Last week I wrote about the problem various versions of the Bible have in translating Judges 11:31. The proper translation of verse 31 is crucial to the understanding of the fate of Jephthah’s daughter. I am presupposing that you have read last week’s post; if you have not, I recommend that you do so as a background for today’s post. Click here and read my post, “Rereading Judges 11:31: The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter.”
Here is how the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates Judges 11:30-31:
30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering.”
Here is how the New International Version (NIV) translates Judges 11:30-31:
30 And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 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.”
The “whoever” of the RSV presupposes that Jephthah expected a human being to meet him. The “whatever” of the NIV presupposes that either an animal or a person would come out of the house. However, the “him” of the RSV and the “it” of the NIV makes clear that the translators of the NIV had an animal in mind.
On his return, Jephthah’s daughter came to meet him. In his distress, Jephthah bemoaned the fact that he will have to sacrifice her. His daughter asked permission to go away for two months, and upon her return, Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had made” (Judges 11:39).
The question to be asked is: If Jephthah did with his daughter what he vowed to do, what did Jephthah do with his daughter?
The simple answer is: he sacrificed her as a burnt offering to God. This is the simple meaning of the text. The promise that Jephthah made to God was that whoever came from his house to meet him, he would offer him up to the Lord as burnt offering. Or, as the Good News Bible puts it: “I will burn as an offering the first person that comes out of my house to meet me when I come back from victory. I will offer that person to you as a sacrifice” (Judges 11:31). The word עולה (‘olah) is often translated as a “holocaust” or “burnt offering.” When the offerer made an ‘olah sacrifice, the sacrifice was completely burned.
Some scholars disagree with the view that Jephthah’s daughter was sacrificed to God. They believe that verse 39 is not clear and that it does not tell what Jephthah did with his daughter. Thus, these writers believe that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering to God. In his commentary on Judges, Adam Clark 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.”
Clark emends the text to read that Jephthah will offer a sacrifice to the Lord to celebrate his victory against the enemies of Israel. The reason Clark does not believe that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to the Lord was because Jephthah was a pious man who was endowed with the Spirit of God (Judges 11:29). Since the Spirit of God was upon Jephthah, Clark said, “that Spirit could not permit him to imbrue his hands in the blood of his own child; and especially under the pretense of offering a pleasing sacrifice to that God who is the Father of mankind, and the Fountain of love, mercy, and compassion.”
His conclusion, then, is that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter to God, but consecrated her to serve the Lord in a state of perpetual virginity. His view is based on the words “she had never known a man” (v. 39). According to Clark, persons who were dedicated or consecrated to God would live in a state of celibacy until death.
C.F. Keil, in his commentary on Judges takes the same approach. Keil wrote:
And so, again, the still further clause in the account of the fulfilment of the vow, “and she knew no man,” is not in harmony with the assumption of a sacrificial death. This clause would add nothing to the description in that case, since it was already known that she was a virgin. The words only gain their proper sense if we connect them with the previous clause, he “did with her according to the vow which he had vowed,” and understand them as describing what the daughter did in fulfillment of the vow. The father fulfilled his vow upon her, and she knew no man; i.e., he fulfilled the vow through the fact that she knew no man, but dedicated her life to the Lord, as a spiritual burnt-offering, in a lifelong chastity.
Clark’s and Keil’s views are based on the interpretation of Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235), a Middle Age Jewish scholar, who believed that Jephthah had not sacrificed his daughter to God. Rather, Kimchi believed Jephthah dedicated his daughter to serve in one of the sanctuaries of the Lord as a virgin for the rest of her life.
A closer look at the text reveals that the better interpretation of what happened in this situation, and let it be told in Gath, was that Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter as an offering for the Lord.
Jephthah was a man without honor. He was the son of a prostitute (Judges 11:1) and was expelled from his father’s house because he was an “illegitimate son.” He was a man rejected by the leaders of Gilead because of his illegitimate birth and he became the leader of a group of men of low character who went out raiding with him.
Jephthah’s only honor was the honor of his word, but even this, some scholars are trying to take away from him. Jephthah said to his daughter: “Alas, my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow” (Judges 11:35).
In the society where Jephthah lived, a vow was sacred to God: “When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not be slack to pay it; for the Lord your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin in you” (Deuteronomy 23:21). The sacredness of a vow is also reflected in Psalm 15. The Psalmist asked: “O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent? Who shall dwell on thy holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). And the answer was: he “who swears to his own hurt and does not change” (v. 4).
Jephthah’s daughter recognized that her father had made a vow that could not be retracted. She said: “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth” (Judges 11:36). A Christian who lives by the teaching of Christ may recoil at the fact that a follower of the Lord actually sacrificed his daughter to God, but he did and in the end, he was praised as a hero of the faith in Hebrews 11:32.
The Lord delivered Israel not because Jephthah made a vow, but because the Lord desired to save his people. Jephthah’s fulfillment of his vow is due to his ignorance and lack of knowledge about the true nature of the God of Israel. Ironically, it is precisely in this act of being faithful to the promise he made to God that we can see Jephthah’s dedication to God.
Although human sacrifice does not appear in Israel until the days of Ahaz and Manasseh, Solomon dedicated temples to Chemosh and Molech (1 Kings 11:7), gods to whom human sacrifices were made. Human sacrifice was known in pre-monarchic Israel, but generally, it was dedicated to pagan gods.
There is no doubt that some people in Israel believed that human sacrifice was a great demonstration of faith and dedication to God. When the people asked the prophet Micah, “Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:7), their question assumes that some people believed that human sacrifice, under certain conditions, was acceptable to God.
So, the only obvious interpretation of Jephthah’s words, that Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had made” (Judges 11:39), is that Jephthah offered his daughter as a human sacrifice to God, and that in his mind and in the minds of some people in Israel, that kind of sacrifice was the best offering one could offer to God.
Next week I will conclude my study of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter with a study of the words “she had never known a man” (Judges 11:39).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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