Artist’s conception of the daughter of Jephthah. Artist: James Tissot. PD

What was…
Jephthah’s rash and tragic vow

The book of Judges records this historical event:

Then Jephthah made a vow to Yahweh and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be Yahweh’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” —Judges 11:30-31 LSB

After a crushing defeat of the Ammonites, Jephthah returned to his own house, and the first to welcome him was his own daughter. This was a terrible blow to the victor, and in his despair he cried out,

“Then Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter.

So it happened that when he saw her, he tore his clothes and said,

“Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me. But I have opened my mouth to vow to Yahweh, and I cannot take it back.” Judges 11:34-35 LSB

With singular nobleness of spirit she answered,

“My father, you have opened your mouth to vow to Yahweh; do to me according to what has gone out from your mouth, since Yahweh has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.” Judge 11:36 LSB

She only asked two months “that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.” She utters no reproach against her father's rashness, and is content to yield her life since her father has returned a conqueror.

Conservative Christian author Tim Chaffey explains,

Jephthah’s daughter’s reaction would have been appropriate if she were to be dedicated as a lifelong virgin, but it also makes perfect sense if she were to be put to death. Either way, she was not going to bear children. So her line would end, and since she was an only child, her father’s line was going to end as well, which accounts for some of his grief.

Wouldn’t she fear for her life instead of worrying about her virginity if she was going to be sacrificed? And why would the Bible reiterate that she knew no man (Judges 11:39)? These questions miss the value her society placed upon having children. Rachel seemed to prefer death to a life of barrenness. She said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die!” (Genesis 30:1). So it is not a stretch to think that Jephthah’s daughter would have viewed going childless as being worse than death. —Tim Chaffey, Answers in Genesis (March 30, 2012)

Was the daughter slain?

Certainly Yahweh never desired for this young Hebrew woman to become a burnt offering, and His revealed word strongly rejects such human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:31). Jephthah’s vow was unacceptable to God; nowhere does Scripture say that his vow was approved by God. It resulted in a most tragic and senseless murder (Exodus 20:13).

So, did Jephthah actually kill his daughter? This question has been much debated, and there are many able commentators who argue that such a sacrifice was actually offered, even though God had provided ways out of fulfilling rash vows.

Scripture states that,

“And it happened at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she did not know a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.” —Judge 11:39-40 LSB

“Some interpreters reason that Jephthah offered his daughter as a living sacrifice in perpetual virginity. …On the other hand, since he was (1) beyond the Jordan River, (2) far from the tabernacle, (3) a hypocrite in religious devotion, (4) familiar with human sacrifice amonther other nations, (5) influenced by such superstition, and (6) wanting victory badly, he most likely meant a literal, human burnt offering. The translation in verse 31 is “and,” not “or.” His act came in an era of bizarre things, even inconsistency by leaders whom God otherwise empowered (such as Gideon in Judges 8:27).” —John F. MacArthur Jr., Macarthur’s Bible Commentary

A minority wonder if perhaps she was only doomed to a life of perpetual celibacy, due to the following:

  1. Question of how to accurately interpret the words “he did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she did not know a man

  2. Jephthah was a worshipper of Yahweh

  3. One would expect that Jephthah was acquainted with the law of Moses, to which such sacrifices were ABHORRENT (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31) / Remember that the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham was only a test of the patriarch’s faith and commitment, and was absolutely prevented from completion by God.

  4. Jephthah is included in the roll of heroes of the faith in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 11:32)

On the later point, Chaffey clarifies,

“Jephthah is listed in Hebrews 11, which is often called the ‘Faith Hall of Fame,’ but it is important to notice that he is listed with Gideon, Barak, and Samson (Hebrews 11:32). When they trusted Him, God used these men to win important victories in the book of Judges, but each of them had serious problems, such as idolatry (Judges 8:27), cowardice (Judges 4:8), and infidelity (Judges 16:1), respectively. So we should not necessarily hold them up as examples of godliness.

Hebrews 11 certainly includes some of the incredible heroes of the faith, but many of these people also committed some pretty heinous acts (as many believers since then have also done). Abraham and Isaac lied (or at best misled others) about their respective wives. Jacob deceived his father. Moses murdered a man. Rahab was a harlot. David also appears in this chapter and is elsewhere called a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22; cf. 1 Samuel 13:14), yet he committed adultery with Bathsheba, tried to cover it up, and then arranged for the murder of her husband. Were David’s actions any better than child sacrifice in fulfillment of a rash vow?

So Hebrews 11 includes men and women of great faith but also includes liars, deceivers, murderers, and a harlot. Could any of us really claim to be better than these heroes of the faith? Truth be told, all of us were rotten sinners prior to salvation and still sin many times after being saved, but praise God for His unfathomable grace!” —Tim Chaffey, Answers in Genesis (March 30, 2012)

Had Jephthah mentally limited his vow to include only sacificing an animal?

“Jephthah’s response when he saw his daughter. He cried, “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). If he were waiting only for an animal (an “it”), then he would not have been troubled by the sight of his daughter coming out first. It seems that he would have greeted her and then continued to wait for the animal.” —Tim Chaffey, Answers in Genesis (March 30, 2012)

“…there are several indications in the text that he was not as godly as many would like to make him. He went out raiding with a band of worthless men (Judges 11:3). Under his judgeship, 42,000 Ephraimites were slaughtered at the fords of the Jordan because they could not pronounce Shibboleth correctly (Judges 12:6). Ultimately, this action stemmed from a threat the Ephraimites had made on Jephthah and his people, but this still seems rather extreme in defending oneself. How many Ephraimites that had nothing to do with this threat were killed because of their accent?

God specifically allowed someone a way out of such a vow, but Jephthah either did not know it, or if he did, he didn’t apply it.

It is true that Jephthah seemed to have a good grasp of his nation’s history, but this is no guarantee that he was godly or that he was familiar with God’s laws. If Jephthah were such a godly man, he shouldn’t have been so distressed when his daughter came out, because the Law allowed for him to offer a trespass offering after making a rash vow (Leviticus 5:4–6). So he could have brought a lamb or a young goat to a priest instead of sacrificing his daughter or committing her to a life of celibacy. If he were really a godly man, he should have been aware of this. I think this is probably the strongest argument from outside the immediate context of the passage. God specifically allowed someone a way out of such a vow, but Jephthah either did not know it, or if he did, he didn’t apply it. Either way, this doesn’t bode well for those who think he was godly.

…In Jephthah’s case, the fact that he carried out his rash vow to sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering seems to demonstrate a selfish pride in his own honor and a lack of understanding of the Mosaic Law that allowed him a couple of ways out of the mess his rash vow had created.” —Tim Chaffey, Answers in Genesis (March 30, 2012)

The vast majority of Bible scholars believe that Jephthah did actually slay his daughter. Ancient commentators held that Jephthah’s daughter was actually sacrificed as a burnt offering. There is insufficient reason to believe otherwise.

“In Scripture—as in the world today—people who trust in God sometimes commit awful sins. That is not to excuse transgression. Jephthah should have repented of his rash vow and not killed his daughter, for God does not want us to fulfill vows that break His commandments. We can be grateful that God’s grace covers all of our sin when we trust in Christ, but that gives us no license for evil.” —“Jephthah’s Rash Vow,” Ligonier Ministries (March 1, 2019)

The Early Church Father John Chrysostom (347-476 AD) taught that God did not intervene in order to discourage similar rash vows from being made in the future. Chrysostom believed that purpose of the annual bewailing of the event took place as a constant reminder of rash vows.

“…it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.” —Judges 11:40 excerpt

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Article Version: February 20, 2023