This article first appeared in the Practical Hermeneutics column of the Christian Research Journal volume 39, number 04 (2016). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Although critics of the Bible seem to find it objectionable whenever any biblical character is killed, the story of Jephthah and his daughter (Judg. 11:29–40) is frequently singled out for condemnation. Richard Dawkins describes this account as a “story of human sacrifice” that ended unhappily.1 Former preacher turned atheist Dan Barker says that Jephthah “found it hard to murder his daughter, but he was obligated by a vow to God to go through with it, and he did, without condemnation.”2
Admittedly, even some Christian apologists say that Jephthah went through with a literal human sacrifice. Biblical scholar Walter Kaiser notes that interpreters up through the Middle Ages believed that Jephthah had sacrificed his daughter, and argues for the same view. In turn, Kaiser offers the standard defense for such a view, that “God’s approval of a person in one area is no guarantee of approval in all areas of life,” and mourns Jephthah’s story as that of a man who made a “foolish and autocratic vow” in an age in which everyone in Israel “did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judg. 17:6, 21:25).3
While some may find this argument satisfactory, it is beset with a critical difficulty. Jephthah is described as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11:32. While membership in this elite group is obviously not a guarantee of moral perfection, this particular episode is Jephthah’s most defining moment in the Old Testament, and indeed, the climax of the entire story of Jephthah. It seems counterintuitive that someone whose brief biographical interlude centrally featured an act contrary to God’s commands against human sacrifice ought to have been included in the Hebrews 11 “Faith Hall of Fame.”
Is there any solution that avoids the difficulty of Jephthah’s blatant disobedience? Clues found both in the cultural world of the Bible, and within the text, offer a viable alternative, which indicates that Jephthah’s vow was not one of the enacting of sacrifice but of entrance into service.
A Public Vow. The first clue is not explicit in the text, but it is indisputably implied by the defining contours of biblical culture. The purpose of a vow in the biblical world was not merely to make a promise. It also was intended to accrue honor and recognition to the person who made the vow. Furthermore, vows were made publicly so that others would hear it and thereby be able to testify to its later fulfillment or else call the maker of the vow to account if he or she failed to fulfill it.
Jephthah made his vow in his hometown of Mizpah (Judg. 11:29, 34). It would have been heard (or heard about) by his friends, his neighbors, and his family, including his own daughter. Jephthah’s daughter shows that she is aware of the content of the vow, for she tells Jephthah to do as he has promised, “Now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites” (Judg. 11:36).
Apologists who follow Kaiser’s view will find the public nature of the vow difficult to explain. It is hardly probable that Jephthah’s young daughter had some sort of latent death wish that made her want to be the victim of a human sacrifice. The public nature of the vow indicates that the end of the vow was not going to be some form of ritual immolation, regardless of who or what stepped out of the doorway of Jephthah’s house. If the subject of the vow were to end up dead, we would expect human members of Jephthah’s household to huddle as far away from the door as they could—and perhaps ensure that some suitable animal was tossed outside on Jephthah’s arrival!
Among apologists who believe that Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter, it is not uncommon to argue that houses in Jephthah’s time were surrounded by stockyards, so that Jephthah probably expected one of his animals to be the first to come out to him. But this argument is unnecessary if Jephthah’s vow was made publicly. If his friends, neighbors, and family heard the vow, then he expected that if a human came to him from his house (whether a family member or a servant), he or she would do so intentionally. This leads to the next question: if this was not, in fact, a vow of literal human sacrifice, then what was it?
Burn Notice? In support of the interpretation of a literal human sacrifice, both critics and some Christian apologists may point out that Jephthah says that he plans to turn the subject of his vow into a “burnt offering” (Judg. 11:31). Obviously, to argue that Jephthah did not perform a physical sacrifice, we must in turn argue that “burnt offering” has some other nonliteral meaning.
Critics may reply that the text literally says “burnt offering.” Yet the translation “burnt offering” is itself a nonliteral rendering of the Hebrew. The literal meaning of the word used (‘olah) is ascent, and does not by itself carry the semantic connotation of burning. The literal meaning transmits the fact that the sacrifice “ascends” as smoke.4
Could Jephthah have had some other form of “ascent” in mind for his vow? It may be tempting for the critic to conceive of Jephthah as an ignorant and bloodthirsty tribal warrior engaging in semipagan sacrificial rituals, and having no knowledge of, or concern for, the correct sacrificial practices prescribed in the Deuteronomic covenant, but Jephthah is no mere peasant. As head of a band of freebooters (roving raiders) (11:3), and despite having the social stigma of being an outcast from his family (11:1–2), his reputation for war is so great that the elders of Gilead lay aside all of this and ask him to lead their military. This can only indicate that Jephthah is a man of substantial means and power.
Jephthah’s letter to the Ammonites (11:12–27) furthermore indicates his knowledge of the military history in Numbers 20–21, and the opening clause of his vow is identical to the vow reported in Numbers 21:2, other than the name of the opposition. For that reason, Jephthah was surely familiar enough with the Deuteronomic law to realize that it forbade human sacrifice (Deut. 12:31). He also would have known that the burnt offerings prescribed by the Law had to be male (Lev. 22:18–19), and that they were not associated with vows of thanksgiving. Given Jephthah’s knowledge of the Law, he could not have been referring to an “ascent offering” in the formal sense of Hebrew sacrificial practices.
The Real Vow? So how was Jephthah planning to fulfill his vow? Some apologists argue that his intent was to dedicate a person in accord with Leviticus 27:2–8. Further variations on this vow, which concern animals, houses, and fields (27:9–33), indicate that whatever is dedicated is “holy to the Lord.” Biblical scholar Pamela Reis points out that in being set apart as “holy,” the animal becomes just like the Sabbath Day—set apart from all other animals.5 In turn, the defining trait of the Sabbath is that it is a day of rest. Thus, she argues, it is logical to conclude that any humans who fall under the vows of Leviticus 27 thereafter refrain from all work. The subject of the vow “ascends” to God in the sense of being a personal offering to YHWH, who is in heaven.
This interpretation has the virtue of making sense of the commission of the vow causing Jephthah’s daughter to lament her perpetual virginity (11:37) rather than her impending death. According to the Bible, the work of women includes childbearing (Gen. 3:16). The only way to ensure that a woman never had to do this particular work was for her to remain celibate. Reading the text this way explains why Jephthah’s loss is consistently described in terms of heirs and legacy, as his daughter is his only child (11:34–35), rather than in terms of a loss of life. When seen in this light, the proposal that something so anathema in Israelite culture as human sacrifice is involved seems both unnecessary and preposterous.
Kaiser rejects this interpretation of the vow, on the grounds that Jephthah could simply have paid the monetary redemption price (27:4) and gotten his daughter back. However, this is answered by pointing out that Jephthah’s daughter was a willing volunteer for the vow, and so apparently did not desire redemption. Furthermore, Jephthah’s vow had indicated a gift of a living thing, not money. Because he was a man of some means, a mere thirty shekels of silver would have been no sacrifice at all compared to losing a member of his household.
The Ladies’ Lament? A final point of note is Judges 11:40, which states that the daughters of Israel went on a yearly basis to “lament” Jephthah’s daughter. It is assumed that a “lament” indicates some tragic event such as a death. The selection of the word “lament” to translate the critical word in Hebrew (tanah) is based on the very assumption that a tragic event is in view, but the literal meaning of the word tanah is to rehearse, celebrate, or commemorate. What Judges 11:40 describes is an annual observation in which Jephthah’s daughter was honored—most likely as a heroic figure among women, who made her own form of noble sacrifice.
The story of Jephthah is indeed a tragic one, though not in the way critics suppose it to be. It is not the story of a man whose foolish vow led him directly to disobey one of God’s most solemn commandments. Rather, it is an account of how the one chosen to lead Israel was not even able to refrain from taking a hasty oath he would later regret (cf. Matt. 5:33-37). —James Patrick Holding
James Patrick Holding is president of Tekton Apologetics Ministries and the author of Scripture and Slavery (Amazon Kindle, 2014).
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith