A fascinating Bible story is that of Jephthah, the Old Testament military leader. In particular, the story of the tragic vow he made in Judges 11. The LBD offers some helpful context for this character: “[Jephthah was summoned] by the elders of Gilead to lead a battle against the Ammonites [and he] responded on the condition that [he’d] rule over Gilead after his victorious return. Jephthah successfully routed the Ammonites and ruled over Gilead for six years [and he] sacrificed his only daughter because of a vow he made before going to battle.”
I must confess that I prefer Robert Alter’s linguistic translation, which I have reproduced below.
And the spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed through Mizpeh Gilead, and from Mizpeh Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, “If You indeed give the Ammonites into my hand, it shall be that whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return safe and sound from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’S, and I shall offer it up as a burnt offering.” And Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to do battle with them, and the LORD gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to where you come to Minnith, twenty towns, and to Abel Ceramim, a very great blow, and the Ammonites were laid low before Israel. And Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, and, look, his daughter was coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dances, and she was an only child—besides her, he had neither son nor daughter. And it happened when he saw her, that he rent his garments, and he said, “Alas, my daughter, you have indeed laid me low and you have joined ranks with my troublers, for I myself have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot turn back.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD. Do to me as it came out from your mouth, after the LORD has wreaked vengeance for you from your enemies, from the Ammonites.” And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me be for two months, that I may go and weep on the mountains and keen for my maidenhood, I and my companions.” And he said, “Go.” And he sent her off for two months, her and her companions, and she keened for her maidenhood on the mountains. And it happened at the end of the two months, that she came back to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed, and she had known no man. And it became a fixed practice in Israel that each year the daughters of Israel would go to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.
One gears up for an adventure in theological scholarship when one looks into the question of Jephthah’s ethics in this arguably distressing situation. At the same time, there are arguments on virtually every level of the story: Did it actually happen? Did Jephthah actually kill his daughter? If he did, why is it significant? If he didn’t, what happened?
I. Expository & Literary Background
Barry Webb, in his NICOT commentary on Judges, is convinced that – as he renders the Hebrew, “he did (ʿśh) to her his vow which he vowed (niḏrô ʾašer nāḏār),” – “we are clearly meant to understand that Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter.”
In Koowon Kim’s entry in the LBD, he notes the following.
“The words of the text are ambiguous as to precisely what Jephthah did to his daughter. He may have killed her to offer her up as a burnt offering. It is also possible that he dedicated her to a life of virginity or celibacy, as medieval Jewish commentator David Kimḥi argued. Medieval nuns vowing their lives to celibate service to God regarded Jephthah’s daughter as their role model.”
Others, such as Miles Van Pelt, argue that Jephthah pledged his daughter to Ancient Israel’s equivalent of a nunnery. Pelt has written,
The willing fulfillment of this vow by Jephthah’s daughter (11:36) appears to contradict the literal interpretation of a child sacrifice. Not only were such sacrifices clearly forbidden and abominated in Scripture (Deut. 12:31; 18:9–12; cf. 2 Kings 3:27; 23:10; Is. 57:5), but the concern of the text is never death, but always virginity. In 11:37, Jephthah’s daughter requests a two-month leave in order to lament her virginity. Then, in 11:38, the text records that while with her friends, she wept over the fact of her virginity. Then again, in 11:39, it is recorded that Jephthah fulfilled his vow to the LORD, and the text clearly describes how this vow was fulfilled—“that is, she did not know a man.” It appears, therefore, that Jephthah’s vow consisted of offering a member of his house to the full-time service of the LORD, and thus not to the normal duties of a household, such a marriage and having children. Service of this type in not unknown in the Old Testament (Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22; cf. 1 Sam. 1:11, 22–28). (Emphasis added).
Closer to Van Pelt, Gleason Archer Jr. (though much earlier) has argued against the kind of literalism that Webb’s (later) argument engenders. An online commenter helpfully reiterates some of Archer’s main objections against this perspective.
“His daughter went for two months to the mountains to bewail her virginity, not the coming loss of life. It is stated in verse 39 after Jephthah had performed his ‘burnt offering’ that ‘she knew not a man.’ Such wording would be inane and heartless if she had died but is appropriate if she was devoted to service at the tabernacle. There are other examples of such women in Scripture; Ex 28:8; 1 Sam 2:22; and Luke 2:36,37. The pathos here lies not in the daughter’s devotion to divine service but in the extinction of Jephthah’s line as she is his only child. Both he and she bewailed her virginity. There is no condemnation of Jephthah’s act even though Gideon’s heathen acts are condemned. Jephthah judges Israel for 6 years afterwards. It is hard to see how the people would have stood for him leading them after this.”
Towards Webb’s literalism, I’ve found Alter’s commentary on the translation, “for I myself have opened my mouth to the LORD,” to be very interesting, especially vis-á-vis the literary connexion: “The Hebrew incorporates a crucial pun. Jephthah’s name, yiftaḥ, means ‘he opens.’ The verb used here, patsah, is slightly different from the verb pataḥ on which the name is based, but it is a close phonetic and semantic cousin. The belief shared by father and daughter is that vows to God are irrevocable and non-negotiable: what comes out of the mouth cannot be brought back (“I cannot turn back,” a locution heavy with ironic resonances in light of Jephthah’s attempt to come back to the house from which he was driven).” And subsequently, for “Do to me as it came out from your mouth,” Alter explains, “Neither she nor her father can bring themselves to mention explicitly the horrific.” He continues, “She speaks almost as though the vow were an autonomous agent that came out of her father’s mouth and cannot be called back.” (Emphasis added).
And of course, Matthew Henry’s analysis is decidedly more balanced (per usual). Note that either Calvin did not write a commentary on Judges or we do not have surviving copies of it, if he did indeed pen such a document.
But, [secondly, most] condemn Jephthah; he did ill to make so rash a vow, and worse to perform it. He could not be bound by his vow to that which God had forbidden by the letter of the sixth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. God had forbidden human sacrifices, so that it was…in effect a sacrifice to Moloch. And, probably, the reason why it is left dubious by the inspired penman whether he sacrificed her or no was that those who did afterwards offer their children might not take any encouragement from this instance. Concerning this and some other such passages in the sacred story, which learned men are in the dark, divided, and in doubt about, we need not much perplex ourselves; what is necessary to our salvation, thanks be to God, is plain enough.
II. A Pure Sacrifice
In the Book of Hebrews, the author writes the following.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
It is clear that the examples of people listed in this passage from Hebrews 11 are not model citizens, not by a long shot. Yet, for all the sins of David and for the faithlessness of Gideon in asking for God’s assurance time after time with his fleece, there is something especially concerning about Jephthah using his daughter as a sacrifice. The most evident problem is that this would have been forbidden under the Mosaic law. Yet, some scholarship has demonstrated that the particularities of observance to Mosaic law were held in derision at this point in Israel’s history. Furthermore, Jephthah, a new believer (so to speak), having only encountered the Spirit of the Lord in battle, raises some interesting hermeneutical and exegetical problems vis-à-vis the working of the Holy Spirit in believers.
Some exegetes have argued that there is literary and typological import to the suggestion that Jephthah did indeed surrender his daughter to “keep his word.” In this connexion, she prefigures Christ as an innocent sent to the slaughter, but willingly. The silence of Jephthah is indicative of his astonishment at his daughter’s willingness to abide by the sacrosanctity of this vow. Perhaps it is typologically germane that, in the same way that Jephthah kept his vow despite its hamartiological dimensions, The Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ kept their vow (in a manner of speaking) via the Pactum Salutis in the death and resurrection of Christ.
If Jephthah’s daughter was merely committed to lifelong celibacy, that would indicate the cessation of his own lineage, which is lamented in the text. Some commentators have argued that the most natural reading of the text is the literal one. I am inclined to agree, yet I disagree with the accommodationist tactics of modern exegetes. While the sacrifice may have been sinful and while the death was a horrific loss—can we not say the same things about the circumstances under which Christ was captured, mock-tried, and sentenced? Can we not say that the death of the only innocent man in history is also a horrific loss? Furthermore, can we not say that the death of a pure, young woman “virgin,” prefigures Christ’s death, and that her willingness to preserve the integrity of the Logos of the agreement, in the midst of inexplicable wrong, sinfulness, and injustice, is a clear type of Christ in the Old Testament?
If this is the case, why isn’t Jephthah’s daughter listed in the list of heroes in the Hebrews passage, one may ask? I doubt that the author of Hebrews was alluding to the sacrifice narrative, rather, it is more likely that Jephthah, the son of a prostitute, the outcast, winning the day by conquering warring tribes, was referred to in his capacity as a military hero and one who encouraged his troops by his public display of affection for Yahweh. The vow, which was surely made in haste, was rash and inconsiderate. It was carried out, however, with the deliberation of two months of his daughter’s grieving. The typological significance of Jephthah’s daughter’s sacrifice, however, should not be neglected.