“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.