Jephthah’s Unwise Vow: Did He Really Offer His Daughter as a Burnt Sacrifice?

Among the most difficult stories to understand in the Bible is the story of Jephthah. Though an obscure figure in the Bible, Jephthah attained the honor to be mentioned in the heroes of faith list. However, if we read the life of Jephthah and the seemingly harsh sacrifice of her daughter, we might immediately question the wisdom of Paul for having him listed in Hebrews 11.

Some critics of the Bible would even seize the life of Jephthah as an example of God’s unreasonable sense of justice and mercy. The story of Jephthah has also been a stumbling block for Christians who could not explain why such an evil deed has been condoned by God.

For these reasons, we need to take a deeper look at the story of Jephthah. Did Jephthah really have a very sinful life that should have disqualified him from entering the Kingdom of God? Did his story really reveal God as bloodthirsty and devoid of mercy? Let’s find out today as we examine the life of Jephthah.

The Victorious and Tragic Story of Jephthah

Jephthah’s story is found in Judges 11 to 12. He is a Gileadite, mighty warrior, and a son of a harlot. Because of the manner of his conception, his brothers considered him as an illegitimate son. So they drove Jephthah out to prevent him from getting an inheritance. He fled to the land of Tob where he lived with a gang of worthless men.

There came a time when the war between the Israelites and Ammonites was inevitable. Since Jephthah was a well-known mighty warrior, the elders of Gilead asked him to be the commander of their army. He was initially reluctant to help them because of how they treated him in the past.

The elders pleaded to Jephthah until he accepted their request. He immediately sought to know why the Ammonites want to wage war against Israel. He later found out that they wanted to claim a disputed land. Jephthah explained to the Ammonites how the land belonged to Israel and the Ammonites didn’t have any legal claim to the land. With all these being said, the Ammonite king ignored Jephthah’s explanation. War was about to commence.

Jephthah recognized the strength of the Ammonite army. So before going to battle, he made a vow to God. He said in Judges 11:30-31:

“If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

God granted Jephthah’s request and the Israelites won against Ammonites. With his Gileadite army, he was able to destroy 20 Ammonite towns. Now, it was time for Jephthah to fulfill his vow to God.

When Jephthah arrived at his home, to his shock and grieve, his daughter was the first one who came out of his house. Obviously, Jephthah did not expect his daughter to meet him. The decision to keep the vow had been very hard for Jephthah since his daughter was his only child.

Jephthah told her daughter in Judges 11:35:

“And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot go back on it” (Judges 11:35).

As difficult and heartbreaking this has been to Jephthah, he still chose to keep his vow to God.

Dispelling a common harsh traditional belief

We now come to the crux of our discussion. Most people assume that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. This is because of Jephthah’s vow to God when he said:

“…whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

Most skeptics and enemies of the scripture use the story of Jephthah to prove that we are serving an illogical and unreasonable God. The sad thing about this passage in Judges is that even believers of the Bible don’t even know how to explain these verses. They don’t have a clue and would rather skip this portion of the Bible because of its difficulty.

However, we can be certain that not because a passage is difficult to explain doesn’t mean that we cannot really understand it. A quick examination and deeper investigation will reveal to us the real truth about Jephthah’s sacrifice. What we thought to be a story of human sacrifice is actually a story of a man full of faith in God’s mercy and justice.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Jephthah is a Gileadite, a branch of the tribe of Manasseh (Numbers 26:29). Jephthah demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the history of Israel when he explained how the disputed land belongs to Israel (Judges 11:12-28). Surely, he should have known about the prohibition against child sacrifice from the books of Moses (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2; Deuteronomy 12:31-32; 18:10-12).
  • We read in Judges 11:29 that “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah”. Immediately after that, he made the vow that could potentially sacrifice her daughter (verse 30). So how could a man led by the Holy Spirit be able to make a vow that intends a human being to be burned alive?
  • God strongly despises human sacrifice. He has punished many people because of this great and abominable sin. Now, why would Jephthah perform a method of worship that God, Himself, called abomination and unacceptable?
  • Jephthah’s daughter encourages his father to keep the vow and didn’t even show any fear. But rather, she voluntarily went back to Jephthah after two months for her father to keep the vow (Judges 11:36).
  • Child sacrifice is a great abomination to God. Surely, this type of sin could have prevented a person from entering the Kingdom of God. However, we could read the name of Jephthah in Hebrews 11 for showing great faith.

With all these points, it is really illogical to assume that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter.

Examining the Scripture

If the traditional understanding of Jephthah’s vow is wrong, then what is the right explanation? Let us examine the vow of Jephthah.

The New King James Version renders verse 31 of Judges 11 as this way:

“Then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”

An understanding of the original Hebrew writing of this verse would give us the choice of rendering the word “and” as “or”. We must remember that Jephthah was making a conditional vow here. So this gives us the option that Jephthah was saying that the first one who will come out of his house to meet him will be given to the LORD. If there’s no one who will come out, Jephthah would give a burnt offering instead.

Therefore, this passage can be correctly translated as:

The one who comes forth to meet me I will consecrate to the LORD, or [, that is if no one comes out] I will offer Him a burnt offering.”

Jephthah is found here to be acting, to some degree, in faith. Instead of making a vow that he has complete control of, he gives God the option to how he will keep his vow.

As the shreds of evidence show, Jephthah really did NOT offer his daughter as a burnt offering. Instead, he offered or consecrated his daughter for the service of God, just like Hannah devoting Samuel to the work of God.

Reading Judges 11 further, we can see that his daughter “went with her friends, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains” (verse 38). If her daughter’s friends were in their right mind, they would have prevented her from coming back. But instead, we read, “And it was so at the end of the two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man” (verse 39).

Nowhere from these verses had we read that Jephthah burned his daughter. What we read is the statement, “she knew no man”. This is the reason why she is wailing about her virginity because she will not be able to marry and have children.

In Israel, there is a strong stigma toward childless women. Her friends even wailed for her because Jephthah’s daughter lost the chance to possibly be a mother in Israel and a potential mother of the promised Messiah.

Final words

Any difficult scripture can be explained with the right mindset and willingness to learn. Skeptics would not be able to arrive at the right answer because they have a biased approach toward the Bible. They would dismiss any logical explanation rather than look at the evidence. They read the Bible not to let it transform their lives but to look for loopholes and faults.

For us, Christians, we can have the total and complete confidence that the word of God is factual and free of errors. The Scripture is written with the direct inspiration of God (II Timothy 3:16).

Though we might find some difficult scriptures, we can be assured that there is a way to explain it. The Bible does not contradict itself and it will always defend itself if we let it.

Finally, we must have the willingness and initiative to really open our Bibles and investigate. Let us not assume that since it is a difficult scripture then let’s just leave that to blind faith. After all, it is our Christian duty to prove all things (I Thessalonians 5:21).

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