Would, or did, the Lord require or accept the sacrifice vowed by Jephthab—his daughter?
Judges chapter 11 is one of the most debated passages in the Bible. Before we consider the specifics of your question, we should review the background of the story. After God’s Chosen People entered and fought for the Promised Land of Canaan under Joshua, individuals known as judges ruled for a long period of time (at least three centuries). These individuals delivered the Israelites after periods of time in which the Chosen People would move away from God and disobey Him, embracing heathen worship, for example. Then God would send enemy peoples living around the Israelites to conquer His people until the judges delivered them after the Israelites cried out to God.
Of the twelve judges who ruled, the most familiar are Gideon and Samson. Yet we find Jephthah mentioned in the great hall of faith in Hebrews 11 (v. 32). He, like Rahab also mentioned in Hebrews 11, didn’t have much going for him as far as his background was concerned. An illegitimate child, he was mistreated, forced out of his home, and deprived of any future inheritance. Thus he joined a band of roving rogues. Yet God chose to use him to deliver Israel the next time around. God’s choice of Jephthah might encourage someone reading this column. That person might have been thinking for a long time, “God doesn’t accept me because of my past or my ancestry. I’ll never get to serve God.” But so often God uses this kind of person. Any believer who desires to serve God and is willing to follow Him can be used in His service.
Jephthah apparently distinguished himself as a leader of the roving band of men he belonged to. The Israelites wanted him to lead their next battle, this time with the Ammonites. Isn’t it interesting how recognition comes on the heels of rejection? The turn of events obviously surprised Jephthah, who replied to the elders of Gilead who wanted him for his military prowess, “Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father’s house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress?” (Judg. 11:7).
Nonetheless, Jephthah accepted the responsibility, and with God’s enabling the Israelites defeated the Ammonites. Before fighting the Ammonites, Jephthah sincerely attempted to reason with them. But he got nowhere. This attempt shows a reasonable, level-headed man.
We do not know how well Jephthah knew God. It is likely he desired to serve God and realized the need to depend on Him for strength. Next comes an act on Jephthah’s part that has caused much speculation. He vowed to the Lord that if God would grant victory in the battle with the Ammonites, he would offer as a sacrifice whatever came first to the door of his house when he returned home after the battle. Some scholars believe this vow showed genuine dependence upon God; others view the vow as rash and foolish. It appears that God never required the vow; on the other hand, there is no evidence of condemnation toward Jephthah for making the vow. As we see, Jephthah also, to his credit, kept the vow.
So what came to the door of his house first after he returned from the battle? Actually the word “who” would be more appropriate, for it was his only daughter. What consternation Jephthah must have felt:
When he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! . . . I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back (11:35).
The question immediately comes to mind, Did Jephthah really offer his daughter as a human sacrifice? Some sound Bible students answer yes. Others say no. Your original question can be resolved if the answer to this additional question is no. If the answer is yes, we find no concrete evidence that the Lord either accepted or rejected the sacrifice. We have already noticed that nothing indicates He required it.
Let’s look at the arguments supporting a “no” answer to whether or not Jephthah sacrificed his daughter. First, such a sacrifice was contrary to the Mosaic law; the evidence suggests Jephthah respected God, was a sane person, and would have known God would be displeased (read Deuteronomy 12:31). Sacrificing children was an abomination to God. When God tested Abraham by telling him to offer his son Isaac, God prevented Abraham from completing the act (see Genesis 22).
Second, the daughter (an obedient child who would do whatever her father had vowed) did not understand her father’s promise to mean she would be a burnt sacrifice. Rather, she understood it as a promise that she would never marry. In other words, she bewailed the fact that she would never have a man, not that she was to die. Judges 11:39 indicates that the daughter carried out this promise. Those arguing in favor of a human sacrifice in this incident need to note a possible (even probable) interpretation of verse 31 involving the word “and,” which in the original can mean “or.” If this is the correct use of the word, then Jephthah meant he would do one of two things: he would offer a gift to the Lord, or he would offer a burnt offering. The first part would refer to what he would do if a human met him; the second part would refer to what he would do if an animal came first.
Third, those offering the sacrifice—priests—would have objected to such an attempted sacrifice. The public, as well, would likely not have stood for it.
Fourth, even if the daughter had initially been sentenced to human sacrifice, her sentence could have been commuted from death to lifelong celibacy. We do know that tabernacle service existed (1 Sam. 2:2 2).
Those believing this event involved the human sacrifice of the daughter think that their position represents the most natural reading of the text. They also point to the fact that Jephthah had great grief (Judges 11:34, 35) and argue that this grief would come only from the resultant literal sacrifice of his daughter. (Those against this position believe Jephthah could have grieved so strongly over the fact that he would never have descendants. In that day, people considered offspring extremely important.)
Other arguments favoring the actual sacrificing of the daughter include the contention that people living east of the River Jordan were separated from the influence of the tabernacle and would indeed have been ignorant of God’s laws concerning human sacrifice. They were heathen. In a similar vein, they argue that Jephthah was not as respectful of God and His law as others have believed. Being familiar with God’s law did not guarantee that Jephthah did not break it. After all, David, the man after God’s own heart, violated the law in his sin with Bathsheba.
As I’ve already indicated, there are good students of the Word on both sides of this issue. When we get to Heaven we can find out the answer. But let’s learn the lesson from Jephthah for us today: We must keep our vows to the Lord and to others. It is appalling how flippantly Christians make various promises and don’t keep them. Many of us undoubtedly need to make more resolutions, but then we need to take our resolutions seriously. For example, if you dedicated your life to full-time Christian service at some point in your life, then you had better keep that vow if the Lord so leads. Whatever your commitment, keep it! “Make vows to the Loan your God, and pay them; let all who are around Him bring presents to Him who ought to be feared” (Ps. 76:11, NKJV).
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