Jephthah’s Daughter (Part 2): Was She Sacrificed?
In my last post entitled “Jephthah’s Vow: What Did Jephthah Do to His Daughter?,” I noted that there are two views regarding the fate of Jephthah’s daughter: 1) He offered her as a burnt offering; or, 2) She became a lifelong virgin. In that post, I argued that he really did offer his daughter as a burnt sacrifice, and I sought to show the weaknesses of the arguments for the other interpretation. In this post, I will examine the strengths for the first proposal, which also happens to be the view of ancient interpreters.
Jephthah’s Daughter Was Offered as a Burnt Offering
Context–The interpretation that Jephthah’s daughter was offered as a burnt offering best fits the context of the Book of Judges. Judges 2:11-19 sets forth the theme of the Book which involves, not just a cycle of apostasy, but a downward spiral of apostasy. This is clearly conveyed in Judges 2:19 which states, “And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers….” Those, like Hugenberger, who take a more positive view of the Judges, note that it is the people who are portrayed as corrupt, not the judges themselves, in this opening statement. While there is some truth to this observation, especially with the earlier judges, the later judges clearly show evidence of both spiritual and moral degeneration. I will illustrate this degeneration in the character of the judges by noting important parallels and contrasts between Gideon and Jephthah in my second argument below.
Character parallels and contrasts–This is actually a subcategory of Context, but I have set it apart to illustrate one of the techniques used by the inspired author in showing the degeneration of the judges themselves. Using Jephthah as an example, the reader is clearly expected to compare Gideon’s treatment of the Ephraimites (Judg. 8:1-3) with Jephthah’s (Judg. 12:1-7). Each of these passages share a number of similarities including, the theme of contention, the fact that it is the tribe of Ephraim which confronts the judge/deliverer in both instances, and the importance of the expression “the fords of the Jordan.” When Gideon’s diplomatic response is compared to Jephthah’s savage treatment of the Ephraimites, it becomes obvious that Jephthah is no Gideon. Of course this does not mean that Gideon is any model of morality. Gideon also kills Israelites, but instead of nearly wiping out whole tribes, he only wipes out towns! (Judg. 8:14-17). Ironically, the towns that Gideon wipes out are in the territory that Jephthah will later exercise leadership over, thus making another connection between the two. The upshot of this comparison is: if Gideon’s actions were bad, Jephthah’s were much worse.
In spite of the good that both men are capable of, they not only show the effects of moral degeneration, but also of spiritual degeneration. When Gideon is first called by the Lord, he destroys the altar of Baal and the Asherah in his hometown (Judg. 6:25-32). However, toward the latter stages of his judgeship, he leads Israel back into idolatry (Judg. 8:27) and by the time of his death, Israel has come full-circle and is once again worshipping the Baals (Judg. 8:33). This same pattern can be found in Jephthah’s story. Jephthah’s deliverance from the Ammonites begins with a stirring rendition of Israel’s history, demonstrating that he has a good grasp of what God has accomplished for His people. However, Jephthah’s vow to offer “whatever comes out of the doors of my house” (Judg. 11:31–see below for more on this), shows that he has been influenced by the religious ideas of his enemies. The Ammonites and Moabites (both mentioned in Jephthah’s historical recital), whose gods were, respectively, Molech and Chemosh, were well-known for offering up human sacrifice (e.g., Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; 2 Kgs. 3:26-27). Just as Canaanite culture rubbed off on Gideon, leading him back into idolatry, so, it appears, Ammonite/Moabite culture had an effect on Jephthah. Both Gideon and Jephthah worshipped Yahweh, but both allowed their worship of Him to become corrupted by the influence of the surrounding culture.
Human more likely than animal–Since animals were usually kept on the bottom floor of Israelite houses, it has been asserted that Jephthah was thinking of an animal when he stated, “Whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me…shall surely be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:31). While it is true that “whatever” is ambiguous and can refer to an animal or human being, a number of scholars note that the words “to meet me,” are “more applicable to a human being than an animal” (Barry Webb, The Book of Judges, NICOT, p. 329). Furthermore, it was customary in the ancient world for people to greet the returning victors. In Israel this was frequently done with song (Exod. 15; 1 Sam. 18:6-7). McCann sums up the content of Jephthah’s vow when he writes, “While animals may have lived in the house in those days, so did people! Jephthah, the smart and skilled negotiator of 11:12-28, surely should have foreseen all the possibilities. Thus, given the literary context, the attempt to give Jephthah the benefit of the doubt only makes him look worse–stupid and thoughtless, as well as unfaithful” (J. Clinton McCann, Judges, Interpretation Commentary, pp. 82-83). In my previous post, I have dealt with the argument that Jephthah’s statement might be translated with the conjunction “or” rather than “and.” In other words, Jephthah says “and I will offer it up,” not “or I will offer it up” (Judg. 11:31–see the link above to my previous post for a fuller discussion). Therefore, on no level whatsoever can Jephthah’s vow be thought of as innocent, virtuous, or perfect (contrary to the post “Jephthah’s Perfect Vow“) .
Language, repetition and syntax–A careful examination of the language of the vow and the subsequent events that follow, show that the author uses repetition to drive home the tragic point that Jephthah offered his daughter up as a burnt offering. If we render the first part of Jephthah’s vow literally, he says, “The one going out who goes out of the doors of my house to meet me…” (Judg. 11:31). When Jephthah returns from the battle, we are told, “Look, his daughter was going out to meet him…” (Judg. 11:34). The repetition of words is the first clue that the daughter has become the object of the vow. Part of Jephthah’s response to his daughter is, “I have opened my mouth to Yahweh and I cannot take it back” (Judg. 11:35). Jephthah’s daughter responds saying, “My father, you have opened your mouth to Yahweh, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth” (Judg. 11:36). This repetition further confirms the wrong-headed nature of his vow and the horror it has led to. Through the use of repetition, the biblical author communicates a horrible truth in the most delicate way possible. As Phyllis Trible states, “The ambiguity of Jephthah’s vow disappears. His daughter is his sacrifice; she must die for his unfaithfulness” (Trible, Texts of Terror, p. 100).
It has been argued that the author never explicitly states that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt offering. Instead the author states, “he did to her, his vow which he had vowed” (Judg. 11:39). First, we have already noted above that the author treats the outcome of Jephthah’s vow as delicately as possible. Should we have expected the author to say, “And Jephthah slit the throat of his daughter and burned her body as a sacrifice to the Lord”? It would seem that the inspired author had no desire to speak so blatantly of an Israelite leader offering up a human sacrifice. To speak of such an unspeakable act is to give it a voice that it does not deserve. But perhaps the most important observation is in regards to the syntax of the sentence, “he did to her, his vow which he had vowed.” This is a common way of expressing in Hebrew that someone did what they were expected to do. For example, this same sentence structure is found in Genesis 21:1: “And the Lord visited Sarah as He had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as He had spoken.” Another example, from the Book of Judges itself reads, “So Gideon took ten men from among his servants and did as the Lord had said to him” (Judg. 6:27). Therefore, the syntax itself clearly communicates that Jephthah offered his daughter without the author having to state it so bluntly.
Jephthah’s attitude–Finally, I would argue that Jephthah’s attitude, when his daughter comes out the door, betrays his self-absorbtion, which further suggests the wrongness of his vow. As many have noted, rather than Jephthah being concerned for his daughter, his reaction is “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” (Judg. 11:35). Notice the “you” and “me/I” language in these statements, demonstrating Jephthah’s egocentricity. “You are among those who trouble me”…really? It seems like it’s the other way around! The negative comparisons with Gideon, along with this selfish outburst, clearly portray Jephthah as the kind of person who could make such an incredibly foolish vow.
Conclusion: Jephthah’s Vow / Jephthah’s Daughter
When one adds up the weaknesses of the one position (celibacy), versus the strengths of the other position (burnt offering), it seems that the only correct conclusion can be that Jephthah did indeed offer his daughter as a burnt offering.
What happened to Jephthah’s daughter is more than an academic question. It involves the very purpose of the inspired writer which was to show that when God’s people forsake Him and compromise with the culture around them, chaos and violence are the results. The problem with those who want to redeem the reputation of Judges like Jephthah and Samson is that it distorts one of the powerful messages of the Book of Judges. Along with God’s mercy, the Canaanization of Israel (to use Daniel I. Block’s term), is the main theme of the book. This is a message that is much needed in our world today. The world revels in the idea that everyone should “do what is right in their own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). The church in many places has compromised the message of the truth. It has bowed to the culture and has decided that living among the Canaanites is not so bad. Consequently, the distinct message of the church that there is one true and living God has also been compromised. Ethics, and morality, both in and outside of the church, have also taken a severe hit. The result is a world that continues to become more and more violent and chaotic. Like the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19), we are no longer safe at home. We are living out the Book of Judges in our own day. This is why we dare not water down its message just because that message makes us uncomfortable with some of its heroes. There are plenty of Gideon’s, Jephthah’s, and Samson’s in the leadership of the church today and all of God’s people need to hear what the outcome of such leadership will be–both good and bad. Like the days of the Judges, we would do well to humbly submit to God’s correction, repent, and seek his forgiveness. Thank God that the Book of Judges also teaches that He is incredibly patient and merciful toward His people!