Jephthah’s Vow

“A mighty man of valor” (Judges 11:1) by the name of Jephthah made a vow to God.  Specifically he said, “If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30b-31; emp. mine).  As rash as this vow might be, Jephthah kept his word even though the first thing out of his doors was his only daughter. “He carried out his vow with her which he had vowed” (Judges 11:39).

This story distresses many people who find it hard to fathom the very idea that anyone would kill his daughter for a promise no matter how rash. Surely, God understands that he didn’t mean to sacrifice his only daughter.  Surely, this story must be misinterpreted.  Therefore, people look for an alternate explanation.

The prevalent alternate explanation for this story would have us believe that Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed but in reality sent to become a temple priestess.  This version would be consistent with his daughter lamenting her virginity since temple priestesses had to be virgins.  Never mind the fact that this idea is not found in the passages relating this story.

Certain words in this story are found to be suspect in translation in order to support the temple priestess conclusion.  For example, the word “whatsoever” is said to be more correctly translated “whosoever” in the vow.  That being the case, then it is argued that Jephthah knew he was making a vow involving a human sacrifice.  The vow was not rash because Jephthah (in his mind) was actually making a vow in which someone in his household would ultimately be redeemed.

The Old Law allows redemption for persons and property made in a vow (Lev. 27).  A close examination of this text reveals that a firstborn child could not be redeemed (Lev. 27:28).  According to the temple priestess explanation, Jephthah was distraught because he knew she could not be redeemed upon seeing her walk through the doors.  He must have wanted to see someone else come through the doors whom he could redeem.

Unfortunately for this explanation, a firstborn is not the only thing that could not be redeemed.  In fact, anyone set aside for destruction could not be redeemed either.  “No person under the ban, who may become doomed to destruction among men, shall be redeemed, but shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 27:29).  Jephthah vowed his daughter’s destruction in exchange for the destruction of the Ammonites.  Jephthah inadvertently put his daughter under the ban.

This would mean that Jephthah performed a human sacrifice.  It is correctly argued that God finds human sacrifices detestable (Deut. 12:31).  However, we must keep in mind that Jephthah made the vow to God.  God neither required the vow nor desired it but Jephthah on his own accord made it.  “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it; for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and it would be sin to you.  But if you abstain from vowing, it shall not be sin to you. That which has gone from your lips you shall keep and perform, for you voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth” (Deut. 23:21-23).  Jephthah did not sin in making the vow.  However, he would have sinned if he failed to keep his vow.  “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed-Better not to vow than to vow and not pay” (Eccl. 5:4-5).

Such vows were not unique in the Old Testament.  After Aaron’s death, King Arad, the Canaanite, attacked at Mount Hor.  “So Israel made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.  And the LORD listened to the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites, and they utterly destroyed them and their cities. So the name of that place was called Hormah” (Numbers 21:2-3).  Hormah literally means utter destruction.  How many innocent children died as a result of this vow?  Surely, it was more than one daughter.

It would seem that Jephthah was well acquainted with the laws concerning vows and redemption.  His vow specifically required a “burnt offering.” A vow offering had to be perfect without defect (Lev.22:21-25).  He also knew the same law made provisions for an unsuitable animal intended for sacrifice if that was what came through his doors (Lev. 27:11-13).  Does it make sense to imply that Jephthah intended to offer a human sacrifice when such an offering is against God’s laws?  Jephthah obviously had some animal in mind when he made the vow!

Unfortunately for Jephthah, he did not anticipate a person coming out his doors first.  He tore his clothes when he saw his only daughter come through the doors.  He immediately remembered his vow to God.  Bravely, his daughter encouraged him to keep his word but requested time to “bewail” or “lament” her virginity.  Those words are strongly related to death. Then the record says Jephthah “carried out his vow!”

God said, ‘“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD.  “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts”’ (Isa. 55:8-9).  A more suitable explanation is not to be found in scriptures for the obvious outcome of this story.  We might not like the fact that this story ends with an innocent person being sacrificed for her father’s promise.  But then again, wasn’t Christ an innocent person who was sacrificed for His Father’s promise (Gal.3:16-17)?

By Steve A. Hamilton
shamilton@rap.midco.net