The story of Jephthah is one of the more confusing stories you will find in the Bible. Many anti-Bible sources, like the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, elevate it as text condoning human sacrifice. I would like to dig into this topic a bit further and see whether that is really the case, but first we must examine the story itself.
It is found in Judges, mostly in chapter 11. The relevant part is this:
“Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And 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.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.”
I will be the first to admit that this looks pretty bad. Unfortunately, too many modern apologists have fallen victim to the temptation to respond to the problem by pretending it doesn’t exist, arguing that Jephthah never sacrificed his daughter at all. Before moving into the correct interpretation, I would like to take a moment to refute this one, which you can find in detail here.
A lot of that argument centers around the idea that Jephthah would have known his daughter was unfit for sacrifice, and would not have sacrificed her. The article adds that Jephthah would have made the oath in public, because it would not have brought him honor to have done otherwise. That second bit is pure conjecture – there is nothing in the scripture to suggest that he necessarily would have made the vow in public. Even if it was the norm for that sort of vow (Was there a norm for THAT sort of vow?) that would not necessitate that it was how Jephthah did things. As for the former, if (and we will examine whether this is true in a moment) the language implies that his vow is to sacrifice, and he did to her as he had vowed, then statements about her unfitness for sacrifice are irrelevant, because all they mean is that Jephthah sacrificed something that was unfit for sacrifice.
The article attempts to make the argument that, rather than sacrificing her, he is dedicating her to the temple (per the instructions in Leviticus 27). It bolds the word “vow” as though the common use of that word in both places means anything, and makes the case that the burnt offering he promises is actually a commitment to dedicate his daughter for Temple use. It ties this to the comment about her lamenting having “never known a man”, saying that her being dedicated would mean that she must remain a virgin. Unfortunately for the article’s author, there is nothing scriptural about the claim that one dedicated to the Temple was necessarily to remain a virgin. On the contrary, almost every figure associated with the Temple in the Bible has lots of kids, including Samuel, who was dedicated to the Temple of Shiloh by his mother. Unlike the animals, the humans dedicated in Leviticus 27 are not required to abstain from work, so the attempt by the article to use a command explicitly targeting beasts and not humans falls flat on its face in that respect. Which makes sense, what good would a person be to the Temple who was not able to work? It is also worth noting that Genesis 3:16 does not call childbearing work, it says that giving birth will be painful. If it was work in the ritual sense they’re describing then it would be against the Old Testament Law to give birth on the Sabbath, which is absurd. Contrary to what this author suggests, children were considered a joy and a privilege for the woman, and sex was a marital obligation from the man to the woman, rather than the other way around (Exodus 21:10).
The article makes the case that the Hebrew word for “burnt offering” can be a metaphor for ascension of some kind, and gives two verse citations which they claim feature the Hebrew word, ‘olah, meaning just that.
The flaw here is that neither instance of this word is preceded by the Hebrew verb ‘alah. This word, like ‘olah, does not necessarily indicate a literal sacrifice. But when ‘alah precedes ‘olah like it does in this verse, it always does. Also, the second of the two examples the article gives, 1 Kings 10:5, is actually referring to literal burnt offerings offered in the Temple, so using that as an example was inaccurate.
I would prefer not to spend any more time on this poor interpretation, but it is an important lesson – a verse being hard to swallow is not justification to pervert what the verse says. Jephthah vowed to offer the first thing out of his door as a burnt offering and he “did unto her as he had vowed”.
So let’s reframe the story a bit.
Jephthah is a story about a man who made a stupid promise to God and felt obligated to fulfill it.
Those who suggest that this passage condones human sacrifice are making the mistake of suggesting that recording a story is the same thing as condoning all of the actions taken in the story. The story never condones what Jephthah did, and, in fact, within the wider context of Hebrew culture and their disgust with the idea of making a frivolous promise to God, it seems kind of obvious that Jephthah is being raised up as a bit of an idiot. The message here is not, anywhere in the story, “kill your kid, it’s good”. The message is “If you make frivolous promises to God YOU COULD END UP KILLING YOUR CHILD”. Portraying it as supporting child sacrifice is like watching this (graphic) “don’t skip school” ad and thinking the video is supporting us throwing children on land mines.
Now, many people will see what I have written so far and object on the basis of my not having proven that interpretation. My first point would be that the fact that this interpretation fits within the confines of the text demonstrates that the text does not support Jephthah. Because if it did explicitly support what he was doing, then what I just said would be easily disprovable.
My second point would be to point out Biblical references detailing the horror with which the OT authors viewed the making of false/frivolous promises to God. That commandment against using the Lord’s name in vain is not about saying “oh my Lord” it is about making a false vow. The same terminology is used in a variety of other situations involving lies (Exod. 23:1, Exod. 20:13, etc). The commandment is about making an oath in God’s name and then breaking that oath.
An obvious example of the importance of such a vow is found in Joshua 9, where Joshua was deceived into making a non-aggression treaty with the Gibeonites (they claimed to be from a far away land, lying to get such an oath out of Joshua) and chose to violate God’s direct order to destroy those cities rather than violate the commandment by breaking an oath in the name of God.
These things kind of set the stage for how the ancient Hebrews would have seen this story – as a warning of what not to do, not as a story condoning the actions taken by Jephthah.
This raises the question of whether Jephthah was right in his decision to prioritize maintaining the oath over the life of his daughter. The answer was pretty clearly no. Jewish Encyclopedia provides a pretty thorough compilation of ancient Hebrew opinions on the subject:
“The Rabbis concluded also that Jephthah was an ignorant man, else he would have known that a vow of that kind is not valid; according to R. Johanan, Jephthah had merely to pay a certain sum to the sacred treasury of the Temple in order to be freed from the vow; according to R. Simeon ben Laḳish, he was free even without such a payment (Gen. R. l.c.; comp. Lev. R. xxxvii. 3). According to Tan., Beḥuḳḳotai, 7, and Midrash Haggadah to Lev. xxvii. 2, even when Jephthah made the vow God was irritated against him: “What will Jephthah do if an unclean animal comes out to meet him?” Later, when he was on the point of immolating his daughter, she inquired, “Is it written in the Torah that human beings should be brought as burnt offerings?” He replied, “My daughter, my vow was, ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house.’” She answered, “But Jacob, too, vowed that he would give to Yhwh the tenth part of all that Yhwhgave him (Gen. xxviii. 22); did he sacrifice any of his sons?” But Jephthah remained inflexible. His daughter then declared that she would go herself to the Sanhedrin to consult them about the vow, and for this purpose asked her father for a delay of two months (comp. Judges xi. 37). The Sanhedrin, however, could not absolve her father from the vow, for God made them forget the Law in order that Jephthah should be punished for having put to death 42,000 Ephraimites (Judges xii. 6).”
Here many of the same objections the article we were discussing earlier are raised, but for a different purpose. These native Hebrew speakers and Old Testament scholars took the fact that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter in the text for granted. They used these points to explain the depth of Jepthah’s failure. It is strange, though, they mention Jephthah being punished. What could they be referring to?
Verses 6 and 7 of Chapter 12 feature Jephthah being killed and buried in the cities (not city, as most English translations would have you believe) of Gilead, implying death by dismemberment. Basically, the Rabbinic view was that Jephthah had committed many more crimes than this one and deserved a harsher punishment (note that this is not scripture, these are just the opinions of ancient Rabbis, but they provide insight into how the culture would have read and understood this text). Jephthah’s daughter, in the Rabbinic account, also makes a good Biblical case against Jephthah’s actions, and I think that that case puts the claim that the Bible condones human sacrifice in this story to rest.
The story of Jephthah does not condone human sacrifice explicitly, and I believe that this post demonstrates that it condemns it implicitly, and the ancient Hebrews certainly would not have interpreted it that way, as evidenced by the way they DID interpret it. Furthermore, this gives more meaning to the passage as a warning, rather than a cushioned interpretation that strips the relevant meaning out of the story for the sake of a quick rebuttal to hard questions.