by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
It was the sort of thing that generals and kings have done throughout history. Before the great battle that will determine the fate of nations or empires, military leaders have prayed for divine help. Soldiers in the trenches and on the front lines do it often. Many vow to reform themselves, to do some act that will please their god or to give themselves to his service.
The Bible contains the story of a man of God, Jephthah, who went beyond these customary vows before the big battle of his career (Judges 11:29-40). A Manassite from Gilead, a fertile region just south of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Jordan River, Jephthah was born into an influential and wealthy family. However, he was illegitimate. Unwilling to share the family's wealth, his half-brothers forced him into exile.
He traveled northwestward to an area east of Syria called Tob. Like David in his years of running from Saul, Jephthah lived as a vagabond and a soldier of fortune, collecting a band of riffraff and outcasts around him. His reputation as a brave and brilliant military commander grew and spread.
When Ammon began to raid parts of Israel, mostly Gilead, the elders of the land came to him for help. They offered him the position of commander of their armies, but he refused to fight for them unless he was also granted power as head of Gilead. Backed against the wall as they were, the elders could only accede to his request.
So, with his power as head and commander, he recruited an army throughout the area. Meanwhile, as biblical law requires (Deuteronomy 20:10-12), he sent emissaries to Ammon to negotiate peace, but they were rebuffed. With no other choice left, Jephthah marched on Ammon, and during this march he made his vow.
A Promise Made and Kept
And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, "If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering." (Judges 11:30-31)
Evidently, God heard, and Jephthah secured a complete victory over Ammon. Word of his success raced across the land. Soon, the people of Mizpah, Jephthah's home, heard the news and prepared to greet him with a victory celebration when he returned.
Unfortunately, leading the celebrants was Jephthah's only child, a daughter. Fully aware of his part of the vow, Jephthah scanned ahead to see who or what would come to meet him first. But when his eyes fell first on his own daughter, his jubilation suddenly turned to bitter grief.
After her father explained what he had done, Jephthah's daughter amazingly put up no resistance. Agreeing that he must keep his vow, she asked only to mourn her virginity for two months before he did. When the two months were over, Jephthah performed his vow, and his daughter's great sacrifice was commemorated yearly by the women of Israel.
Scholars and theologians throughout the ages have wondered, "Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter? Or did he dedicate her to God for the rest of her life?" Until the Middle Ages, every commentator of record (even Josephus, cf. Antiquities, 5.7.10) wrote that he actually killed her, but enough evidence exists to suggest that he did not offer her on an altar, but made her a lifelong Nazirite, totally dedicated and holy to God (Numbers 6:8).
It is unfortunate that he made the vow at all. However, unlike Gideon and others, God never appeared or spoke to him. In fact, God dealt with him much as he does with us—through law, experience and personal circumstance. Apparently, he needed the vow to bolster his faith, to secure God's favor however he could, though obviously God was with him (verse 29).
But Jephthah knew the law. He knew that God requires parley before battle to give the opponent a chance to surrender or retreat. He knew that vows are sacred promises to be kept (Numbers 30). He also knew the history of Israel's approach to the Promised Land and Moses' negotiations with the kings of Edom, Moab and the Amorites well enough to make a legal point in his own negotiations (Judges 11:15-27). Obviously, Jephthah knew that human sacrifice is a detestable and hated act to God (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31).
Not only did Jephthah know it was wrong, the people of Gilead would also have abhorred the practice and were commanded to kill one who did it (Leviticus 20:2-5)! They—especially the priests—would never have been a party to it, nor would the maidens have commemorated it (the Hebrew word translated "lament" in Judges 11:40 is actually "praise," "commemorate" or "rehearse").
Nor was Jephthah an impetuous or rash person. His vow was spoken, not on the eve of battle, but on the march to it. Rather than leaping at the chance to command Gilead's army, he patiently negotiated for a more powerful position. He did not rush into battle with Ammon, but recruited and trained an army, negotiating with the enemy all the while. If he remained in character, his vow must have been well considered.
The vow itself has been misunderstood too. His vow is in two parts: whatever comes out of the house "shall surely be the LORD's and I will offer it up as a burnt offering." Bullinger in the Companion Bible says: "The Hebrew Vav [translated ‘and' in the KJV/NKJV] is a connective particle, and is rendered in many different ways. It is also used as a disjunctive, and is often rendered ‘or' (or with a negative ‘nor')." So Bullinger concludes Jephthah vowed to dedicate to God whoever came out to meet him, or if it was an animal, to offer it as a burnt offering.
This agrees with Jephthah's character. He considered the scenario, decided a human being or an animal could fulfill it, and provided for both circumstances. Another factor is the term "burnt offering" (Hebrew olah), which has no connotation of fire or burning. It literally means "that which goes up," and implies total consumption (as one "consumed in his work") or complete surrender. Thus, even without changing the conjunction, the wording of the vow can technically mean that she was completely devoted to God.
Why Such Grief?
If that is so, why was there such great grief, anguish and mourning? A little background in Israelite culture helps here. Remember how distraught Abraham and Sarah were that they could not have a son? And Rebekah? And Rachel? And Samson's parents? And John the Baptist's parents? Barrenness was a source of great distress and grief to the Israelites. They thought God was displeased with them.
Spinsterhood was almost unknown as well—a woman's whole life revolved around marriage, family and children. Thus, as it states specifically, Jephthah's daughter mourned with her friends over her virginity, not her impending death. She knew she would not die, but remain a virgin for the rest of her life.
Also, she was Jephthah's only child. This is triply stressed in verse 34. Literally, it reads, "She only was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter." So she also mourned the end of Jephthah's line. He would have no natural heirs to carry on his name, titles or wealth. Recall Abraham's great distress about this too (Genesis 15:2).
In verse 39 the writer repeats, "She knew no man" immediately after he writes that Jephthah performed the vow. If he had truly sacrificed her, would it not have been better to write, "And she died"? But she did not die! She lived out her life without knowing a man! This is why the maidens of Israel praised her so much! She gave up—sacrificed—the one thing that they prized most highly: their ability to have children.
Also, the words "he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed" show that he had divine approval for his actions. God would not have approved of human sacrifice. If God had not approved, the writer would have written of God's displeasure, as he did with Gideon's making of a golden ephod (Judges 8:27). And certainly it would not have become a tradition of praise, a customary event in Israel, if God was not pleased.
Incidentally, human sacrifice, though known among the pagans, was not introduced to Israel until the reign of Manasseh of Judah (c. 697-642 BC). Jephthah began judging about 1096 BC. When the king of Moab sacrificed his son on the walls of his city during a combined siege by Israel, Judah and Edom in about 850 BC, the Israelites were so repulsed that they immediately lifted the siege and went home (II Kings 3:27).
How Does This Help Us?
A final proof is that Jephthah is listed as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11:32. In the next verse, the writer says that these faithful people "subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness [and] obtained promises." If we apply this to Jephthah, his vow, in which God fulfilled His part, was an act of righteousness.
And though others listed in this list sinned horribly, would God have listed in "so great a cloud of witnesses" a man who sacrified his only child? True, Abraham, the father of the faithful, was willing to do so, but he also said that God would provide a sacrifice (Genesis 22:8). In Abraham's case, God stepped in, as He probably would have for Jephthah. Generally, the Bible speaks too highly of Jephthah to infer that he participated in a human sacrifice.
What does this teach us? Obviously, it is a reminder to be careful about what we vow. God takes vows seriously and expects them to be kept. Failing to keep a vow violates the ninth commandment and indicates weak character and faithlessness.
More important, we need to remember that we have already made our own vow—at baptism. We vowed to take Jesus Christ as our personal Savior, and in effect we gave our lives to Him for His use and His service. Jephthah offered his daughter; we offer ourselves (Romans 12:1).
Our lives are not our own to do with as we please (I Corinthians 6:19-20). We have the responsibility, now that we have been redeemed from our lives of sin, to live up to the high standards of God's way of life and to glorify God in whatever we do. This means growing in His image and bearing fruit, putting on the holy character of God and helping our brethren in their development. This means total devotion to God and fulfilling our parts in His plan.
We have made our vow; there is no turning back without great pain and loss. Our vow should be constantly on our minds, and we must strive to our utmost to keep it. We cannot afford to rest on our accomplishments or become satisfied with our present state of growth.
Are we ready to face the horrors and temptations of the time of the end? We will have to endure the birth pangs of the Great Tribulation if Israel's experience with the plagues in Egypt are a type. Are we truly strong and faithful? Are we firmly anchored in God and His Word? Can God trust us to be faithful witnesses under persecution and threat of death? God promises that those times are coming, like it or not. Are we ready?
Can we sincerely say, "Your will be done"? Have we completely put ourselves in God's hands? We need to remember Jephthah's daughter, her willing attitude, her selfless sacrifice. Like her, it is time to make ourselves completely devoted sacrifices to God.