Many have wondered about the account of Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11). Did Jephthah, judge of Israel, actually sacrifice his daughter to God? Above all, what is the lesson for us today?
The place: ancient Palestine. The time: about 1100 B.C. The cast of characters: ancient Israel, a divided and quarreling people consisting of many tribes; the Ammonites, formerly Israel's eastern neighbors, now her oppressors; Jephthah, a judge of Israel, the son of a prostitute. In return for God's granting victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah promises to sacrifice to God the first one who greets him upon his return from battle. To his dismay, his daughter, an only child, is the first to greet him. True to his vow, Jephthah offers his daughter as a burnt offering, a tragic event which was still being commemorated by the women of Israel when the book of Judges was written (see Judges 11:40). The story of Jephthah's daughter is not only tragic, but seems so unusual that many have not been able to believe that the girl was actually sacrificed. Though the earliest Christian and Jewish commentators all seem to have accepted the story at face value, the medieval Jewish commentator David Kimchi was apparently the first to suggest that rather than having sacrificed his daughter, Jephthah merely kept her a perpetual virgin. Many subsequent writers have agreed with this idea (Keil and Delitzsch, Biblical Commentaries on the Old Testament, vol. 4, pp. 358-359). Some puzzling questions surround the story of Jephthah's daughter: Why would God grant victory to a man who had vowed a human sacrifice to Him? Did Jephthah really vow to sacrifice a human being, or was it in actuality an animal sacrifice? Actually, the Hebrew text at this point is ambiguous: it could refer to either a human being or an animal. The ambiguity is obvious when one compares modern translations of Judges 11:31: "... 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" (RSV); "... anything coming out the doors of my house to meet me, when I return with victory from the Ammonites, shall belong to Yahweh; I will offer it up as a burnt offering" (Anchor Bible). Either translation is possible, so we cannot necessarily conclude that Jephthah deliberately vowed to offer a human being as a sacrifice to the God of Israel. Notice also that both translations (as well as most other translations and commentaries) agree on the translation of "burnt offering." The Hebrew word olah used here is the common one used throughout the Old Testament to refer to a whole burnt offering (Brown, Driver, Briggs, Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 750). Thus we can be reasonably sure that Jephthah indeed intended to offer something in sacrifice to God upon an altar. Now modern archaeology has shed some new light on the matter. From excavations in Palestine of sites from the biblical period, we know that houses often had an enclosed courtyard where animals and supplies were kept. Thus Jephthah could well assume that the first creature to meet him upon his return would be an animal suitable for sacrifice (R. Boling, Judges, p. 208). But to his sorrow and dismay, his daughter, who had probably heard the news of his victory, was the first to come out! Did Jephthah then really sacrifice his daughter to God? The author of Judges does not directly say so; he merely tells us that Jephthah "did with her according to his vow which he had made" (verse 39, RSV). The author seems to leave the outcome to the reader's imagination. We might conclude with most commentators that Jephthah actually fulfilled the promise he had made-a vow to God must be kept! Verse 38 tells us that his daughter bewailed her virginity for two months; this was probably because she was to die childless. What lesson can this tragic and gruesome account have for us today? Certainly that one should never make rash and hasty promises that later must be kept, sometimes at great expense. But the lesson goes much deeper. The book of Judges portrays all of the judges as having some character defect or liability: Samson had a great weakness for foreign women that proved his undoing; Gideon lacked the confidence he should have had in God; Jephthah himself was the son of a prostitute, as well as prone, evidently, to making rash vows. Yet the book of Judges shows how people with all their defects could still be used by the God of Israel to accomplish His purpose, and how He could deliver Israel through the hand of a man who might even sacrifice his own daughter. The message of Judges, and of the story of Jephthah and his daughter, is one of more than simple bloodshed. It is the story of how God can use even the weakest of human beings for His own great purpose.