You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they [the pagan nations around Israel] have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)
Jeremiah 19:4–5 explains that the Israelites had forsaken God by worshipping idols. Specifically, it is stated that some of them had offered their sons as burnt offerings to Baal. Several passages speak of a ritual condemned by God in which children were made to “pass through the fire to Molech” (Leviticus 18:21). Many scholars believe this referred to the sacrifice of children.
Since God is so clearly opposed to human sacrifice, which is murder (Exodus 20:13), how could He seemingly endorse it in the case of Jephthah, which is recorded in Judges 11? This chapter records that Jephthah was a mighty man who was asked by the elders of Gilead to lead the people in a fight against the Ammonites. Prior to the battle, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord:
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. (Judges 11:30–31).
Jephthah then advanced against the Ammonites and the Lord delivered them into his hand.
If this was the end of the account, then there would not be a supposed contradiction. However, when Jephthah returned home, his daughter came out of the house to meet him. When he saw her, 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” (Judges 11:35).
Obviously, Jephthah expected to see an animal come out of the house upon his return, but that wasn’t the case. After granting his daughter two months with her friends to mourn over the fact that she would never marry, the Bible states, “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” (Judges 11:39).
This incident immediately raises some red flags. Since God knows all things, including the future, then He knew that Jephthah’s daughter would exit the house before any of the animals when Jephthah came home. Consequently, critics have charged that God endorsed this instance of child sacrifice. There are at least two plausible solutions to this difficulty.
Many people believe Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering.
First, many people believe Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering. Instead, they believe that Jephthah gave his daughter to be a lifelong virgin who would serve at Israel’s main sanctuary. The text stresses that she was a virgin, so this may be a possibility. If this is the proper interpretation then there is certainly no contradiction. However, this view seems contrary to the straightforward reading of the text.
The second option is to point out that the plain reading of the text indicates Jephthah actually sacrificed her as a burnt offering. After all, he did promise to offer up as a burnt offering the first thing that came out of the doors of his house (Judges 11:31). Then verse 39 states that “he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed.”
However, just because God granted him victory does not mean the Lord endorsed Jephthah’s vow. God used Jephthah as a judge to protect the people of Israel against the people of Ammon who were oppressing them. The Bible does not state that God approved of Jephthah’s vow.
Consider the alternative. If God did not empower Jephthah to win the battle, then many more Israelites would have been killed, perhaps even Jephthah and the families in places where the Ammonites would overrun. In fact, throughout the period of the Judges, God used certain men, even some ungodly men, to free the Israelites from their oppressors. Prior to this battle, the Bible reveals that Jephthah was part of a group of “worthless men” (Judges 11:3). He is never described as a godly man.1 So it seems that God would have granted the victory to Jephthah with or without a vow because He was protecting Israel.
This is a classic example of critics turning an inference into an implication. In other words, they have assumed, since God granted victory to Jephthah and the Israelites, that He must have been pleased with the vow and subsequent sacrifice as well. Yet God has often used sinful people and nations to accomplish His will without endorsing their wicked ways. He used the Babylonians to conquer Judah and to lead the people away to Babylon, but He never condoned the pagan religious practices of the Babylonians.
Abraham and Isaac
Critics have also alleged that Genesis 22 contradicts other passages on the subject of child sacrifice. God told Abraham to take Isaac “and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” In an incredible display of trust, Abraham attempted to carry out God’s instructions, but God prevented him from sacrificing Isaac.
But the Angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”
So he said, “Here I am.”
And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” (Genesis 22:11–12)
What was going on here? Did God really want Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering? If so, why did the Lord stop him from doing it? Well, Hebrews 11 answers these questions for us:
By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. (Hebrews 11:17–19, emphasis added)
God gave Abraham an opportunity to display his trust in Him, and he passed with flying colors. Abraham knew that God had already promised that Isaac would have numerous descendants (Genesis 17:19). He reasoned that even if he killed his own son, God would raise him from the dead so that this promise could be fulfilled.
God’s Word clearly stands against human sacrifice. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, God provided a substitute in the ram that was caught in a thicket (Genesis 22:13). While Abraham demonstrated his incredible trust in God, this account reminds us of something far greater. Roughly 2000 years later, God provided the ultimate substitute when He sent His only Son to die in our place on the Cross to save us.
Please read “Jephthah’s Vow” for an in-depth response to many of the objections to the idea that Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter.