In the last article, we noted that the straightforward reading of the text strongly suggests that Jephthah offered up his only daughter as a burnt offering to God, just as he promised. And yet, God was the same God then as he was when He forbade human sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:30-32), pronounced the death penalty on those who practiced it (Leviticus 20:1-2) and stayed the knife of Abraham as it hovered over his son, Isaac (Genesis 22).
So is there another way to read and understand this passage? I think there is. Let’s read a few of the relevant verses again.
Vs. 30-31: 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.
Vs. 34: When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter.
Vs. 39-40: And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man (remained a virgin). And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Six reasons why Jephthah might not have done it:
1.The Lord was in it: The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah in verse 29 and in the very next verse, he makes the vow. This does not seem to be a rash vow as some will frame it. The same God who hates human sacrifice was there with Jephthah as he made this promise.
2. The Lord honored the vow: A great victory is won. God honors the vow and grants Jephthah’s request despite fully knowing the implications for his daughter. Then Jephthah himself is honored in the book of Hebrews among the hall of the faithful. Does this sound like a man who committed an abomination?
Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking, David’s in Hebrews 11, too, and he did some pretty rotten stuff. That’s true. But this offering is central to Jephthah’s story – It reads like an example of his faithfulness as opposed to an unfortunate side story.
3. She bewails her virginity: It seems strange, in light of her impending death, that Jephthah’s daughter seems most upset about her virginity. Certainly, marital intimacy and child-bearing are great gifts from God, but if her body is destined for a pyre, surely virginity would be just a small part of her grief. She might grieve breathing, eating, dancing, laughing. She might grieve her life. Yet twice we are told that she bewails her virginity and when Jephthah carries out his vow, we are told that she knew no man or less euphemistically, that she remained a virgin. This has led some, myself included, to wonder if her fate was something other than death.
4. Another way to understand the vow: Some have pointed out that the most straightforward reading of the vow could not be the right one. That this could not have been an open-ended promise to offer up “whatever comes out” as a burnt offering. Only certain animals were permitted as offerings to the Lord. What if a pig or a person came out? Jephthah must have known that was a possibility.
5. A closer look at the vow: There are two parts to Jephthah’s vow. Whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, (1) shall surely be the Lord’s, AND I will offer it up as a burnt offering. In his commentary on this passage, rabbi David Magonet says this:
“The flexibility of the vav conjunctive linking the two statements would allow it to be read here as ‘and’, so that ‘belonging to the Lord’ meant the burnt offering mentioned immediately after. But the ‘vav’ could also be read as ‘or’, so that whatever or whoever came out would be dedicated to God, and, only should it prove appropriate, would be sacrificed.”
Implicit then, is that if it was not appropriate for a burnt offering, then it would not be offered up in this way. But then, it would “surely be the Lord’s”.
6. The lament of the daughter’s of Jerusalem: The rabbi further points out that in verse 40 where “the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament THE daughter of Jephthah” that it could equally carry the meaning that they would lament TO THE daughter of Jephthah, meaning that she was alive and that they were going out to meet her.
It is possible that Jephthah’s daughter was given to the Lord in a sense other than a burnt offering. That she sacrificed a normal life of marriage, motherhood and community for one of exclusive service to the Lord in celibacy and isolation. Regardless, her faith and the faith of her father are remarkable.
There’s an interesting gospel inversion that happens for us. Jephthah makes a sacrifice and gives up something precious of his in order to secure his victory. We are freely given the victory because of Jesus’ great sacrifice and so now all that we have is His, no matter how precious. Jesus paid it all, all to Him we owe.