Jephthah’s vow, did he sacrifice his Daughter? By Jack Kettler
Did Jephthah kill his daughter? Many commentators believe that Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering. In this study, an alternative thesis will be put forward by citing some of the dissenting commentators and raising a few questions that make it unlikely that Jephthah did.
As in previous studies, we will look at scriptures, commentary evidence for the glorifying of God in how we live.
The section of Scripture for this study:
“Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon. And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord delivered them into his hands. And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus, the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel. And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! Thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back. And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon. And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.” (Judges 11:29-40) (Highlighting emphasis mine)
The textual highlighting is for emphasis that is crucial to a proper interpretation of Jephthah’s vow.
According to the next passage from Numbers, there appears to be no way out of a vow made unto the Lord:
“If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” (Numbers 30:2)
The above vow made by Jephthah appears to be airtight as far as negating it. If this is true, it would certainly seem to work against the dissenting view that Jephthah did not fulfill the vow in a literal way. Is there a way out of a vow made before God?
There is a provision for an unbiblical or rash vow:
“Or if a soul swear, pronouncing with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall pronounce with an oath, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty in one of these. And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing.” (Leviticus 5:4-5)
There is a way out and for those making unbiblical and rash vows. Consider the Benson Commentary on the passage from Leviticus:
Leviticus 5:4. If a soul swear — Rashly and unadvisedly, without consideration, either of God’s law or of his own power or right, as David did, 1 Samuel 25:22 : so the following word, לבשׂא, lebattee, rendered pronouncing, properly signifies, Psalm 106:33. The meaning is, whosoever shall, in a passion or otherwise, make an oath to do a person an injury, or to do him a kindness, and afterward, forgetting his oath, shall fail in the performance, so soon as he recollects himself he shall make atonement for his offence. In the case of threatening private revenge, or to do evil in any other way, the oath ought to be recalled, as being a thing in itself unlawful. But the person who thus rashly uttered that oath was involved in guilt, and needed to have his sin expiated. And for a similar reason he was punishable, if with an oath he promised to do any thing that was not in his power. It may also be understood of a person’s making a vow to do something either beneficial or hurtful to himself, as to fast, or afflict himself. For that is the sense of swearing to do evil, or to his own hurt. And it be hid from him — That is, if through forgetfulness he neglect punctually to perform what he promised on oath. When he knoweth it, he shall be guilty in one of these — As soon as he recollects himself, and comes to the knowledge of such an omission, he shall be obliged to expiate his offence by sacrifices, being guilty in one of these; that is, in one of the things which are forbidden to be done. (1)
Consider King David’s rash vow:
“God do so to the enemies of David and more also, if by morning I leave so much as one male of all who belong to him.” (1 Samuel 25:22ESV)
God provided a way out for David and his rash vow. Consider the Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament understanding of this passage:
However, intelligible David’s wrath may appear in the situation in which he was placed, it was not right before God, but a sudden burst of sinful passion, which was unseemly in a servant of God. By carrying out his intention, he would have sinned against the Lord and against His people. But the Lord preserved him from this sin by the fact that, just at the right time, Abigail, the intelligent and pious wife of Nabal, heard of the affair, and was able to appease the wrath of David by her immediate and kindly interposition.
1 Samuel 25:14-16
Abigail heard from one of (Nabal’s) servants what had taken place (בּרך, to wish any one prosperity and health, i.e., to salute, as in 1 Samuel 13:10; and יעט, from עיט, to speak wrathfully: on the form, see at 1 Samuel 15:19 and 1 Samuel 14:32), and also what had been praiseworthy in the behaviour of David’s men towards Nabal’s shepherds; how they had not only done them no injury, had not robbed them of anything, but had defended them all the while. “They were a wall (i.e., a firm protection) round us by night and by day, as long as we were with them feeding the sheep,” i.e., a wall of defense against attacks from the Bedouins living in the desert. (2)
As seen in 1 Samuel, Abigail intervened on David’s half, freeing him from the vow. Likewise, Phinehas the priest; at the time of Jephthah could have intervened and redeemed Jephthah’s daughter with a price. Besides, as seen in Leviticus 5:4-5 a substitute animal sacrifice would satisfy the demands of the vow. Did this intervention happen with Phinehas, the priest? We do not know. The scriptural record is silent, so nothing can be said without using an argument from silence.
What about Deuteronomy 12:31 and Exodus 20:13 and Jephthah’s vow?
Jephthah’s vow if in fact was about burning his daughter is contrary to, “Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12:31)
The passage in Deuteronomy speaks in particular about the people of Canaan and sacrificing children to their false gods. Despite its particular focus, the passage has implications for Jephthah and how he should have known that a human sacrifice breaks one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13). A typical father would surely be thinking about a way out of the vow. That is where Leviticus 5:4-5 would be relevant.
Because of this commandment in Exodus 20:13, the Israelites were forbidden never to worship God in the way of the Canaanites. It can be presumed that Jephthah was aware of these scriptural prohibitions since God had raised him up as a Judge and deliverer of Israel.
Consider Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible. Gill’s comments show the difficulty of solving the understanding of Jephthah’s daughter and his vow from Judges:
And it came to pass at the end of two months she returned to her father … For the request she made was not a pretense to make her escape out of his hands; but having done what she proposed to do, and the time fixed for it being come, she returned to her father’s house, and delivered herself to him:
who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: but what he did is a question, and which is not easily resolved; some think he really sacrificed her, through a mistaken sense of Leviticus 27:29 and which his action are accounted for through his living a military life, and in a distant part of the country, and at a time when idolatry had greatly prevailed in Israel, and to such a degree as it had not before, and no doubt that branch of it, sacrificing children to Molech; and Jephthah might think that though that was sinful, yet such a sacrifice might be acceptable to the Lord; and especially since his vow, as he thought, bound him to it; and how far the instance of Abraham offering up his son Isaac might encourage him to it, cannot be said: of this mind were Josephus (k), Jonathan Ben Uzziah the Targumist, and some other Jewish writers (l); and many of the ancient Christian fathers, and many modern authors of every name among Christians; and it has been thought that the story of Iphigenia, who Capellus (m) thinks is the same with Jepthigenia, that is, the daughter of Jephthah, and was slain by her father Agamemnon, having several circumstances in it similar to this, is taken from hence: and there is much such a case as this related (n) of Idomeneus, a king of the Cretians, who upon his return after the destruction of Troy, being in a tempest, vowed, should he be saved, that he would sacrifice the first he met with to the gods; and as it was his son he first met with, he sacrificed him; or, as others say, would have done it, but was prevented by the citizens, and who on this account drove him from his kingdom. But others are of opinion that what Jephthah did according to his vow was, that he shut up his daughter, and separated her from the company of men, and obliged her to live unmarried all her days, and therefore she is said to bewail her virginity. Kimchi and Ben Melech say, he built a house for her without the city, where she dwelt alone, and knew no man; and where her father supported her, and obliged her to live all her days; and Abarbinel thinks, that the Romanists from hence learnt to build their cloisters to put their nuns in; and so Ben Gersom interprets this vow of her being separated from men, and devoted to the service of God; and which is the sense of many Christian interpreters. Now though Jephthah had no such power over his daughter, as to oblige her to perpetual virginity, nor did his vow bind him to it; for persons devoted to the Lord were not obliged to abstain from marriage, nor have we any instances of a monastic life in those times, nor among the Jews at any time; yet as he did something not right, which he thought his vow obliged him to, one would be rather tempted to think, in charity to him, that of the two evils he did the least; for if she was put to death, it must be done either by the magistrates, or by the priests, or by Jephthah himself; neither of which is probable:
and she knew no man; never married, but lived and died a virgin: “and it was a custom in Israel”; the Targum adds, “that a man might not offer his son or his daughter for a burnt offering, as Jephthah the Gileadite did, and did not consult Phinehas the priest; for had he consulted Phinehas the priest, he would have redeemed her with a price;”’ so Jarchi, according to Leviticus 27:4 but each stood upon their honour, as the Jews say (o); Jephthah being a king would not go to Phinehas, and Phinehas being an high priest; and the son of an high priest, would not go to a plebeian; and so, between them both, the maiden was lost: but the custom refers to what follows.
(k) Antiqu l. 5. c. 7. sect. 10. (l) Bereshit Rabba, sect. 60, fol. 52. 3. Vajikra Rabba, sect. 37. fol. 176. 4. (m) De Voto Jephthae, sect. 12. (n) Alex. ab Alex. Genial. Dier. l. 3. c. 22. Servius in Virgil. Aeneid. l. 3. col. 693. in l. 11. col. 1634. (o) Bereshit Rabba & Vajikra, ut supra. (l)); Midrash Kohelet, fol. 81. 3. (3)
As Gill notes, “for if she was put to death, it must be done either by the magistrates, or by the priests, or by Jephthah himself; neither of which is probable.” Gill’s observations, highlight the interpretive difficulty in understanding the outcome of Jephthah’s vow. In the time of the patriarch Abraham, individuals could offer sacrifices. In Jephthah’s time, the priesthood, and tabernacle were in place, and individuals who were not part of the priesthood could not offer sacrifices. Jephthah was not a priest and therefore was not able to offer sacrifices. As seen later in redemptive history, God revoked Saul from being King over Israel for offering a sacrifice. See 1 Samuel 13:1-15:33.
Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on Judges 11:29-40 is a reasonable supposition to Jephthah’s vow:
11:29-40: Several important lessons are to be learned from Jephthah’s vow. 1. There may be remainders of distrust and doubting, even in the hearts of true and great believers. 2. Our vows to God should not be as a purchase of the favour we desire, but to express gratitude to him. 3. We need to be very well-advised in making vows, lest we entangle ourselves. 4. What we have solemnly vowed to God, we must perform, if it be possible and lawful, though it be difficult and grievous to us. 5. It well becomes children, obediently and cheerfully to submit to their parents in the Lord. It is hard to say what Jephthah did in performance of his vow; but it is thought that he did not offer his daughter as a burnt-offering. Such a sacrifice would have been an abomination to the Lord; it is supposed she was obliged to remain unmarried, and apart from her family. Concerning this and some other such passages in the sacred history, about which learned men are divided and in doubt, we need not perplex ourselves; what is necessary to our salvation, thanks be to God, is plain enough. If the reader recollects the promise of Christ concerning the teaching of the Holy Spirit, and places himself under this heavenly Teacher, the Holy Ghost will guide to all truth in every passage, so far as it is needful to be understood. (4)
Benson’s Commentary on the passage from Judges confirms the alternative thesis, namely, that Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed but remained in perpetual virginity:
Judges 11:39. Did with her — That Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed, but only devoted to perpetual virginity, appears. 1st, from Judges 11:37-38, where we read that she bewailed, not her death, which had been the chief cause of lamentation, if that had been vowed, but her virginity; 2d, From this verse, where, after the sacred writer had said, that he did with her according to his vow; he adds, by way of declaration of the matter of that vow, and she knew no man. (5)
Jephthah’s daughter said this, “Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.” (Judges 11:37)
It makes no sense for Jephthah’s daughter and her companions to bewail her virginity if she is about to be put to death. It does make sense to bewail her virginity if she is going to bound to be a perpetual virgin.
“And it came to pass at the end of two months that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man.” (Judges 11:39)
“And she knew no man” is an added on thought in the text. If she was sacrificed, it is a strange way of saying that she was killed as a burnt offering. If she was sacrificed, the added on thought offers unnecessary information. Instead of being unnecessary information, this added on thought may be textual evidence that the vow was not human sacrifice, but perpetual virginity.
Requirements for Levitical burnt offering and implications for Jephthah’s sacrifice:
When considering how at this point in redemptive history and the development of the priesthood and tabernacle, it becomes problematic for the actual sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter and should give pause and consideration of the alternative, interpretation, namely that his daughter and her perpetual virginity was the fulfillment of the vow.
Question: “What is a burnt offering?”
Answer: The burnt offering is one of the oldest and most common offerings in history. It’s entirely possible that Abel’s offering in Genesis 4:4 was a burnt offering, although the first recorded instance is in Genesis 8:20 when Noah offers burnt offerings after the flood. God ordered Abraham to offer his son, Isaac, in a burnt offering in Genesis 22, and then provided a ram as a replacement. After suffering through nine of the ten plagues, Pharaoh decided to let the people go from bondage in Egypt, but his refusal to allow the Israelites to take their livestock with them in order to offer burnt offerings brought about the final plague that led to the Israelites’ delivery (Exodus 10:24-29).
The Hebrew word for “burnt offering” actually means to “ascend,“ literally to “go up in smoke.” The smoke from the sacrifice ascended to God, “a soothing aroma to the LORD” (Leviticus 1:9). Technically, any offering burned over an altar was a burnt offering, but in more specific terms, a burnt offering was the complete destruction of the animal (except for the hide) in an effort to renew the relationship between Holy God and sinful man. With the development of the law, God gave the Israelites specific instructions as to the types of burnt offerings and what they symbolized.
Leviticus 1 and 6:8-13 describe the traditional burnt offering. The Israelites brought a bull, sheep, or goat, a male with no defect, and killed it at the entrance to the tabernacle. The animal’s blood was drained, and the priest sprinkled blood around the altar. The animal was skinned and cut it into pieces, the intestines and legs washed, and the priest burned the pieces over the altar all night. The priest received the skin as a fee for his help. A turtledove or pigeon could also be sacrificed, although they weren’t skinned.
A person could give a burnt offering at any time. It was a sacrifice of general atonement—an acknowledgement of the sin nature and a request for renewed relationship with God. God also set times for the priests to give a burnt offering for the benefit of the Israelites as a whole, although the animals required for each sacrifice varied. See got questions ***
Some additional Levitical references on The Burnt Offerings:
Leviticus 1:3 “Let him offer a male without blemish; he shall offer it of his own free will at the door of the tabernacle of meeting before the LORD.”
Leviticus 1:4-9 “Then he shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him. ’He shall kill the bull before the LORD; and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood and sprinkle the blood all around on the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of meeting . . . and the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD.”
Leviticus 1:6-9 “And he shall skin the burnt offering and cut it into its pieces. The sons of Aaron the priest shall put fire on the altar, and lay the wood in order on the fire. Then the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall lay the parts, the head, and the fat in order on the wood that is on the fire upon the altar; but he shall wash its entrails and its legs with water.”
In light of the above information on burnt offerings, it would have been impossible for a priest in Israel to accept Jephthah’s daughter for a burnt offering and follow the prescriptions of draining the blood, skinning and cutting it in pieces and burning the pieces over the altar all night and allowing the priest to keep the skin.
Additionally, the burnt offering required a male animal. “Ye shall offer at your own will a male without blemish, of the beeves, of the sheep, or of the goats” (Leviticus 22:19). The requirement of a male also makes it unlikely that Jephthah daughter became a burnt offering. The requirement of a male surely looked forward to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
Moreover, Jephthah’s vow was rash. As the commentator, Joseph Benson noted, “If a soul swear rashly and unadvisedly, without consideration of God’s law” (Leviticus 5:4). In verse 5 of Leviticus Chapter 5, the text shows that there was a way out of the rash vow.
Also, Jephthah continued as a Judge over Israel for several more years. The text says nothing about any outcry or complaints against the violation of God’s law if Jephthah did indeed sacrifice his daughter. Later in Judges, God chronicled Samson’s sins. Where the Scriptures say nothing or are silent, we must tread carefully.
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Joseph Benson, Benson Commentary of the Old and New Testaments, Leviticus, (New-York, New York, Published By T. Carlton & J. Porter, 1857), page online reference.
2. Keil-Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 1 Samuel, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Reprinted 1985), p.240-241.
3. John Gill, Exposition of the Old and New Testaments, Judges, 9 Volumes, Romans, (Grace Works, Multi-Media Labs), 2011, p.184-186.
4. Matthew Henry, Concise Commentary, Judges, (Nashville, Tennessee, Thomas Nelson), p.416-417.
5. Joseph Benson, Benson Commentary of the Old and New Testaments, Judges, (New-York, New York, Published By T. Carlton & J. Porter, 1857), page online reference.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.thereligionthatstartedinahat.com/
For more study:
** CARM theological dictionary https://carm.org/dictionary-hermeneutics
A majority view, contrary to the above thesis:
Jephthah’s Vow by Tim Chaffey at https://answersingenesis.org/bible-characters/jephthahs-vow/