I’ve noticed that many people associate the Old Testament with writings like Isaiah, or Jeremiah, often thinking of complicated, long, and confusing prophesies. Much of the Old Testament, however, is loaded with stories. We’re all familiar with stories like Noah, Joseph of Egypt, and David and Goliath, but there are tons of stories that we often miss out on. Jephthah is a particularly interesting example of a lesser-known story among Christians.
Jephthah (who’s story is in Judges 11 and 12) was an exile from his fellow “Gileadites” during the period of the Judges (the period of the Judges is after Joshua brought the Israelites into the land of Canaan, but before King David united all the tribes into a cohesive kingdom.) When Ammonites (who lived east of the Gileadites in present day Jordan) attacked Israel, the Gileadites looked to Jephthah to lead them into battle. Jephthah was hesitant, but when the elders of Gilead promised to put him in charge of Gilead, Jephthah agreed.
Most of the rest of the story involves Jephthah proposing peace, then fighting a successful military campaign, but the highlight of the peace comes when
“29. the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah…
30. And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,
31. 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.”
Basically, Jephthah promises to sacrifice whatever (or whoever) steps out of Jephthah’s house first when he comes home if the Lord grants them victory. It’s just Jephthah’s luck that his only child, his daughter, steps out first when Jephthah returns. Jephthah is sad, his daughter spends two months “mourning her virginity,” and Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.”
In case you missed it, that was a Human sacrifice to God. Or was it?
In the off-chance someone teaches you about Jephthah, it’s usually to teach against making rash covenants with God or only promising righteous things. These are important lessons, but I’m not sure that Jephthah should be the poster child for all of this. There’s reason to believe that Jephthah was not an impetuous child-murderer, but a very devoted, level-headed, intelligent leader. His better traits are clearly evident in his dealings with the Gileadites, the way he waged war, and even in his infamous vow.
Dealing with Gileadites
We would expect a man with Jepthah’s reputation to leap before looking at any good opportunity, but when Jephthah was called out of exile by Gileadite elders, he exercised an impressive level of calm reservation. As George Moore puts it, the Gileadites quickly offered Jephthah a type of dictatorship. Instead of rashly jumping on the appearance of immediate power, prestige, and vindication against his exile, he questioned their intentions, required a covenant from the elders, and even secured his leadership position before beginning the military expedition. This alone doesn’t clear Jephthah from accusations of human sacrifice, but it sheds light on what might be a more accurate depiction of his nature and temperament.
Jephthah proved to be quite level-headed in war. In both of his engagements (one with the Ammonites and the other with the tribe of Ephraim), he made a point to send envoys to end hostilities by diplomacy. He first sent envoys to the Ammonites. Some scholars such as George Moore have noted that this episode may not have ever happened, but was later added by an editor to support Israelite claims to the land (a reasonable claim given the in-depth knowledge of 300 years of history and land claims between the Israelites, Moabites, Edomites, and Ammonites that Jephthah would have demonstrated with just this little piece of diplomacy.) However, even if the episode is contrived, it matches much of the rest of the story well enough that it likely describes Jephthah’s character accurately. He did, after all, send envoys to the Ephraimites.
Jephthah’s diplomacy did not stem from a lack of strength though. He soundly defeated the Ammonites, pounding on 20 cities across about 8 miles of land from Aroer to Minith. He also soundly defeated an indignant group of Ephraimites. After a decisive battle, Jephthah cleverly identified retreating Ephraimites by having them pronounce the word “Shibboleth,” which Ephraimites pronounce “Sibboleth.” All Ephraimites that Jephthah and his men discovered were put to death, sending a clear message on the consequences of future hostilities between the tribes.
The Rash Vow and Human Sacrifice
Regardless of whatever military victories Jephthah had, sacrificing one’s daughter is a pretty big deal that readers of the Old Testament would expect to neutralize any praise that Jephthah had earned. However, a look into the original text of this episode makes Jephtha’s story a bit more understandable, starting with the fact that Jephthah did not make a rash vow in the heat of battle. George Moore identified the fact that the original text was likely in a different order than what we have now. This means that Jephthah actually made his vow before heading to battle, while he had adequate time to consider the consequences.
And what were the consequences? Victor Ludlow points out that it wasn’t likely murdering his daughter. First, the language in the passage makes it clear that Jephthah intended the “sacrifice” to be human from the start. Victor further mentions that since “we have no right to attribute to [Jephthah] any ignorance of the law,” that we should start with the assumption that his intentions were righteous, even if it’s not immediately clear how. Our assumption of righteousness is further affirmed because Jehovah has never sent His Spirit upon someone who practices child sacrifice, and Paul would certainly not have used Jephthah as an example of great faith in Hebrews 11:32 had Jephthah committed such wickedness. Also, if Jephthah would have actually burned his daughter, he wouldn’t have been able to do so upon any altar of Jehovah since no priest would ever allow such a deed. This means that if Jephthah killed her daughter, he would have offered an independent sacrifice to Moloch which would have kept Jephthah off of the list of righteous judges.
It’s also important that Jephthah’s daughter “bewailed her virginity.” This is significant because this phrasing in the Hebrew text does not suggest that she died a virgin; such actions are not even an appropriate response to dying a virgin. It signifies that she mourned that she would live and die without posterity. This suggests that Jephthah’s sacrifice was more like Hannah’s sacrifice of committing Samuel to temple service than it was like Manasseh’s burnt sacrifices of children to Moloch. Jephthah’s daughter likely lived in religious service, instead of dying on an altar.
Finally, and most interestingly, although in the English text it appears that Jephthah intended to burn the human sacrifice, the Hebrew text is much more ambiguous. The phrase “I will offer it up for a burnt offering” can be translated with equal veracity with the idea of simply offering some sort of burnt offering connected with the thing offered up. As strong as the wording seems in English, the original Hebrew is a bit more ambiguous.
Jephthah’s Offering: Some Great Lessons for Us
Jepthah’s story has given us many opportunities to teach by contrast about being thoughtful, patient, trustful in God, selfless, and respectful of human life. Perhaps it’s worth adding a lesson about the importance of withholding judgment of others. Whether you agree with the scholars or not, it should at least be clear that Jephthah’s story isn’t as cut and dry as it looks on the surface, especially when it’s read in English. As we seem to be in an era (which may not be unique to any time in history) where people pass immediate judgments on people they meet and about news they hear, take some time to be different and assume the best until you can prove the worst. Everyone needs that chance from time to time.
Ludlow, Victor L. Unlocking the Old Testament. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981. Print.
Rasmussen, Ellis T. A Latter-Day Saint Commentary on the Old Testament. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret, 1993. Print.
Ludlow, Daniel H. A Companion to Your Study of the Old Testament. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1981. Print.
Henry, Matthew. “Jephthah’s Vow. He Vanquishes the Ammonites.” Judges 11 Commentary. Bible Gateway, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Keil, Carl Friedrich, and Franz Delitzsch. Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I & II Samuel. Vol. II. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982. Print.
Moore, George Foot. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Judges. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1989. Print.
Aroer2.jpg. Bibleatlas.org, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2015. <http://bibleatlas.org/region/aroer2.jpg>.
Aharoni, Yohanan, Michael Avi-Yongah, Anson F. Rainey, Ze’ev Safrai, and R. Steven Notley. Carta Bible Atlas, Firth Edition Revised and Expanded. N.p.: Carta the Isreal Map & Pub, 2011. Print.
*Please excuse the crazily inaccurate picture on the heading. I know that Jephthah would have looked far less Medieval European, but it’s the best Public Domain picture of Jephthah I could find. 🙂
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