QUESTION: In the story of Jephthah, chapters 11-12 in Judges, Jephthah vows to God that if God allows him to win the war against the Ammonites, he will sacrifice the first thing to walk through his door to greet him when he comes home as a burnt offering. God does not object, but accepts all of this, never once intervenes to tell Jephthah what a fool he was to make such a promise, he doesn’t spare the girl. He happily accepts the human sacrifice, and she is burnt to death as an offering to God. Why is this?
ANSWER: Thanks for your question. First, I should mention that many people believe Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering. Instead, they believe that Jephthah gave his daughter in service to the Lord as a lifelong virgin. This view notes how the text stresses that she remained a virgin, not that she died. This is possibly what happened, but it relies a bit too heavily on a unique rendering of the Hebrew and is contrary to a straightforward reading of the text. For a good example of this approach look here.
Rejecting that, we’re left with Jephthah actually sacrificing his daughter, tragic and horrifying as that is. Every time I’ve read this, my heart revolts. But then I remember that this is in fact, what you are supposed to think as you read the entire book of Judges. Truly!
The theme verse of Judges is “everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (17:6, 21:25). During this, post-Moses, pre-King period, the nation of Israel is a loose federation of tribes. Their religious identity doesn’t have a strong unifying tradition and without that, everyone is just acting according to their own lights, doing whatever seems best to them.
So the entire culture of Israel is not really seeking God, not looking to his moral instruction, doesn’t yet have a robust priestly tradition or king to enforce that instruction, and so they’re just assimilating to the culture’s values around them. Look at the backstory of Jephthah and you see this clearly: he was a son of a prostitute, from a polygamous home that rejected him and drove him away from the family inheritance, where he became a mob boss! Which part of this situation looks like it was guided by any of the 10 commandments?
So the real message of Judges is that everyone was doing it their own way, including (in some ways),the Judges! For more evidence, just keep reading to the story of Sampson. Sampson was also a Judge, and yet also a liar and fornicator and extremely foolish in trusting wicked people, and he marries outside of Israel – something God explicitly forbade (Deut 7:1-4). This doesn’t discount that he was used by God to protect and save his people, as with Jephthah.
There are many more examples in Judges, but the writer is clearly wanting you to get a feel for the depravity of that time where there is no king, no overarching authority in the land, and while God was supposed to be the King, people had installed themselves as King in God’s place. This is what is being taught. And that gets to a very important rule for correct bible interpretation: you must discern the difference between what is being PREscribed, and what is being DEscribed.
Do you actually think God is prescribing child sacrifice in this story? It’s OK to kill your kid ‘if you promised to’ – do you really think that the Jews took that as the lesson? So perhaps the problem is simply that God doesn’t say explicitly to Jephthah, “hey dude, if you sacrifice ‘whoever comes out of your house’, it might be, like, a human, and I uh, believe I was very clear about the whole, don’t kill people thing…” We all want God to step in and be more clear with Jephthah that it’s wrong to kill your children… but how could God have been any clearer than this:
“You are not to make any of your children pass through the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.” ?Lev 18:21-22
If you think God should have repeated himself, there’s this:
“You must not do the same to the Lord your God, because they practice for their gods every detestable thing the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.”Deut 12:31-32
Jephthah knows all this, since he seems to be very familiar with Mosaic history (Judges 11:12-28). Yet he still kills his own grown child to fulfill a very foolish vow he made. You have to dig a little to realize just how foolish it was. Even if you assume Jephthah assumed an animal would come greet him, what if it was an unclean animal? It would have been unacceptable! Also, God says that one should never make a vow that will violate our conscience to carry it out (Prov 20:25). He says never make an impulsive vow (Eccl 5:2-5). Also, if Jephthah was so grieved by his vow, he should have known Moses allowed for a sin offering if a man had to void a impulsive oath (Lev 5:4,5). It’s no wonder there’s no mention of God instigating this vow, there’s nothing godly about it.
So here’s how you should understand this: Jephthah had heard the laws, probably knew them, but was influenced by the Canaanites (for whom child sacrifice was normal) and so felt more obligated by his vow, no matter how immoral or rash, than by the explicit law of God.
This ought to change the assumptions you’ve made about how God feels about Jephthah. You assume, “God accepts this”, you even say “God happily accepts all this.” What in the text gives you the impression that God happily accepts all this? If you read the entire book (and remember no Bible author assumed people read only cut out verses without getting the whole picture), you see the author is saying the exact opposite.
Now, you might push back on that and say, but Jephthah is “anointed by the Spirit of the Lord”, so shouldn’t we understand that everything he does has the sanction of God? Actually, no. In fact, back to Sampson, the idea of him being God’s instrument as a Judge is directly tied to his disobedience to God’s Law!! He takes a wife from the Philistines, something God expressly forbade (Deut 7:3-4) yet this was “from the Lord” (Judges 14:4) as the means God would use to engage the Philistines to throw off their oppressive rule.
We simply have no biblical warrant for assuming that any person said to be used or anointed by God had God’s approval for all he/she did. David was said to be a man led by God’s Spirit, and yet he did several things that were explicitly horrible. Same with Saul. The only difference in those accounts is that their sinful actions are specifically condemned by a prophetic voice, which gives the reader God’s explicit feelings on the sinful action.
Yes, we lack such explicit condemnation here, but we would be very presumptuous to argue from that silence that “God happily” accepts child sacrifice – especially when we know very well how God feels about child sacrifice over and over again: Jer 32:35: “I have never commanded such a horrible deed; it never even crossed my mind to command such a thing. What an incredible evil…” So much for “happily”.
Furthermore, it is a Jewish writing style to be frustratingly coy about such things. I’ll give you an example. Read the entire account of Solomon’s greatness in 1 Kings 4-11. At first you are led to think, this author believes Solomon can do no wrong! But if you know the backdrop of Moses (and all the writings of the Old Testament should be read with that knowledge), you realize that the author is not, in fact, praising Solomon, but condemning him! For in acquiring all his wealth and power and foreign alliances and women, Solomon is breaking almost every single command Moses had laid out for kings in Deuteronomy 17!
This is how the ancient Jews wrote. They assumed you, the reader, knew some things; like, God’s hatred for child sacrifice, for example. If you get that, then you know the author could not be whitewashing a Judge, he’s showing how bad it is that even the Judges had fallen to Canaanite practices. The community wide sorrow at the end of the story does nothing to diminish this impression.
Now that anguish felt by Jephthah and his daughter is expected given the tragedy, but it also shows how they both seem to think that fulfilling the vow is the only viable moral course of action. Basically his daughter says, “you have to do it” (Judges 11:36). What an interestingly lopsided moral development – to believe God would value honoring of a vow (no matter how foolish) over the value of a human life. As mistaken as he is, it does show a stunning commitment to promise keeping! And that is what is behind all lopsided moral developments. They are usually not driven by purely amoral lawlessness. No, they are driven by putting one good value (in this case, honor) over all others (the sanctity of life, love, compassion etc). And based on what? What is “right in our own eyes”.
So, speaking of lopsided moral developments, perhaps we’ve done the opposite today. Our culture puts the value of honor so extremely low that, rather than put up with great personal cost to fulfill our responsibilities, we would prefer to treat literally millions of babies as badly as this one man did his grown daughter. Is our moral moment, when people today also do “whatever is right in their own eyes” any better; We who dismember the bodies of fetuses who have done no wrong? I think not. If we were to write the moral history of our time, just the last 100 years or so, when the peoples in charge have explicitly rejected the ways of Israel’s God to do what is right in their own eyes, it would be a ghastlier read than Judges, by a landslide.