Jephthah’s Not-As-Rash-As-You-Thought Vow

As I have commented in the past, simply reading the Bible slowly, carefully, and with the intent to retain meaning, has tremendous benefits. Often times a text that seemed like a difficult text, or was confusing, becomes clear by simply reading the whole chapter or book in which it exists.

Similarly, reading the whole Bible slowly, carefully, and with the intent to retain meaning often yields similar results. To demonstrate this, I want to talk about the case of one of the judges of Israel: Jephthah.

Then the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 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.” – Judges 11:29–31, ESV

Jephthah, so the account goes, was about to go into battle with the Ammonites and decided to get a little bit of help from the Lord. He vowed to offer whatever came out of his house first when he returned from victory to the LORD as a burnt offering.

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “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 11:34–35, ESV

When he arrived home, his daughter greeted him, meaning that he would be required according to his vow to sacrifice her as a burnt offering in exchange for what the LORD had done.

And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the LORD; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. – Judges 11:36–39a, ESV

Ever the dutiful daughter, she submits herself to her father’s foolish decision, agrees to be party to his sinful Molechian sacrifice, and only asks that she be allowed to mourn her virginity. After two months, she returns and is ostensibly sacrificed to the LORD.

Or was she?

My first real interaction with this passage was in an online debating forum called debate.org. I had engaged in a debate which sought to defend the Bible from critique. One of the features that my interlocutor pointed out was this text, and how it was contrary to the established Levitical and Deuteronomistic law which forbade human sacrifice. I set out to harmonize the text, and I think I did a fair job. There are a number of features in the text which can be used to prove that Jephthah was operating outside of God’s law and that God was not consenting to the sacrifice. 1

However, as I was doing some basic research for that interaction I came across a remarkably common view that rather than sacrifice his daughter, instead, he dedicated her to religious life. This was usually explained by the fact that she mourned her virginity, which seems a silly thing to do since your life will be over. I never gave this much thought and dismissed it out of hand.

However, I came across something in my daily reading that caused me to rethink this.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, If anyone makes a special vow to the LORD involving the valuation of persons, then the valuation of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. If the person is a female, the valuation shall be thirty shekels. If the person is from five years old up to twenty years old, the valuation shall be for a male twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels. If the person is from a month old up to five years old, the valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver, and for a female the valuation shall be three shekels of silver. And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the valuation for a male shall be fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels. And if someone is too poor to pay the valuation, then he shall be made to stand before the priest, and the priest shall value him; the priest shall value him according to what the vower can afford.

“If the vow is an animal that may be offered as an offering to the LORD, all of it that he gives to the LORD is holy. He shall not exchange it or make a substitute for it, good for bad, or bad for good; and if he does in fact substitute one animal for another, then both it and the substitute shall be holy. And if it is any unclean animal that may not be offered as an offering to the LORD, then he shall stand the animal before the priest, and the priest shall value it as either good or bad; as the priest values it, so it shall be. But if he wishes to redeem it, he shall add a fifth to the valuation. – 27:1–13.

When I read this, it jumped off the page to me. Suddenly, the missing piece of the Jephthah puzzle was found.

Now, I fully acknowledge two facts:

  1. Reliable commentators are split on this, and Matthew Henry is correct in stating that there is no religious law in all of the Old Testament which commends celibacy or virginity. Further, Jephthah seems to be a pretty well off individual, and the valuation to redeem her should have been easily affordable. These two things mitigate against my view.
  2. This is unlikely to convince a hardened skeptic who is using this passage against you (as if it is actually possible to use Scripture against the elect!), but that is unsurprising since they are not interested in seeking the truth, but in suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.

However, I have a tough time thinking that anyone who was familiar with the Levitical code could have read this passage and not seen the parallels. In fact, I looked at several cross-reference resources, and many of them make exactly this connection.

As far as I can tell, Jephthah swore a vow to dedicate whatever came from his house as a burnt offering. 2 The Hebrew text is ambiguous as to whether he expected this to be an animal or a person 3, but give the drastic opposition to human sacrifice in the Levitical code it seems unlikely that Jephthah would be bargaining with Yahweh, by offering him something that Yahweh has repeatedly stated that he hates. 4 I conclude from this that he expected it to be an animal that wandered out when he returned. However, when he was greeted by his only daughter, he remembered that the Levitical code allows for a man to vow his child to the LORD, and knowing that he could not offer her as a burnt offering, he instead fulfilled his vow by devoting her to the LORD’s service. 5

This, in my view, makes much better sense of the passage. 6


See also: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/rethinking-jephthah-foolish-vow/

Notes:

  1. Namely, the Spirit of the LORD had already come upon Jephthah and thus his victory over the Ammonites had already been secured, but Jephthah simply made an extraneous and unnecessary vow. The LORD did not reward his vow since he had already intended to deliver victory over the Ammonites.
  2. If the context tells us anything, this may have actually been a prophetic vow since it was made under the influence of the Holy Spirit!
  3. Hebrew lacks a neuter grammatical gender
  4. Especially since the immediately preceding pericope is a demonstration of Jephthah’s shrewd bargaining skills.
  5. Grammatically it is unclear if Leviticus 27:28 and 27:29 are a single command, with 29 being further explanation of 28 or if 29 constitutes a distinct command. I take the latter view and justify with the explanatory clause clarifying “devoted” in vs 28 from “devoted to destruction” in vs 29.
  6. There may also be some fruit to be harvested in looking at the escalating sacrifices made by Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson which in many ways parallel Abraham and ultimately Christ. Gideon gives up his family, Jephthah gives us his only child, Samson gives up his very life.

2 Comments

  1. “This is unlikely to convince a hardened skeptic who is using this passage against you (as if it is actually possible to use Scripture against the elect!), but that is unsurprising since they are not interested in seeking the truth, but in suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.”

    – so you view must be the truth then. Anyone who disagrees with it must be a ‘hardened unelect skeptic not interested in seeking the truth’. Or you can learn some humility enough to say that this view might not be the right one.

    1. I am not sure you could possibly draw that conclusion from what I wrote… especially since the immediately preceding point are two arguments against my view…

      The point of me saying that was actually 100% the opposite of what you seem to think it was. I included that to acknowledge that my argument has absolutely zero apologetic value in reference to convincing unbelievers that this is the case, and so I was advising my readers against employing it as a defense against this criticism.

      I’m sorry for any confusion that might have resulted from my lack of clear writing on this.

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