Did Jephthah Make a Burnt Offering of His Daughter?

A reply to David Murray's article on Jephthah's vow

David Murray recently posted a discussion of Jephthah’s vow (Judges 11:29-40). Reading Murray’s post, one might be forgiven for wondering why anyone would ever have thought that Jephthah made a burnt offering out of his daughter. However, a closer look at Murray’s points, reveals that none of them is certain. In the following, I give Murray’s points, each followed by a brief critique. 

Jephthah’s previously godly character. Murray’s proof here is Jephthah’s balanced dealings with opponents earlier in the chapter. But dealing rationally with an enemy is not godliness. It’s just good politics. Jephthah may have been godly, but this doesn’t prove it.

Jephthah knew the Bible, so he would have known that human sacrifice was prohibited. The proof offered here is Jephthah’s response to the king of Ammon in vss 12-27. But that doesn’t prove that Jephthah knew his Bible. It just proves he knew his history. They aren’t the same thing.

He was filled with the Holy Spirit. So? That doesn’t prove anything either. One of the odd things about men in the Old Testament is that they are filled with the Spirit of the Lord for executing particular tasks. See, for example, Samson killing a lion in the power of the Spirit (Judges 14:5-6), or the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Saul (1 Samuel 10:6-10). Neither of those episodes shows that the men were filled with the Holy Spirit in a New Testament sense of the word.

Alternative translation of vs 31, using “or” rather than “and.” Yes, that is a possible alternate translation. So is the translation: “it shall be the Lord’s: that is, I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” The existence of an alternative translation does not prove which translation is correct.

Common custom of women serving at the tent of the Lord (Exodus 38:8). That there were such women serving at the tent of the Lord in the wilderness is clear. They are also mentioned in 1 Samuel 2:22. However, it is not clear that they were virgins, which is essential to Murray’s conclusion. There’s no evidence to that effect either in Exodus or in 1 Samuel.

The consequences not being her death, but her being husbandless and childless. That is certainly possible, but it would strengthened if there was some indication that dedication to the Lord’s service required perpetual virginity. There is no such indication anywhere in the Old Testament. Furthermore, if she were killed, she would certainly die without husband or child.

Commemorate, not lament. In Murray’s view, the NASB is correct in vs 40 in saying, “the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah.” He then says, they were going with “worshipful joy.” That goes well beyond what the word might possibly say. The word occurs only twice in the Old Testament: Judges 5:11 and Judges 11:40. First, these are two very different contexts, so what the word might mean in 5:11 is not necessarily what it means here. Further, the ancient versions read “lament” here, which might be wrong, but it certainly is what the translators understood the word to say. The word may mean no more than to recount or retell.

Possibility of repentance. Certainly Jephthah could have repented of a foolish vow. But the text seems to indicate either that he did not think it was foolish, or that he could repent of it (see verse 35).

Jephthah would have lost his leadership credibility if he had sacrificed his daughter. Really!? Let’s look at the Israelite penchant for choosing leadership: in the wilderness, the people wanted anyone but Moses. After the death of Saul, most of Israel spent seven years trying to follow Saul’s ne’er-do-well son Ish-bosheth. After the death of Solomon, most of Israel went after Jeroboam, who promptly led the people into idolatry and apostasy. Why wouldn’t these people follow Jephthah? People throughout history have followed bad leaders: Hitler, Stalin, and Castro, to name a few. The fact that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter would probably have had little impact on Israel. Given the state of Israel during the period of the judges, there may have been more than one man in Jephthah’s army who had sacrificed his own child. As with Dr. Murray’s other points, this one simply doesn’t hold up to examination.

Murray’s final reason for holding that Jephthah didn’t sacrifice his daughter is the fact that he is listed in Hebrews 11. He says, “Given that Judges 11 is the only thing we know about Jephthah, he would hardly have been included in such exalted company if the only thing we know about him was a gruesome sacrifice of his daughter.” Except that really isn’t all that we know about Jephthah.

We know that he led Israel to victory against its enemies at a time when any leadership in Israel was in short supply. We know that he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord to accomplish that feat. We know that he was a worshiper of Yahweh, even though that worship was expressed in a horribly heterodox manner. And let’s look at some of Jephthah’s “exalted company” in Hebrews 11.

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness (Gen 15:6). And in the very next chapter, he accepts Sarah’s half-baked scheme to get the son of promise through Hagar. Moses committed murder and spent forty years herding sheep in the wilderness for his father-in-law. Gideon made an ephod for the Israelites that they then worshiped. And then there’s Samson. It sounds to me like a Jephthah who sacrificed his daughter, thinking that he was doing God a favor, fits right in there.

We have to remember that Hebrews 11 was not written to exalt the persons named there, but to exalt the God who saved these people in spite of their weak, halting, and sometimes ignorant faith. Fundamentally, they believed God, and He credited it to them as righteousness.

It should also be noted that the idea that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter is a rather late development in the history of interpretation, not showing up until the Middle Ages in some of the Jewish commentaries.

In short, as awful a thing as it is to contemplate, it does appear that Jephthah indeed vowed to make his daughter a burnt offering, and after allowing her two months to mourn, did exactly that. Even true believers can be guilty of horrendous beliefs and practices. We need to remember this under two conditions: one, when we are tempted to abuse some Christian who has sinned in an obvious and painful manner; and two, when we are tempted to think that our sins are so bad that God couldn’t possible save us.

I would also encourage readers to read Matthew Henry’s thoughtful comments on this passage.

Benjamin Shaw, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Hebrew & OT and Academic Dean at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He blogs at GPTS Rabbi where this article first appeared. It is used with permission.