Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?

Q. Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?  Or is the other point of view correct that says that she lived her life as a virgin and in that sense was sacrificed?

George Elgar Hicks, “The Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter” (1871)

Unfortunately Jephthah most likely did sacrifice his daughter after he vowed to make a burnt offering of “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph.”  The author of Judges includes this story as one of several horrific examples of what happened in the days when “Israel had no king” and “everyone did as they saw fit.”  These examples support the overall argument of the book, that the people need a king to help ensure that they will know God’s law and follow it.  As I explain further in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth:

* * * * *

It wasn’t unusual for an Israelite who was counting on the LORD to make a vow, as Jephthah does.  This was a promise to acknowledge God publicly when he brought deliverance.  Vows like this are described often in the Psalms, for example, in Psalm 66:  “I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you—vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble.”

There would have been nothing wrong with Jepthah’s vow if he had only known the law.  Moses allowed the Israelites to offer anyone or anything they wanted to the LORD in payment of a vow, but it specified that if they dedicated a human being, they had to “redeem” that person by offering the value of their labor instead.  (These regulations are found at the end of the book of Leviticus.)  Jephthah should have paid ten shekels of silver into the LORD’s treasury, rather than sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering.  But by now the Israelites were so used to Baal-worship, which included human sacrifices, that they were actually prepared to offer human sacrifices to the LORD–even though he had expressly forbidden them in the law.  And so Jephthah’s daughter suffers a horrific fate.

* * * * *

After offering this explanation, I then make these further reflections on the story of Jephthah:  “However, apart from his ignorance of the law and these tragic consequences, Jephthah is in other ways an exemplary judge.  He continually acknowledges the LORD as the one who delivered Israel in the past and who should be trusted to do so again.  The narrative says that the ‘Spirit of the LORD’ was on him, and that ‘the LORD gave [the Ammonites] into his hand.’  The book of Hebrews names him as a hero of the faith.”

In light of these observations, I ask these questions in the guide:

• Was Jephthah the best man he could have been, given his nation’s state of spiritual decline?  Or could he have been better?  If so, how?

• What consequences do you see in your own culture of an ignorance of God’s ways?  What activities are accepted, perhaps without question, that God doesn’t want people to practice?

What would you say in response to these questions?

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?”

  1. Then this is truly sad, horrific and unfortunate because Leviticus also talks about atonement for a rash vow made (whether good or bad) in 5:4-6. Still, those questions you’ve asked us do show us that a lot can be learnt even from stories like this and the lessons they teach us are relevant even today.

    1. You’re right, in addition to the possibility of “redeeming” his daughter by paying ten silver shekels, Jephthah also had the option of acknowledging that he’d made a rash vow and making a sin offering to cancel it. So in this case knowledge of the law would have given him and his daughter a couple of ways out of what he thought was a necessarily tragic situation. The laws of God provide freedom and deliverance from situations where we think there’s no way out but to choose the “least bad” option (which can be pretty bad, as this story shows).

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