Biblical Studies Home Page Biblical Studies Journal Volume 9, Number 1
January 15, 2008
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Jephthah: Artificial Excuse For Unbelief

by Bill Moore

For some, the story of Jephthah has an element that reduces the credibility of the Bible. The story has most often been brought into discussions I've been part of when a person is trying to justify his distaste for the Bible in general or the Old Testament in particular.

For those readers not familiar with the life of Jephthah, it is recorded in the book of Judges, chapters 11 and 12. In brief, Jephthah was born to a prostitute in Gilead in Israel and treated with little respect until the elders of Gilead came to him in their time of trouble. Israel was under attack by the Ammonites and sought Jephthah's help in the battle. He only consents when they agree to make him their leader. Before the battle, he makes this vow:

And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, "If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD's, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering." (Judges 11:30-31 RSV)

After the victory, who should come out of his home but his only daughter. And Judges records that Jephthah fulfills the vow (Judges 11:39).

My claim is that the Bible is the word of God. I want the reader to share this confidence. This is why the Jephthah issue needs to be addressed. This is written realizing one might have other issues with the Bible besides Jephthah; resolving the Jephthah question does not automatically guarantee faith. Nevertheless, a passage so frequently cited by skeptical critics deserves sober analysis and a re-examination of our preconceptions.

Summary Argument: Either Jephthah burned his daughter in a sacrifice, or he did not. If he did not, then there is no issue. If Jephthah did burn her, there is still no issue because the Bible does not indicate that God approves of Jephthah's action. Thus, propositions A and B.

A. There is not enough information to determine if Jephthah burned his daughter.

B. Even if Jephthah burned her, there is no indication that God approved of it.

Once "A." or "B." are established, Jephthah does not provide grounds for rejecting the Bible as God's word on the basis of a moral contradiction.  That is, it cannot be proven the Bible has God contradicting Himself here in Judges, after previously going on record against human sacrifice.

Positions Argued:

A. There is not enough information to determine if Jephthah burned his daughter.

Jephthah vowed that if God would grant him victory over the Ammonites,...

“then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:31 KJV)

The text tells us that Jephthah fulfilled the vow. But it does not spell out how he fulfilled the vow.

“And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man.” (Judges 11:39 KJV)

The text in Judges 11 does not contain enough information to really know what happened. He may have burned his daughter, but he may have fulfilled the vow otherwise. Is it possible to fulfill such a vow without the daughter being the burnt offering? The vow was that what came out of the doors should “be the LORD's,” and then he restates this as “a burnt offering”. The two phrasings refer to a single thing.

Consider this example from the book of Exodus [1] where a sacrifice was called for but an alternative sacrifice was explicitly provided for. In Exodus 13, the firstborn of Israel were passed over while those of Egypt were killed. This event had a complication for the firstborn of Israel; they now had to be redeemed. With animals, their firstborn would be “the Lord's” through a sacrifice ending in the animals' death. But with men, the firstborn were to be redeemed by offering a lamb instead. This is an example where the one appointed for death was spared by a substitution. The useful similarities between Jephthah's daughter in Judges and the firstborn males in Exodus are that they were both to “be the LORD's” and that “sacrifice” was involved in both. In the Exodus case, it did not end in the death of a human. This precedent suggests the possibility of Jephthah fulfilling the vow without human sacrifice.

There's no indication this was followed in Jephthah's case. The point is that becoming “the Lord's” is not by way of human sacrifice. Most likely, the daughter of Jephthah became “the Lord's” in the way that the prophet Samuel became “the Lord's,” offered up by his mother for a lifetime of service to God (1 Samuel 1:11 [2]).

B. Even if Jephthah burned her, there is no indication that God approved of it.

One might read in Judges 11:29 “the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah” and take it to mean that his rash vow in 11:30 was approved of by God. This “coming on” of the Spirit clearly applies to his journey to meet the enemy in battle (in verse 29), but should not be applied to Jephthah's actions in the next verse. Nor should it be applied as God's approval to the remaining actions that fill up his life.

Samson is an example of another judge upon whom “the Spirit of the LORD came mightily” (Judges 14:6,19 15:14). Yet he sinned against God on numerous occasions. As with Jephthah, the writer of Judges does not directly condemn Samson. The writer points out the events that document Samson's sins. His sins are evident to anyone in the culture of the Torah, and the author of Judges needs no statements like, “that was a no-no&rdquo or “God didn't like that”.

Another Voice, A Similar Approach:

Halfway through writing, I decided to cut my effort short after finding a sufficiently well developed and skillfully crafted discussion of Jephthah by Dave Miller[3]. Miller anticipated most of the arguments I had in mind and covered other good ones as well.

Before I close, let me add this post script.  One of Miller's arguments deserves a modern day illustration, namely the argument that "burnt offering" does not necessarily mean "burnt offering".  We often do the same thing in our language.  Suppose a relative of yours, recently graduated from college says, "I had to make a lot of sacrifices to get my degree." You are not going to seriously respond asking "How many lambs and goats did you burn?" That's because we can use the word sacrifice without meaning a literal burnt offering. "Burnt offering" (one word in Hebrew) could have been used in this metaphorical sense.  This is another source of uncertainty about whether Jephthah's vow contained an intent to burn, or just an intent to dedicate to the LORD."

Re-reading Judges 11:31 In this way would make a huge difference, "...when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD's, and I will offer him up for a sacrifice (rather than burnt offering)."  The writer of Judges may have used "burnt offering" implicitly as the Apostle Paul used sacrifice explicitly.[4]

I would like to direct your attention to Miller's article.


I've not proven that Jephthah did not burn his daughter. He may very well have burned her. There is not enough evidence to decide the question. Regardless of what happened to her, we do not find God approving of Jephthah burning his daughter.


I would like to thank my wife, Lynne, for constructive criticism and corrections of this paper.


[1]Exodus 13:1-2 “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.”

Exodus 13:12-15 “...thou shalt set apart unto the LORD all that openeth the matrix, and every firstling that cometh of a beast which thou hast; the male shall be the LORD's. And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem. And it shall be when thy son asketh thee in time to come, saying, What is this? that thou shalt say unto him, By strength of hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage: and it came to pass, when Pharaoh would hardly let us go, that the LORD slew all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man, and the firstborn of beast: therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all that openeth the matrix, being males; but all the firstborn of my children I redeem.”

[2] Samuel became “The LORD's” in the following way.

“And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.” -- I Samuel 1:11

His mother, Hannah, made this vow to God and fulfilled it while Samuel was still quite young.

“And when she had weaned him, she took him up with her, with three bullocks, and one ephah of flour, and a bottle of wine, and brought him unto the house of the LORD in Shiloh: and the child [was] young.” -- I Samuel 1:24

She describes her purpose to the priest, Eli, in this way:

“Therefore also I have lent him to the LORD; as long as he liveth he shall be lent to the LORD. And he worshipped the LORD there.” -- I Samuel 1:28

Samuel became "The LORD's" without having to become a literal burnt offering. Something of the sort could have been the case for Jephthah's daughter. Here are two examples where women were dedicated to the service of the LORD.

“Now Eli was very old, and he heard all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” -- I Samuel 2:22 (Revised Standard Version © 1947, 1952.)
“And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she [was] a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served [God] with fastings and prayers night and day.” -- Luke 2:36-37 (KJV)

[3] Apologetics Press :: Scripturally Speaking “Jephthah's Daughter” by Dave Miller.

[4] The Apostle Paul used "sacrifice" (Greek "Thusia") without meaning a physical death when he said, “...present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1 RSV)  The Septuagint uses Thusia for the "sacrifice" in Lev. 7:13, which is the Hebrew word "zebach". This Hebrew word is designated by Strongs #2077. Gesenius's Lexicon indicates this word is used to mean "a slaying;" hence "the flesh of slain animals," and "feasts" (Gen 31:54; Ezek. 39:17; Prov. 17:1). Paul explicitly applies the force and permanence of the dedication involved in sacrificial imagery to a Christian life to be similarly dedicated to God. Many cultures uses such imagery implicitly which then may require a detailed context to help us determine whether or not the "sacrifice" should be taken literally.

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