Summary: The incident of Jephthah’s daughter may seem incredible and profoundly cruel to some modern-day Bible readers. But in reading this narrative, one must be careful to interpret events in the context of that day, not merely by the moral climate of one’s own.
The Tragedy of Jephthah’s Daughter
The incident of Jephthah’s daughter may seem incredible and profoundly cruel to some modern-day Bible readers. But in reading this narrative, one must be careful to interpret events in the context of that day, not merely by the moral climate of one’s own.
The account is clear that the judge Jephthah vowed to sacrifice as a burnt offering whatever came out of his door if he returned victorious from battle (Judg. 11:30–31). Many commentators think Jephthah had a human sacrifice in mind, probably a slave. It was a common practice for warriors in the ancient world to make vows to their gods in order to secure divine assistance in warfare.
However, the Israelites were prohibited from making human sacrifices (Lev. 18:21; Deut. 12:31), in contrast to many their neighbors. In fact, child sacrifice was common among the Ammonites and Moabites (2 Kin. 3:27). Why, then, would Jephthah make such a vow? And why fulfill it once he realized that the sacrifice would have to be his own daughter?
The answer may lie in a recognition of how much the moral and spiritual condition of Israel had declined by this time. The Mosaic covenant was violated more than it was honored, and a spiritual blindness seems to have fallen over the land. In the midst of this darkness, God used the Ammonites to bring His people to their knees (Judg. 11:4). Not that they actually turned back to Him, but they did recruit Jephthah to lead them (4:5–11).
Jephthah was no spiritual giant, but he at least remembered the history between Israel and Ammon, and how God had delivered His people during the Exodus (11:14–28). He viewed the Lord as the supreme Judge (11:27) who would decide the current conflict between Ammon and Israel.
Jephthah was accurate in his understanding. God was indeed prepared to judge between the two peoples. Neither group was without sin. On the one hand, the Israelites had forsaken the Lord for idols (10:6); however, they also had repented (10:10–16). On the other hand, the Ammonites had long practiced what the Lord called “abominations,” such as child sacrifice (see footnote on “The Abominations of the Canaanites” at bottom of page and read Lev. 18:24–30); yet they never had repented, and now they were claiming territory that did not belong to them (Judg. 11:13).
God decided the matter by empowering Jephthah to recruit an army to carry out His judgment on the Ammonites (11:29). At this point of zealous energy and action, Jephthah made his rash vow (11:30–31). Why did he make it? Perhaps because of an inadequate view of God. Jephthah correctly perceived God as Judge, but he may have incorrectly likened Him to the god Chemosh of the Ammonites (11:24). He may have felt that if Chemosh’s help supposedly could be enlisted through human sacrifice, then the Lord’s help could be gained in the same way.
Jephthah appears to have followed through on his vow, though first he gave his daughter time to grieve the fact that she would never marry and have children (11:37–39; childlessness was considered a curse in that day; see “Barrenness” in footnotes ). He kept the vow because he had a profound fear of the Lord. He was deeply afraid of what God might do if he did not fulfill his vow (compare Num. 30:2; Deut. 23:21–23). From today’s perspective, that fear seems primitive, superstitious, and tragically misplaced; but it was certainly genuine.
FOOTNOTE: * Barrenness
Sarah laughed at the thought of bearing children at such an advanced age (Gen. 18:11–12). But she may have laughed more out of pain than surprise, for in the ancient world, to be barren, as she was, was considered a curse (16:2; 20:17–18; Luke 1:25). It was even considered grounds for divorce.
Several women in Scripture illustrate the predicament of the childless woman. Yet it’s interesting that each of those named eventually gave birth to a child.
Women Who Experienced Childlessness
*Sarah (Gen. 16:1–2; 18:11–12; 21:6–7)
Used her maid Hagar as a surrogate childbearer, but then rejected both Hagar and the child, Ishmael; eventually gave birth to Isaac, changing laughter of pain to laughter of joy.
*Rebekah (Gen. 25:21)
Conceived after her husband Isaac prayed to the Lord on her behalf; gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob
*Rachel (Gen. 29:31–30:24)
Driven by despair, used her maid Bilhah to compete with the other wife of her husband Jacob, her older sister Leah; eventually gave birth to Joseph and later Benjamin, whose birth caused her death.
*Manoah’s wife (Judg. 13)
Told by God that she would conceive a son who would be a Nazirite; gave birth to Samson, a judge of Israel.
*Hannah (1 Sam. 1)
Desperately prayed for a son, whom she vowed to dedicate to the Lord; gave birth to Samuel, a judge of Israel.