People love drama and scandalous stories, even at times reading scandal into stories when it’s unwarranted. For example, seeing Bathsheba as seducing a king or the woman at the well as immoral, failing to see these women as victims. But sometimes the reverse is true with a bible character. We view a person as a victim of a huger atrocity than what really happened—as with Jephthah’s daughter.
The judge Jephthah ruled Israel for 6 years after defeating the Ammonites. Before going into battle Judges 11:30–31 records:
And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
Upon returning from his victorious battle, his only child came to great him with tambourines and dancing. Jephthah tore his clothes saying:
“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.”
Many assume that Jephthah thus offered up his daughter as a burn sacrifice and make warnings about rash vows. Yet, while it’s true that one should make vows with great care, I don’t think that Jephthah offered his daughter as a sacrifice on altar. Rather, he dedicated her to serve the Lord in the tabernacle for the rest of her life; something similar to what Hannah did when she offered Samuel to the Lord in a vow.
Here’s my reasoning:
- The conjunction “and” in verse 31 could be just as easily be translated as “or,” making it a choice between dedicating something (or someone) to the Lord or offering something as a sacrifice.
- His daughter asked for two months to go into the mountains and mourn her virginity. She does not seem to mourn impending death, but rather the fact that she would not marry and have children to pass down their family legacy.
- Verse 39 makes a point of saying “she never knew a man.” This seems unnecessary to add if she were simply killed.
- Human sacrifices were forbidden by law upon penalty of death (Leviticus 20:2), but after he fulfilled his vow he went on to judge Israel for six years without any mention of disfavor from the people.
- The text itself does not condemn Jephthah’s act, even though the Biblical authors are often quick to hold leaders accountable in the narrative (cf. Judges 8:27).
This reasoning doesn’t prove that she wasn’t sacrificed—counter arguments could be made—but I think it’s more reasonable based on the text to suggest that Jephthah dedicated his daughter to temple service.