Jephthah’s Vow (Part 1): What Did Jephthah Do to His Daughter?

Jephthah’s Vow (Part 1): What Did Jephthah Do to His Daughter?

Ehud before the Moabite King Eglon. I opted for a less violent depiction of their encounter!
Ehud before the Moabite King Eglon. I opted for a less violent depiction of their encounter!

The Book of Judges frequently gets a lot of negative press. Stories like the gang rape of a concubine (Judg. 19:25-30), and graphic descriptions of an overweight king having a dagger plunged into his belly (Judg. 3:21-25), or an enemy general having a tent peg driven through his skull (Judg. 4:21; 5:26-27), make many people, understandably, uneasy. Jephthah’s vow concerning his only daughter seems to be another example of the barbarity described in this book (Judg. 11:30-40). But is it? What exactly did Jephthah vow, and what did he do to his daughter? There are two proposed interpretations:

  1. Jephthah offered up his daughter as a whole burnt offering.
  2. Jephthah devoted his daughter to the sanctuary of the Lord as a perpetual virgin, or secluded her away with no hope of marrying and bearing children.

It should be noted at the outset that proponents of both of these views are genuinely seeking to understand and communicate the message of the text. While a majority of commentators opt for proposal number 1 above, there are some who ardently argue for the second proposal. It is suggested that some of the Judges, in particular, Jephthah and Samson, have received a bad rap by recent commentators. I have blogged about an example of this in my article: Samson and the Gaza Prostitute: Did He or Didn’t He?. Scholars such as Gordon P. Hugenberger, Miles Van Pelt, and Rikk Watts, argue for a more positive understanding of Samson, and the role played by the judges in the Book of Judges. One can also find various blogs on the internet defending, what some consider, the questionable actions of Jephthah and Samson (e.g., Miles Van Pelt’s article: What was Samson Doing with a Prostitute in Gaza? at thegospelcoalition.org.; or David Murray’s article: Jephthah’s Perfect Vow at headhearthand.org).

I have no illusions of solving the controversy that has raged over this passage for many centuries, but having studied and taught the Book of Judges for a number of years, my desire is to provide a response to those who look more positively on Jephthah’s vow and actions (proposal number 2 above). So the cat is out of the bag! I am among those who understand Jephthah’s vow and actions as comforming to the first proposal. Based on the language and context, I firmly believe that Jephthah did, misguidedly, offer his daughter up as a whole burnt offering. In this post, I will look at what I perceive to be the weaknesses of proposal 2. I will then follow up with another post suggesting the strengths of proposal 1.

Jephthah’s Vow: Weaknesses of Proposal 2

  1. The daughter of Jephthah willingly submitted to her father's vow.
    The daughter of Jephthah willingly submitted to her father’s vow.

    I will begin with what I believe to be one of the greatest weaknesses of the proposal that Jephthah did not offer his daughter as a burnt offering. Ancient testimony is uniform (both rabbinic and church fathers) in understanding that Jephthah did indeed offer his daughter as a burnt sacrifice. It was only in the Middle Ages that an alternative was first suggested by the respected rabbi, David Kimchi (1160-1235 AD). The following lengthy quote is taken from Keil and Delitzsch’s Old Testament commentary on Judges:”With regard to Jephthah’s vow, the view expressed so distinctly by Josephus and the Chaldee was the one which generally prevailed in the earlier times among both Rabbins and fathers of the church, viz., that Jephthah put his daughter to death and burned her upon the altar as a bleeding sacrifice to Jehovah. It was not till the middle ages that Mos. and Dav. Kimchi and certain other Rabbins endeavoured to establish the view, that Jephthah merely dedicated his daughter to the service of the sanctuary of Jehovah in a lifelong virginity” (Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F., 1996, Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 2, p. 280).

  2. The argument I consider the strongest for proposal 2 suggests that the Hebrew conjunction (waw) can be translated as “or” rather than “and” in Jephthah’s vow. Here then are the 2 possible ways of translating Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11:31: a. “Whatever comes out of my house to meet me…shall surely be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering”; or, b.  “Whatever comes out of my house to meet me…shall surely be the Lord’s or I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” The biggest problem with accepting the translation “or” instead of “and” is related to the previous argument above. No one in the ancient world (who arguably knew ancient Hebrew better than we do) understood Jephthah to be saying “or.” Furthermore, Trent Butler points out that Jephthah’s vow has 2 presuppositions: 1) God will give Ammon into Jephthah’s hand; and 2) Jephthah will return in peace. Butler then comments, “To the two presuppositions are attached two promises: whatever comes from Jephthah’s house to meet him will be given ‘to Yahweh,’ and such gift will be given by means of a burnt offering” (Trent C. Butler, Judges, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 287). Therefore, the translation “and” makes more linguistic sense as it shows how the 2 promises made by Jephthah fit the 2 presuppositions he requests from the Lord.
  3. Those who advocate proposal 2 note that when Jephthah’s daughter asks for 2 months, it is in regard to weeping for her virginity (Judg. 11:37), not weeping because she will be put to death. This argument, however, overlooks the fact that one of the greatest tragedies in the ancient world was not death itself, but the inability to have chidren, and even more so, the extinction of the family line. Thus mourning her virginity is an understandable response. Furthermore, long ago Matthew Henry had one of the greatest rebuttals for this argument when he stated, “Besides, had she only been confined to a single life, she needed not to have desired these two months to bewail it in: she had her whole life before her to do that, if she saw cause” (quoted in Dale Ralph Davis, Judges: Such a Great Salvation, p. 147).
  4. It is sometimes argued that Jephthah had the Spirit and therefore he would not have made such an ungodly vow. This statement is clearly incorrect, as many people who have the Spirit continue to commit sin. The Spirit does not automatically make us perfect people, nor does the Spirit take our free will away from us. Examples of this include Gideon, who in spite of being filled with the Spirit, did not trust God but asked for further confirmation (Judg. 6:34-40); Samson, who received the Spirit on numerous occasions, but frequently ignored his Nazirite vow (Judg. 14-16); Saul, who received the Spirit (1 Sam. 10:10) but continually disobeyed the Lord (1 Sam. 13:13; 15:11) until God finally removed His Spirit (1 Sam. 16:14); and David who committed adultery and murder, but pleaded with the Lord not to remove His Spirit (Ps. 51:11). Those of us who are Christians could also testify to the fact that, although we have the Holy Spirit, we are capable of doing terrible things.
  5. This view also argues that people (men and women) could be devoted to the Lord and serve at the sanctuary. Exodus 38:8 mentions women serving at the sanctuary, as does 1 Samuel 2:22, and the young Samuel is an example of someone who was dedicated to God’s service through the pronouncement of a vow (1 Sam. 1:11). The problem with this assertion is that none of these passages state that virginity was a part of this service. Samuel certainly did not remain celebate all of his life (see 1 Sam. 8:1-3), and the women mentioned in 1 Samuel 2:22 were far from paragons of virtue! Leviticus 27:1-8 is also mentioned as an example of vows concerning people, but as Dale Ralph Davis points out, this passage “has nothing to do with serving at the sanctuary” (Judges: Such a Great Salavation, p. 146), and I would add, it says nothing about celibacy either.
  6. Because Jepthah is mentioned in a positive light in both 1 Samuel 12:11 and Hebrews 11:32, it is therefore argued that he could not possibly have committed such a despicable sin. In my opinion (you’re free to disagree), I believe that this is what motivates and underlies the proposal that Jephthah did not offer up his daughter as a burnt offering. Out of a desire to either defend Jephthah, the Scripture, or both, a misguided attempt is made to explain away the clear meaning of the text. There seems to be a certain amount of embarassment that the Bible would record such an incident, and that a person of faith could be capable of such a thing. Although unintentional, this view presents the unrealistic argument that people of faith can’t make serious mistakes. I have addressed this to a certain extent in argument 4 above regarding the Spirit, but I will expound on it a bit further here. Abraham is also lauded for his faith in Hebrews 11, but this does not mean he is without serious sin. Genesis records 2 occasions when Abraham puts his wife Sarah, as well as God’s promise, in serious jeopardy by lying about her to foreign dignitaries (Gen. 12:10-20; chapter 20). Lot is an excellent example of one who is called righteous in the New Testament (2 Pet. 2:7-8), but an examination of his character in Genesis leaves only a little room for this evaluation. Finally, I have already cited David (see #4 above), a man after God’s own heart, and yet guilty of adultery and murder. Considering these examples (and many others which could be added), to speak of Jephthah’s faith in Hebrews 11, no more acquits him of committing a terrible sin, than it does anyone else. In fact, Judges 12:1-7 demonstrates that Jephthah is capable of the worst kind of sin. Which is worse, to offer one’s daughter as a burnt offering or to slaughter 42,000 fellow-Israelites (from Ephraim)? Clearly, both acts are alarming, but Judges 12 is evidence that “godly” Jephthah is capable of great sin.

In my opinion, every argument employed to explain away Jephthah’s vow as a pious, or at worst, slightly misguided vow, falls apart upon closer examination. In the next post, I will look at the reasons why we should understand the story to clearly teach that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. I will not only argue that this is the correct interpretation, but that to substitute an incorrect interpretation (i.e., the one we have been scrutinizing here), does damage to the inspired message of the Book of Judges–a message desperately needed in the age in which we live.

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