CSI: GILEAD – Did Jephthah Really Kill His Daughter? (PART 1)

Jephthah is a great man of faith – a “mighty man of valor” and a great deliverer and ruler over Israel. So great, in fact, that he finds himself placed among the likes of Moses, King David, and even Abraham in Hebrews’ hall of the faithful. So great! And yet we hardly ever talk about him. In fact, I would challenge you to scan the list of people in Hebrews 11 and find a name that is less familiar than Jephthah’s. See?

Awkward tale

Now perhaps his account has simply been squeezed out of our Sunday School curriculums by the many colorful stories that surround it (“tell me the one about Samson and the jawbone, again”). But I suspect that we are also loathe to delve into the story because of that awkward bit about offering up his daughter as a burnt offering to God.

If you don’t remember the story, I’d encourage you to shut down your device and dig out your Bible. Read Judges 10:6 to 12:15 and meet me back here in ten.

In a nutshell

Hey, welcome back. To sum up, Jephthah is a might man of valor, but he’s also the son of a prostitute. His brothers want nothing to do with him at first but when the Ammonites come around and start harassing them, well, a mighty man sounds like just the thing. After that, there’s some back and forth between Jephthah and the elders, then Jephthah and the king of Ammon, until finally the battle lines are formed. But before riding out to meet his foe, Jephthah makes this vow to the Lord:

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 11:31

Impulsive vow

I’m not sure who or what Jephthah expected to come out of his house to meet him when he returned from the battle, but unfortunately for him (and particularly for her), it was his daughter. And verse 39 tells us that “he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed.” Ouch.

What happened here? Did Jephthah just kill his daughter?

Well…I don’t know. Not with any certainty, at any rate. Scholars have argued over this point for hundreds of years. But I’d like to present three reasons why he may have done it (this article), followed by six reasons why he may not have (next article). Most of these are mere observations from the text. Two points are based on translations from the Hebrew for which the British Rabbi Jonathan Magonet was a help to me.

Inconvenient facts

Three reasons why Jephthah may have killed his daughter:

1.The straightforward reading of the text: There is much to be said for avoiding mental gymnastics and letting scripture speak for itself. In Judges 11, Jephthah makes a vow and then he carries it out, with all of it’s heartbreaking implications. Pretty simple. And it seems to fit with everyone’s reactions – Jephthah tears his robes, his daughter bewails her virginity and the daughters of Israel lament. Case closed.

2. The culture of the day: Scholars will point out that this was a particularly barbaric time in Israel’s history and that all sorts of terrible things were going on all around them. Perhaps the children of Israel were desensitized and less repulsed by human sacrifice than they were at more civilized times.

3. Her insistence: It’s Jephthah’s daughter who insists that Jephthah carries out his vow. “Do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth.” This voluntary insistence makes this less of a human sacrifice and more a type of martyrdom. Maybe that sits better with you?

In the second half of this article, we’ll discuss six reasons why Jephthah may not have offered his daughter up as a burnt offering.

Inconclusive evidence

In the end, the text is not completely clear on Jephthah’s daughter’s fate. It does not describe a flame or an altar or offer any alternative outcome. Whatever it was, it appears from the text that she was a willing participant and that her faith was at least as great as her father’s. She paid a terrible cost for Israel’s victory, and so did Jephthah.

When we read this story and respond with heartbreak or even nausea, it can help us to enter into the emotions of another great offering. Jesus’ death was the sacrifice that secured our great victory over sin, death and hell, promised since before the world began.

Dan Kruszelnicki
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