Ask the Pastor: Did Jephthah’s daughter die (Judges 11:30-40)?
Don’t forget to submit your Bible questions to us – firstname.lastname@example.org or in the “Question Box” outside the sanctuary.)
One question submitted this week by a congregation member:
Did Jephthah’s daughter die (Judges 11:30-40)?
This is a tough question. One that skeptics often use against the Bible. And one that Christians often keep inside because they are afraid to ask the question. So, thank you for asking. I will do my best to answer.
Know this is a debated issue from many godly people. Not that the Bible isn’t true—it is—but what actually happened we may never know this side of heaven.
That being said, we first need to read the text from Judges 11:30-40:
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.”
32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand.
33 And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.
35 And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.”
36 And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.”
37 So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.”
38 So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains.
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. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel
40 that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.
In Judges 11, Jephthah, who God had raised up to do His work, vowed to the LORD that if he were given victory in battle, he’d give to Him whoever or whatever (depends on the translation you read) that came through the doors of his house upon his return from war.
Certainly, I am not a Hebrew expert. However, the word used in 11:31 is ‘olah, according to Bibleworks—a software program. It is the regular Hebrew word used in connection with a burnt offering or sacrifice. If my searching is correct, it is used 286 times in the Old Testament alone.
So, here comes the big question: Did Jephthah really mean to offer his daughter as a human sacrifice? Did he actually do it? Is God’s character called into question?
DID HE DO IT? OR DIDN’T HE?
Let me first give you some pros and cons from reputable Bible scholars. You may read these in-depth for a type of “compare and contrast” of the arguments for each side.
Those who think that he sacrificed his daughter before God:
Those who think the “sacrifice” was giving his daughter to the service of the LORD (or something similar):
PASTOR, WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Again, let’s be honest. This is a very tough interpretative text. There are godly pastors on each side.
I believe, though, that Jephthah didn’t actually kill his daughter. Here are at least four reasons (there are certainly more):
First, if Jephthah actually did this, he did something contra to the Bible itself.
Leviticus 18:21 says:
You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.
Leviticus 20:2–5 reads:
Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. 3 I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. 4 And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, 5 then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.
Deuteronomy 18:10 says:
There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer.
It seems very strange, indeed, that Jephthah would think that going directly against God’s Law and words would win him favor in battle. It would be like a person asking God to bless them and answer their prayers today if they murdered someone or committed adultery—as an example.
No doubt, our own personal lives are a testimony that God allows us to make wrong, sinful choices, even while He works out His sovereign and higher will (Gen. 50:20; Phil. 1:12). God even used to Judas to bring about His purposes. In 1 Samuel 8, when Israel pleaded to God for a king in sin, He allowed them to proceed with their desire and gave them help along the way, and even lent His assistance in the selection (1 Samuel 8:7,18-19; Psalm 106:14-15; Acts 13:21).
Second, there’s no suggestion that God actually approved his action from the text.
Many go to Hebrews 11:32 for confirmation that he carried it out:
And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets….
Certainly, no one will argue that listing Jephthah along with the other major biblical people is God’s endorsement of all of their behavior. It is an affirmation and approval of the faith he showed when going to war. In this same list is Samson and the prostitute Rahab. Was all of their behavior in harmony with God’s plan and will for them? Not quite!
What about Abraham? God commends him for his faith (Romans 4:20-21), but we know he had some pretty big blunders, especially in relation to his wife (Genesis 12:13; 16:4, etc.)
Third, after doing research and reading the passage, it would seem that the sacrifice should be taken in a figurative sense.
We do this all the time. “Honey, I am going to sacrifice my time to go serve the youth at church.” “Dad, can you sacrifice a few dollars for me to go to the movie?”
What if the sacrifice was one of religious service for his daughter to serve the Lord before he tabernacle? Exodus 38:8 says this was an option for women then:
He made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting
The birth narrative in Luke 2:37 describes Anna in this way:
and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.
What if his daughter, being his only child, meant the ending of Jephthah’s family line (11:34)?
What if Jephthah’s sorrow was over the fact that she would live and die a virgin (11:35)?
What if the 2-month mourning period was because she would never marry (11:37)?
Why would the author put in that “she knew no man” if she had been put to death (11:39)? Why would that statement matter?
Finally, we must remember a similar story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:11:
And she vowed a vow and said, “O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”
HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO US?
The Scripture has a lot to say about acting rashly. Here are a few verses that warn of this issue from Proverbs:
Pro. 7:22 The foolish man “suddenly” follows after his lusts and commits sin
10:19 If you speak too much, it will bring sin
12:18 Rash speech is like sticking someone with a sword in the belly
14:16 Wise are careful and the foolish are careless
14:17 Quick-tempered people have foolish actions
15:18 Hot-tempered people stir up strife, but the slow to anger calm strife
15:28 The righteous think about how to answer before speaking
18:13 We are to hear first, then give our opinion
20:25 No rash vows to the Lord
The great Puritan devotional writer Thomas Watson, in reflection on 10 Commandments, said this:
We take God’s name in vain, when we make rash and unlawful vows. It is a good vow, when a man binds himself to do that which the word binds him to; as, if he is sick, he vows if God restores him, he will live a more holy life. “I will pay you my vows which my lips have uttered when I was in trouble.” Psalm 66:13, 14. But “such a vow should not be made, as is displeasing to God;” as to vow voluntary poverty, as friars; or to vow to live in nunneries. Jephthah’s vow was rash and unlawful; he vowed to the Lord to sacrifice that which he met with next—and it was his own daughter! Judges 11:31. He did bad to make the vow, and worse to keep it; he became guilty of the breach of the third and sixth commandments.
Some practical suggestions
- Let us be people who think before we speak and filter all our words through the filter of the grace-filled Gospel of Jesus Christ (Colossians 4:6).
- Let us be people who think before we act and filter our actions through the filter of the desire to stimulate one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25).
I believe Miles Van Pelt at The Gospel Coalition sums this tough text up well:
This is certainly a difficult text to interpret, and both options deserve careful consideration. But consider the book of Judges as a whole. It begins with the faithfulness of Joshua’s generation and the tribe of Judah, but terminates with the tribe of Benjamin becoming Canaanite, as wicked as Sodom (cf. Gen. 13 with Jud. 19-20). As the book develops, God’s people decay into greater and greater wickedness (Jud. 2:19), but the LORD was merciful and continued to send judges in order to deliver his people. The greater the wickedness of the people, the greater the LORD’s salvation through each judge.
By the end, Gideon must forsake his family, Jephthah must offer up his only child (cf. Gen. 22:2), and Samson must die in order for God’s people to experience salvation from sin and oppression.
Does this not sound like the gospel promised beforehand, a sure testimony to the person and work of Jesus? He left his family, the only begotten child of God. He died to finish the work of the judges that he had sent in ages past that we might keenly fix our eyes on him, the author and perfecter of our faith.