Why I Believe Jephthah Killed his Daughter

Understanding the Book of Judges

Bible Studies

The book of Judges is often misunderstood as if the main characters are given to us as examples of how to live. In spite of God’s having worked through them and having responded to their faith, the “heroes” and “heroines” of the book are generally set forth to show us how NOT to please God. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of Jephthah, who thought that he was offering service to God when he killed his own daughter in fulfillment of an impetuous vow (Cf. John 16:2). Old Testament believers are the saints of God, not because of their virtuous lives lived out in moral perfection, but because God in his grace and mercy declared them righteous through their faith in him. They, like us, were right with God by grace through faith in the LORD.

The Theme of the Book of Judges as an Ethical Farce

The theme of the book of Judges is given at least four times: “In those days Israel had no king; EVERYONE DID AS HE SAW FIT” (Judges 17:6; Judges 21:25). “In those days Israel had no king. . . .
(Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1)

While it is fully God’s Word, infallibly given by the Holy Spirit, the book of Judges is also a fully human book. As such, it functions as a kind of monarchist tract, and all of its “heroes” and “heroines” are deeply flawed, their great deeds being done by faith in God (Hebrews 11:32ff.), rather than flowing out of their virtue or the consistency of their character. One is compelled to see that the book as a whole was written to illustrate what happens when “every man” does “that which” is “right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25, KJV). Not a pretty sight!

Therefore, it not only prepares the way for the coming of the King of Kings, David’s greater Son, but it also serves as a double warning to us: first, to remember what we are still capable of in spite of all that God has done for us and in us, if we begin to ignore the Word of God; and secondly, when God uses us to do something for his glory, to remind us that it is simply his grace working in us and through us—“for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13).

The people of Judges are not altogether unlike us: they were part of the Covenant Community, struggled with sin and unbelief, and sometimes failed grievously to please God. Yet, in spite of their manifold flaws, they were, nevertheless, mightily used of God to do extraordinary things through their faith (Hebrews 11:32ff.). The Spirit of God came upon Othniel, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson, as men anointed with the Holy Spirit (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). As we run our race, many of them are there in the heavenly grandstands, cheering us on in the good contest of faith (Hebrews 12:1). Of course, they were on the other side of the Cross from us, and so they lacked a measure of the “fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy” in the means of their Spiritual nurture that we now enjoy under the New Testament (WCF, VII, vi). But many of them truly knew and loved God. They are the saints of God, not necessarily all of them, but they were part of the believing community.

Here we meet the sinister assassin, Saint Ehud (Judges 3:15ff.), and the only woman in history given the same title as the Virgin Mary, Saint Jael, who betrayed one of the most fundamental codes of the ancient Near East, when she “nailed” the hapless Sisera, who had secured sanctuary in her home (Judges 4:17ff.).

There is also the cowardly Saint Barak, who hid behind the skirts of the prophetess, Saint Deborah (Judges 4:8). Reading on we discover that “great man of faith,” Saint Gideon, who had to have his faith bolstered up by no less than four miracles before he would do what he was told to do and attack Midian (Judges 6:11-23, 38, 40; 7:9-15). After his great victory, Saint Gideon accepted “seventeen hundred shekels” of gold from the plunder, and he “made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family” (Judges 8:27).

After Jephthah, we encounter the randy, Saint Samson (Judges 16:1), who in spite of being a very witty fellow, has to go down in history as the man most easily fooled by evil women (Judges 14:15-18; 16:5ff. 10ff., 13ff., and 15ff.). Except for one incident, Saint Samson was most scrupulous to follow religious ceremonies (Judges 13:3-5; 16:17), but his lust drove him utterly to disregard God’s solemn prohibition regarding Canaanite women (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:1ff.).

After Saint Samson, we come to Saint Micah and his devout mother (Judges 17:1ff.), these pious folk went to great lengths to please God, even securing their own, personal Levite to be their “father and priest” to conduct divine worship before their pious representation of their Lord (Judges 17:10). However, when a larger congregation came along, probably offering better “terms of call,” the holy man left Micah to join the Danites to be their “father and priest” (Judges 18:19). The pious Danites (Genesis 49:17), “Went on to Laish, against a peaceful and unsuspecting people. They attacked them with the sword and burned down their city” (Judges 18:27).

Then we come to that wonderful example of male chivalry, the Levite from Ephraim, who spent the night in Gibeah of Benjamin. The next morning, the Levite spoke to his beloved after she had been gang-raped all night, “Get up; let’s go!” (What a gentleman!) When he realized she was dead, he demonstrated his manliness by chopping her up into twelve pieces (Judges 19:28-30).

It is also in Judges that we encounter the first casuists. Faced with the dilemma of a solemn vow, on the one hand, and the loss of a whole tribe, on the other, they concoct a plan to allow the daughters of Israel to be stolen from their parents at a big dance (Judges 21:15-23).

The Vow of Jephthah Considered Within this Ethical Farce

It is in this context that we read the story of Saint Jephthah, the son of a prostitute. ‘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.”’ (Judges 11:30-31).

‘When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! 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! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break”’ (Judges 11:34-35).

The holy child, instead of telling Saint Jephthah to break his rash and sinful vow, submits:
‘”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”’ (Judges 11:36-37).

Her lamentation is not that she will live a long, cloistered life of celibacy; it is that she will be put to death without ever having married, because marriage, the delights of conjugal love, and bearing children are the universal ideal of the Old Testament. Her “celibacy” lasted only two months: ‘”You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls 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’ (Judges 11:38-39).

“He did to her as he had vowed:”
“Whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me . . . will be the LORD’S, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Saint Jephthah “devoted” his daughter to the LORD by offering her up to him as a burnt offering.

Jephthah the Henotheist

Some have questioned the fact that Jephthah actually, literally kept his vow to God. But Jephthah, perhaps more than any of the other Judges, was influenced by the pagan religion around him. His words may only indicate that Jephthah is a henotheist rather than an out and out polytheist, but pagan syncretism oozes from Judges 11:24:
“Do you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever Yahweh our God has driven out before us, we will possess it.”

I’ve kept the capitalization distinct out of respect for my God, but Jephthah uses the identical Hebrew word to describe both Chemosh and Yahweh, the only difference being the pronominal suffixes. There is at least henotheism underlying this remark of Jephthah.

Virginity not an Ethical Ideal in the Old Testament

Some have supposed that Jephthah never intended to offer up anything as a burnt offering and that he only meant his vow figuratively: that he only intended to give one of his servants up to serve God in the Tabernacle, as some kind of Israelite, Vestal Virgin. However, in the one case of a parent giving up a child for service in the Tabernacle, Hannah’s gift of Samuel, perpetual virginity is utterly foreign: little Samuel grew up, married and had children (1 Samuel 8:1).

On the contrary, the universal witness of the Old Testament is that marriage is the pattern for godly living, and sex between married people is very good and pleasing to God. To be sure, under the New Testament, the Holy Spirit gifts some people with a single life, removing all sexual desire, but Spirit filled men are also those who are exhilarated always with love for their wives and are satisfied with their wife’s breasts (Proverbs 5:19). And the idea of somebody forcing another person into a life of celibacy is identified as demonic (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

No Intention of Human Sacrifice in Jephthah’s Vow 

Someone may suppose that sacrificial animals were never kept in houses. But that flies in the face of the evidence of anyone who is fond of pets. Maybe Jephthah didn’t have a dog; maybe he had a pet lamb instead. Nathan told King David the story of a poor man, who “had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him” (2 Samuel 12:3). Perhaps having animals in the house was not so uncommon after all.

Sadly, the book of Judges is full of incredible things that well meaning, sincere people did when they did that which was “right in their own eyes.” One must presume all kinds of situations and read them back into the text in order to get around the obvious: Jephthah killed his own daughter because this was “right in his own eyes.”

Pagan Syncretism, Human Sacrifice and the Religion of Ancient Israel

Furthermore, the idea of human sacrifice was not completely unthinkable in the world of the ancient Near East, even among the Hebrew people, until after the Babylonian Captivity. When Yahweh ordered Abraham to offer up Isaac as a burnt offering, he unhesitatingly obeyed, stopping only when Yahweh’s angel intervened (Genesis 22:11). The example of Abraham illustrates that child sacrifice was not immediately ruled out of Abraham’s mind, in part, at least, because the practice was rather widespread at times in the ancient Near East. That he trusted God for divine intervention afterwards because he had a specific promise from God, does not take away from the fact that Abraham did not immediately dismiss the divine demand as perverse.

Of course, this was prior to a completed Torah (Leviticus 20:1-5). But even with a completed Torah, Israel was continually bedeviled by pagan syncretism, leading them to disregard the Second Commandment and sometimes even the First.

“Ahaz . . . burned his sons in fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had driven out before the sons of Israel” (2 Chronicles 28:1-3).

“The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the LORD. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind” (Jeremiah 7:30-31).

Even “Saint” (he eventually became one, 2 Chronicles 33:12ff.) Manasseh indulged in the practice: “Manasseh . . . made his son pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and used divination, and dealt with mediums and spiritists. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD provoking Him to anger” (2 Kings 21:1-7).

These examples demonstrate that Israelite religion was rarely observed strictly according to the Law, but was a syncretistic blend of biblical and pagan elements, and the all too common practice of their pagan neighbors of killing children to appease the gods crept in at different times in Israel’s history.

The history of Israel before the return from the Babylonian Captivity is a long litany of neglect of the Word of God.

“The Passover had not been observed like this in Israel since the days of the prophet Samuel; and none of the kings of Israel had ever celebrated such a Passover as did Josiah, with the priests, the Levites and all Judah and Israel who were there with the people of Jerusalem. This Passover was celebrated in the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign” (2 Chronicles 35:18-19). That is a span of roughly six hundred years.

“And they found written in the law how the LORD had commanded through Moses that the sons of Israel should live in booths during the feast of the seventh month . . . And the entire assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and lived in them. The sons of Israel had indeed not done so from the days of Joshua the son of Nun to that day. And there was great rejoicing” (Nehemiah 8:14-17). This is almost a millennium!

After the Babylonian Captivity, Israel became much more zealous for the Law of God, but their zeal soon degenerated into the kind of legalism that sired Pharisaism. We must give thanks to God who sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost to write the Law of God on our hearts.

Concern for the Second Commandment

In the story of Jephthah one must keep in mind that the theme of the book is not heroic men and women of sterling moral character; it is a gracious God who overrules our flawed obedience for his own glory and the ultimate welfare of his people, even in times when biblical revelation is being ignored.

As we read the book in light of its theme, we see the actions of people who sometimes may actually vigorously hold to the First Commandment, while utterly ignoring the principles of the Second. God isn’t interested only in being worshipped; he’s concerned about how we worship him, too. Until after the Babylonian Captivity, Israel was constantly bedeviled by pagan syncretism. We see it in the “pious” actions of Saint David.

David was a man after God’s own heart and an unwavering, devout worshipper of Yahweh, and he carefully followed the First Commandment all the days of his life (Acts 13:22; 1 Kings 15:5). However, when David set about to bring up the Ark of the Covenant, he violated the principles behind the Second Commandment and caused Uzzah to lose his life. He ignored God’s explicit command that the Ark be covered with the Veil of the Holy of Holies and then be carried on the shoulders of the Levitical sub tribe of Kohath (Numbers 4:4-15; 1 Chronicles 15:11-15).

David put the Ark on an ox-cart instead. From where did he get such an idea? The answer is found in 1 Samuel 6:7ff. One can imagine David thinking, “If the Philistines got away with moving the Ark this way, why can’t I? That rule must not really be absolute—after all, nowhere does God directly condemn this action of the Philistines.”

Not everything that a person does can pass divine muster, even if he does love God, as did David. That is the case even if certain of his actions are mentioned in Scripture, in passing, without specific divine disapproval. As cases in point, God approves of both Rahab’s protecting the Hebrew spies and of the Hebrew midwives’ saving the lives of little Hebrew boys. But that does not mean that God completely approved of all their methods.

God certainly approved of the Philistines returning his Ark, because he stopped visiting them with the rodent-born plague and hemorrhoids. But that doesn’t mean that God approved of their placing his Ark on an ox-cart, nor that he was particularly pleased with their offering of five gold hemorrhoids and rats (1 Samuel 6:5). (What archaeological finds those would be!) However, nothing in the text specifically condemns their doing these things, even though they got the idea from their demonically inspired priests and diviners.

My point is this: even though an action may not be explicitly condemned in the text at the point where it takes place, that does not mean that the action is not opprobrious. God has given us the whole of Scripture, and we should judge actions by the Law of God, rather than by an historical narrative’s failure tediously to remind us in minute detail of what is explicitly condemned elsewhere.

However, in spite of Jephthah’s theological and practical errors, he is still a man of faith (Hebrews 11:32). It was an imperfect faith, to be sure, but it is the Object of our faith who saves us and not the theological precision or strength of our faith. And so God in his grace and mercy anointed Jephthah for the redemption of Israel:

“Now the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Gilead and Manasseh; then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon” (Judges 11:29).

“Spiritual” People and Ethical Failure

Some have objected that a man on whom the Spirit of God had come could not possibly do such a thing. But what does it mean that a man has the Holy Spirit come upon him? Does it mean that he then becomes protected from theological error or from committing sin?

Consider the case of Saint Peter, and man mightily used of God and full of the Spirit, yet Saint Paul had to take him to task in public because of his gross error:
“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Galatians 2:11).

Furthermore, it is important to remember that the text does not say that the Holy Spirit inspired Jephthah’s vow. Judges 11:29 connects Jephthah’s anointing by the Spirit of Yahweh with his strategic move against the enemy Ammonites:
“Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites.”

The vow of verse 30 is simply Jephthah’s rash response once he faces the enemy. Jephthah’s vow is sinful and foolish—even those who disagree with me about Jephthah carrying it out literally agree on this point.

His vow is sinful because it is presumptive; Jephthah could not know what would come out of his house. What if Jephthah’s neighbor had been visiting his family while Jephthah was away? What could he have done? His vow is rash and presumptive because he had no assurance from God that he would have authority to perform it.

Jephthah’s Holocaustic Vow

Furthermore, we must not get too far removed from what Jephthah explicitly vowed to do: “I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” The Hebrew word is ‘OLAH עֹלָה. It is found 287 times in the Masoretic text and means a “sacrifice which is wholly burned.” The Septuagint translates ‘OLAH at this point with the Greek word from which we get the word “holocaust” (holokautōma, ὁλοκαύτωμα). But again, whether someone agrees with me about Jephthah’s doing this literally is not the basic issue. Even if Jephthah simply kept his daughter from marrying, it was still a perverse sacrifice: in the Old Testament the fundamental earthly purpose of a woman’s life was motherhood. For Jephthah’s daughter never to marry, never to have sexual intercourse, and never to bring children into the world would have been a loss of the meaning of life.

This story warns us never to make rash vows, because once we’ve made them, we should keep them. But if we discover that those vows are contrary to the written Word of God or that they would hinder us from any duty set forth in Scripture, we should repent for having taken such vows, renounce them and then trust that the Lord Jesus has set us free from the curse of broken vows when biblical duty demands that we break them (Galatians 3:13).

Bob/Robert Benn Vincent, Sr.