Jewish and Christian scholars alike present many opinions and interpretations of the story of Jephthah and his daughter. The ambiguity of the text and the fact that her sacrifice is not described in detail have led to much debate. Some believe that she was literally sacrificed; some maintain that she was dedicated as a living sacrifice to God. Some believe that the vow was valid and Jephthah was bound to it; some believe that it was fallible and therefore had no credibility. Some believe that the vow was righteous; some believe that Jephthah sinned in upholding it. The tragedy of Jephthah's vow and the sacrifice of his daughter is a highly debated topic among religious scholars.
Early Jewish scholars unanimously agreed that Jephthah had literally offered his daughter as a burnt sacrifice. This view was not challenged until the middle ages, when a number of Rabbis including David Kimhi "endeavoured to establish the view, that Jephthah merely dedicated his daughter to the service of the sanctuary of Jehovah in a lifelong virginity." (C.F. Keil & F. Delitzch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. James Martin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 388) Jephthah's mourning is then explained by the fact that "her father's race perished with her" (G.A Cooke, Judges, Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges (Cambridge: University Press, 1918), 124) when she eventually died, because she was a virgin. In this interpretation, it is the hope of succession within his household which becomes the ultimate sacrifice rather than the child herself. This view is challenged by those who point out that in the same way Isaac was referred to as the yehid (only son) of Abraham, so too is Jephthah's daughter the yehidah (only daughter) of Jephthah. Thus, she was not necessarily the only child born to him, for Abraham also had a son named Ishmael, but she was his favorite or beloved, as Isaac was to Abraham.
The girl's retreat to the mountains poses a number of questions that pertain to the meaning of the vow. It would seem to those who do not take the sacrifice to be literal that if she had been facing a sacrificial death, it would have been contrary to human nature and to custom that she should go up into the mountains to bewail her virginity for two months. She would rather have wanted to spend time with her father. Moreover, "to mourn one's virginity does not mean to mourn because one has to die a virgin, but because one has to live and remain a virgin." (Keil & Delitzch, 392) However, those who take the vow literally contend that if she was only intended to live a life of celibacy, she would not have needed a period of two months to mourn her virginity; she would have plenty of time to mourn her virginity throughout the rest of her life. A unique interpretation is presented by Gustav Baström. Since, he suggests, one only bewails that which one has lost or is about to lose, the fact that the girl went up into the mountains to bewail her virginity suggests that she was to be dedicated as a sacred prostitute. (Boström, Gustav. Proverbiastudien (DATE): 116; quoted in David Marcus, Jephthah and His Vow, (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1986), 31, n. 7) Also unique, interpretation presented in the Mishnah suggests that the daughter did not go up to the "mountains," but rather to the elders "in the hope that they would absolve her father from his vow." (Midrash Rabbah, vol. 3, Exodus, trans. S. M. Lehrman (New York: Soncino Press, 1983), 163)
Whether literally sacrificed as a burnt offering or only dedicated, the intensity of the vow is made clear by Jephthah's reaction as he realizes his daughter is to be the offering. Such reaction leads the reader to wonder if he had considered the possibility that his daughter would be the one to greet him. However, the language of his vow reveals that it was not flippantly made. It would seem that Jephthah intended to offer a human sacrifice for "beasts do not dwell in houses." (W.B. Riley, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Bible of the Expositor and the Evangelist, vol. 4 (Cleveland, OH: Union Gospel Press, 1927), 261) Augustine points out that "it is not, and was not, a customary thing for sheep to come out to meet a victorious general returning from the war. Nor did he say, I will offer as a
holocaust whatever shall come out of the doors of my house" (Augustine, quoted in C.F. Keil & F. Delitzch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960.Keil & Delitzch)385, n. 50) but rather whoever comes out. The grammatical structure of the oath suggests that he had at least considered the possibility that a human being would come to meet him, and likely assumed it probable. J.H.A. Bomberger maintains, however, that it was a two-part vow made by Jephthah: if a human being should come out of the house, it would be the Lord's, and if an animal came to meet him, it would be offered as a burnt offering. This interpretation may seem favorable, but is not supported by other scholars. The majority hold that "the two clauses . . . cannot be taken disjunctively . . . but the second clause simply contains a more precise definition of the first,-- Jephthah must at the very outset have contemplated the possibility of a human sacrifice." (Keil & Delitzch, 389)
In Eerdmans commentary, Dunn poses that the vow made by Jephthah was an attempt at manipulating Jehovah, so as to secure an insurance policy for the battle. Thus the sacrifice of his daughter is a "severe lesson" towards "one who has tried to manipulate Yahweh, pinning the Deity down by the oath." (James D.G. Dunn & John W. Rogerson, Judges Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 197) However, while Jephthah sees the desired result in his battle with the Ammonites, the cost is so great that the whole progress of events is seen in a tragic, negative light. Another suggestion has been made by Bomberger:
"The vow itself is an expression of his burning zeal to save Israel. He wishes to thank God with all his heart . . . If, then, his vow brings a great sorrow upon Jephthah, God no doubt wishes to inculcate some great principle . . . In his zeal . . . Jephthah cannot remember any particular object sufficiently valuable to dedicate unto God. He therefore
leaves it to God to point out the sacrifice. He vows with all his heart; God accepts the vow, and suffers it to be realized in a manner which went beyond the expectations of Jephthah." (J.H.A. Bomberger, ed., "Jephthah," The Protestant Theological and Ecclesiastical Encyclopedia: A Condensed Translation of Herzog's Real Encyclopedia, vol 2 (Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1860), 696)
Jephthah's zeal does not negate the fact that the vow included possibilities, in fact, probabilities, that were contrary to the law. Even if he had not considered that his daughter should come to meet him, the vow was unfitting for "had a camel or an ass or a dog come forth, [Jephthah] wouldst have offered it up for a burnt offering! [The Lord therefore] answered Jephthah unfittingly and prepared his daughter for him." (Midrash Rabbah, vol. 2, Genesis, trans. S. M. Lehrman (New York: Soncino Press, 1983), 527) Can it be said, then, that Yahweh required a human sacrifice? Most scholars agree that Jephthah's vow was voluntary on his part and not by the initiative of God; it was neither demanded by God, nor did He delight in it. Unlike the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, "the deity never called out or spoke to [Jephthah]. He received no direction from the deity, [and] without direct communication to the contrary, Jephthah believed his vow to have been legitimate, successful, and, therefore, one that must be fulfilled." (Tammi J. Schneider, Judges, Berit Olam (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), 178)
Assuming, as most scholars do, that human sacrifice was abhorrent to Israel, a vow to make a human sacrifice would surely have been against the law. The vow is therefore sometimes approached as fallible and not binding. The Midrash states clearly that Jephthah was a fool who did not know how to distinguish between the different kinds of vows, else he would have been able to determine that his vow was invalid. (Midrash Rabbah, vol. 8, Ecclesiastes, trans. S. M. Lehrman (New York: Soncino Press, 1983), 126) However, "the Bible seems not to fault him for honoring [the vow] once it was uttered." (Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 16) One might expect some condemnation of Jephthah in the text after he put his daughter to death if he had done so in disobedience to the law. Instead, he is listed in Hebrews 11:32 among the saints. This tension has raised a need for some scholars to legitimate his vow as valid rather than fallible, for any dispute of the legitimacy of his vow causes a contention with the Hebrews scripture. (Schneider, 179) Jephthah and his daughter understood the oath as an obligation that could not be nullified. In their obedience to this belief and their surety that God had acknowledged the vow when he gave a decisive victory to the Israelites, they showed obedience, ultimate commitment, firmness and determination, all of which may be seen as positive attributes for those who are in the service of Jehovah.
It is possible that if the vow was valid, God had provided a method by which Jephthah could both fulfil his vow and save his daughter - a method which Jephthah either knew nothing about, chose not to apply, or believed could not be applied. According to the book of Leviticus, the price of a female's life had already been established at 30 shekels of silver to be given to the Sanctuary (Lev 27:4). Having just won this great battle, Jephthah could have easily afforded the required 30 shekels of silver. It is a tragedy, then, that he did not know the Word of the Lord well enough to recognize this. Jephthah is therefore "a man who had saved his country by loyalty to the Lord, and knew not how to save himself, in his ignorance of His Word." (Riley, 265) It is further suggested by another Rabbi that even her "monetary consecration" was not required, "for we learned: If one declared of an unclean animal or an animal with a blemish: 'Behold, let these be burnt-offerings,' his declaration is completely null." (Midrash Rabbah, vol. 2, Genesis, 527) According to this belief, Jephthah should have sold the unacceptable sacrifice of his daughter and bought with the money a proper burnt offering.
It is possible that Jephthah could have considered it impossible to redeem his daughter. In his translation of The Works of Josephus, Whitson points out in a footnote that things devoted to destruction could not be redeemed. (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, in The Works of Josephus trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 144. The reference is to Lev. 27:29) If Jephthah had considered his daughter to be within this category, he could not have purchased her redemption. Whitson states, however, that she ought not to have been placed in this category because God had not devoted her, rather her father had vowed her for sacrifice. Like the firstborn children were redeemed by animal sacrifices, so should she have been redeemed.
Another possibility is suggested in the Midrash, which points out that his vow could have been annulled by the High Priest Phinehas. Commentary suggests that it was pride that kept the vow from being annulled:
"But Jephthah remarked, 'Shall I, a chieftain and ruler in Israel, go to Phinehas!' and Phinehas remarked, 'Shall I, the High Priest and the son of a High Priest, go to an ignorant person!' Between the two of them the poor girl perished and they were both condemned for her blood. Jephthah's punishment was that limb after limb fell away from his body and was buried . . . [and] the Holy Spirit departed from [Phinehas] for two hundred years." (Midrash Rabbah, vol. 8, Ecclesiastes, 275)
Whatever his reason for not redeeming her, if Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering, most scholars agree that this was neither conformable to the law nor acceptable to God. His fulfillment of the vow is therefore sinful. Keil and Delitzch point out that the sin involved may have made the vow impossible to carry out. In order to fulfil the vow, Jephthah would have had to go to the Levitical priests in order to have his daughter offered on at the tabernacle or before the Ark of the Covenant since this was the only place in which burnt offerings were made. Keil and Delitzch suggest that the Levitical priests, who knew the law, would not have sinned in this way. Alternatively, if Jephthah had attempted to sacrifice her upon some secret alter without mediation from the priest, "such an act would not have been described by the prophetic historian as a fulfillment of the vow that he would offer a burnt-offering to the Lord, simply because it would not have been a sacrifice offered to Jehovah at all, but a sacrifice slaughtered to Moloch." (Keil & Delitzch, 394)
That Jephthah offered his daughter as a sacrifice to Molech has been posed, but rejected by most scholars. It is true that Jephthah was likely influenced by pagan religions. He was the son of a harlot, cast out of his father's house on account of his birth, who became the leader of a renegade, "bandit band" (Riley, 258) of presumably pagan men. It would also seem that "the form taken by Jephthah's vow is reminiscent of his half-heathen background" (Charles F. Pfeiffer & Everett F. Harrison, Judges, The Wycliffe Bible Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), 255) as the Bible holds no other instance of an Israelite making or carrying out such a vow to Jehovah. It would seem, then, that human sacrifice was not offered to Jehovah, but to the pagan god Molech who was known to require it. However, "it is inconceivable, with the diametrical opposition between the worship of Jehovah and the worship of Moloch, that God should have chosen a worshipper of Moloch to carry out His work." (Keil & Delitzch, 391) The Spirit of God came upon Jephthah in order that he would win the battle for the children of Israel. Such an endowment of God's power is never seen upon a worshipper of Molech.
A possible reckoning could be found in the consideration that Jephthah may have only believed himself to be worshipping Jehovah. The Book of Judges is noted for being a time in which "every man did what was right in his own eyes" (Judg. 21:25). Perhaps in the same way that the children of Israel worshipped the Lord in a way that was not in accordance with His will when they set a golden calf to symbolize and personify Him, so did Jephthah worship in a way that seemed right to him but was infuriating to Jehovah. If human sacrifice was viewed as an act of worship to Jehovah Jephthah's time, and continuing for centuries after his death, it would explain why "later prophets were forced to wage war against child sacrifice." (David Marcus, Jephthah and His Vow (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1986), 46) If the practice was not widely accepted, it would not have needed such attention. This is not to suggest that this form of worship was ever approved of or accepted by Jehovah, only that Israelite culture, having been influenced by surrounding religions, practiced it. This explanation does not address, however, why one does not see human sacrifice performed more often if it was believed to be a form of worship.
If child sacrifice to Yahweh was practiced, this may be why, as the Talmud points out, the scripture Jeremiah 19:5 addresses three specific instances of human sacrifice: "They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind." The Talmud suggests that God commanded not the sacrifice of the son of Mesha in II Kings 3:27, he spoke not of the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter, neither came it into the mind of God that Abraham's son Isaac would be sacrificed. (The Babylonian Talmud, trans. J. Rabbinowitz (New York: Rebecca Bennet Publications, 1959), 11) Clearly human sacrifice is not encouraged by God, but it is significant to note that at least two of these instances - Jephthah and Abraham - clearly intended for their sacrifice to be offered to Jehovah. Levenson contends that Mesha also sacrificed his son to Jehovah, only because he did not have the proper lamb available to him. Jehovah then gave him the victory in battle. Levenson does not, however, address why God would so honor any sacrifice of a Moabite king, and moreover why he would give him victory over the children of Israel. Burney qualifies this divine intervention as being from the god Chemosh, not Jehovah.
Contrary to the majority belief that human sacrifice is, in fact, an abomination to God, some scholars point out that in the text itself there is not "any indication that child sacrifice . . . was inappropriate from God's standpoint. [It is clear that he assumed she] could literally be sacrificed as a burnt offering to YHWH. Had she not been fit to sacrifice, the vow would have been unfulfillable, which he obviously wishes were the case." (Levenson, 14) Levenson suggests that child sacrifice was neither unheard of, nor forbidden in early stages of the Israelite religion. He suggests that Jeremiah was the first to brand child sacrifice as idolatrous, implying that he did so because he disagreed with it. Previous to the writing of the Book of Jeremiah, then, human sacrifice was not considered sinful. Recent excavation of sacrificial ashes in Carthage suggests that while a child could be redeemed by a sheep, this redemption was neither required nor always practiced. While this cemetery was in a Cannanite region, "the substitution of a lamb or kid for a child has a familiar ring [considering] YHWH's claim upon the first-born son in the Hebrew Bible." (Levenson, 21) Levenson goes on to point out that although a ram was provided for sacrifice, Abraham was not commanded to sacrifice it instead of the child, only allowed to do so. In fact, scripture found in the Book of Exodus (Ex. 20:22-23:33) "seems expressly to contemplate that the normal fate of a firstborn son is that he should be sacrificed to Yahweh." (C.F. Burney, The Book of Judges (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970), 329) Burney considers it significant that Exodus 22:29b does not qualify the statement "the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give to me.'" A minority of scholars therefore believe that no sin was committed by Jephthah, but that he was fulfilling a vow to God that was not in discord with the law.
While some opinions clearly have more weight and basis in scripture than others, and certain beliefs support the majority opinion, it must be recognized that very few points are agreed upon concerning the vow that Jepthah made. Scholars hold many different opinions on how, why, and on account of whom the vow was carried out. With few contentions, most scholars agree that Jephthah intended to make a human sacrifice when he made the vow. Many have reached a consensus that the daughter's fate cannot be determined with any finality. All that is for certain is that this vow was made and carried out during a time when every man did what was right in his own eyes - the time of the Book of Judges.
St. Augustine. Quoted in C.F. Keil & F. Delitzch, Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, 385, n. 50. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960.
The Babylonian Talmud. Translated by J. Rabbinowitz. New York: Rebecca Bennet Publications, 1959.
Berlin, Adele, Brettler, Marc Zvi, & Fishbane, Michael, ed. The Jewish Study Bible: featuring the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Bomberger, J.H.A., ed. "Jephthah." The Protestant Theological and Ecclesiastical Encyclopedia: A Condensed Translation of Herzog's Real Encyclopedia. Vol 2. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1860. 695-697.
Boström, Gustav. Proverbiastudien: 116. Quoted in David Marcus, Jephthah and His Vow, 31, n. 7. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1986.
Burney, C.F. The Book of Judges. New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1970.
Cooke, G.A. Judges. Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges. Cambridge: University Press, 1918.
Dunn, James D.G. & Rogerson, John W. Judges. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities, in The Works of Josephus. Translated by William Whiston. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987.
Keil, C.F. & Delitzch, F. Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. Translated by James Martin. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960.
Levenson, Jon D. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Marcus, David. Jephthah and His Vow. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech Press, 1986.
Midrash Rabbah, vol. 2, Genesis. Translated by S. M. Lehrman. New York: Soncino Press, 1983.
Midrash Rabbah, vol. 3, Exodus. Translated by S. M. Lehrman. New York: Soncino Press, 1983.
Midrash Rabbah, vol. 8, Ecclesiastes. Translated by S. M. Lehrman. New York: Soncino Press, 1983.
Origen. On First Principles. Book I, Preface, Section 8. Translated by G. W. Butterworth. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1973.
Pfeiffer, Charles F. & Harrison, Everett F. Judges. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago: Moody Press, 1962.
Riley, W.B. Joshua, Judges, Ruth. Bible of the Expositor and the Evangelist. Vol. 4. Cleveland, OH: Union Gospel Press, 1927
Schneider, Tammi J. Judges. Berit Olam. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000.