Did Jephthah Sacrifice his Daughter?

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 226

One of the major arguments put forth against Christianity is that it is backward and barbaric. Arguments in this category range anywhere from the injustice of hell, the presence of suffering in the world, and to the many episodes of violence found within the Bible. One example of the latter is the story of Jephthah who allegedly sacrificed his own daughter to the Lord even though Scripture records that such a deed is evil. Atheist Richard Dawkins describes the alleged sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter as a “story of human sacrifice.”[1] Dan Barker, the preacher who turned atheist 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] It is thus important for us to examine the story of Jephthah for theological and apologetic reasons.

The Story of Jephthah

“Jephthah is perhaps best known because of the vow he made prior to going into battle, a vow that apparently caused him to sacrifice his daughter.”[3] This is what archaeologist Alfred Hoerth says about Jephthah. The story of Jephthah takes place during the period between the death of Moses and Joshua and the rise of Israel’s monarchy under Saul and David.

About three hundred years after the time of Moses and Joshua, Jephthah comes onto the scene. Like they had been doing for a long time, the Israelites were committing “evil in the eyes of the LORD” (Judges 10:6, NIV). God gave them over to the nations around them for punishment, and the Israelites called to God for help. God gave them a deliverer named Jephthah.

During the time he was Judge, Jephthah made a vow to God saying, “If you give the Ammonites [the people whom were ruling over the Israelites] 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” (11:30-31). After returning home victorious, he finds his daughter being the first one to come out of his house to meet him. Jephthah then fulfills his vow, although he is overcome with sadness. Thus, he allegedly sacrifices his daughter. The question then should be asked: did he actually sacrifice her? There have been two major interpretations about this question. The first is that he really did sacrifice her. The second teaches that he did not kill her but made her a living sacrifice by giving her over to the priesthood to work in the sanctuary of God. In this article, we will take a look at both interpretations to see what Jephthah did to his daughter.

The Popular Interpretation

The most popular interpretation concerning Jephthah’s daughter is that he literally sacrificed her on an altar thus killing her. The number one argument for this view is Judges 11:31 where Jephthah says that whatever comes out to meet him “will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Many critical scholars, whether Christian or not, believe this proves that the daughter was literally sacrificed. Daniel Block says that the Old Testament phrase “normally refers to a nonhuman sacrifice.”[4] The Hebrew word translated “burnt offering” is ‘olah and “derives from a root meaning ‘to go up’ and denotes a sacrifice that was entirely burnt on an altar, its scent and smoke ascending to God.”[5] Thus, argues Barry Webb, “…we are clearly meant to understand that Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter.”[6]

It is also pointed out that Jephthah had in mind a human sacrifice. In 11:31 he says, “…whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return…” The Hebrew for this is ambiguous and can mean an animal or a human.[7] However, the wording “to meet me” clearly refers to a human. It was customary in ancient Israel for people to come out and meet a returning conqueror from his adventures. Animals simply did not go out and meet the returning hero.[8] This detail “must refer to an intended human sacrifice.”[9] Although it is likely that Jephthah was expecting to sacrifice one of his household servants,[10] he was putting “all the occupants of [his] house at risk.”[11]

The fact that these scholars view human sacrifice as the intentional outcome makes them say some pretty harsh things about Jephthah. Block says he was acting “outrightly pagan.” He even supports this by noting how the Israelites had adopted pagan customs at this time and were worshipping Milkom, the Ammonite god, and Chemosh, the Moabite god, who were known to have children sacrificed to them.[12] Bernard Robinson even notes that Jephthah’s “vow story is very reminiscent of non-Israelite ones.”[13] Thus, Jephthah was acting like a pagan. Webb even says that Jephthah doubted God and resorted “to pagan ways of trying to secure his favor (11:30). This should hardly surprise us given the generally confused state of Israelite religion in the period of the judges and the mixed career of the previous judges, Gideon (6:25-32; 8:27).”[14] Block calls Jephthah stupid, brutal, ambitious, self-centered, and cared not for his daughter but only of himself.[15] Webb says that the vow was a bribe, that Jephthah was shrewd, and that he was self-centered.[16]

Did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter?
Did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter?

A Bloodless Sacrifice

There is a second interpretation that asserts that Jephthah never committed human sacrifice, but rather he dedicated his daughter over to the Lord as mentioned in Leviticus 27:1ff. This is a minority opinion among scholars and is not viewed highly by most. We see this when Arthur Cundall says that this view is a “well-meaning but misguided” attempt “to soften down the plain meaning of the text.”[17]  Is Cundall right? Let’s take a look at the arguments made in favor of a living sacrifice.

The first argument has to do with the word translated “burnt offering.” Although never explicitly said, it is assumed that the word always means a literal sacrifice on an altar since this is what is its usual meaning. However, a word does not always have to carry the same meaning. To think so commits a logical fallacy called a “false assumption about technical meaning.” D.A. Carson says, “In this fallacy, an interpreter falsely assumes that a word always has a certain technical meaning…”[18]

The point is that a word does not always have to carry the same meaning. Context must always determine the meaning of a word. James Patrick Holding adds to this by saying, “In 1 Kings 1:5, the same word is sometimes rendered as ‘burnt offering,’ but is also sometimes used in reference to some type of stairway (e.g., KJV, NASB, ASV). It is also used in Ezekiel 40:26, where it is universally translated as ‘to go up’ within the context of a staircase.”[19] To know what Jephthah had in mind when he made his vow we must look at the context that the word is found in, not just the technical meaning.

Secondly, as mentioned earlier, some believe that Jephthah knew that human sacrifice was wrong. This view is in agreement with the interpretation that the daughter was not sacrificed. However, it argued that it is unlikely that Jephthah placed his daughter into the service of the Lord because Leviticus 27:1-8 allows a payment to be made so that a person did not have to enter the service. If Jephthah’s intent was to make her a living sacrifice then why didn’t he just pay the fee?[20] However, this argument ignores the fact that the daughter was willing to go through with it (11:36).

The fact that she goes along with it makes better sense of a couple of issues. The first being that Jephthah was in his hometown of Mizpah when he made his vow public (11:29). His daughter, along with everybody else, including any elders or priests around, would have known Jephthah’s intentions when he made his vow. Yet, the daughter still comes out of the house first. It begs the question, “did she have a death wish?”

This also explains why he made the vow the way he did. He may have concluded that his daughter would have stayed inside and that a household servant would have come out to meet him instead. Why would he make such a vow when it was custom for women and children to come out and meet the returning father?

Third, dedicating his daughter to the Lord also explains why Jephthah and his daughter were not concerned with her death, but instead of her virginity. Cundall, who believes that the daughter was killed, explains her virginity and sacrifice in this way:

“Corporate personality, that sense of identification within the clan or group, was very strong at this early stage in Israel’s history. The individual lost something of his identity within the group, and the concept of an individual resurrection was hardly possible in this setting. But there were compensations; the individual lived on in his descendants. He would not see the future himself but it belonged to him so long as his line was maintained; hence the power in a curse which involved a man’s offspring (2 Sam. 3:28, 29), and the tragedy when a family line died out (cf. 2 Sam. 18:18). The fact that Jephthah’s daughter bore no child was more than a tragedy of a life unfulfilled (an attitude in ancient Israel which stands in contrast with that of modern western women generally). It represented the termination of the clan of Jephthah himself, since she was his only child. Thus the moment of triumph almost coincided with the moment of tragedy.”[21]

Webb explains her wailing about her virginity more than her death by saying, “For she, too, not just her father, was rendered childless by the vow. Cut off, with no child to succeed her, she may well have been numbered among the unremembered, among those who ‘have perished as though they had not lived’ (Sir. 44:9 RSV).”[22]

Block has something to say as well – She weeps because of her virginity because she would never “realize the joy of motherhood, the natural longing of women, particularly in this ancient cultural context.”[23]

These men interpret the passage this way because they assume that she was literally sacrificed. However, if she is instead dedicated to the Lord for service, then her virginity is explained well, if not better, for the fact that a person dedicated to the Lord was to remain a virgin. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe make a good point when they say, “There is no reason for Jephthah’s daughter to mourn her virginity unless she was facing a life of perpetual virginity.”[24] Gleason Archer adds, “would have been a pointless and inane remark if in fact she were put to death.”[25]

Fourth, Jephthah is listed among the faithful in Hebrews 11, and Judges 11:29 states that the Spirit of the Lord came upon him right before he made his vow. Although none of the men in the Bible, even in Hebrews 11, were sinless, this description of Jephthah as a faithful man, considering that he is listed in Hebrews 11, along with the points made above, point to the possibility that Jephthah never intended to sacrifice his daughter in the fire. He was not acting “pagan.” He wished to dedicate someone in his household, but not his only child, to the service of the Lord.

Conclusion

Concerning the alleged sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, we have two very different interpretations. I do not believe that any of the arguments on either side prove their points of view However, I do think that the second view, where he does not sacrifice her on an altar, is a real possibility that does fit the context of the passage.

It comes down to two things. First, either Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter thus showing that skeptics are completely wrong about this episode of the Bible, or second, if Jephthah did kill her it does not mean that Scripture condones the sacrifice of children (or any human for that matter). A close reading of the text shows that the narrator does not approve of Jephthah’s vow. Whichever interpretation is correct, Jephthah should not have made a promise to the Lord that would potentially place his daughter in a situation where she would have no children and Jephthah’s family line would disappear.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2008), 257.

[2] Dan Barker, Godless (Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2008), 158.

[3] Alfred J. Hoerth, Archaeology & the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books,1998), 237.

[4] Daniel Block, Judges, Ruth. The New American Commentary, edited by E. Ray Clendenen (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 1999), 366.

[5] Ibid., 369.

[6] Barry Webb, The Book of Judges. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, edited by R.K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012),333.

[7] Block, 366-367.

[8] Ibid., 367-368.

[9] Arhur E. Cundall, “Judges.” In Judges and Ruth, vol. 7, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, edited by Donald J. Wiseman, 9-206. (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1968), 142.

[10] Cundall, 143.

[11] Webb, 329-330.

[12] Block, 367-368.

[13] Bernard P. Robinson, “The Story of Jephthah and his Daughter: Then and Now.” Biblica 85, no. 3 (2004): 333.

[14] Webb, 336.

[15] Block, 372.

[16] Webb, 329-330, 332.

[17] Cundall, 143-144.

[18] D.A Carson, Exegetical Fallacies (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1996), 45.

[19] James Patrick Holding, “Jephthah’s Bloodless Sacrifice,” Christian Research Journal 39, no. 4 (2016): 9.

[20] Block, 373, 377.

[21] Cundall, 143.

[22] Webb, 334.

[23] Block, 374.

[24] Norman L. Geisler and Thomas Howe. The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1992), 149.

[25] Gleason L. Archer Jr., Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 198), 165.

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