The story of Jephthah’s daughter is a story filled with sadness and pain. Jephthah was a great warrior and he served as one of the judges in Israel. When the elders of Gilead asked Jephthah to go with them and fight against the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow to Yahweh and bargained with him for success in battle. Jephthah made a vow to Yahweh: “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 11:31).
With the help of the Spirit of Yahweh, Jephthah successfully defeated the Ammonites. When he returned home, his daughter came out to greet and welcome him with dancing. Since his daughter was the first to greet him, Jephthah was overcome with grief. He said to her, “Ah! my daughter! I am crushed with sorrow, and it is you who are the chief cause of my trouble; for I have made an oath to the Lord and I may not take it back” (Judges 11:35).
His daughter became aware of the vow her father had made to God. She asked her father to allow her to have two months so she could go away into the mountains with her friends and mourn for her sad fate.
After two months she returns home to her father. Then, Jephthah, as he had vowed, sacrificed her as he had promised to God. Jephthah sacrificed his only child to Yahweh.
Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron), in his book Hebrew Melodies, published in 1815, wrote a poem dedicated to Jephthah’s daughter. Hebrew Melodies is a collection of 30 poems that was written to be part of a musical about Hebrew worship. Below is Byron’s poem about Jephthah’s daughter:
Since our Country, our God— Oh, my Sire!
Demand that thy Daughter expire;
Since thy triumph was bought by thy vow—
Strike the bosom that’s bared for thee now!
And the voice of my mourning is o’er,
And the mountains behold me no more;
If the hand that I love lay me low,
There cannot be pain in the blow!
And of this, oh, my Father! be sure—
That the blood of thy child is as pure
As the blessing I beg ere it flow,
And the last thought that soothes me below.
Though the virgins of Salem lament,
Be the judge and the hero unbent!
I have won the great battle for thee,
And my Father and Country are free!
When this blood of thy giving hath gush’d,
When the voice that thou loved is hush’d,
Let my memory still be thy pride,
And forget not I smiled as I died!
Although Byron’s poems were not meant to be religious and although Byron used his own imagination in developing the story of Jephthah’s daughter, the poem presents a side of the young woman that one seldom finds in the literature about Jephthah. I will cite three examples.
First, Jephthah’s daughter said: “If the hand that I love lay me low, There cannot be pain in the blow.”
According to Byron, the young woman here makes an attempt at helping her father deal with his distress and with her death by saying that she loves him, even though he is sacrificing her. Because of her love for her father, “There cannot be pain in the blow.” The pain is not hers, but his, as he sacrifices his only daughter.
Second, Jephthah’s daughter said: “I have won the great battle for thee, And my Father and Country are free!”
According to Byron, Jephthah’s victory against the Ammonites came, not because of the bravery of Jephthah, but because of his daughter’s death. In a sense, the young woman is saying that without her death there would be no victory against Israel’s enemy: “I have won the great battle for thee, And my Father and Country are free!”
Third, Jephthah’s daughter said, “Let my memory still be thy pride, And forget not I smiled as I died!”
According to Byron, Jephthah’s daughter was not angry or bitter at her father. Although she was giving her life for father and country, she did so willingly. At the end of her life, Jephthah’s daughter affirms her determination to give her life for father and country by exhorting her father not to be sad for having sacrificed his only daughter: “Let my memory still be thy pride, And forget not I smiled as I died!”
With a smile on her face, Jephthah’s daughter gave her life for her country and her father.
The hero of Israel’s victory against the Ammonites was not Jephthah; according to Byron, the hero was his daughter.
NOTE: Read my previous studies on Jephthah’s daughter: The Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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