Picture a God-fearing man returning home after freeing his nation of tyranny. His daughter joyfully runs out to meet him, dancing and playing a tambourine in delight. When he sees her, instead of rejoicing, he cries out in agony and rips apart his garments! Why?
Because he made a vow to God involving his only child. Now she must be sacrificed. The Bible account of Jephthah and his daughter has been a sobering reminder about exercising care when we speak and keeping our promises. Like several accounts in the Bible, some details in the book of Judges are left out, leaving the reader with the task of reasoning on the Scriptures.
For example, some believe Jephthah had his daughter killed and offered up as a burnt sacrifice to God. Others believe she was burned alive! Still others believe Jephthah devoted whoever came out of his house to the exclusive service of God. What do you believe? Let’s look at the facts.
Judges 11:29-39 reads, “Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.
“Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.
“‘My father,’ she replied, ‘you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,’ she said. ‘Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.’
“‘You may go,’ he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.” — New International Version.
The big question is whether or not this innocent virgin was killed and offered up as a burnt sacrifice to God? Bible scholars are not all in agreement on the answer. Here are a few reasons why.
Before the Israelites entered the promised land, God specifically told them at Deuteronomy 18:9-10, “When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire.” — New International Version.
If “the Spirit of the Lord had come on Jephthah” as Judges 11:29 said, how could he be moved to make a sacrifice that was considered detestable to God? Would a loving God condone or accept such a horrible sacrifice? Would God bless Jephthah’s mission with success if that is what he actually meant? Can you imagine God blessing a vow to murder an innocent person?
Ancient Jewish commentator Rabbi Joseph Ben Isaac Kimchi and others were convinced that Jephthah’s daughter suffered no physical harm. Being among the most respected of Hebrew grammarians, Rabbi David Kimchi (Rabbi Joseph's son) stated in his RaDaK commentary regarding Judges 11:31, “My father of blessed memory viewed the conjunction ve (‘and’) in the words ‘and shall be offered by me’ as being in place of ‘or,’ meaning, ‘would be offered by him or would be dedicated to God.’ If it were something not fitting for a sacrifice, it would be dedicated, and if fitting for sacrifice, it would be sacrificed. A similar example of ve meaning ‘or’ can be found in Ex. 21:15, ‘He who strikes his father or [ve] his mother,’ and this interpretation is well-taken.”
By observing the rule that the connective particle (“and”) was also used in Hebrew to express a choice between two mutually exclusive possibilities, and means “or” when there is a second proposition, these rabbis believed Jephthah was really saying, “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, OR I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Could this rendering be correct?
The fact that Jephthah’s daughter wept, saying, “because I will never marry,” yet says nothing about having to die a fiery death, is another indication that her father’s vow probably had to do with her living a single life in service to God instead of dying a sacrificial death.
Consider also the special emphasis placed on her being “a virgin” even after her father carried out his vow. This resulted in a footnote in the Living Bible, stating: “Judges 11:39 — ‘So she was never married.’ It is not clear whether he killed her or satisfied his vow by consecrating her to perpetual virginity.”
Another clue that suggests Jephthah’s daughter may have lived a life of “perpetual virginity” in temple service is found in the Hebrew word ta·nah′ used at Judges 11:40. The King James Version renders the term “lament,” but the margin reads “talk with.” Young’s Literal Translation of Judges 11:40 reads, “From time to time the daughters of Israel go to talk to the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four days in a year.”
The fact that she was just as convinced as her father that his vow should be carried out, also suggest it was not as shocking as her being burnt alive. Still, the sacrifice was great for it meant she would never marry. There would be no children to preserve the family line. Also, for Jephthah, fulfilling the vow meant losing the company of his only child.
Of course, this was not the first time a parent offered up their child to God in a vow. Samuel was promised to temple service by a vow made by his mother, Hannah, at 1Samuel 1:11. As soon as Samuel was weaned, Hannah offered him at the sanctuary, according to 1Samuel 1:22-28.
Last, but not least, the fact that Jephthah is listed at Hebrews 11:32-34 for his faith as he subdued kingdoms and worked righteousness is reason in itself to give this outstanding Israelite the benefit of the doubt.
Did he commit a hideous act of child sacrifice, with priests cooperating in the burnt offering of a human, while God blessed him with a victory that He knew would result in the murder of Jephthah’s daughter? Or did this father sacrifice his daughter to an unmarried life of serving God at His sanctuary? You decide.
Just remember this: When faced with two possibilities to explain an act of faith by a person of faith, the most decent explanation is usually the best. Besides, any sincere person trying to please God understands that true sacrifice is a part of life.
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