This is the third essay on Jephthah’s daughter.
To read the first article in the series, “Rereading Judges 11:31: The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter, click here.
To read the second article in the series, “Judges 11:39: The Fate of Jephthah’s Daughter,” click here.
This final essay on Jephthah’s daughter will deal with the issue of her virginity. There is no question that she was a virgin to the day of her death. On this issue, all scholars agree. The issue of her virginity is directly related to the manner in which she died. The translation of Judges 11:39 affects the way her death is interpreted. What follows is the way the RSV and the NIV translate Judges 11:39:
“And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made. She had never known a man” (Judges 11:39 RSV).
“After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin” (Judges 11:39 NIV).
To the average reader, the two translations are identical. The only difference in the two translations is found in the words translators use to describe her sexual condition: “she had never known a man” and “she was a virgin.” However, for the interpreter of the text, the way the text is translated affects the way the text is interpreted.
C. J. Goslinga (p. 391, note 182) explains how the translation of Judges 11:39 affects the interpretation of the text. Goslinga wrote:
It is hard to translate these words without opting for a particular interpretation of the text. The most obvious translation would be “and she had never known a man” (cf. RSV), but the preceding clause would then have to mean that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter. A more neutral but equally permissible translation would be “she had no relations with a man,” or “she was a virgin.” The meaning would be that she remained celibate her entire life and died a virgin. Such translation is therefore preferable. It does not contradict the thought that she was killed, but it also leaves open the possibility that she lived on as a virgin.
Goslinga is very clear: the translation of the RSV, “she had never known a man,” which he calls “the most obvious translation,” implies that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter. The translation of the NIV, “she was a virgin,” means that she was not sacrificed, but rather, that she remained celibate for the rest of her life.
The ambiguity of the text forces the interpreter to ask questions. Is the text saying that after she returned from her retreat she knew no man after that, that is, she never had sex until she died? Or is the text saying that she was sacrificed as a virgin?
C. F. Keil (p. 392) takes the former view. In his commentary of Judges, he wrote: “To mourn one’s virginity does not mean to mourn because one has to die a virgin, but because one has to live and remain a virgin.”
Keil then (p. 393) explains the words “and she knew no man”:
The 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 fulfilment 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.
Even Goslinga struggled in deciding what happened to Jephthah’s daughter. He waivered between the fact that the text requires her death and the view that it was hard to understand “how a man like Jephthah could have taken a vow that obligated him to offer a human sacrifice” (p. 395). He then concluded:
In my view the words of verse 39, which conceal more than they reveal, do not absolutely rule out the possibility of permanent separation. Jephthah’s daughter could indeed have been put to death, but there could also have been a mournful ceremony in which she was sent off into the desert to wither and die. The words “and she was a virgin” would then make clear what Jephthah’s decision did to her, and the custom reported in verse 40 could have been a means to lighten her unbearable fate a little by allowing her to have company for four days a year.
I sympathize with people who are uneasy with the outcome of this passage. It is hard to believe that a man endowed with the Spirit of God would offer human sacrifice to the God of Israel, but he did. Jephthah’s action should not be interpreted in light of the teachings of Jesus Christ. After all, Jephthah was a B.C. man.
The near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 reveals that the reality of human sacrifice was a possibility in the world in which ancient Israel lived. However, if Genesis 22 is a polemic against human sacrifice, then the greatest lesson to be learned from the near sacrifice of Isaac is that human sacrifice was not to be a part of the religion of the God of Abraham.
Jephthah’s daughter, unfortunately, was sacrificed as a burnt offering. The dedication of Samuel to God in 1 Samuel 1:11-28 is not a good precedent for the view that the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter was just a “spiritual sacrifice.”
The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter is not the focus of Jephthah’s narrative; the real focus of the story is the irrevocability of a vow. As Boling wrote (p. 209): “The fact of human sacrifice in Jephthah’s story is secondary to the theme of the irrevocability of the vow.” Although Boling believed that the “whatever” of verse 31 could be a reference to a domesticated animal, his view that the writer of the book of Judges is sympathetic with Jephthah, and his conclusion that the focus of the story is the writer’s portrayal “of Jephthah’s integrity in fulfilling his vow” (p. 210) is correct.
Christians will continue to discuss the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter and whether Jephthah actually offered his daughter as a burnt offering to God. Those who reject the view that she was not sacrificed, do so without much textual support.
The issue of how one views the fate of Jephthah’s daughter also affects the manner in which the text is translated. Bible translators cannot allow personal preferences to influence the way a text is translated. However, this is easier said than done.
Each translation is an interpretation of the text. The responsibility of the translator is to translate the text as the text appears in the manuscripts without conveying a meaning that is not present in the text.
For instance, to translate 2 Samuel 21:19, that Elhanan killed the brother of Goliath, as the TNIV does, is wrong because those words are not in the text. The words of Judges 11:31 and 11:39 are more difficult to translate because of the ambiguity already present in the text. The translator here must be faithful to the text and leave it to the interpreter yo decide what the text means.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Boling, Robert. Judges. The Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1975.
Goslinga, C. J. Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Bible Student’s Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1986.
Keil, C. F. Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950.