The Curious Case of Jephthah's Daughter

What exactly did Jephthah do to his daughter? The usual—but by no means universal—view is that he literally sacrificed her (i.e., slit her throat and burned her on an altar). This seems to be the implication of the text. 

Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “Whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”

Then Jephthah came to his home in Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances… And [he] did with her according to his vow that he had made (Judges 11:31, 34, 39)

If he did indeed put her to death and burn her on the altar, then the episode is a tragic illustration of the morally chaotic period of the Judges. But I don’t think this is what Jephthah did. In the first place, in a variety of ways Jephthah showed himself to be a faithful man. He committed the outcome of his campaign against the Ammonites to the Lord’s providence (v. 10). He entered into a solemn league and covenant with the elders of Gilead before the Lord at Mizpah (v. 11). He demonstrated a knowledge of the Scriptures and of the history of Israel, and attributed Israel’s successful conquest of Canaan to the will and power of God (vv. 14-27). And finally, just prior to making his vow, the Spirit of the Lord was said to have come upon him. He could not have but known that human sacrifice was unlawful, and surely it was repugnant to his character as a man of God.

There are several things that are crucial for us to keep in mind as we seek to make sense of this. First, we must understand the nature of a vow. A vow is a promise to render a service, give a gift, or devote something of value to God. This promise might be made from any one of a number of different motives, e.g., devotion, thanksgiving, supplication, etc. Jacob made a vow as a means to supplicate God for a safe journey to and from a distant land (Gen. 28:20-22). It was perhaps from similar motives that Paul made what appears to have been a Nazarite vow while on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:18). He may well have made this vow in response to the Lord’s promise to protect him while he was in Corinth (see vv. 9-11). Or perhaps the vision came in response to the vow. In either case, upon his departure, he acknowledged that the Lord had kept his promise and so completed his vow, which included cutting his hair according to the ordinance (see Num. 6:5, 18).[1] David invoked divine protection from his enemies by making vows to the Lord (Ps. 61). After suffering a defeat at the hands of the king of Arad in the southern region of Canaan, the people of Israel “vowed a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction’” (Num. 21:2). Jonah cried out to God in his distress and made vows the Lord in the belly of the great fish (Jon. 2:9).

Making vows was not a required act of worship, but if a vow was made, it was incumbent to pay it in a timely fashion (Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21-23; Eccles. 5:4-5). Isaiah prophesied of a day when even the traditional enemies of Israel would express their devotion to God and “make vows to the Lord and perform them” (Isa. 19:21).

Leviticus 27 gives the most extensive treatment on the subject of making vows, though it is by no means exhaustive. The passage gives instructions concerning the people of Israel making vows with regard to dedicating persons, animals, houses, and lands to the Lord. The dedication of persons is of particular interest to us, since this is what Jephthah did with respect to his daughter.

The dedication of persons needs to be set in a larger context. It was required by law that the firstborn male of both man and animal was to be dedicated to the Lord (Ex. 13:1-2, 11-13). Each firstborn, however, is treated differently depending upon whether it is a human being or an animal, and if an animal, whether it is clean or unclean. If the firstborn male was a clean animal, it was to be offered on the altar. If it was an unclean animal, it was to be redeemed with a clean animal (i.e., a clean animal was to be sacrificed in its place). If it was not redeemed, its neck was to be broken (i.e., killed, but not sacrificed and offered on the altar). If it was a human being, he was to be redeemed (saved from death). The book of Numbers goes into more detail (Num. 18:8-18). The point here is that the dedication of persons was commonplace with the offering of the firstborn, but it was understood that human beings were not actually to be offered on the altar. They were to be redeemed.

In Jephthah’s case, he vowed to give “whatever” or “whoever” first came out of the doors of his house upon his safe return from a victorious effort against the Ammonites. It happened to be his daughter. He was obliged by his vow to dedicate her to the Lord. The specific form of the vow (“I will offer it up for a burnt offering”), was not literally applicable to human beings, but in the case of a human being would involve an irredeemable offering of the person in question to the Lord’s service.

The closest analogy we have to this is the example of Hannah, who vowed to give her son to the Lord (1 Sam. 1:1-2, 10-11). Admittedly, she does not use the same language as Jephthah—“I will offer him up for a burnt offering”—but she expresses the idea of total consecration to the Lord which is the very idea the burnt offering is intended to convey. She says, “I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life.” Recall Paul’s statement in Romans 12:1, which has all of this Old Testament history behind it:  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

I believe that it was Jephthah’s intent to dedicate whatever passed through the doors of his house to meet him upon his safe return, and give it to the Lord in whatever way it was appropriate to do so:  if it was a clean animal, to literally offer it as a burnt offering upon the altar; if it was an unclean animal, to either break its neck or substitute a clean animal in its place; and if it was a human being, to dedicate him (or her) to the Lord’s service forever. He perhaps expected that if it were a human being, it would be one of his servants. But as it turned out, it was his daughter, whom he presumably dedicated to serve the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting, joining a group of other women so serving (see Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22).

This seems to be the best way to account for the response of Jephthah’s daughter. She doesn’t bewail the loss of her life; she bewails her virginity. She was prevented by her father’s vow from marrying and having children. This was a cause of grief for Jephthah, too, because she was his only child, and thus his only heir.

[1] The law stipulates that this was to be done “at the entrance of the tent of meeting” (Num. 6:18). Paul was, however, living outside the land of Israel at the time, and far from the temple where this might be done. There was a difference of opinion between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel about how the vow might be fulfilled in such a case. “If a man vowed to be a Nazirite for a longer spell [than the usual thirty days, dje] and he fulfilled his Nazirite-vow and afterward came to the Land [of Israel], the School of Shammai say:  He need continue a Nazirite [only for] thirty days [more]. And the School of Hillel say: He must again fulfil his vow as from the beginning” (Nazir 3. 6). Presumably, on his next visit to Jerusalem Paul offered his shorn hair and the other items requisite to fulfilling the vow (a male lamb a year old for a burnt offering, a ewe lamb a year old for a sin offering, a ram as a peace offering, a basket of unleavened bread, and a drink offering for each animal, Num. 6:14-15). Compare Acts 21:23-26.


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