What About Jephthah’s Vow?

By Wayne Jackson

“In the Old Testament there is the record of ’Jephthah’s vow’ unto the Lord. There is a difference of opinion as to whether he actually carried out the literal vow to sacrifice his daughter. Can you please give me your opinion on this?”

One of the more troubling passages of the Old Testament has to do with a vow made by one of Israel’s judges, Jephthah, as recorded in Judges 11. Jephthah vowed to God that if the Lord would grant him victory over the evil Ammonites, the first thing that came out to meet him upon his return home, would be Jehovah’s, and/or it would be offered as a burnt sacrifice. When he arrived home, his daughter came out to greet him. He was devastated, but eventually he fulfilled the vow.

It is generally assumed this means that he did sacrifice her as an offering. Some conservative scholars argue vigorously that he fulfilled his vow and took her life (see Kaiser, pp. 193-195). Some of their arguments are as follows.

  1. It is contended that almost all early writers believed that Jephthah did actually sacrifice his daughter. The idea that he dedicated her to perpetual virginity, it is said, commenced in the Middle Ages.
  2. The era in which Jephthah lived was exceeding corrupt, and he was no different from the others of that age.
  3. It is alleged that the grammatical construction of 11:31 allows only human sacrifice coming from his house, not an animal.
  4. The actual sacrifice of his daughter is the most natural way to interpret the context.

Since Jephthah is depicted as one of the great heroes of the Old Testament era (Hebrews 11:32), some scholars feel that this involves the Bible in a moral difficulty.

Possible Considerations

There are two possible approaches to this problem. First, if Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt sacrifice, he did so without God’s approval, for the law of Moses condemned human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 18:10). The writer of the book of Hebrews would not have endorsed that particular atrocity any more than he would have sanctioned Abraham’s lying (Genesis 12:10ff), or Rahab’s prostitution (Joshua 2:1ff). Reporting an event is not the equivalent of sanctioning it. The allusion in the book of Hebrews would reflect a characterization of Jephthah’s life of faith, viewed in its entirety, and would not discredit him simply because of an isolated (though horrible) act of sin, the fulfillment of a rash vow.

On the other hand, a number of prominent scholars (e.g., Edersheim, Archer, Geisler, etc.) believe that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering; rather, it is argued that he devoted her, as a virgin, to the service of Jehovah for the remainder of her life.

In support of this view, a number of arguments are proffered.

Human sacrifice against the law

Since human sacrifice was clearly a violation of divine law, does it seem likely that Jehovah would have granted Jephthah’s victory (Judges 11:32), knowing that such would result in a gross, pagan tragedy?

No condemnation

There is no condemnation of Jephthah’s act in the record of Judges or elsewhere. This seems rather strange in view of the fact that another judge’s heathen conduct is reprimanded (see the case of Gideon — Judges 8:27).

Idiomatic language

The “and” (Heb., vau) of verse 30 may be an idiom in the sense of “or” (cf. Exodus 21:15 in the LXX [v. 17 Eng. text] — “he who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death”). Thus, this Old Testament character may have been merely suggesting that whatever met him as he returned home would be dedicated to Jehovah, or, offered as a burnt offering — depending upon which was appropriate. See Dr. Hales’ comments (Clarke, p. 153).

The maiden’s behavior

The girl went into the mountains to bewail her virginity, not her impending death (11:37).

If she knew she was about to die, why did she spend the final two months of her life in mountain solitude, rather than remaining with her family (11:36-37)?

Puzzling language

Jephthah fulfilled his vow (11:39). If this meant he killed her, why was it necessary to add, “and she knew not [i.e., she was not intimate with] a man”?

Jephthah’s daughter: a heroine

Each year thereafter the daughters of Israel “celebrated” (the word can mean to “praise”; cf. “rehearse” — 5:11) Jephthah’s daughter (11:40). Would this have been the case had she voluntarily offered herself as a sacrifice in a pagan ceremony in plain violation of the will of God?

One respectable scholar, Goslinga, who contends that Jephthah did actually kill his daughter, concedes that the “perpetual virgin” view is also possible. He says that the fact that Jephthah continued in his judgeship after the incident favors this view. In fact, the law of Moses imposed the death penalty upon anyone who sacrificed one of his children to Molech (Leviticus 20:2).

If Jephthah had sacrificed his daughter — even to the Lord — it is difficult to see how many of the Israelites would not have strongly reacted against that atrosity. Goslinga says the Bible exegete must exercise caution in this regard, rather than being dogmatic (p. 396). For a balanced discussion of this incident, see McClintock & Strong (pp. 818-820). See also Douglas in: Fairbairn (III.215ff); Keil & Delitzsch (II.388ff).

Whatever view one takes of this strange incident, there is no necessity to charge the Bible with moral culpability.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Archer, Gleason (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • Clarke, Adam (n.d.), Clarke’s Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon), Vol. II.
  • Fairbairn, Patrick. ed. The Imperial Bible Dictionary. London: Blackie & Son. 1876.
  • Edersheim, Alfred (1890 ed.), Bible History (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, n.d.), III.
  • Geisler, Norman and Howe, Thomas (1992), When Critics Ask (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books).
  • Goslinga, C.J. (1986), Joshua, Judges, Ruth — Bible Student’s Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • Kaiser, Walter C., et al. (1996), Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
  • Keil, C.F. & F. Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 1978.
  • McClintock, John and Strong, James (1969 ed.), Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids: Baker), Vol. IV.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.