The section immediately below is from one email, while the rest of the comments to which I respond will be from various letters, emails, and facebook comments.
Thank you for your time and your mission. I have a question regarding Jephthah. I believe his vow was foolish and without faith. I believe that irregardless of what he did with his daughter, he still sinned in making and fullfilling his vow. I tend to side closer to the belief that he did indeed make his daughter a burnt offering.
Here is the question I have. If (and hopefully), he did not kill his daughter, but made her to become a perpetual virgin, would this have been something that a father would have been allowed by God to do?
Thank you for contacting Answers in Genesis and for your kind words.
Did the Israelite society allow for a man to dedicate his daughter to remain a lifelong virgin in the Lord’s service? Leviticus 27:2 seems to indicate that such vows could be made: “
When a man consecrates by a vow certain persons to the Lord.” Apparently, a man could devote his daughter to the Lord’s service in such a way. There are examples similar to this in Scripture. In fulfillment of her own vow, Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord’s service (1 Samuel 1:11, 24–28), and some commentators think that Paul referred to a similar practice being done in Corinth (1 Corinthians 7:36–38).
Many people think this dedication is precisely what Jephthah did, arguing that he was a godly man and would never have offered a human sacrifice, especially his own daughter. For lack of better terms, let’s call these two positions the “dedication view” and the “sacrifice view.” Four main arguments are frequently used to argue that Jephthah was a godly man and would never have sacrificed his daughter. First, and perhaps most importantly, as I mentioned in the footnote of the original article, Jephthah is listed in Hebrews 11, sometimes called the “Faith Hall of Fame.” Second, Judges 11:29 states that “
the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah.” Third, the Bible never specifically condemns Jephthah for his actions, which leads some to conclude he must not have offered his daughter as a burnt offering. Finally, Judges 11:14–27 shows that Jephthah was quite familiar with Israel’s history and how God had given them possession of the land. Let’s take a look at these four arguments in turn and then examine some of the other problems with the dedication view while highlighting the strengths of the sacrifice view.
Claim 1: Jephthah Appears in Hebrews 11
One person wrote to me and stated that Jephthah would never “have appeared in Hebrews 11 if he had done such a thing.” Can we really be so sure about that?
As I wrote in the footnote of the original article, “Jephthah is listed in Hebrews 11, which is often called the ‘Faith Hall of Fame,’ but it is important to notice that he is listed with Gideon, Barak, and Samson (Hebrews 11:32). When they trusted Him, God used these men to win important victories in the book of Judges, but each of them had serious problems, such as idolatry (Judges 8:27), cowardice (Judges 4:8), and infidelity (Judges 16:1), respectively. So we should not necessarily hold them up as examples of godliness.
Hebrews 11 certainly includes some of the incredible heroes of the faith, but many of these people also committed some pretty heinous acts.
Hebrews 11 certainly includes some of the incredible heroes of the faith, but many of these people also committed some pretty heinous acts (as many believers since then have also done). Abraham and Isaac lied (or at best misled others) about their respective wives. Jacob deceived his father. Moses murdered a man. Rahab was a harlot. David also appears in this chapter and is elsewhere called a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22; cf. 1 Samuel 13:14), yet he committed adultery with Bathsheba, tried to cover it up, and then arranged for the murder of her husband. Were David’s actions any better than child sacrifice in fulfillment of a rash vow?
So Hebrews 11 includes men and women of great faith but also includes liars, deceivers, murderers, and a harlot. Could any of us really claim to be better than these heroes of the faith? Truth be told, all of us were rotten sinners prior to salvation and still sin many times after being saved, but praise God for His unfathomable grace!
Claim 2: The Spirit of the Lord Came upon Jephthah
Judges 11:29–30 states the following:
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. 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.”
Does the text indicate that the Spirit of the Lord inspired Jephthah to make his vow? Not at all! There are several passages in the Old Testament that speak of the “Spirit of the Lord” or “Spirit of God” coming upon people to perform certain actions or to say certain things, and, as will be demonstrated, these people did not always act godly during those times.1
- Balaam (Numbers 24:2)
- Othniel (Judges 3:10)
- Gideon (Judges 6:34)
- Samson (Judges 14:6; 15:14)
- Saul (1 Samuel 10:10; 11:6)
- David (1 Samuel 16:13)
- The messengers of Saul (1 Samuel 19:20–23)
- Azariah (2 Chronicles 15:1)
- Jahaziel (2 Chronicles 20:14–15)
- Zechariah (2 Chronicles 24:20)
- Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:5)
In many of these cases, the Spirit of the Lord came upon these men and helped them accomplish something with great power or to proclaim a bold message. For example, Samson killed a lion with his bare hands (Judges 14:6) and 1000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone (Judges 15:15), and Gideon, along with his army of 300 men, defeated the Midianites. Despite their mighty deeds, many of these individuals acted wickedly, even after the Spirit of the Lord came upon them. Gideon made an ephod that quickly became an idol (Judges 8:27). Samson engaged in fornication with a prostitute (Judges 16:1), and had an affair with Delilah (Judges 16:4–20), and it seems that the Spirit of the Lord did not leave Samson until his hair was cut.2 Balaam delivered four consecutive blessings upon Israel under the Spirit’s inspiration, yet he “
loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15) and “
taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel” through idolatry and fornication (Revelation 2:14). So when the Spirit of the Lord came upon someone in the Old Testament times, the person was not automatically prevented from behaving wickedly.
How was it possible for these men that God used so mightily to behave wickedly when the Spirit of the Lord had come upon them to do mighty acts? The answer may be much simpler than you think. If you’re a Christian, you need only look in the mirror to see someone who sins regularly even though the Holy Spirit dwells within you. Paul instructed believers to not “
grieve the Holy Spirit of God,” indicating that it is certainly possible for us to do so when we engage in the sinful behaviors he described (Ephesians 4:29–31).
This is not to equate the coming of the “Spirit of the Lord” upon a person in the Old Testament to the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers since the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. While there are similarities between the two concepts, differences exist as well. For example, in the Old Testament, the Spirit seems to only come upon one person or a small group of people at a time, and occasionally left a person (1 Samuel 16:14), but in the New Testament the Holy Spirit is given to all believers as a guarantee of their salvation (2 Corinthians 1:22).
In Jephthah’s case, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he quickly marshaled an army and “
advanced toward the people of Ammon” (Judges 11:29). It was at this time that Jephthah made his vow. He did not make it immediately after the Spirit came upon him. Balaam, Jahaziel, Zechariah, and Ezekiel spoke God’s Word immediately after the Spirit came upon them, so we can be sure that their words were inspired by God in those situations (although Balaam quickly sinned afterward by offering wicked advice to Balak). But Jephthah’s words were spoken days, weeks, or even months after being moved by the Spirit. So, there is no indication that his words were Spirit-directed.3
Claim 3: The Bible Doesn’t Condemn Jephthah
This is essentially an argument from silence, so it is impossible to either prove or refute. It’s true that Scripture does not offer a statement condemning Jephthah’s actions, but this is quite common in historical narrative passages. A few chapters earlier in Judges, Gideon commanded his young son to execute Zebah and Zalmunna, two kings of Midian. His son Jether refused, and the Bible states that it was because “
he was afraid, because he was still a youth” (Judges 8:20–21). Jether clearly disobeyed his father, in violation of the fifth commandment, but the Bible does not offer any statement of condemnation for his inaction.
There are many more examples of sinful behavior described in the Old Testament without any explicit statement of condemnation attached to those sins presumably because the sinfulness of the behavior is readily apparent to a sincere Bible-reader. For example, Judah slept with his daughter-in-law Tamar (Genesis 38:13–19), and Samson slept with a prostitute (Judges 16:1), but the Bible doesn’t explicitly condemn those particular actions in these passages. 1 Samuel 14 tells of an especially relevant case. King Saul vowed to kill any of his soldiers who ate food on a particular day, but he did not follow through on his oath when his son Jonathan unknowingly violated the command. We are told how the people responded to Saul’s vow and intentions, but the narrative does not tell us if his vow or the failure to fulfill it was sinful or not.
Some have argued that Jephthah’s words are often misunderstood due to popular translations. One respondent wrote the following:
Let’s take a look at what Jephthah said. In Hebrew: “that which shall come forth.” Neither “who” or “whoever” appear in the original manuscripts. In addition, the first part of the vow was to devote whatever came out the door to the Lord. Jephthah added the second part of the vow about the burnt offering, using the Hebrew word that was used for either “and” or “or.” Also, he states (from what I could find in the literal translations) to offer up a burnt offering for what ever [sic] comes out the door. (Emphasis in original.)
The person then quoted the passage from Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), which is about as close to a word-for-word translation of the Hebrew as possible. Here is the YLT’s rendering of the passage.
And Jephthah voweth a vow to Jehovah, and saith, “If Thou dost at all give the Bene-Ammon into my hand—then it hath been, that which at all cometh out from the doors of my house to meet me in my turning back in peace from the Bene-Ammon—it hath been to Jehovah, or I have offered up for it—a burnt-offering.” (Judges 11:30–31, YLT)
The YLT is often quite useful, but there are some weaknesses to Young’s approach. Since he sought to provide as close to a word-for-word literal translation as possible, Young missed certain nuances in Hebrew, specifically in the syntax and sentence structure. In particular, in Judges 11:31, most translations have Jephthah saying that the first thing to come out of his house would belong to God and be offered up as a burnt offering. As this person pointed out, the YLT uses “or” instead of “and.” The New English Translation (NET) includes a helpful textual note on this particular wording.
Some translate “or,” suggesting that Jephthah makes a distinction between humans and animals. According to this view, if a human comes through the door, then Jephthah will commit him/her to the Lord’s service, but if an animal comes through the doors, he will offer it up as a sacrifice. However, it is far more likely that the Hebrew construction (vav [ו] + perfect) specifies how the subject will become the Lord’s, that is, by being offered up as a sacrifice. For similar constructions, where the apodosis of a conditional sentence has at least two perfects (each with vav) in sequence, see Gen 34:15–16; Exod 18:16.4
So it is far more likely that “and” is the correct translation, meaning that Jephthah did indeed promise to give to the Lord via burnt sacrifice the first thing (or “whatever”) that came out of his house. This is the reading of the most respected translations (NKJV, NASB, NIV, KJV, ESV).
Furthermore, if “or” is the correct rendering, then Jephthah’s reaction of grief upon seeing his daughter makes very little sense. Some people object to the use of “thing,” “whatever,” or “it,” claiming that the Bible wouldn’t refer to a person that way. However, the Hebrew word is ’aser, which can be used of any gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), so this objection does not hold. Neither of these ideas explains Jephthah’s response when he saw his daughter. He cried, “
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” (Judges 11:35). If he were waiting only for an animal (an “it”), then he would not have been troubled by the sight of his daughter coming out first. It seems that he would have greeted her and then continued to wait for the animal.
Claim 4: Jephthah’s Knowledge and Actions Demonstrated His Godliness
Look at what he says to the king of ammon. He was well versed in his nation’s history.
His reaction by following through with his vow screams the fact that he was a godly man.
As I pointed out in the original article, Jephthah is never called a godly man. By itself, this is an argument from silence, but there are several indications in the text that he was not as godly as many would like to make him. He went out raiding with a band of worthless men (Judges 11:3). Under his judgeship, 42,000 Ephraimites were slaughtered at the fords of the Jordan because they could not pronounce Shibboleth correctly (Judges 12:6). Ultimately, this action stemmed from a threat the Ephraimites had made on Jephthah and his people, but this still seems rather extreme in defending oneself. How many Ephraimites that had nothing to do with this threat were killed because of their accent?
God specifically allowed someone a way out of such a vow, but Jephthah either did not know it, or if he did, he didn’t apply it.
It is true that Jephthah seemed to have a good grasp of his nation’s history, but this is no guarantee that he was godly or that he was familiar with God’s laws.5 If Jephthah were such a godly man, he shouldn’t have been so distressed when his daughter came out, because the Law allowed for him to offer a trespass offering after making a rash vow (Leviticus 5:4–6). So he could have brought a lamb or a young goat to a priest instead of sacrificing his daughter or committing her to a life of celibacy. If he were really a godly man, he should have been aware of this. I think this is probably the strongest argument from outside the immediate context of the passage. God specifically allowed someone a way out of such a vow, but Jephthah either did not know it, or if he did, he didn’t apply it. Either way, this doesn’t bode well for those who think he was godly.6
Moreover, if Jephthah merely dedicated his daughter to the Lord’s service, the Law reveals that she would not need to become a lifelong virgin at the tabernacle.7 Leviticus 27:2 and 4 state, “
When a man consecrates by a vow certain persons to the Lord, according to your valuation … if it is a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels.” This passage explains that when someone made an extraordinary vow to God by promising to give a man or woman to Him, then he could redeem that person for a set amount. The Levites were entrusted with ministering at the tabernacle, so when a non-Levite vowed to give his child into the Lord’s service, he would redeem that child by paying a redemption fee, which would be used to support the Levites. The child would then stay with his or her parents because the child could not serve at the tabernacle in the capacity of a Levite.8
If Jephthah was not a Levite, then he would have been required to pay the redemption fee, and as the leader of the people at the time, 30 shekels of silver would not have been a very high price for him to redeem his only child. The Bible does not specifically tell us Jephthah’s tribal heritage. He was a Gileadite (Judges 11:1), which likely places him as a member of the tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 26:29). However, the Levites did not have their own territory and were given cities within each of the tribal allotments. The town of Ramoth in the region of Gilead was given to the Levites, so there is a slight possibility that Jephthah was from the tribe of Levi, although Jephthah lived in Mizpah (Judges 11:34).
But there is a greater problem for the dedication view. Even if Jephthah were from the tribe of Levi, which is unlikely, his daughter would not have been allowed to serve at the tabernacle. Deuteronomy 23:2 states, “
One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” Since Jephthah was the son of a harlot (Judges 11:1), he could not enter the assembly of the Lord, nor could his daughter, or any other descendant to the tenth generation. So if the intention of Jephthah’s vow was to dedicate his daughter to the Lord’s service, he would be required to redeem her because she could not serve there.
The fact that he carried out his vow does not prove he was godly either. This just doesn’t follow in light of what we know about his time and culture. That ancient culture highly valued honor, which was often pride masquerading as honor. Lot offered his daughters to the perverted men of Sodom instead of sending out his guests, something few in our society would ever dream of doing. It is unclear whether he recognized at the time that the guests were angelic visitors. Why did he do it? It seems that the honor of being a good host took precedence over one’s own family. A similar incident occurred in Judges 19, which was much closer to Jephthah’s own time, in Gibeah. A Levite and his concubine lodged with an old man in Gibeah. When the wicked men of the city demanded that the old man send his guest outside so they could “
know him carnally” (Judges 19:22), the host offered to the wicked men of Gibeah his own virgin daughter along with his guest’s concubine (Judges 19:24). Again, this would be unthinkable in our society. It seems that Lot and the old man at Gibeah had exceedingly elevated the honorable activity of treating a stranger well. It isn’t problematic to treat a stranger with the same degree of respect and honor that a family member receives. But it is entirely different when, for the sake of one’s honor, one offers female family members to perverted men who want to rape one’s guests.
In Jephthah’s case, the fact that he carried out his rash vow to sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering seems to demonstrate a selfish pride in his own honor and a lack of understanding of the Mosaic Law that allowed him a couple of ways out of the mess his rash vow had created.
Celebration or Lament?
A couple of people focused on Jephthah’s daughter’s reaction and the tradition that arose from it to claim that he did not sacrifice her. One person wrote the following:
His daughter bewailed her virginity, not her life, and it became a custom for 4 days a year to “lament” (original word actually means to celebrate) the daughter of Jephthah. Wouldn’t it be a little morbid to celebrate an abominable human sacrifice?
The word translated as “lament” in Judges 11:39 is the Hebrew word tanah. There is only one other occurrence of tanah in the piel Hebrew verb form (Judges 5:11). Despite what the respondent claimed, tanah does not mean “celebrate” in the sense of a festival or a party. It means to recount or to tell again, and it refers to remembering events. So “lament” may not be the best translation, but neither is “celebrate.” Perhaps the NASB, NET, and NIV come closest to capturing the meaning of the word by rendering it as “commemorate.” So it became a custom among the daughters of Israel to commemorate, remember, or retell the tragedy of Jephthah’s daughter.
Upon hearing her father’s distressed response, Jephthah’s daughter stated, “
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” (Judges 11:37). We are told that she did bewail her virginity on the mountains for two months before Jephthah carried out his vow, and we are reminded that “
She knew no man” (Judges 11:38–39)
Those who hold to the dedication view believe these verses are clear indicators that she was dedicated as a lifelong virgin. Despite the fact that she was not eligible for such an act (as explained above), her reaction in no way proves the dedication view any more than it proves the sacrifice view.
In that society, a woman’s view of her own worth was often based upon the number or quality of the children she bore. Consider the desperation expressed by Sarai (Genesis 16:2), Rachel (Genesis 30:1), and Hannah (1 Samuel 1:6, 10–11) when each woman contemplated her own barrenness.
Jephthah’s daughter’s reaction would have been appropriate if she were to be dedicated as a lifelong virgin, but it also makes perfect sense if she were to be put to death. Either way, she was not going to bear children. So her line would end, and since she was an only child, her father’s line was going to end as well, which accounts for some of his grief.
Wouldn’t she fear for her life instead of worrying about her virginity if she was going to be sacrificed? And why would the Bible reiterate that she knew no man (Judges 11:39)? These questions miss the value her society placed upon having children. Rachel seemed to prefer death to a life of barrenness. She said to Jacob, “
Give me children, or else I die!” (Genesis 30:1). So it is not a stretch to think that Jephthah’s daughter would have viewed going childless as being worse than death.
As stated in the original article, there are two main interpretations of Jephthah’s vow and how he carried it out. This is certainly a fascinating subject, but it is by no means an issue that should cause division among believers. After studying this issue at length, I believe the dedication view is feasible yet unlikely, because the sacrifice view has much greater textual support, both in the immediate context and the testimony of the rest of Scripture.
This account should serve as a reminder of the various warnings in Scripture about oaths. James 5:12 states, “
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No,’ lest you fall into judgment.” These words echo the Lord’s teaching during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:33–37).
While the sacrifice view is certainly disturbing, we should not dismiss it because it repulses us. Remember, we must base our thinking on the text of Scripture and allow it to instruct us, whether we like it or not. I am open to changing my thoughts on this matter if it can be demonstrated from the text that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter, and if the other objections to the dedication view discussed above are adequately addressed.
In the meantime, I am thankful for the Christians who wrote to challenge my thinking, and I hope that my response stimulates all of us to keep digging into the Word of God and submit to it as our final authority.