The story of Jephthah’s daughter is one of those stories that makes people pause and ask, “how could this happen in Israel?” Phillis Trible in her book Texts of Terror called the death of Jephthah’s daughter “an inhuman sacrifice (1984: 102)
I have written three posts on the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. The links to these three posts are listed below. Read the three posts and become better acquainted with the sad story of this young woman who gave her life to help her father fulfill a vow he had made to God.
For those who have never read the tragic story of Jephthah’s daughter, a brief introduction of the story as found in Judges, chapters 10:6-12:7 will show how tragic this story really is. The book of Judges begins the story of Jephthah’s daughter by introducing a brief genealogy of Jephthah, a genealogy that provides important information about his family background. Jephthah was the son of a prostitute. His half-brothers, the other sons of Jephthah’s father, despised him. Because Jephthah was rejected by his family and by his society, he eventually fled from his brothers to the land of Tob, a territory on the east side of the Jordan river.
While Jephthah was away from his family, lawless men joined Jephthah’s gang and traveled with him. These men banded together with Jephthah and went out raiding with him. When the Ammonites went to war against Israel, the elders of Gilead summoned Jephthah to fight for them against their enemies. When the delegation came to Jephthah, he said to the leaders of Gilead, “But you hated me and made me leave my father’s house. Why do you come to me now, when you are in trouble?” (Judges 11:7). The leaders of Gilead acknowledged that they were wrong. They pledged their loyalty to Jephthah and said that if he would fight against the Ammonites then he would become the leader of all the people who live in Gilead.
As he prepared to fight against the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow to God that if he would deliver the enemy into his hands, on his victorious return he would offer as a burnt offering “whatever” came forth from his house. The use of the word “whatever” in English translations is debatable.
In my post dealing with Jephthah’s vow, I say that instead of “whatever,” the context demands “whoever.” The reason for this change in translation is because “whatever” must be referring to a person rather than an animal. Some biblical translations use “whatever,” accepting the ambiguity of the Hebrew word. However, I fully embrace rendering the Hebrew word as “whoever” with its concluding interpretation. I also deal with the interpretation by some scholars who translate the word as “whatever” in order to support the view that Jephthah’s intent was to offer an animal as a sacrifice.
In my post I say that Jephthah’s daughter died a violent death at the hands of her father after returning from her two-month mourning period. The only explanation possible for the statement in the text that Jephthah “did to her as he had vowed” must be a reference to a burnt sacrifice of his daughter. This conclusion is based on the reading “whoever” instead of “whatever.”
My post also refutes the interpretation by some scholars who propose that Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed but remained alive as a virgin. This view is based on the statement in the text that Jephthah’s daughter had “never known a man.”
My conclusion about Jephthah’s daughter is that Jephthah would have expected to offer a human sacrifice in return for divine intercession in the battle against the Ammonites and he did so by burning his daughter as a sacrifice two months after his victory in battle.
In her book, Texts of Terror, Phyllis Trible said that the story of Jephthah’s daughter is one of those sad stories that do not have happy endings (1984: 2). The story of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter is a story that happened many years ago, centuries before the cross and centuries before the resurrection. Reading the story about Jephthah’s daughter should inspire a new generation of believers to work hard in order to eliminate violence against women in our society and around the world.
Posts on 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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