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In Judges 11, Jephthah vows to give whatever comes out of the door of his house as a burnt offering.

Judges 11:30-40 (ESV) [emphases mine]

30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering."

34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances.

39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made.

  1. Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter? This clearly couldn't be the will of God (e.g. Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5, 32:35).
  2. What did Jephthah mean by his vow?
  3. Surely he knew who lived in his house, and had some expectations on what could come out of the door?
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There are several questions related on Biblical Hermeneutics and Judaism. –  Jon Ericson May 3 '12 at 21:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This is an odd passage, since, as you noted, he would certainly have known his household. Also, the Law of Moses strictly forbade human sacrifice, particularly the sacrifice of one's own children, categorizing it as an abomination before the Lord, so such an offering would never have been acceptable to God anyway.

It's interesting to note that the mourning of Jephthah's daughter and her companions was not for her life, but for her virginity; she would never have the blessing (it was still unequivocally considered a blessing back then) of having children. And verse 39 says "she had never known a man" in the ESV, but the KJV renders it in present tense: "[Jephthah] did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man"

Taken together, these points suggest that she may have been "offered to the Lord" in a different way: as a consecrated servant of God of some sort which would preclude her getting married and having children.

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"knew" is not present tense. –  Flimzy Sep 18 '11 at 6:54
    
@Flimzy: Umm... yeah, I suppose, but it's more present-ish than the tense used by the ESV. Formal names of verb tenses isn't really my strong suit. The basic idea here is that she continued to know no man. –  Mason Wheeler Sep 18 '11 at 11:48
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The ESV you quoted uses 'past perfect' tense. The KJV you quoted uses 'simple past' tense. I think the only difference here is that the KJV's point of reference is more ambiguous. In ESV, it's clear that "at that time she knew no man," where as KJV could mean "at that time she knew no man" or "for ever she knew no man." –  Flimzy Sep 18 '11 at 17:10
    
@Flimzy. If my memory is right, Hebrew inflects more for aspect than for tense, so translation can be tricky. –  TRiG Apr 4 '12 at 13:28

As you correctly pointed out, it would have been against God's will for Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter. (Deuteronomy 12:31) Yet the account shows that God approved of his vow. This is seen in that God’s spirit was acting upon Jephthah when he made his vow. (Judges 11:29) Right after Jephthah made the vow, God blessed his endeavor. (Judges 11:32) The Scriptures speak well of Jephthah for his faith and for the role he played in connection with the divine purpose. (1 Samuel 12:11; Hebrews 11:32-34) Therefore, Jephthah must not have meant a human sacrifice in a literal sense. Jephthah evidently meant that he would devote the one whom he met to the exclusive service of God. The Mosaic Law provided for the vowing of souls to God. For instance, women served at the sanctuary, perhaps drawing water. (Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22) Little is known about such service or even whether it was usually permanent. Jephthah apparently had such special devotion in mind when making his vow, and it seems that his promise implied permanent service. Jephthah’s daughter was determined to carry out her father's vow. The sacrifice included never getting married. For Jephthah, fulfilling the vow meant losing the company of his beloved only child. Judges 11:36-39. That Jephthah did not use his daughter as a human sacrifice is seen in that his daughter wept, not over her coming death, but over her "virginity". (Judges 11:38)

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Hi. Welcome to the site. Thanks for you answer but I don't understand your statement - "Jephthah must not have meant a human sacrifice in a literal sense" Isn't that what the words "burnt offering" would imply? –  Monika Michael Aug 2 '12 at 7:55
    
I am not saying that Jephthah did not make a reference to a human sacrifice with his words. I am saying that the context shows that his words were not meant to be taken literally. –  plv Aug 3 '12 at 6:04
    
@MonikaMichael This is way after the fact, but "hi" back and thanks for the welcome! Also thanks for the bounty. Let me know if there are still any points here that need more clarification or if you would like additional scriptural evidence. –  plv Sep 1 '12 at 5:42

To me the most convincing argument against Jephthah putting her daughter to death is the fact that she lamented her virginity, not an imminent death.

Jephthah may have had an opportunity to redeem his daughter as per the rules laid out in Leviticus 27. But he didn't do it, making him essentially respect the vow even while it wasn't easy. There's an entire chapter about valuations for redeeming a person on a special vow.

I found my way to this question about Jephthah's daughter when looking for an explanation to this verse:

Leviticus 27:29 (ESV)

No one devoted, who is to be devoted for destruction from mankind, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death.

This doesn't offer a direct answer to the original question, but I think this is a highly relevant commandment.

I came across interesting points made by Jeff Hamilton:

  1. The Hebrew word for devoted in this case is cherem: devoted to the ban (if anyone can confirm or debunk this, please do)
    • For example, the destruction of Jericho was done under a ban: nothing was to be taken from Jericho, except what was to be used in the Lord's service. Any person under the ban could not be redeemed. He had to be put to death.
    • According to Hamilton, the Hebrew word cherem is not used in the story of Jephthah's daughter.
    • On the contrary, Leviticus 27:28 discusses man that a man has devoted to the Lord – this would be the type of vow that Jephthah meant.
  2. Interesting, but probably wrong: As the first born child, Jephthah's daughter had been already been redeemed once, and thus couldn't be bought back again
    • Since she had already been redeemed as the first born child, she could not be bought back. I suppose this, at least, is wrong, because only a first born son is redeemed. Daughter isn't.
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According to other scholars the "and" can be translated "or" as well. So he promised to dedicate "whstever" came out the door OR if it wasnt a person the make burnt offering... which is also a dedication.

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This would be much stronger answer if you could cite external references supporting your answer. See What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Jun 5 '13 at 22:37

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