Rereading Judges 11:31: The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter

The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter
by Francisco Goya (1774)

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.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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11 Responses to Rereading Judges 11:31: The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter

  1. D. P. says:

    >Thank you for tackling this difficult passage for us. I recently finished editing an adult Sunday school lesson about Jephthah–quite a challenge!


  2. >D.P.,Thank you for visiting my blog. I agree with you: Jephthah’s story is difficult because of the questions it raises. I hope my post will help clarify some of the important issues of the story.Claude Mariottini


  3. Matt says:

    >Wow. You left us hanging! I really enjoyed your post. I look forward to reading “the rest of the story.”


  4. >D.V. I will be back to hear your conclusions!


  5. >Dear Matt and Larry,The rest of the story will be posted on Monday. Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini


  6. jake says:

    >Anytime there is the slightest doubt about interpretation of Torah texts one should go to the SOURCE of the text, Judaism. Just as it would be rediculous to ask the U.N. or China to explain the U.S. Constitution, so it is to look to Christian leaders for explanations to difficult Jewish texts. Under no circumstances was Jephthah permitted to sacrifice his daughter, nor could he obligate her to a course of behavior.


  7. Jon Per says:

    >Hello Dr. Claude,I found something interesting and with valid points in the following link: refers to Jephthah’s Daughter. It was written by Dave Miller, Ph.D.It says:”In Judges 11, Jephthah vowed to God that if he were victorious in battle, he would give to God whoever came through the doors of his house upon his return from battle. The term used in 11:31 is ‘olah, the normal Hebrew word for a burnt offering or sacrifice (used 286 times in the Old Testament). Did Jephthah intend to offer his daughter as a human sacrifice? Are the ethics of God and the Bible shown to be substandard by this incident?In the first place, if, in fact, Jephthah offered a human sacrifice, he did something that was strictly forbidden by Mosaic law and that is repugnant to God (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10). It would be a bit bizarre for Jephthah to think that he could elicit God’s favor in battle by promising to offer Him a human sacrifice, that is, to do something that was in direct violation of the will of God. Such a proposal would be equivalent to a person requesting God’s blessing and assistance by offering to rape women or rob banks. God certainly would not approve of such an offer—though He may go ahead and assist the individual (11:32). God allows people to make wrong choices, even while He works out His own higher will in the midst of their illicit actions. He can even use such people to achieve a higher good (consider, as one example, Judas). When Israel clamored for a king—in direct opposition to God’s will—He nevertheless allowed them to proceed with their intentions, and even lent His assistance in the selection (1 Samuel 8:7,18-19; 10:19; 12:19; Psalm 106:14-15; Hosea 13:11; Acts 13:21).Second, if Jephthah offered his daughter as a human sacrifice, no indication is given in the text that God actually approved of the action. The Bible records many illicit actions carried out by numerous individuals throughout history, without an accompanying word of condemnation by the inspired writer. We must not assume that silence is evidence of divine approval. Even the commendation of Jephthah’s faith in the New Testament does not offer a blanket endorsement to everything Jephthah did during his lifetime. It merely commended the faith that he demonstrated when he risked going to war. Similarly, the Bible commends the faith of Samson, and Rahab the prostitute, without implying that their behavior was always in harmony with God’s will. Abraham manifested an incredible level of faith on several occasions, and is commended for such (Romans 4:20-21). Yet he clearly sinned on more than one occasion (Genesis 12:13; 16:4; 20:2ff.).Third, Jephthah’s action may best be understood by recognizing that he was using ‘olah in a figurative sense. We use the term “sacrifice” in a similar fashion when we say, “I’ll sacrifice a few dollars for that charity.” Jephthah was offering to sacrifice a member of his extended household to permanent, religious service associated with the Tabernacle. The Bible indicates that such non-priestly service was available, particularly to women who chose to so dedicate themselves (e.g., Exodus 38:8). [Sadly, Eli’s sons were guilty of taking sexual liberties with them (1 Samuel 2:22).] Even in the first century, Anna must have been one woman who had dedicated herself to the Lord’s service, since she “did not depart from the temple” (Luke 2:37).Several contextual indicators support this conclusion. First, the two-month period of mourning that Jephthah granted to his daughter was not for the purpose of grieving over her impending loss of life, but over the fact that she would never be able to marry. She bewailed her virginity (bethulim)—not her death (11:37). Second, the text goes out of its way to state that Jephthah had no other children: “[S]he was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter” (11:34). For his daughter to be consigned to perpetual celibacy meant the extinction of Jephthah’s family line—an extremely serious and tragic matter to an Israelite (cf. Numbers 27:1-11; 36:1ff.). Third, the sacrifice is treated as unfortunate—again, not because of any concern over her death, but because she would not become a mother. After stating that Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed,” the inspired writer immediately adds, “and knew no man” (11:39). This statement would be a completely superfluous and callous remark if she had been put to death. Fourth, the declaration of Jephthah’s own sorrow (11:35) follows immediately after we are informed that he had no other children (11:34). Jephthah was not upset because his daughter would die a virgin. He was upset because she would live and remain a virgin.Hannah made a similar sacrifice when she turned her son over to the priestly direction of Eli for the rest of his life (1 Samuel 1:11). How many are willing to make such sacrifices? Actually, however, these tremendous acts of devotion were no greater than that which God requires of all Christians: to offer ourselves as spiritual burnt-offerings in service to God (Romans 12:1).”


  8. Jordanes says:

    >Anytime there is the slightest doubt about interpretation of Torah texts one should go to the SOURCE of the text, Judaism. Just as it would be rediculous to ask the U.N. or China to explain the U.S. Constitution, so it is to look to Christian leaders for explanations to difficult Jewish texts. ***The true source of the text is not Judaism, but the Holy Spirit. The text is not exclusively a Jewish one, but is also a Christian text.Under no circumstances was Jephthah permitted to sacrifice his daughter, nor could he obligate her to a course of behavior. ***The question isn't what Judaism would have permitted, but what Jephthah said and what Jephthah did. Since you recommend looking to Judaism for enlightenment here, perhaps you are not aware that the majority of rabbis have always taken for granted that Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering — a minority have argued that he kept her in perpetual celibacy.


  9. >Jordanes,The Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament is primarely a Hebrew Scripture and only then a Christian Scripture.The text is clear in saying that Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter. You do not have to be a Jew to understand what the text says.Claude Mariottini


  10. >Regarding what Jon Per quoted from,The quoted content argues that Jephthah was grief-stricken not by the prospect of losing his daughter, but by the fact that she would be a virgin and he would have no children to carry on his line, apparently a very grave thing for Israelites.It asserts she could not have been put to death:[After stating that Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed,” the inspired writer immediately adds, “She knew no man.” (11:39). This statement would be a completely superfluous and callous remark if she had been put to death.] It could be, she knew no man ever after because she was dead. The fact that he talks about men here is because he was speaking about her virginity in the first place. Following “She knew no man.” (11:39), is "And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite. (11:40)" I find it odd for people to be lamenting the virginity of Jephthah's daughter, unless you are saying she is the only one who can continue a sacred bloodline of Israel. Lament is usally used for a death, isn't it?It also argues that even if sacrifice was offered, it did not mean that God had accepted it. Well, if that is the case, then why does God "deliver them [the people of Ammon] into his hands, right after he promises the sacrifice?Here he offers the sacrifice of some thing i do not know."And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (11:30-31.)And what follows very explicitly is "So Jephthah advanced toward the people of Ammon to fight against them, and the LORD delivered them into his hands. (11:32)"Well, it could also mean the writer thought the victory was from the Lord, but in actual fact it was not, since God would not approve of the sacrifice in the first place. It was just a victory, but wrongly attributed to be victory at the strength of the Lord.I would like opinions over this. I am not trying to assert anything. If there's anything i really need to know do send it to my mail, indicated as my name above.


  11. >Dear Lancer,Thank you for visiting my blog. I have already dealt with these issues in the three posts I wrote on Jephthah's daughter. You can read those posts here, here, and here.Claude Mariottini


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