The Jephthah Cycle: A Salvation Marred by Tragedy (Judges 11:12-12:15)
CrossWay Community Church
May 8th, 2022
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.Continue reading
The follow graphic depicts the cycle that is introduced in Judges 2:6-3:6 and plays out throughout the rest of the book.