|Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?|
Our passage of concern this time around is one that Skeptics and critics alike have supposed to be an example of human sacrifice in the Bible -- and some even say it is endorsed by God Himself. Here is our passage, Judges 11:29-40 --
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break." "My father," she replied, "you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry." "You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Here are our key questions for this passage:
If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then we have a very disturbing story indeed, one that suggests that God endorsed a human sacrifice -- implicity if not explicitly. Let's examine some particulars.
The Role of Spirit
Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."
The most disturbing question raised by critics supposes that this passage indicates that the spirit of the Lord Himself caused Jephthah to offer his daughter as a sacrifice. Jonathan Kirsch, for example, in his book The Harlot by the Side of the Road, uncritically accepts the view of one feminist scholar who asserts that God was ultimately and directly responsible for the very text of the vow. Does this assertion hold up under scrutiny?
To answer this question, let's look at other places where it is said that the "spirit of the Lord" influenced some person to do something.
Judges 3:9-10 But when they cried out to the LORD, he raised up for them a deliverer, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, who saved them. The Spirit of the LORD came upon him, so that he became Israel's judge and went to war. The LORD gave Cushan-Rishathaim king of Aram into the hands of Othniel, who overpowered him.
Judges 6:34 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Gideon, and he blew a trumpet, summoning the Abiezrites to follow him.
Judges 14:6 The Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. But he told neither his father nor his mother what he had done.
Judges 14:19 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power. He went down to Ashkelon, struck down thirty of their men, stripped them of their belongings and gave their clothes to those who had explained the riddle. Burning with anger, he went up to his father's house.
Judges 15:14 As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the LORD came upon him in power. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands.
1 Sam. 16:13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. Samuel then went to Ramah.
2 Chr. 20:14-15 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel son of Zechariah, the son of Benaiah, the son of Jeiel, the son of Mattaniah, a Levite and descendant of Asaph, as he stood in the assembly. He said: "Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: 'Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God's.
Ezekiel 11:5 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon me, and he told me to say: "This is what the LORD says: That is what you are saying, O house of Israel, but I know what is going through your mind."
As we can see from these passages, what action or saying is inspired by the Spirit of the Lord is detailed immediately after it is said who the Spirit came upon. Therefore, if the Spirit of the Lord inspired Jephthah to do anything at all, it was to go travelling around recruiting his army and go to war with the Ammonites. The fact that the vow is reported seperately indicates that it was not something done under the Spirit of the Lord at all.
Jephthah's Errant Vow
When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break."
Now the next question, the answer to which some say makes God guilty by endorsement, and Jephthah guilty in the main: Did he make this vow knowing that a human might come walking out of his house?
It is common to appeal to Jephthah's ignorance in this case, and note that houses of the Biblical period typically had a stockyard that surrounded the house, so that Jephthah could very well have supposed that an animal would be the first thing to meet him. Kirsch, however, again uncritically following feminist scholarship, dismisses this solid sociological data as "ingenious" and merely asserts that Jephthah "knows exactly what he is doing."
But other data indicates otherwise. First, as Glenn Miller has pointed out, there are too many "incongruities in the text/context for that":
...What I have to conclude from this passage is that Jephthah is using 'burnt offering' in a general 'offering' sense, and that he is meaning an 'irredeemable vow' as a thank-offering, along the line of Hannah/Samuel. This is the only way to make sense of all the particulars. (Interestingly, Jephthat is surprisingly literate—his knowledge of biblical history,evidenced in the letter to his adversary, shows that he knows the mosaic history—he WOULD have known how bad a literal human sacrifice would have been.)
A recent book by Pamela Reis [OT:RTL] adds some interesting insights to this event:
The net effect of her understanding is the same: there was no human sacrifice, nor any devaluation of women in the passage.
Did He Go Through With It?
The final and ultimate question is: Did Jephthah actually go through with a human sacrifice? Many commentators think so, but the text points in another direction. We note, along with the incongruities cited by Miller above, that Jephthah's daughter spent some time in the wilderness bewailing the fact that she would always be a virgin and never have children. This sounds like Temple service to me, or else a child with wrong-headed or peculiar priorities.
Furthermore, Jephthah's own misery is perfectly understandable; as Miller explains: "As the only child, and if given to the priest in this fashion, Jephthah's entire estate would go to someone else." As important as this was in the ANE, small wonder he was upset. That vow cost him not only his daughter's life with him at home (and since he was thrown out of his own house, that made the companionship all the more valuable to him), but any chance he had of giving his property to a true descendant.
We therefore conclude that while Jephthah was not a particularly wise person, he neither promised nor committed a human sacrifice in this instance. We can surmise that there is a bit of literary "trickery" here...the abrupt ending of the account and the non-specific "he did to her as he vowed" is perhaps designed to shock the reader and make them wonder, "Hey...did he?"
This would be in perfect keeping with the purpose of Judges as a mirror of Israelite moral anarchy in this period. The reader is shown in various places how bad things got; and this story easily encourages one to wonder just indeed how bad things did get. It is yet another case of the Bible, the Word of God, forcing us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, warts and all.
Objection: Jephthah got exactly what he asked for, specifically victory over the Ammonites. In fact, the text tells us explicitly that "the Lord delivered them into his hands" (11:32). What other meaning can be drawn from this, other than that God did indeed accept the offered bargain?
This is a non sequitur in context, arguing that no other meaning can be drawn from the fact that Jephthah was given victory in battle apart from God honoring Jephthah's vow, therefore God accepted the human sacrifice that was offered. The problem is that the text itself gives the specific reasons why Jephthah was given victory in battle:
Thus, we find that the defeat of the Ammonites is foregone prior to Jephthah's rash vow, regardless of precisely how rash it actually was. It might be claimed that the military victory itself provides evidence that the vow was accepted, but this does not follow. If the critic were to vow to kill someone as an offering to God if the next car to drive past his home happened to be an import, would a subsequent import drive-by show that God had accepted his vow?
The daughter clearly expects to be killed. I saw a movie where a girl reacted the same way.
To claim based on a movie -- that such a reaction was perfectly understandable and normal for someone about to die is far from adequate. We cannot cavalierly assume the values of a fictional character in a work produced in a libertarian society, onto a real person who lived in a tightly-controlled, collectivist society.
Moreover, Jephthah's daughter is not saying that she would "never know what sex is like" -- she is saying that she will remain a virgin, which has a broader conception than merely "I will not have the experience. We gave more reasons why Jephthah would be upset even beyond this, courtesy of Glenn Miller (and there are more below); it is wrong to say that if Jephthah had merely promised to hand his daughter over to Temple service, he had lost very little thereby.
Jepthah wouldn't be sad, because he would see her again.
That is not at issue. The tight familial relations of the ANE, in which extended families stayed together in the same household or town, means that this service was as good as a separation, and nevertheless tremendously heartbreaking, in spite of any possible "visits". In addition, for the ancients, to pass one's property on to a descendant was of the utmost importance.
He could have just had another child, so he couldn't have been sad because of all of that.
That would be far from a sure thing, given that after all this time this was Jephthah's only child. In addition, we must factor in an infant mortality rate of around 50% and another cut before people reached the age of 6, and Jephthah's likely age at the time, in a day when living to be 35 was unusual.
It says he "did with [his daughter] according to his vow which he had vowed". You can't get around that.
This has already been answered, but let us take this to the overliteral extent the critics seem to think is required. We have shown that Jephthah would not under any circumstances have expected anything but an animal to emerge when he arrived home, It is too much to suggest he would have adjusted his thinking in accordance with something happening contrary to expectations, and that the later language would have adjusted implications accordingly? What if Jephthat had arrived and someone threw a rock out of the doorway? Would he have offered the rock as a sacrifice? What if a fly came out of the house first?
In 11:40 it says, "the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year" (11:40). We cannot believe that the entire nation turned out to mourn and weep over a single girl being committed to Temple service.
The word for "lament" means to ascribe praise to or celebrate. Note that it is not the same word used to speak of Jephthah's daughter "bewailing" her virginity. The word in fact appears only one other place in the Bible in a relevant context (it appears also in Hosea to refer to "hiring" a prostitute):
Judges 5:11 They that are delivered from the noise of archers in the places of drawing water, there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD, even the righteous acts toward the inhabitants of his villages in Israel: then shall the people of the LORD go down to the gates.
Far from lamenting a terrible fate, the daughters of Israel were celebrating the personal sacrifice of a noble young woman who served as an honorable example..
We close by re-iterating and adding to the list of Miller's points (save one I disagree with):
What I have to conclude from this passage is that Jephthah does not know what a BURNT offering is, and that he is meaning an 'irredeemable vow' as a thank-offering, along the line of Hannah/Samuel. This is the only way to make sense of all the particulars. (Remember, Jephthah's home life was not the best one in the world for getting a biblical education--he was the son of a prostitute, and driven away from the house by his brothers.)
In August 2007, a reader advised me that this article was noted in a book titled Everything You Know About God is Wrong. One contributor, Bobbie Kirkhart, who credentials to comment on the social world of the Ancient Near East seem to be quite lacking (she is a "former Sunday School teacher"), had this to say about the above:
After all, nobody facing death would care about a little thing like (virginity). Okay, well, maybe Antigone and a few dozen other literary characters, but no nice Jewish girl in Holding's Bible.
Unfortunately, Kirkhart does not name these "few dozen" other characters, and even with the one named, we are given no quoted line from Sophocles to validate the point. Little wonder, for as a reading of Antigone (found here) shows, Antigone does not have upon her mind simply virginity, expressed in isolation as a concern as with Jephthah's daughter, but a rolling host of concerns; and it seems as well that the alleged lament over virginity has more to do with that she never married and had children:
And yet I honoured thee, as the wise will deem, rightly. Never, had been a mother of children, or if a husband had been mouldering in death, would I have taken this task upon me in the city's despite. What law, ye ask, is my warrant for that word? The husband lost, another might have been found, and child from another, to replace the first-born: but, father and mother hidden with Hades, no brother's life could ever bloom for me again. Such was the law whereby I held thee first in honour; but Creon deemed me guilty of error therein, and of outrage, ah brother mine! And now he leads me thus, a captive in his hands; no bridal bed, no bridal song hath been mine, no joy of marriage, no portion in the nurture of children; but thus, forlorn of friends, unhappy one, I go living to the vaults of death.
Kirkhart has not told the whole truth.