Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Did Jephthah really offer his daughter as a sacrifice, as he apparently promised God in Judges 11:29-40?
Let me summarize the incident to which you refer. Jephthah was one of the judges of Israel during the oppression of the Ammonites. He made a vow to the Lord, saying, “Whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31, NIV).
When Jephthah returned victorious from battle, his daughter came out to welcome him, and after learning about the vow, she asked for two months to weep for her virginity. “After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed” (verse 39, NIV).
Most translations imply that he offered her as a sacrifice. But some have argued that if we pay close attention to the details of the story it can be shown that Jephthah did not. Here are the arguments and counterarguments.
1. The Character of Jephthah: In Judges Jephthah is described as a capable soldier and as a man of principle who learned to depend on and obey the Lord (verse 24). He even made an effort to avoid war against the Ammonites through negotiations (verses 12-14, 27). In the New Testament he is listed among the heroes of faith (Heb. 11:32). This man of God could not have offered his daughter as a sacrifice.
Those who believe that he sacrificed her argue that we have to take into consideration the time during which Jephthah lived. The period of the judges was a time of spiritual blindness, during which “everyone did as he saw fit” (Judges 21:25, NIV). Jephthah was doing what he thought was right without consulting the Lord.
2. The Intention of the Vow: Supposedly, Jephthah did not vow to offer a human sacrifice to God. He said, “Whatever comes out of the door,” not “Whoever comes out.” The implication is that he was probably thinking about one of his animals. Although that translation is possible, the Hebrew text reads “whoever,” and in addition, and perhaps more important, he was describing someone who would “come out of the door of my house to meet me.” He seems to have had in mind a person.
3. Two Options in One Vow: Some suggest that the phrase “will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering” should be translated, “will be the Lord’s [if it is a person], or I will sacrifice it [if it is an animal] as a burnt offering.” But the Hebrew grammatical form requires the reading “and I will sacrifice it.” Others have suggested that Jephthah was promising to consecrate to the Lord whatever came out first and in addition to offer a burnt offering: “And I will offer a burnt offering to Him.” Again, the Hebrew text does not lend itself to such manipulation.
4. Misinterpretation of verse 39: This passage states that the daughter mourned for her virginity for two months and returned to her father, and he did as he had promised. But then the text adds, “And she was a virgin,” suggesting that Jephthah did not sacrifice her but rather dedicated her to the Lord, and as a result, she remained a virgin the rest of her life. But that interpretation is not required by the biblical text. All the text seems to be saying is that when her father fulfilled his vow—sacrificed her as a burnt offering—she was still a virgin, i.e., she did not have children. This is important, because she was Jephthah’s only child. Therefore we can translate the last part of verse 39, “And she had been a virgin.”
Although the story at times may appear to suggest that Jephthah did not offer his daughter as a sacrifice to the Lord, the possibility that he did is very strong, and to many it is persuasive. The story illustrates how important it is to have a true knowledge of the nature of God and what is and is not acceptable to Him when we want to worship Him. It is dangerous to do as we see fit.