The story of Jephthah is well known by readers of the Bible because of his willingness to sacrifice his daughter to celebrate his victory against the enemies of Israel (Judges 10:6-12:7). Jephthah was the commander of the Israelite army in Gilead at the time the Ammonites were oppressing Israel.
The leaders of Israel selected Jephthah to fight for them. After the Spirit of the Lord endued Jephthah with power to defeat Israel’s enemies, he went to war against the Ammonites, the people who had oppressed Israel for eighteen years.
Before going to war, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. In his vow Jephthah promised to make a sacrifice to the Lord in exchange for a victory against his enemies. Jephthah said:
“If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31 NRSV).
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah victorious from his war against the Ammonites, his only daughter came out in celebration to meet him. Jephthah was grieved by the fact that it was his daughter who came out to meet him. In grief, he tore his clothes and said: “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low” (Judges 11:35). Jephthah’s grief overwhelms his daughter; however, she does not lament her fate. Rather, she asks her father permission to go to the hills for two months to lament her virginity. After two months she returns, and Jephthah “did to her as he had vowed” (Judges 11:39).
The NIV and several other translations differ in the way they translate Judges 11:31. The intent of this change is to mitigate the moral dilemma raised by the fact that Jephthah, a man who is celebrated as a “hero of the faith” in Hebrews 11:32, makes a human sacrifice to Yahweh.
The NIV reads: “if you give the Ammonites into my hands, 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 11:30-31).
The “whoever” of the NRSV presupposes a person, a human being. The “whatever” of the NIV presupposes an animal. The following translations use “whoever”: LXX, BBE, CEV, NAB, NET, NRSV, and the RSV. The following translations use “whatever” or a similar word: ASV, CJB, CSB, ERV, ESV, GWN, JPS, KJV, NAS, NIV, NKJ, NLT, RWB, TNIV, and the TNK.
The Geneva Bible translates “that thing” and the New Jerusalem Bible translates “the first thing.” The Darby translation is neutral; it reads: “that which cometh forth.” The Revised English Version is also neutral: “the first creature that comes out of the door of my house.” The GNB is not neutral: “I will burn as an offering the first person that comes out of my house to meet me.”
So, the question arises: was Jephthah expecting an animal or a person to come out and meet him when he returned home victorious? Did Jephthah make a vow to offer a human sacrifice to God?
Adam Clarke in his commentary on Judges wrote: “Therefore it must be granted that he never made that rash vow which several suppose he did; nor was he capable, if he had, of executing it in that most shocking manner which some Christian writers (“tell it not in Gath”) have contended for.”
In order to demonstrate that Jephthah did not make a human sacrifice, Clark changes the Hebrew והעליתיהו עולה, “I will offer it a burnt-offering,” to והעליתי הוא עולה, “I will offer Him (i.e., the Lord) a burnt-offering.” This emendation changes the meaning of the passage. The revised text reads as follows: “Whatsoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, shall be the Lord’s; and I will offer Him a burnt-offering.”
Thus, the “whatever” translation removes the stigma of human sacrifice from the text. The “whatever” translation allows for an animal sacrifice to be made to God. The “whatever” translation also clears Jephthah from a barbarous act.
Jephthah’s words, however, clearly indicate that he intended to sacrifice a human being, not an animal, for only a person living in his household could be expected to come out and meet him. If Jephthah had intended to offer an animal sacrifice, he probably would have promised to offer the best of his flock.
It was common in the ancient Near East to celebrate victories with music. Israel, like all its neighbors, also celebrated victories in battle with music and dancing. Music and dancing served as a natural expression of joy. In Israel, dancing was part of the victory celebration as can be seen in the case of Jephthah’s daughter.
One example of the use of music and dancing in times of celebration is Miriam leading Israelite women in celebration at the time the waters of the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds) parted and allowed the people to cross the sea safely. After the Egyptians drowned in the sea, Miriam “took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing” (Exodus 15:20).
Another example of music and dancing to celebrate victory in battle is found in 1 Samuel 18:6. When Saul and David returned home after their victory against the Philistines, “the women came out … with singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments” (1 Samuel 18:6).
The “Song of Deborah” could also be considered a song of celebration, even though the text does not say that the women came out to meet Deborah and Barak with music and dancing after their victory against Sisera and the army of the Canaanites.
Thus, when Jephthah returned home victorious from his struggle with the Ammonites, his daughter came out to meet him, dancing to the sound of tambourines (Judges 11:34). This was the custom in Israel: when the people were victorious against their enemy, the victory was celebrated with music and dancing. But Jephthah probably expected a servant to come out and welcome him, not his only daughter.
So, Jephthah fulfilled his vow to the Lord. When his daughter returned home after two months in the mountain, Jephthah “did to her as he had vowed” (Judges 11:39).
But, an important question must be asked in the fulfilling of Jephthah’s vow. If Jephthah did to his daughter what he had vowed to do, then, what did Jephthah do? And there is a lot of debate about the answer to this question and to what happened to Jephthah’s daughter.
Next week I will come back to this text again and discuss the fate of Jephthah’s daughter.
NOTE: For other studies on the Book of Judges, read my post Studies on the Book of Judges.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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