Is child sacrifice condoned in the Bible? Many critics make this charge in reference to Jephthah’s rash vow in Judges 11. Prior to a battle with the Ammonites, Jephthah promised that if God granted him victory he would, upon his return, sacrifice as a burnt offering the first thing to come out of his house.
The Lord gave Jephthah the victory, but the celebration was short-lived. When he arrived home, his daughter came out of the house. When Jephthah saw her, he 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” (Judges 11:35).
At her request, Jephthah allowed his daughter to go away with her friends for two months to mourn her virginity. Verse 39 reveals that when she returned to her father “he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed.” So, did Jephthah sacrifice his own daughter in fulfillment of a promise made to the Lord? Bible-believing Christians have adopted two very different positions on this issue. How can we decide which one is right?
A Biblical Approach to Interpreting a “Hard Passage”
Some people dogmatically assert their position as the only sound interpretation, without acknowledging the strengths of other positions. Others believe the right tactic is to avoid controversy by ignoring the difficult passage, especially if they deem it to be unimportant. Yet God obviously determined this passage was important and included it in His inspired Word. Ignoring a passage like this or providing poorly thought out arguments is unacceptable. Peter gave clear direction on difficult passages. He admitted that some of Paul’s writings were “hard to understand,” yet he warned that “untaught and unstable people twist [Paul’s words] to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scripture” (2 Peter 3:16).
Interpreting Scriptures is not a free-for-all. We must always strive to interpret the words as God intended, consistent with everything else He reveals in His Word (see Acts 17:11; 1 Corinthians 2:12–16).
A Test Case—Jephthah’s Rash Vow
Let’s look at Judges 11 to see how this works in practice.
Some believe Jephthah offered his daughter as a “living sacrifice” by dedicating her as a virgin to full-time service at Israel’s central sanctuary. Those who hold this view point out that she mourned her virginity and the text stresses “she knew no man” (v. 39). Also, human sacrifice was strictly forbidden by God (Deuteronomy 12:31) and is an act of murder. If Jephthah’s vow referred to human sacrifice and God knew his daughter would exit the house first, surely He would not have granted victory. So the “sacrifice” must refer to her inability to produce descendants to continue Jephthah’s family line.
When interpreting Scripture, our goal is not to find a meaning which makes us comfortable.
Others believe Jephthah actually did sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering since this is what he promised to do. He said that if given victory then “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me . . . shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (v. 31). Verse 39 tells us Jephthah “carried out his vow with her which he had vowed.”
We must consider the ramifications of these two views. The first position forces us to find an unnatural reading of the text, rejecting what seems to be the Bible’s clear statement that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. When interpreting Scripture, our goal is not to find a meaning that makes us comfortable, but we seek the author’s intended meaning. Even if a reasonable case can be made for an alternative reading, we should stay with the plain meaning as long as it is consistent with the rest of Scripture.
If Jephthah really did sacrifice his daughter, does this mean God approved this instance of human sacrifice? Not at all! Just because God granted him victory does not mean the Lord endorsed Jephthah’s vow. God chose Jephthah as a judge to protect the Israelites against the Ammonites who were oppressing them, but the Bible never states that He approved of Jephthah’s vow.
Consider the alternative. If God had not empowered Jephthah to win the battle, the victorious Ammonites would have killed many more Israelites, perhaps including Jephthah, his family, and many other defenseless families. Furthermore, the judges whom God used to free the Israelites were not always godly. Even Jephthah was part of a group of “worthless men” before this battle (Judges 11:3).
Although he is listed in Hebrews 11 as someone who won a great victory through faith, this passage never approves his actions toward his daughter as godly. So it seems that God would have granted the victory to Jephthah—with or without his rash vow— because He wanted to protect Israel.
We may never be completely sure of the full meaning of this passage until we dwell with the Lord. However, the plain reading of Scripture indicates Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering, and it never gives any indication that God approved of such an act.
While this is likely the correct interpretation, Christians should be gracious with those who disagree because we are to be charitable to one another and because the alternative view offers a plausible—though unlikely—interpretation.
- Some passages are controversial because we do not have enough information to reach definite conclusions. Does this mean that all controversial passages result from insufficient information? Cite a passage as an example and tell why it would be dangerous to think this way.
- Many Christians recite the ancient dictum, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity.” This may be great advice, but who decides what is essential? Does “essentials” apply only to those things that pertain to salvation, or do they also extend to matters of biblical authority and practical Christian living?
- Think about your own view of Judges 11. Can you adequately account for all of the details in the text, or do you find yourself trying to explain away certain portions because of influences from outside of Scripture, such as your own emotions or assumptions?
- What insights about this controversial passage can you gain from learning about Jephthah’s background in Judges 11 or other relevant sections in Scripture, such as 1 Samuel 14 (King Saul’s desire to kill his own son in fulfillment of a vow)? Would God expect Jephthah or Saul to fulfill their rash vows?
- See Proverbs 18:13. What is wrong with giving flippant answers to biblical topics, especially before studying the issue more thoroughly?