Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering….
When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.” So she said to him, “My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.” She said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.” Then he said, “Go.” So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity. At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had make; and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year. (Judges 11:30, 31, 34-40)
This unusual story about a woman in the Old Testament has caused more controversy than any other. What are we to make of a story of a possible human sacrifice of a victim of a foolish vow? Did Jephthah’s daughter really get burned alive as some historians seem to think?
Jephthah was the eighth judge in Israel. Recall that this is a time in Israel’s history before God gave them a king. For about four hundred years the Israelites would go through cycles of obedience to God and blessing, then falling into idolatry and cursing. God would send a nation to oppress them as punishment. The people would eventually repent and cry out to God. God would graciously give them a leader, known as a judge, to lead them out of the trouble they were in.
In this story, the Israelites were having trouble with the Ammonites. They were a fierce and wicked enemy. The Israelites went to Jephthah and begged him to lead them against the Ammonites.
Apparently Jephthah had faith in God’s promises to deliver His people, but for some reason he made a foolish vow to ensure God’s blessing on the battle. He said that if God gave him the victory he would offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God in return. He would offer the first thing to come our of his home to greet him. Jephthah must have thought that the first thing he would see arriving at home was some sort of animal, because he intended to make a burnt offering out of it.
Many scholars believe that Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering to fulfill his vow. I think they are way off base. There is no need for them to assume such a horrible thing. Neither customs in Israel nor the text calls for such an interpretation.
Throughout the Old Testament there is an abhorrence against human sacrifice. Nowhere does God allow this. It is pagan to the core. Instead there was a way to fulfill the vow without breaking God’s law against human sacrifice. This is the principle of dedicating your life as a service to God. Hannah gave her son Samuel to God’s service in thanks for allowing her to have a child. In the New Testament, Anna the prophetess dedicated her life to serving in the temple. By serving God for the remainder of one’s life, one has in a sense sacrificed their life for the Lord.
It is more likely that Jephthah fulfilled his vow by dedicating his daughter to the service of the Lord for the rest of her life according to the Israelite customs. There are many reasons right in the text itself that would show this:
1) Jephthah himself was well aware of God’s laws and the history of the Israelites. We see this in his dealings with his brethren and the Ammonites. Jephthah wrote a long letter to the Ammonites recounting all of the things that God had done. In this letter we see that Jephthah has confidence that God will drive the Ammonites out. The mystery here is why Jephthah made such a foolish vow.
2) In order for Jephthah to make a public sacrifice of this nature he would have needed a priest to officiate. No priest in Israel would have done such a horrible thing.
3) The Bible text itself puts emphasis on the reaction of Jephthah’s daughter. Her reaction was to first of all insist that Jephthah keep his vow. Would she have done this so calmly if she knew it meant that she was to be burned alive? Surely Jephthah’s daughter knew that there was another way to fulfill the vow.
4) Jephthah’s daughter also knew what that other way to fulfill the vow was – she must dedicate her life to God. She tells us plainly that she needs time to mourn “because of my virginity.” In other words, she will never marry and have children. If she had dreamed of marrying and having children like other women, those hopes were now dashed. She was a good daughter and she made the sacrifice.
5) Jephthah’s daughter does not say “I need two months off to think about my horrible death.” She and her friends go away to mourn her virginity not her death. That her lifelong virginity is the cause of her sorrow is made plain in four places in the Bible. (See verses 37, 38, 39, and 40) Her women friends are going to hold her up in prayer and meditation to God on the mountains. They can sympathize with her and offer whatever consolation and comfort she may need for the lonely days ahead.
6) The Bible does not say that the Israelite women go every year to mourn Jephthah’s daughter’s death. It plainly says that they go to honor her for her sacrifice of lifelong service to the Lord as a virgin forsaking marriage and family.
So why did all of this even happen this way? I believe that God is sovereign. He could have sent an animal out of the door first. He did not. Perhaps though He knew what a sacrifice Jephthah’s daughter was making, He also was punishing Jephthah. Remember, our text says that his daughter was Jephthah’s only child. When Jephthah had to dedicate her to the Lord’s service as a single woman, he was giving up all chance of continuing his line in Israel. There would be no grandchildren to carry on his name.
What a wonderful servant of the Lord Jephthah’s daughter was. Notice how right away she knew what her father must do the obey God. Though she was a victim of her father’s foolish vow, her attitude was one of humble submission. She asked for a reasonable amount of time to think about the new and unexpected circumstances in her life. Then she courageously went on to serve the Lord for the rest of her life.
We can remember Jephthah’s daughter as an example to us of faith and courage when we are faced with trials in life, especially those that seem unfair. We should trust God as she did that He knows what is best.