Jephthah was one of the judges of Israel during the oppression of the Ammonites. He made a vow to the Lord, saying, “Whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31, NIV).
When Jephthah returned from the battle his daughter came out to welcome him home. God had given him victory in was, and now Jephtah had to offer this daughter of his as a burnt offering to Him. When the young woman learned her fate, she asked for two months to mourn her virginity.”After the two months when she returned, her father did to her as he had vowed” (verse 39, NIV).
But a question: Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering to God? Would God accept a burnt offering?
Most translations imply that he offered her as a sacrifice. Others insist that he did not. Here are the arguments and counterarguments as compiled by Angel Manuel Rodriguez.
- The Character of Jephthah: In Judges Jephthah is in verse 24 described as a principled man who obeyed the Lord. He favored negotiation over war (verses 12-14, 27). In the New Testament specifically in Heb. 11:32 he is listed among the heroes of faith. This man of God could not have offered his daughter as a sacrifice.
Those who believe that he sacrificed her argue that we have to take into consideration the time during which Jephthah lived. The period of the judges was a time of spiritual blindness, according to Judges 21:25 “everyone did as he saw fit”. Jephthah was doing what he thought was right without consulting the Lord.
- The Intention of the Vow: Some suggest that Jephthah did not vow to offer a human sacrifice to God. He said, “Whatever comes out of the door,” not “Whoever comes out.” Indeed the NKJV uses “whatever” instead of “whoever”, KJV uses “whatsoever”, implying that he thinking about one of his animals.
However, the Hebrew word asher can also read “whoever”. Furthermore Jephthah was describing someone who would “come out of the door of my house to meet me.” (v31) So he seems to have had in mind a person.
- Two Options in One Vow: Some suggest that the phrase “will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” should be translated, “will be the Lord’s [if it is a person], or I will sacrifice it [if it is an animal] as a burnt offering.” But the form of grammar used in Hebrew does not support that view. Others have suggested that Jephthah was promising to consecrate to the Lord whatever came out first and in addition to offer a burnt offering, so that they are two separate things. Again this is difficult to prove from the Hebrew text.
- In verse 39 we read that the daughter mourned for virginity for two months and returned to her father, and he did as he had vowed. But then the text adds, “And she was a virgin,” suggesting that Jephthah did not sacrifice her but rather dedicated her to the Lord, making her remain a virgin the rest of her life. All the text seems to be saying is that when her father fulfilled his vow—sacrificed her as a burnt offering—she was still a virgin. Why mention she was a virgin? Because she was Jephtah’s only child, and so Jephtah was loosing his own bloodline unless he had another child, which was a really big deal in Hebrew culture.
So from all indications, though many peopl try to manipulate the text to give it a more humane face by saying she was confined to the life of a virgin, the Hebrew text itself strongly suggests otherwise. Let us remember that this is not a story about God wanting human sacrifice. God never once asked for a human sacrifice in his whole sacrificial system. Also, God condemns it in passages like Lev 20:2 – 5, and 1 Kings 11:4 – 11. Look at v 29: the Holy Spirit came upon Jephtah to give him victory over his enemies, not to inspire him to perform any kind of sacrifice whatsoever.
This is a story about a brave warrior who made an unwise promise and paid the price for it. The lesson is not that God likes human sacrifice; the lesson is that we must learn the true nature of God, so we only offer him what is acceptable in worship. Also, we should not make hasty, unconsidered promises to anybody, let alone to God.
My name is Agana-Nsiire Agana. For explanations to other difficult Bible passages please visit our website: www.provingallthings.org
Until next time, keep studying. Prove all things, and hold fast what is good!