The Old Testament Book of Judges relates a story that almost defies belief. It’s the story of a mighty Israelite warrior named Jephthah who ends up offering up his only daughter as both human sacrifice and “burnt offering” up to the God of Israel. How this came about is related in Judges 11:29 – 39. The events appear to have occurred sometime between the years 1118 -1094 B.C.E.
A Semite tribe known as the Ammonites had established a kingdom east of the Jordan river but was on the move to expand even further.
The Book of Judges relates that the Israelites, rather shockingly, had forsaken Yahweh as their “God” and were worshiping pagan gods like Baal, Ashtoreth/Asherah, and even the Ammonite god, Molech/Moloch. For this reason, God told the Israelites “I will no longer serve you!” (Judges 10:13). But the Israelites, fearful of being overrun by rival tribes repented and worshiped Yahweh as their “God” once more. And once more, God took it upon Himself to look after the Israelites.
The Book of Judges describes Jephthah as being a mighty warrior. But since he was the son of a prostitute (Judges 11:1), was driven from the family by his half-brothers and ended up moving to “the land of Tob.”
The Israelites living in Gilead were under attack and desperate for military leadership in opposing the invading Ammonites. So a delegation was sent to beg Jephthah to be their commander and lead them in battle. The Gilead Israelite elders promised that in return for his leadership, Jephthah would be made the “head” of all the Gilead’s Israelites.
Jephthah accepted their offer. An offer of peace was presented to the king of the Ammonites but quickly disregarded. It is then “the Spirit of the Lord,” came upon Jephthah.
While being filled with the Spirit of the Lord, Jephthah made an extremely rash vow. He promised the Lord that if He delivered the Ammonites into his hands in battle, he would offer up the first thing to come out his door on his return home as a “burnt offering.” (Judges 11:30-31)
The Nonsense of Jephthah’s Vow
We need to pause at this point and point out some lunacy here. First of all, Jephthah had a teenage daughter. So, one would think the first thing to come out Jephthah’s door would be her, and not a bull, lamb, goat, or a dove. That’s only using common sense. So, why would Jephthah assume it couldn’t possibly be his daughter eagerly awaiting his return home after victory? Second, an omniscient God would have already known that Jephthah daughter would be the first to come out his door. Yet God approved Jephthah’s vow, regardless.
Jephthah went on to destroy 20 Ammonite towns and defeat an Ammonite army that the Book of Judges says “God delivered into Jephthah’s hands.” (Judges 11:32-33)
On Jephthah’s return home, who should rush out to greet him “dancing to the sound of timbrels”? Why, of course, his only daughter. (Judges 11:34) Upon the sight of her, Jephthah ripped at his clothes through sheer grief and dismay. When he recovered, Jephthah told his daughter of his vow to God (verse 35) and how there was no retreat. He now must fulfill his sacred oath.
His pious daughter understood fully but asked if she could first roam the hills of their homeland with her best friends for just two months to lament the fact she will now never be able to marry. Jephthah, saddened and distraught, agreed and let her go.
Did Jephthah Truly Sacrifice His Daughter?
To answer this pivotal question definitively, we first need to determine what is meant by “sacrifice.” Christian apologists insist that since the Old Testament prohibits human sacrifice and since it wasn’t part of Israelite culture, the word “sacrifice” must mean something else. And that “something else” is most likely that Jephthah’s daughter was compelled to consecrate her life to God and live the rest of her life an unmarried virgin.
Christian websites such as Bible Study.org, Got Questions.org, and Apologetics Press.org all strenuously insist Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed or offered-up as a burnt offering; that she, instead, consecrated the rest of her life in complete devotion to God. Furthermore, with his daughter now fated to remain an unmarried virgin, Jephthah would no longer have any heirs to keep his family lineage alive. That Christian apologists, tell us, was Jephthah’s true “sacrifice.”
End of Part I
Part II – The Conclusion – Here
(Footnotes in Part II)