Introduction to the debate
The passage in view is Judges 11:29-40. It says that “Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (vv.30-31, ESV). Later when his daughter, his only child, is the first one that comes out to meet him upon his return, the passage states that he “did with her according to his vow that he had made” (v.39). Many therefore understandably conclude the Jephthah (wrongly) offered his daughter as a human sacrifice to God. For convenience, here on out, I’ll call this the “sacrifice view,” or SV for short.
However, as clear-cut as that may seem on the surface, some interpreters point to other details in the text that they feel lead in an alternative direction. Over and over the text places an interesting emphasis on Jephthah’s daughter’s virginity as the point of concern. This leads some to assume that, instead, Jephthah gave his daughter as an “offering” to the Lord in the form of dedicating her to the Lord’s service, like at the tabernacle, in a way that precluded marriage (see potentially Ex 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22; Lk 2:36-37; cf. 2 Mac 3:19-20; Pesikta Rabbati 26:6; 2 Baruch 10:19; Mishna Shekalim 8:5-6; Babylonian Talmud Kethuboth 106a). I’ll call this the “dedication view,” or DV for short.
Below I will list some of the reasons I can think of or have discovered for each of the two views, as well as some counterpoints where appropriate.
Not a prescriptive text
One thing first to note at the outset though: We do not find ourselves in a position of needing to defend Jephthah’s actions. So our motivation in asking this question, “Did Jephthah actually kill his daughter?” is not because, if he did, it puts a moral stain on the Bible, as if the Bible is holding Jephthah up as some moral exemplar. Rather, the Bible often records things that happened without necessarily condoning those things. So we don’t need to be motivated towards a particular interpretation because it “cleans things up” for us.
This is the classic difference between descriptive and prescriptive material in the Bible. That is, we should distinguish those times in which the Bible merely describes something that happened, without necessarily commending it or saying we should follow its example, and those times in which it prescribes things, like when it commands us to act a certain way.
The book of Judges, like most narratives, is almost wholly descriptive. Furthermore, the judges are hardly meant to be heroes we emulate. Rather, their imperfections are part of the message of the book. Their unsatisfactory character is meant to get us looking for something better.
The arguments and counterpoints involved
So with that throat-clearing out of the way, here are the arguments organized by the various issues.
The use of the word “burnt offering” (v.31)
This word translated “burnt offering” by most major translations (עֹלָה) in v.31 is used 287 times (in 261 verses) in the Old Testament. That’s a lot of verses. So I admit, I didn’t look at all of them. But from the quick overview I did, it seems that it’s essentially always used to refer to an actual, literal burnt sacrifice.
If then Jephthah’s vow called for a literal burnt offering, then when v.39 goes on to say, Jephthah “did with her according to his vow that he had made,” it would seem to mean he in fact killed her.
The other way to take this is that עֹלָה would simply mean something more generic here, like an “offering.” And so Jephthah “offered up” his daughter by dedicating her to the service of the Lord, but not by her killing. But this line of interpretation admittedly doesn’t have the typical lexical usage on its side. Alternatively, some who advocate DV admit that the word “burnt offering” in v.31 does in fact refer to a literal “burnt offering.” But they see Jephthah as holding out two different options in v.31 (see below).
Should it be translated “shall be the Lord’s and a burnt offerings” or “shall be the Lord’s or a burnt offering” (v.31)?
Most translations render v.31 something like, “Whatever comes out from the doors of my house … shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” In other words, the “and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” explains how this thing will “be the Lord’s.” This would support the view that Jephthah killed his daughter (SV).
Alternatively, some DV proponents argue that “and” (Hebrew waw) should rather be translated as an “or.” So the verse would instead read, “Whatever comes out from the doors of my house … shall be the Lord’s, or I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” In other words, depending on what it is that first comes out of the house, Jephthah will either offer it up as a burnt offering (like if it’s an animal) or it shall be the Lord’s, i.e., it will be given over to the service of God (like if it happens to be a human). However, in contrast to this, the translation notes of the NET (2nd ed.) on this verse state, “it is far more likely that the Hebrew construction (vav [ו] + perfect) specifies how the subject will become the Lord’s, that is, by being offered up as a sacrifice.”
The meaning of “whatever/whoever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me” (v.31)
In v.31 Jephthah says, “whatever comes from the doors of my house,” and later, he will “offer it up.” The words “whatever” and “it” can also be translated, and according to some arguably should be translated, as “whoever” and “he.” Thus, according to some who hold the SV, Jephthah all along intended on making a human sacrifice. Apart from modern-day pets, do agricultural animals, like say sheep, “come out from the doors of one’s house to greet you” anyways? This sounds more like human activity. Or as commentator George Schwab asks, what if an unclean animal came out and was the first to “meet” him? Finally, Tim Keller notes, “if Jephthah had promised God an animal, then when his daughter came through the doors he would never have considered the promise to have had any binding force with regard to her.” In other words, so the argument goes, Jephthah was acting like the surrounding pagan nations here, who we know practiced human sacrifice. He was expecting to sacrifice a human all along; he just wasn’t expecting it to be his daughter of all people!
Of course, on the DV, if Jephthah was only going to dedicate such a human to God, translating v.31 as “whoever” and “he” is not problematic, as well as alternatively if v.31 articulates two options: burnt offering or dedicated to God’s service (see above).
The Spirit of the Lord having been upon Jephthah just prior (v.29)
In v.29 we read that “the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah.” Some DV proponents argue that this makes the SV quite implausible. “How could someone empowered by God’s Spirit go on to kill their own daughter?”, they ask.
However, as Jeremy Fodge points out, “the Spirit was upon Balaam shortly before he counseled Balak to set a stumbling block before Israel (Num. 24:2), the Spirit was upon Samson shortly before he decided to marry a Philistine woman and defiled his parents (Judg. 14:5-9), and the Spirit came on Saul so that he prophesied even as he was pursuing David to kill him (1 Sam. 19:23-24). The presence of the Spirit doesn’t necessarily clue us in to the spiritual state of the individual, nor does it guarantee that all of their actions around that filling will be pleasing to God.” The Spirit came upon Jephthah specifically for the sake of delivering Israel. This doesn’t mean that everything Jephthah subsequently does should be seen as positive, as if attributable to the Spirit (consider Jephthah’s actions in ch. 12). Lawson Younger likewise: “This [the Spirit coming upon Jephthah] does not presuppose any particular level of spirituality on the part of the recipient. It affirms Yahweh’s involvement in empowerment but does not guarantee the recipient’s spirituality. Otherwise, it is difficult to explain how someone empowered by the Spirit could make so many wrong choices (certainly a question that also will apply to Samson). Being empowered does not mean that Yahweh overwhelms Jephthah’s personality, forcing him to only perform a certain way. Jephthah still makes choices, and these choices are, unfortunately, because of his ignorance, not based on God’s Word.”
Jephthah’s inclusion in the “hall of faith” (Heb 11:32)
Interestingly, Jephthah is included in the so-called “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11.
Proponents of DV argue that it’s rather implausible that Jephthah would be included in this list if he had killed his daughter. How could a man who committed such a heinous evil be commended to us by the author of Hebrews?
As a counterpoint though, as bad an act as offering your daughter as human sacrifice is, other individuals with rather sketchy track records are also included in the hall of faith. In other words, Jephthah would not be alone in this category. David, who committed adultery and murder, is included. Abraham, who gave his wife away, is included. Other judges from the book are also included despite their severe blemishes (Gideon, Barak, Samson). Clearly, being included in the “hall of faith” doesn’t mean everything about said individual is commendable. What’s being commended, nonetheless though, is faith, however imperfectly expressed.
Jephthah’s religious influences
Some DV interpreters point to 11:12-28 just immediately prior. There, they say, we see that Jephthah is very aware of Israel’s Pentateuchal history; so it would be rather surprising if he was unaware of Pentateuchal law forbidding human sacrifice. And if he was aware, presumably he would not have offered this to God, because he would have known God wouldn’t have wanted it.
That said, in favor of SV, Jephthah’s religious influences are questionable. He was the son of a prostitute driven away by his half-brothers to live outside of Gilead (see 11:1-3). He likely lived much of his life surrounded by pagan idolatry, and therefore it’s not implausible that he adopted much of their worldview, as did the Israelites in general. And the nations surrounding Israel are known to have engaged in human sacrifice. Or even as Dale Ralph Davis argues, “Certainly Jephthah was a Yahweh-worshiper, knowledgeable in Yahweh’s history with Israel, and—I should think—acquainted with Yahweh’s law. But that does not mean Jephthah observed the law he knew.”
Jephthah’s tremendous grief (v.35)
When Jephthah’s daughter comes out to meet him, Jephthah responds in great distress, tearing his clothes and crying out (v.35). SV advocates argue that only the prospect of killing his own daughter can explain this sort of response. “Why would Jephthah be so, so distraught like this if he was merely going to devote her to perpetual virginity?” That’s fair.
However, the passage also goes out of its way to tell us that his daughter was his only offspring (v.34). And later we learn that she is a virgin (vv.37-39), meaning no grandchildren either. So according to the DV, one could explain this grief as due to the fact that his daughter’s consequent consignment to virginity will mean the end of his lineage.
The focus on her virginity (vv.34, 37, 38, 39)
This raises the question, why the focus on her virginity anyway? I mean, it’s not a minor theme in the passage. To the contrary, it’s rather noteworthy how often the passage goes out of its way to bring it up. She asks for a two-month reprieve to weep for her virginity (v.37). So she and her companions go and “weep for her virginity” (v.38). And then after the vow is fulfilled, the passage makes a point to add once again, “She had never known a man” (i.e., she was a virgin; v.39).
According to the DV, this focus on her virginity is because her virginity was the sacrifice. This explains why it is given so much focus. In contrast, if she was to be killed, one’s virginity seems to be the least of one’s concerns. Why weep over one’s virginity? Why not go weep that you’re about to be made a human sacrifice?
On the other hand, in those days, a woman’s value was largely bound up with their ability to produce offspring. As Lawson Younger (NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible) states, “Because a Hebrew woman could suffer no greater disgrace than to die childless, Jephthah’s daughter asks for time to bewail her virginity.” And so, an SV advocate could argue that the focus on virginity makes her death especially tragic here, which is why it’s added. “This was the bitterest thing of all for Jephthah’s daughter: not to die, but to die young, unfulfilled, childless” (Barry Webb, NICOT). And as Jephthah’s only child, his family would now have no hope for further offspring anywhere else.
His daughter’s compliance (v.36)
In v.36, Jephthah’s daughter states, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth.”
DV advocates argue that this is a rather implausible response from someone facing the prospect of being made a human sacrifice. Being made a human sacrifice is a hard pill to swallow. However, we can better understand her willingness to comply with the terms of her father’s vow if it simply meant she was to live an unmarried life devoted to the service of God, as tragic as that still may have been.
SV respond, as ridiculous as the whole situation was, apparently she was willing to go along. Maybe she was operating from a rather pagan framework as well and felt it was what was due to God after all, whether or not it benefited her. Some also point to the example of Isaac who willingly went with his father Abraham who intended to sacrifice him (Gen 22).
Two months reprieve (vv.37-38)
Against the SV, DV proponents argue, if she was about to be killed, why ask merely for a two-month reprieve? Why not ask for a year or two, in which time she could try to get pregnant and bear a child? Or better yet, why not use the opportunity to escape? And why would Jephthah grant her this reprieve if he was going to kill her, knowing full well it would provide an opportunity for her to run away?
In rebuttal, the SV advocates ask the DV proponents, if she was merely going to be consigned to perpetual virginity, why did she need to weep about it first for two months? She had the rest of her life to mourn it? In other words, the two-month reprieve seems to assume she is being allowed to do something that later she will no longer be able to do, otherwise what’s the point? And the reason she will no longer be able to mourn after two months is that she’ll be dead. In contrast, if she wasn’t going to be killed, she could mourn at any point.
The role of the phrase “She had never known a man” after the vows fulfillment (v.39)
Immediately after Jephthah “did with her [his daughter] according to his vow that he had made,” the text says, “[and] she had never known a man” (v.39, the ESV leaves the “and” in Hebrew here untranslated). A question exists as to the relationship between these two lines. How do they relate to one another?
According to the DV, this second line explains the meaning of the former line. The ESV’s untranslated waw should be understood as indicating an epexegetical relationship between the lines. In other words, “Jephthah did to his daughter according to his vow, that is, she never knew a man.” Her never-knowing-a-man was the vow. Never once in the passage does it explicitly mention Jephthah killing his daughter. But what is mentioned is that she remained a virgin. By the time we reach the end of v.39, “the text leaves her not dead, but childless” (Schwab).
However, in contrast, the NET (2nd ed.) states, “the disjunctive clause (note the vav + subject + verb pattern) more likely describes her condition at the time the vow was fulfilled.” Thus, according to the SV, this second line merely underscores a necessary consequence of the vow. The vow itself was not her never-knowing-a-man. The vow’s fulfillment was her death. But her death of course meant that she, a virgin, never ended up knowing a man sexually. This line about her never knowing a man, so the SV argues, is inserted to note how her death, tragic enough on its own, was even more tragic in this way.
The custom of lamenting for Jephthah’s daughter (vv.38-39)
SV advocates argue that only her death can adequately explain why a custom would arise in which year by year women in Israel would lament Jephthah’s daughter. Why would such a custom arise simply over someone being devoted to God in perpetual virginity? Surely not every other woman in Israel was married or able to have children. So why would her circumstance receive special treatment, such that an entirely annual custom develop unless it was regarding something much more? Furthermore, if Jephthah’s daughter was still alive, they could simply go visit her. Why lament her?
Some DV advocates suggest that, if Jephthah’s daughter was given over to service at the tabernacle, for example, this going up to lament seems to mean that women went to visit her there and lament what transpired.
The essential meaning is the same regardless
Finally, I should say, regardless of what view one takes, the overall meaning of the passage remains essentially the same. In either case, Jephthah is quite grieved over his vow and it is shown to be tragic (albeit the SV interpretation would be far more tragic).
What do you think?
Alright, did I miss anything? Any other arguments you would add?
And what do you think is the best interpretation? How do you weigh the above arguments?
Where do I land? To hear my conclusion you can check out my forthcoming sermon on Judges 11:12-12:15, The Jephthah Cycle: A Salvation Marred by Tragedy.