Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Jephthah

Some clarifications and an illustration

The Bible translation produced in 1611 was never given an official name. In England, Scotland and many other places it is referred to as the Authorized Version, but that name does not appear in the Bible itself.

The text now in common use dates from 1789. Typographical errors had crept into the various printed versions. Spelling of some words had changed, for instance in Old English a u was often used where we use a v, and sometimes a v where we would use a u. This was not a revision of the text, but a standardization of spelling and punctuation plus some modernization of spelling.

The text of this Bible is not copyright, except in England and Scotland. In England the copyright is a royal prerogative granted to Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press. In Scotland it is Collins. The royal prerogative is more meant to guard the integrity of the text than to diminish competition.

I use two electronic Bible programs. The Online Bible, based in Canada with a European branch in the Netherlands, is the oldest. The other is e-Sword, based in the USA. Both apps are free and offer a multitude of Bible translations and supplementary material. The Online Bible offers the Authorized Version and includes the marginal notes in italics after the relevant verse. The e-Sword offers the King James Bible and the marginal notes are an option that one can download and they will appear in a window beside the text.

The marginal notes with alternate readings are not plentiful. There is no question about the text of most of the Bible. But there are places where the alternate reading should cause us to stop and reflect on what we may have assumed to be unquestionable fact.

To illustrate this, I will begin with the account of Jephthah in Judges 11 and 12. Children’s Bible Story books, Egermeier’s for example, try so hard to assure children that it was wrong for Jephthah to offer his daughter as a burnt offering that they have convinced generations of people that Jephthah was a horrible man who killed his daughter and got away with it. If that were true, it would make it kind of hard to trust the mercy a and righteousness of God.

We really shouldn’t need the marginal readings to tell us that there is something wrong with this version of Jephthah’s story. God used Jephthah to deliver Israel from the oppression of the Ammonites and then he judged Israel for the next six years until his death. Many years later, when Israel demanded a king, God told them that whenever they had been oppressed He had provided a deliverer, giving a short list of Jerubbaal (Gideon), Bedan, Jephthah and Samuel (1 Samuel 12:11). In the New Testament he is included in the list of the heroes of the faith (Hebrews 11:32).

Human sacrifice was anathema to God, how then can this man be named in the Bible in several places as a great man of faith, with never a hint of condemnation? Do you think perhaps the story books got the story wrong?

A close look at the account in Judges will show that it is never said that he offered his daughter as a burnt offering. Judges 11:39 says he “did with her according to the vow which he had vowed.” What was that vow? Verse 31 says “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house . . . shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” The marginal note says “or I will offer it.” A little more study reveals that there is no conjunction in the Hebrew text, one is needed for coherence in English, so the translators offered us a choice of and or or.

The end of chapter 11 tells us that it became a custom for the daughters of Israel to go once a year “to lament the daughter of Jephthah.” The reading in the margin is “to talk with.”

Here is what Adam Clarke says in his Commentary about Judges 11:40. To lament the daughter of Jephthah. “I am satisfied that this is not a correct translation of the original. Houbigant translates the whole verse thus: ‘But this custom prevailed in Israel, that the virgins of Israel went at different times, four days in the year, to the daughter of Jephthah that they might comfort her.’ This verse also gives evidence that the daughter of Jephthah was not sacrificed; nor does it appear that the custom or statute referred to here lasted after the death of Jephthah’s daughter.”

The real story here is that Jephthah sacrificed any hope of posterity (the daughter was his only child) in order to deliver God’s people from their oppressors. The daughter spent two months bewailing her virginity, the fact that she would never bear children. Then she was dedicated to the service of the tabernacle, much as Samuel was later.

Leviticus 27 gives detailed information for the redemption of a child when the father had made a vow. Both Jephthah and Samuel’s parents could have availed themselves of this provision, yet they had vowed to dedicate their child to the actual service of God, but certainly not as a burnt offering.

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

Moralistic, therapeutic deism, a term first used by Christian Smith, seems a fitting description of much of what passes for Christianity in North America. The followers of this religion believe in a God who wants them to be good, wants them to feel good about themselves, doesn’t need to be consulted except in case of emergencies, and who will accept all good people into heaven.

One unfortunate result is that such people read the Old Testament as a series of morality tales, leading to conclusions that play up the foolishness and waywardness of Old Testament characters. Such a reading altogether misses the redemption story that is an essential ingredient of these histories. The New Testament points to these histories as God’s way of revealing little by little his plan of redemption.

The translators of the Authorized (King James) Version were men of remarkable humility. When a Bible passage could legitimately be understood in two different ways, they did not believe they had a right to choose between them. They placed one in the text and the alternate rendering they placed in a note beside the verse. I’m afraid that all North American editions of the Bible have eliminated these alternate readings, and subsequent translators have not had the same hesitancy about choosing one over the other.

In Judges 11:31 Jephthah’s vow is that whatsoever came out of his house “shall surely be the Lord’s and/or I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” The Hebrew text contains no conjunction, yet the context seems to demand one. The translators inserted and in the verse and or in the note for that verse. Then we are told in verse 40 that “the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament/talk with the daughter of Jephthah.” Lament is in the verse, talk with is in the note. These alternate readings, which the translators deemed to be credible renderings of the Hebrew, seem to be the more likely meaning in light of God’s hatred of human sacrifice and His blessing on Jephthah

The stories of Jephthah and Samson seem to be almost universally misunderstood. If Jephthah was as foolish and wicked as he is often portrayed today, why did the Lord bless his vow and give him victory over the Ammonites? And why is he listed in Hebrews 11:32 as a man of faith? The message that we should take from the story of Jephthah in Judges 11 is that he sacrificed himself to save his people from their oppressors.

It is nowhere said that he offered his daughter as a burnt offering. His daughter did not go up and down on the mountains to lament her impending death, she was lamenting the fact that she would never have children, and thus her father would have no posterity. This was a tremendous sacrifice for a man in Israel and links the story of Jephthah with the account of Abraham offering his son. Both are part of the redemption story, foretelling the time when God would offer His only Son for our redemption.

Samson was for twenty years a judge in Israel. If we read the account, we find that most of the things which modern preachers and writers find so disreputable were done by Samson at the prompting of the Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord did not leave Samson until he forgot that his great strength came from the Lord. He told Delilah the secret of his strength, but it appears that by this time he hardly believed anymore that his strength was the result of his vow as a Nazarite. The Spirit of the Lord left him, with painful consequences. Then, while a captive and slave of the Philistines, he renewed his vow and gave his life to set his people free from the domination of the Philistines. This is the message of the story of Samson that is entirely missed by those trying to draw a moral lesson from his supposed misdeeds. Samson is also mentioned as a man of faith in Hebrews 11:32.

To the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus said: “O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27). A little further in the same chapter, he says: “All things must be fulfilled that were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the Psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (verses 44-45). Today we have both the Old and New Testaments, why are so many still slow of heart to believe the evidences of the redemption story that are found in Old Testament history?

Jephthah and his daughter

“And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31).

Did Jephthah offer his daughter to God as a burnt offering?  Josephus and many commentators and writers of children’s Bible story books assume that he did, and offer deprecatory editorial comments on his foolishness and wickedness.  But is that really what happened?

Let’s look at the whole story.  Jephthah was the son of Gilead, born of a prostitute.  He appears to have been raised by Gilead and his wife until he reached manhood, then Gilead’s wife demanded that he be sent away because he was the son of a foreigner and should have no right to share the inheritance with her children.

Jephthah went to the land of Tob, and was followed by other propertyless men.  The land of Tob is not clearly identified, but appears to have been an unsettled area east of Gilead.  Jephthah and his men settled down, established families and gained renown for the vigorous defence of their territory.

When the Ammonites made war with Israel, the elders of Gilead went to Jephthah and asked him to be their captain to defend them against the Ammonites.  Circumstances had made them desperate enough to accept the leadership of the man they had once driven out.

Jephthah went back to Mizpeh and was made head and captain of the Gileadites.  His first act was to pray to God at Mizpeh.  Then he sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites to inquire why they were troubling Israel.  When the king replied that Israel had stolen his land, Jephthah recounted the history of how during the Exodus the children of Israel had not set foot on the land of the Ammonites and Moabites, but had taken the land of the Amorites.

Jephthah then made the vow reprinted at the beginning of this article and went out and utterly routed the Ammonites.  Upon his return, his daughter came out to meet him and became subject to her father’s vow.

Jephthah lived six years after this and judged Israel until his death.  He is named in 1 Samuel 12:11 as one of the judges that God raised up to deliver the Israelites from their enemies.  He is named once more among the men of faith in Hebrews 11:32.

How can we reconcile Jephthah, the man of God and hero of the faith with the Jephthah who offered his daughter as a burnt offering?  Are we perhaps missing something in the story?

Here are some reasons to doubt that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt offering:

1.  This was strictly forbidden in the Hebrew scriptures.  Deuteronomy 12:31 says: “Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.”  This is repeated In Deuteronomy 18:10: “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire . . .”

2.  Numbers 18:15-16 states that the firstborn of men and beasts belonged to God, “nevertheless, the firstborn of man shalt thou surely redeem.”  Leviticus 27:2-8 speaks of vows and the amount to be paid for redemption.  Verse 4: “And if it be a female [from twenty years old to sixty years old, according to the previous verse], then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels.”  The following verses give the amount to pay to redeem those who were younger.  Thus all that was required for Jephthah to fulfil his vow was to pay the amount to redeem his daughter.

3.  Many writers seem to assume that Jephthah’s vow was secret.  This is not evident from the text.  If he spoke the words publicly, then we must believe that his daughter willingly offered herself.

4.  Judges 11:31: “shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering”.  Cambridge reference Bibles give an alternative reading in the margin: “or I will offer it up for a burnt offering”.

5.  In fact, the whole passage, “shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering”, consists of three words in Hebrew: YHVH (the name of God: Jehovah or Yahveh) ‘âlâh (ascend, lift up, offer) ‘ôlâh (step, ascent, burnt offering).  The remaining words are supplied by linguistic experts according to their understanding of the context.  ‘âlâh and ‘ôlâh are different forms of the same word and have a great range of meanings.

6.  The great sorrow of both Jephthah and his daughter is that she will forever remain a virgin.  She was Jephthah’s only child, thus he will be left with no posterity to carry on the family.

7.  The conclusion of Judges 11 states: “And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.”  The margin gives the alternate reading of “to talk with the daughter of Jephthah”.

8.  The conclusion of commentator Adam Clark is that the daughter of Jephthah was dedicated to the service of God in the sanctuary that was at Mizpeh and remained unmarried all her life.

This conclusion makes more sense to me than to assume Jephthah committed the gross sin of human sacrifice.  It grieved Jephthah that he would have no posterity, yet he and his daughter were united in devotion to God and did not hesitate to fulfil the father’s vow.

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