Jephthah's Daughter: Answers to Objections
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This article is substantially revised as of September 2011 in order that it can serve as a supplement to the above-linked TektonTV production. The revision is also performed in light of a closer examination of an excellent case made by Pamela Reis' Reading the Lines. This source had been noted by Glenn Miller ( as a useful one, but I found that there was much more to be reported than Miller offered in summary. It was added to again in November 2014.

To start, we present the text in question, 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:

Did the "spirit of the Lord" inspire Jephthah's vow?

Did Jephthah make the vow knowing a human might be involved?

Did Jephthah actually sacrifice his daughter?

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 -- and would also require some explanation. However, our answer to these questions is as follows: 1) No. 2) Yes -- in fact he intended for a human to be involved, but it doesn't matter because the answer to 3) is no.

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. (However, we shall see, the objection is moot anyway, since nothing objectionable was intended or came of the vow.)

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 Miller has pointed out, there are too many "incongruities in the text/context for that":

Literal "burnt offerings" HAD TO BE male (Lev 22.18-19). Jephthah's daughter obviously wasn't.

Burnt offerings were ALWAYS associated with condemnation/evil--not thanksgiving and vows. Even the one non-literal use of it in Dt 13.16 (in which a town is offered as a burnt offering) involves abject judgment/condemnation--NOT at all in view in the Jephthah passage.

It is at this point that we find it useful to offer a detailed summary of Reis' case, which I have compared to what commentaries say on this story, while also seeking out any criticism of Reis.

Initially it should be noted that Jephthah is no mere peasant. As head of a band of freebooters (11:3), and despite having the social stigma of being an outcast (11:1-2) from his family, his reputation for war is so great that the elders of Gilead lay aside all of this and ask him to lead their military. Given the low honor rating he would have had in their eyes, as both an outcast and a mercenary, this can only indicate that Jephthah is a man of substantial means and power. Though this seems an incidental point, it is actually critical to understanding the story.

Miller as noted above pointed out certain incongruencies, and also briefly noted in his article that Jephthah showed great familiarity with the OT text. His letter to the Ammonites indicates his knowledge of the military history in Numbers 20-21, and the opening clause of his vow is identical to the vow reported in Numbers 21:2, other than the name of the opposition. While this may also seem trivial, it is not, because it closes a door for critics to argue that Jephthah didn't know that the Law forbade human sacrifice.

So what is Jephthah planning to do with this vow? In fact, he is intending to dedicate and redeem a person in accord with Lev. 27:2-8:

Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When a man shall make a singular vow, the persons [shall be] for the LORD by thy estimation. And thy estimation shall be of the male from twenty years old even unto sixty years old, even thy estimation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. And if it [be] a female, then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels. And if [it be] from five years old even unto twenty years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male twenty shekels, and for the female ten shekels. And if [it be] from a month old even unto five years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male five shekels of silver, and for the female thy estimation [shall be] three shekels of silver. And if [it be] from sixty years old and above; if [it be] a male, then thy estimation shall be fifteen shekels, and for the female ten shekels. But if he be poorer than thy estimation, then he shall present himself before the priest, and the priest shall value him; according to his ability that vowed shall the priest value him.

What makes this especially of interest is that in verses following, animals who are declared for such vows are considered "holy" -- set apart:

And if [it be] a beast, whereof men bring an offering unto the LORD, all that [any man] giveth of such unto the LORD shall be holy. He shall not alter it, nor change it, a good for a bad, or a bad for a good: and if he shall at all change beast for beast, then it and the exchange thereof shall be holy.

Reis points out that in the Talmudic era, rabbis understood this to mean that the animal was no longer shorn or used for work. One critic has questioned Reis on this point because of the lateness of this interpretation, but there is more than ample reason to accept it even so. In being set apart as "holy" the animal becomes just like the Sabbath Day -- holy, and set apart from all other animals. And of course, the classic defining trait of the Sabbath is that it is a "no work" day.So likewise the rest of the chapter is all about setting apart things as "holy" in a way that indicates they will be "Sabbathized" (e.g., a field is to be possessed by the priests [v. 21], who are not agricultural laborers!).

From this, it is also to be concluded that humans covered by Lev. 27:1-8 also become "no work" entities -- and at the very least, withdraw from normal life. Reis likewise points out that articles associated with worship -- like the unhewn stone of the altar, and the never-yoked red heifer -- also are sanctified by "no work" prohibitions. Finally, she comments concerning 11:39-40:

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. And it was a custom in Israel, [That] the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.

Reis asserts that whereas the phrase "it was a custom of Israel" is taken to be the start of verse 40, it should actually be the end of v. 39, indicating that the virginity of Jephthah's daughter was bound by statute or law (which is what the word "custom" literally is) in Israel. What this means will be seen shortly.

"There's no sign people dedicated to the temple had to be virgins. Some people like that in the Bible had kids, like Samuel!"

Then all that means is that he wasn't the subject of a Lev. 27 vow specifically, but of some other vow.

"But it doesn't say in Lev. 27 that humans don't have to work if they take this vow!"

It does not have to specify "humans" any more than it has to specify ducks, goats, and puppy dogs. As anyone familiar with rabbinic interpretation would realize, Jewish expositors had little hesitation to expand and re-apply the Law into new situations. That is to be expected, since ancient law codes were didactic, meant to be "case law," not ironclad orders.

"That doesn't make sense, what good is someone who can't work to the Temple?"

What "good" is the Old Testament cherem or ban to the people who conquer an enemy? It is nearly blasphemous to suggest that utilitarian purpose is required for a vow to God to "make sense."

"But Gen. 3:16 doesn't say childbirth is work, it says it will be painful!"

Tell that to a woman giving birth it is not "work" and see how far it gets you. If you are lucky, it will not get you far in the sense of being punched in the nose. The rabbis of Jesus' day debated whether speaking was work; if they debated that, then you can be sure childbirth was in that category too.

"But then no one could give birth on the Sabbath!"

And as Jesus suggests, no one could get an ox put of a pit on the Sabbath, either. But even the legalistic Pharisees knew better than that.

"But the Bible says having children was a joy and a privilege!"

So it does. That doesn't make giving birth to them any less work. It also says serving God is a joy and a privilege. Which was greater in that respect?

In that regard, Reis asserts that Jephthah's use of the term "burnt offering" ('olah) is strictly metaphorical -- the person will become like a burnt offering in terms of utility to others in work. This is a good point to which another may be added in confirmation: The literal meaning of the word behind "burnt offering" offers no specific semantic content that indicates burning. Rather, the word itself is a metaphor, which literally means something ascending. (The word is used in two places -- 1 Kings 10:5 and Ezekiel 40:26 -- to refer to someone ascending steps, who are also self-evidently not on fire.) The sacrifice "ascends" as smoke. But of course, there are more ways to "ascend" than as ashes in the air. A human who "ascends" as one set apart as holy does so in a thoroughly spiritual or metaphorical sense, if any at all. Nevertheless, let us stress that those who might be tempted to raise an accusation that we are trying to turn a horrible and obviously (!) literal event into a metaphor, would be well served to remember that 'olah is already a metaphor -- so that accusation falls flat.

"But in neither instance you give is 'olah preceded by 'alah. In this verses in Judges it does, and that always means a literal sacrifice!"

The reason 'alah precedes 'olah is because it is a verb showing performance of an action. Whether a person offers an offering or climbs stairs, there is a verb involved. The presence of 'alah is irrelevant. And actually, 'olah in Ezekiel is preceded by ma'alah, which is etymologically related, and 'alah is also present in 1 Kings 10:5.

"Well, 1 Kings 10:5 isn't a correct example, it means a burnt offering!"

Sorry, no, it doesn't. I looked into this one, and you'll find that translators are divided: While some say this refers to burnt offerings, others like the NASB and ASV say it refers to a stairway. How do we decide which is correct?

The defining factor is found in 1 Kings 10:12, which refers to objects Solomon made of almug trees. The word used for these objects is found just here in 1 Kings 10:12. It has been variously understood to refer to pillars, steps, or railings. But the parallel passage in 2 Chr. 9:11 gives us a different word taken to mean a path or a terrace. From this we may conclude that Solomon constructed some sort of upper level in the Temple to allow himself to observe sacrifices, or else some kind of stairway to climb the Temple mount. Either of these would have been an impressive feat of engineering worthy to show to a visiting monarch. And it is that context which is best to inform 1 Kings 10:5.

But now we turn to a point that is also critical to the story. In the Bible, the work of women includes childbearing (Gen. 3:16). Of course, the only way to absolutely ensure that a woman never had to do this work is to remain celibate. And thus is also explained the reactions of both Jephthah and his daughter: On the one hand, she is making light of the fact that she will remain a virgin (or, never marry, as the translation above couches it), instead of saying that she wishes to take her break because she is about to die. I have noted in the past that the empahsis on virginity is entirely misplaced if indeed death is what hangs over the daughter's head, and so it would be. However, if the vow means that she must be excluded from the work of childbearing, then the emphasis is perfectly understandable. It also explains Jephthah's own sadness: Now he will have no heirs and no legacy. His line -- and therefore also his future honor -- will be non-existent, as this is his only child. (Keeping in mind that leaving descendants was a critical honor to achieve for this society.) Finally, it explains the "statue" requiring the virginity of Jephthah's daughter in v. 39-40: It refers to the statute of Lev. 27 indicating that one set apart no longer does work.

In all of this, it should be noted as particularly important that Jephthah's original vow would have been a public one -- it would have had no value or impact, and accrued him no honor, as a private oath -- and that he made it in his own hometown of Mizpah. In that circumstance, it is inconceivable that his daughter would not have known of it. If she did not hear it herself, village gossip would have brought it to her ears, and more than that, word would surely have been sent to his household to get ready for someone to jump on the chance to be the first one out. Her own words in 11:36 make it clear, too, that she knows of the vow, in all its details:

And she said unto him, My father, [if] thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, [even] of the children of Ammon.

Jephthah's most likely intention was that one of his household servants take the chance. In any event, the public nature of the vow is another strike against the literal "burnt offering" reading, for no one in their right mind would have come out of the house first knowing it means a ticket to a case of the land of the burning dead.

"The idea that the oath was public is pure conjecture!"

No, it is not. It is reflective of the facts of life in the social world of the Bible. In their world, where the group was primary, when a oath was made, the oath-taker would do so hoping to gain honor from it. This would be pointless if no one else knew about it. The oath-taker also depended on others in their ingroup to hold them accountable for their oath and also support them in its execution.

"Yeah but Jacob was alone when he made an oath (Gen. 28)!"

No, he was not. As the son and grandson of a trbial chieftain, Jacob would be acompanied by a retinue of servants. There were plenty of witnesses before whom he would take the oath. We should also add, as we did in reply to an atheist who made a similar objection about King David, that only the deviant and outcast travelled alone. Jacob and Jephthah were neither.

This leads to the final critical component of the interpretation of this story. Since Jephthah's daughter knew of the vow, and knew what it meant, her coming from the house first was no tragic accident, but something done intentionally. Why? Reis hypothesizes -- I think correctly -- that Jephthah's daughter was a "spoiled child" who saw the vow as a way for her to not be given away in marriage to some other household, remain the sole object of her father's affections, and -- I would add -- also become sole inheritor of her father's property. Signs of Jephthah's deference in this regard are not difficult to discern. Of course, many are familiar with the motif of an only daughter as a spoiled princess; strong signs of this do appear in the text. For one, note again his reaction to what she does:

But take this not alone; take it with 1 Kings 1:6:

And his father had not displeased him at any time in saying, Why hast thou done so?

In contrast to his questioning of adult rivals with "why" challenges (11:7, 11:26, 12:3), Jephthah does not ask his daughter why she did what she did. Additionally, note again her words in 11:36, where several times she emphasizes that it was Jephthah's own words, and his own vow, that lay behind what happened. In essence, this says, "If something has gone wrong here it's your fault for making the vow."

From here, we have but remaining the daughter's 2 month hiatus. There is no special tragedy in her pleading to be allowed to go; the words used are the normal ones used for anyone asking a favor of anyone else, including King David to his own daugther (2 Samuel 13:7). Here Reis supposes that the daughter was taking this time off to seek relief from the vow by way of appeal to pagan deities. This may be true, but it will have little bearing on our purposes here. We are left with consideration of objections that remain relevant to the matter as we have now presented it.

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" but will also have to do with not having what would be the honor of childbearing and descendants.

Jephthah 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.

There's nothing to get around: What Jephthah would have "done" in this case would have been to pay the redemption price (Lev. 27). But let us take this to the overliteral extent the critics seem to think is required. Is it 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 Jephthah 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 subject to a harmless vow.

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 sacrifice of a noble young woman who served as an honorable example of someone who decided their own fate.)

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's earlier edition:

For some reason Kirkhart thinks it is "obsessively important" to me that there is no evidence that the Holy Spirit inspired the vow. How she arrives at this judgment of obsession is not explained. Presumably there is some sort of mathematical formula or word count involved? In any event, no answer is provided to any point made with respect to the Spirit's actual role.

It is said that I "skate around" the question of "whether God, who knows everything, knew a human would greet Jep[hthah]." I skated around nothing: I rendered the question moot through the detailed analysis that followed, to which Kirkhart provides no answer. Strangely she does admit that what I provided that followed made the former issue of "little difference" but somehow she felt there was need to say this anyway.

In terms of all those details, Kirkhart ignores just about all of it, save the point that Jephthah's daughter lamented her virginity; and this she dismisses on the basis that:

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 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.

Of course, it follows from the virginity of Jepththah's daughter that she will not have children either. However, Kirkhart has not told the whole truth and has failed to note that all of Antigone's misery is focussed her lack of marriage and children in the past, while Jephthah's daughter looks to that lack in the future -- which would still be inexplicable if impending death were her fate.