Digging Deeper: Did Jephthah Really Sacrifice His Daughter?

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Each Monday I'm going to try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper."  The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I just preached on the previous Sunday.  It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together.  Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor.  For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.  Hopefully this series will be helpful to some, and interesting to those who want to dig deeper into the text.

The first installment in this series will center around Judges 11.1-12.7.  These verses contain the story of Jephthah - one of the judges of Israel.  The most shocking and controversial portion of the story is verses 11.30-40.  In these verses Jephthah vows that if the Lord gives him victory over the Ammonites, then he will sacrifice as a burnt offering to the Lord the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him upon his return.  No doubt Jephthah assumed that one of his animals would be the first thing out of his house to meet him, but this was tragically not the case.  Instead, Jephthah's daughter was the first one to meet him.  Being a man of his word, Jephthah laments that he will now have to offer up his daughter as a burn offering to the Lord.  But does he, really? 

Many people have interpreted this part of Jephthah's story differently.  Some scholars believe that, instead of sacrificing his daughter, Jephthah merely dedicated her to the service of the Lord, perhaps in some fashion at the Tabernacle or in some other means.  There are several reasons that many have arrived at this interpretation.

1. God does not honor human sacrifice.  The primary reason that some believe that Jephthah didn't actually kill his daughter as a sacrifice is because the Old Testament clearly prohibits the practice of human sacrifice.  "You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods." (Deuteronomy 12.31)  God hates human sacrifice.  He finds it to be "abominable."  Surely God would not have been pleased with Jephthah's vow, and the fulfillment of said vow.  Jephthah would have known that, and would have backed off when the first thing to come out of his house to greet him was not an animal, but instead a human being.  Or certainly God would have done something to prevent Jephthah from carrying out his vow literally.  But, still wanting to be faithful to his vow, Jephthah "sacrificed" his daughter to the Lord by dedicating her to his service for the rest of her life. 

2. Jephthah's daughter mourns her virginity.  When Jephthah's pronouncement is made ("Alas, my daughter!  You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me.  For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow." Judges 11.35), his daughter's concern doesn't seem to be her impending death, but instead her virginity.  In fact, she asks her father to give her two months so she and her friends can go up into the mountains and weep not because of her impending demise, but because of her virginity.  Many have understood this as meaning that part of the service to which she would be dedicated (in place of being offered as a burnt sacrifice) would require life-long celibacy.  Thus the mourning she does is for her impending life-long commitment to celibacy (not being married, not having children, not having the same fulfillment that others might have, etc.), and not her death. 

3. The occasion became a national holiday.  A third piece of evidence for this interpretation is that the Israelites used the occasion as a type of holiday.  Every year the "daughters of Israel" would remember Jephthah's daughter and her virginity (Judges 11.39-40).  Had Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering, it is very unlikely that Israel would have marked such a barbaric and godless occasion on their yearly calendars.  It seems more likely that this remembrance was of the occasion of her forced celibacy, not her death.

Others, however, have not found this evidence persuasive, and I count myself among them.  It is my opinion that Jephthah did actually sacrifice his daughter to the Lord as a burnt offering.  I affirm, however, that God abhors human sacrifice, and that it is prohibited in the Old Testament Law, and that the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter was not pleasing to God.  But this doesn't mean that Jephthah didn't do it.  Many people have committed heinous acts in God's name - both in the Bible and throughout history - and we should count Jephthah among them for burning his daughter on an altar.  In his wisdom and for his purposes, God did not stop them from doing the evil deeds they did in his name.  There are several reasons why I believe this to be the case with Jephthah.

1. The plain reading of the text indicates that Jephthah carried through with his original vow.  When interpreting the Bible, there's a rule of thumb that is almost always true: "the plain reading of the text is almost always the correct reading."  Nowhere in the story of Jephthah is it even ever intimated that Jephthah did something other with his daughter than what he said he would do.  In fact, it is stated overtly: "And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made."  Any attempt to posit that Jephthah did something else with his daughter other than sacrifice her as a burnt offering is speculation.  The most plain reading of the text is that Jephthah did indeed sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord. 

2. Jephthah's spiritual life was syncretistic.  Religious life in Israel during the time of the judges was overwhelmingly dominated by syncretism.  Syncretism is the combining of ideas and beliefs into one.  Israel had become so influenced by other cultures and religions that their religion was virtually indistinguishable from other religions.  All of the "Gods" of the peoples looked pretty much the same.  This meant that the Israelites regarded Yahweh - the true God - as being pretty much one in the same, or at least on the same level, as all the other gods that "existed."  Other gods demanded human sacrifices, so it follows that the syncretistic thinking of the Israelites led them to believe that Yahweh also delighted in human sacrifice.  Thus, regarding God simply as a god, Jephthah makes the mistake of thinking that Yahweh desired human sacrifice.  There seems to be a good amount of contextual evidence for this.  First, Israel's main problem in the book of Judges is idolatry.  They mix themselves into other cultures and religious thinking all the time.  It is the perpetual thorn in their side.  Second, Gideon appears to make a religious symbol that, at least to some extent, is to represent God or his will (Judges 8.27).  This is blasphemy.  God is spirit, and is not represented in any symbol, statute, painting, or otherwise.  Third, Jephthah himself appears to equate Yahweh, the true God, with Chemosh, the false God of the Ammonites by intimating that both "Gods" have the power to bless their people with physical resources such as land.  In Jephthah's mind, Yahweh and Chemosh are on the same level, so then to him it stands to reason that Yahweh would approve of human sacrifice just like Chemosh did.  I believe that syncretistic thinking led Jephthah to make his tragic, profane, and detestable offering. 

3. Human sacrifice fits with Jephthah's pattern of life and behavior.  When considered as a whole, there's not much (if anything) about Jephthah's life that is commendable or worthy of admiration or emulation.  Indeed, it is difficult to find a single redeeming quality in the man's story in scripture.  While of course serious and reprehensible, human sacrifice is not the only mark against Jephthah.  He has many other issues that would serve to condemn him in the eyes of God.  Jephthah's story in Judges appears to be characterized by self-centeredness, wickedness, and a lust for power.  If this is true, and if his thinking was so deluded so as to bring about his other sins recorded in scripture, then it certainly isn't that much of a leap to think that he was led by his faulty thinking to the sacrificing of his own daughter.  Is it really so surprising that a selfish, wicked, power-hungry warlord would sacrifice his own daughter if it served his self-centered purposes? 

In Hebrews 11.32 we read that Jephthah's faith is commended.  It is my belief that many have attempted to explain away Jephthah's barbaric action of sacrificing his daughter in an attempt to justify him, or to make him seem not as bad as he looks, as though Jephthah would have been a stand-up fellow if it weren't for that human sacrifice business.  After all, how can God save such a vile, wicked human being?  How could God justify using Jephthah for his purposes when he has done such horrible things?  This kind of thinking is unnecessary, though, and in fact, diminishes the glory of the gospel.  The mystery of the gospel is that God is a God of infinite grace who pays for the debt of sinners - horrible sinners.  All sin is a horrendous offense against a holy God, from white lies, to pirating music or television from the internet, to human sacrifice.  And God's grace can and does cover them all through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin.  Rather than justify Jephthah by diminishing the severity of his sin, I think an honest accounting of this text rather serves to magnify the grace of God.  God's grace can cover any sin.  Even the sin of child sacrifice.