A Question I Was Asked:

Was Jephthah's Daughter Actually Sacrificed?

In Judges 11 we read of Jepthah's apparent sacrifice of his only daughter, following his promise to God. The jury seems to be out as to whether this actually happened or whether he promised her to be a perpetual virgin.

UK Apologetics Reply:

The story concerning Jephthah's daughter is in Judges 11. In a nutshell, Jephthah asked the Lord that if He granted him victory in the battle against the Ammonites, Jephthah promised that he would then offer as a burnt offering to the Lord the first thing that emerged from the door of his home to meet him, when returning from battle (Judges 11:30-31). Obviously this was a very, very unwise and rash vow to make. That person turned out to be his beloved daughter (verses 34-35), his only child.

In Israel it was considered a very serious matter to break a vow. See, for instance, Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21-23; Ecclesiastes 5:4-5. Let's just look at the last of those:

4. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to fulfill it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. 5. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. (Ecclesiastes 5:4-5).

God gave a great victory to the army of Israel so Jephthah, it would appear, then believed that he had to fulfil his vow by sacrificing his only daughter. Actually the first thing he should have done was to consult a priest about this matter because human sacrifice was banned in Israel. He understood about the solemnity of vows but was undoubtedly not knowledgeable in all aspects of the law. On this occasion his serious lack of knowledge of all aspects of the laws of God landed him in very serious trouble and distress, for - as already noted - human sacrifice was certainly banned. See Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:1-5; Deuteronomy 12:30-31; Deuteronomy 18:9-12; 2 Kings 21:1-6; Psalm 106:37-40.

In his utter sincerity (unfortunately accompanied by a serious lack of knowledge of all aspects of God's law), Jephthah apparently finally sacrificed his daughter. Of course he did so in much pain and suffering and with much deep regret. But the Lord apparently granted the girl the desire that her father should indeed fulfil this vow, but she simply asked for two months of life to roam the country with her friends and to lament that she would never marry. This her father willingly granted. (verses 36-40).

Of course, once allowed her freedom, Jephthah's daughter could have decided to never return to her father and she would probably have been safe since her identity would be unknown elsewhere in Israel and the people were commanded to look out for the needs of orphans and the homeless (very likely Jephthah even hoped that she would never return), but she was obviously a girl of very, very high character.

But when we come to the text concerning the actual execution of the vow (Judges 11:39-40), the language is somewhat reserved with just a little ambiguity, this causes us to have some doubts as to what actually happened, certainly the plain sense of it seems to be that Jephthah finally offered the tragic sacrifice. Early Jewish interpretation believed this. Most (but not all) of the major Christian Bible commentators have believed this, but a few have thought that the sacrifice was that the young woman should remain a virgin. The text possibly could be read in such a way.

John Wesley stated this:

"...Jephthah's daughter was not sacrificed, but only devoted to perpetual virginity. This appears, From Judges 11:37-38, where we read, that she bewailed not her death, which had been the chief cause of lamentation, if that had been vowed, but her virginity... (John Wesley's Explanatory Notes).

Others who argue that this young woman was not literally sacrificed generally argue like this:

1. Human sacrifices were an abomination to the Lord, of which Jephthah could hardly be in ignorance; therefore he would not have carried this vow into execution.

2. We are expressly told (Judges 11:29) that Jephthah was under the influence of the Spirit of God, which would surely have prevented him from taking the blood of his own child.

3. Jephthah had it in his power to redeem his daughter (Leviticus 27:2-4); and surely his only child must have been of more value than thirty shekels.

4. Who was to perform the horrid act? Not Jephthah himself, who was no priest, and in whom it would have been most unnatural and inhuman; and the priests would surely have pointed out that such sacrifices were illegal under God's law.

5. The text informs us, that the girl bewailed her virginity, that she knew no man, and that the Israelitish women went yearly to comfort or lament her, or with her. Judges 11:31; Leviticus 27:28-29; Deuteronomy 12:31; Isaiah 66:3.

Most of those five points are valid (some more so than others) and a promised sacrifice as a result of a vow could be redeemed (point 3), but did Jephthah have enough understanding to even be aware of this? Very likely he did not.

Does the Use of the Pronoun 'Whatsover' (Judges 11:31) Offer Any Help in Understanding?

Some may feel that if Jephthah said 'whatever' or 'whatsoever' in Judges 11:31 ("whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me..."), then that must have precluded people, otherwise he would have stated 'whoever, or 'whosoever,' but I'm afraid that that objection is weak. The translated word comes from the Hebrew 'asher' (Strongs H834), it is a primitive relative pronoun describing something of any gender or type. It does not rule out that Jephthah was thinking of people. Also, when he stated, "...whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me..." would an animal really come out of the door of his house to meet him? Yet he might have had servants and possibly fully expected a servant to greet him when returning home. Of all this, Albert Barnes has stated,

"The words of this verse prove conclusively that Jephthah intended his vow to apply to human beings, not animals: for only one of his household could be expected to come forth from the door of his house to meet him. They also preclude any other meaning than that Jephthah contemplated a human sacrifice. This need not, however, surprise us, when we recollect his Syrian birth and long residence in a Syrian city, where such fierce rites were probably common." (Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible. Judges section).

So, as we have noted, Jephthah came from a very imperfect background (note Judges 11:1-3), but he did his best with a somewhat limited understanding of God's law which he really wanted to obey and he became utterly faithful within the scope of the knowledge which he possessed. So much so that he is counted with the faithful of Hebrews 11 (Hebrews 11:32).

In conclusion, I am bound to leave the question open, there is a little ambiguity in the Hebrew here. However, all round, my opinion is that this young, sincere and faithful woman probably was sacrificed. This should teach one of the dangers of only having a patchy understanding of the laws of God. How fortunate are Christians in our day who do not have to continually struggle to be obedient to over 600 old covenant laws! The law of Christ is simple, we need to think and behave how Christ would have done. Okay, that's frequently not easy, but the penalties of the possibility of contravening something over 600 laws do not continually hang over us. Meanwhile we should all avoid vows of any sort.

Very likely these two outstanding individuals are long since reunited in Heaven.

Robin A. Brace. June 15th, 2016.