First Reading of Judges: 11-12, Jephthah & His Daughter

Margin Jephthah's Daughter LeBrun
“The Sacrifice of Jephthah” by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690)

If you haven’t read Part 1 of my First Reading of Judges, go and check that out to catch up to this point.  Today, I’m going to talk about chapters 11 and 12.  I was going to do the entire second half of Judges, but these last stories are bigger, more upsetting, and take more time (and words) to process.  I have a funny feeling this is going to take more than a few installments to get through the entire book.

The Book of Judges is disturbing and violent.  The people in Judges commit evil acts against enemies and innocent victims alike.  It is not a rainbows and sunshine book in our Bible.  It is deeply upsetting stuff.

And that’s the point.

This is not supposed to be a happy time in Scripture.  This is an illustration of how debauched, debased, and thoroughly corrupt the people of Israel have become.  It is supposed to disturb and appall us.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned so far in the Old Testament is that something’s inclusion in Scripture does not mean that God approved of it.  I would say that up to this point, at least 2/3 the Old Testament is just a great big flashing “don’t do this!” sign.  Scripture is not only a list of God’s wonders.  It is also a list of warnings, consequences, and illustrations of what evil looks like. When I was struggling through my first study of Genesis at the end of last year, I asked my pastor a few hard questions, and he told me something important (I’m paraphrasing here):

The Bible doesn’t pull any punches.  It just tells it like it happened.  It doesn’t mean that God approved of the people or what’s going on.  It happened how it happened and the Bible leaves us to learn the lessons from it.

It doesn’t get much more evil than the last half of Judges, and there is a sense of dread and sadness as we watch Israel self-destruct. The Israelites began as inheritors of the Abrahamic Covenant, as God’s chosen people set apart for God’s glory.  They were supposed to be a beacon of light to the nations around them, the apple of God’s eye, demonstrating God’s goodness and spreading that goodness through all the nations of the world.  Israel was given special gifts, special blessings, and a special closeness to God that included a physical manifestation of his presence that they could actually see.

But even so…

They complained every step of the way in wilderness, and when they actually received the Promised Land of Canaan, they almost immediately slid down into idolatry and assimilation with the immoral Canaanites.  When we read Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, the warnings against idolatry get so numerous and urgent that we, as readers, frankly get tired of seeing them, but then we get to the Book of Judges, and it all makes sense.  The fixation that Moses and Joshua had with reminding the Israelites over and over again to stay away from idols and idolaters in Canaan was totally justified.

These people were just pulled to the idols and rituals of Canaanite worship like bugs to a porch light.  As Scripture often puts it, they committed adultery against God with false gods over and over again, and it was almost as though they couldn’t help themselves.

Despite generations of living in daily witness to real, tangible miracles like manna, the water from stones, the victories in impossible battles, and the many wonders performed before their eyes…the nation of Israel turned their backs on God, their king, and “did whatever was right in their own eyes.”

Margin - Judges Bible Project - Israel becomes canaaniteChapters 11-12:  The Story of Jephthah

Jephthah is a really fun name to say out loud.  If you haven’t tried it…do.  That is probably the last positive thing I will have to say about this story.

In Chapter 11, we are told that Jephthah is a warrior of a man.  I was led to think by the description of him that he is something of a sword for hire, willing to fight anyone or any cause that would bring him profit or glory.  Jephthah is a “son of Gilead,” which sounds like both the name of his human father as well as a reference to the place of his birth (which, unless I’m mistaken, would mean his father was from the tribe of Gad or Manasseh…I’ll have to check this out in future study).

Jephthah was an illegitimate child that Gilead fathered on a prostitute, so Gilead’s legitimate sons forced Jephthah out of his homeland to remove any claim he might make on Gilead’s legacy.  Thus, we have our future judge of Israel set up as an angry lone wolf type, going wherever someone would pay him to kill people, and we find him in Chapter 11 wandering the “land of Tob” with a retinue of thugs following him around like some sort of Bronze Age mafia or street gang.

Not an auspicious beginning.

One day, the elders of Gilead, including some of the half-brothers who ran him out of his home, seek Jephthah out and ask for his aid, and this is where the tale takes off.

The elders tell him that they are being oppressed by the Ammonites, and if Jephthah will just go out there and defeat this enemy, they will make him the ruler over all of Israel.  Jephthah is understandably skeptical of this offer, but they swear in God’s name that they are telling the truth.  So he takes them up on their deal and commences to sending aggressive cease and desist letters to the king of Ammon.

The Holy Spirit “comes upon” Jephthah at this time, and the Ammonites are defeated.  He is thus anointed as the 9th judge and takes his position in victory, but it doesn’t take long for us to see how far Israel has fallen and how very corrupted their relationship with God really was.

The Tragedy of Jephthah’s Daughter

Jephthah makes a vow before the battle, saying that if God gives him victory over the Ammonites, he will offer the first thing that comes out of his home as a burnt offering to the Lord.

First, I was surprised at the thought of Jephthah having an established home base since he is introduced to us “wandering” in the land of Tob with his posse at the beginning of the chapter.  Second, I thought that was a really vague and weird thing to vow.  I mean…tell God you’re gonna sacrifice a cow or goat or ram, right?  Dude.  Read Leviticus.  There are rules about this sort of thing, and just randomly offering crap up as a burnt offering is not okay.

There are two things wrong with this vow, as I see it, right from the get-go:

  1. God already put the Spirit on Jephthah, so the vow itself is a form of unbelief.
  2. Jephthah makes this vow as a form of bargaining with God.  “If you give me this, I’ll give you that.”  There is nothing you can burn on an altar or sacrifice to God that will coerce God into your service.

This was Canaanite thinking. 

The gods the Canaanites worshiped—Baal, Ashtoreth, Dagon, Molech, etc.—all demanded sacrifices in capricious and unreliable ways.  People had to burn their own children to death on pyres or in the arms of heated statues to pacify these gods.  It was a human sacrifice freak show, and it was horrifying.

Jephthah’s vow demonstrates that he has no understanding of God’s nature or his relationship to man.  He thinks the God of Israel is no different than any of the Canaanites’ false gods.  He has no concept of holiness or the Shema (Deut 6:4-9).  Jephthah is trying to worship the God of Israel the way a Canaanite would worship one of his idols, and we’re about to see the devastation that causes.

Naturally, Jephthah comes home and the first thing that runs out of his house is his loyal and devoted maiden daughter.  He immediately falls into a state of grief because he believes this means God will demand his daughter as a fulfillment of the vow he made.  Jephthah’s daughter apparently believes this, as well, and she tells her father, “Well then, you’re just going to have to kill me because God gave you victory, and you promised.”

The reader, already familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac, is expecting here for God to send an angel down and stay Jephthah’s hand, but that doesn’t happen.  The girl is slaughtered and burned on an altar.

I will confess that this story threw me.  I was shocked that nobody came down from Heaven with a booming voice to stop him from killing her.  So I had to sit with it and consider the why.  What does this chapter say?  What does it mean?  What does God want us to see here?  God stopped Abraham.  Why didn’t he stop Jephthah?

The first reason seems obvious to me.  God had nothing to do with this vow from Jephthah, and he had everything to do with Abraham’s trip to sacrifice Isaac.  With Abraham and Isaac, God was testing Abraham.  With Jephthah and his daughter, Jephthah was testing God.  God stopped Abraham because God was the one who told Abraham to sacrifice his son.  The sacrifice was not Abraham’s choice.  God didn’t stop Jephthah because God had nothing to do with Jephthah’s choice to make the vow or to keep it.

“You must not test the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 6:16

Notice that verse’s proximity to the Shema that teaches about God’s holiness, his oneness.  God is God and there is no other God.  You shall love God with all your heart and soul and strength.  Then, immediately following these verses…do not presume to put tests before God.

Jephthah’s vow was a test laid out before God.  It was expressly against the wishes of God for him to make such a vow, and it was a mealy attempt at coercing God by bribing Him with a burnt offering.

Judges Chart Bible Project - Jephthah daughterThe second reason I can see for God’s lack of intervention comes from both the father and the daughter entering this abomination of a bargain without even considering that human sacrifice would dishonor and anger God.  The daughter, who was still unmarried but an adult, was complicit in this as she was a willing participant (however frightened and grieved she might be in the story).  Like her father, she believed that God expected Jephthah to make literal good on his vow by killing her.  It demonstrates that neither of them knew anything about God’s law.  They knew nothing about his heart or his will.

God rails against child sacrifices to Molech (a Canaanite god) in Leviticus, and the prophet Jeremiah is also clear that God never wanted anyone to sacrifice a human being, let alone a child.  If someone wanted to dedicate—not sacrifice—a person (him/herself or a child) to God, one did so by giving the person over to the Levites to be raised by the priests and serve in the temple.  For a minute there, I thought that’s what Jephthah was going to do because his daughter went up for two months to mourn the fact that she would never marry (not the fact that she would be killed)…but nope.  The vow said “burnt offering,” and the conclusion says he did to her as he vowed.  So.

Gross.  Tragic.  Ugh.

The wages of sin is death.  That had been beaten into these people over and over again by this point in the Israelites’ story.  Any Israelite with even the slightest knowledge of Mosaic Law would know better than do any of the things Jephthah did in this whole tragedy.  There was no excuse for the vow or for following through with it, and God gave people free will to choose good or evil.  Jephthah chose evil…and if we’re being honest, so did his daughter.

They did not know God, and so He let them commit their evil act together and suffer the consequences, just like everyone else in human history.

It gets worse from here.  Next time, I’ll go through my thoughts on the introduction to Samson and his whole tragic story.  See you in Chapter 13.

11 thoughts on “First Reading of Judges: 11-12, Jephthah & His Daughter

  1. Hi there – Jepthah’s daughter is one of those tough passages that we tend to shy away from – you handled it great!

    I don’t know if you have considered it but there is a debate about whether Jepthah actually sacrificed her or not. It ties in your points on what they are lamenting, her virginity which is somewhat strange, the fact that it is indeed a gross violation of the law and that according to the law Jepthah could gave redeemed her even if he vowed to kill her – the belief is that she was consecrated to the service of God similar to Hannah and Samuel. It is an interesting argument.

    1. Thank you! I was (and still am) very nervous putting my impressions of Scripture out in public. I worry that it might hurt rather than help since I am a beginner and will inevitably get it wrong, sometimes. BUT…I really wanted someone to have a site like this for me to read when I started coming to the Bible for the first time. Plus, writing it out helps me clarify and retain the text.

      I try to remind people that I’m just a layperson as often as I can, but I still worry that I’m going to really mess something up. Ha ha. Lots of prayer on it.

      It is a happy thought to hope that what he REALLY did was offer her as a dedication to the service of the Levites…instead of exsanguination and burning.

  2. Your writing on this is lucid and accurate. I’m not a layman, and actually have been somewhat obsessed with this story. I’m convinced that your careful reading of this has yielded the gold you were hoping for, and there’s not a lot more that I want to add. I’m going to share your blog post with my congregation because it’s really good!

    I will add two things:
    1. The “Jephthah didn’t burn her but dedicated her as a proto-nun” argument is about 800 years old or so. Boy, I’d love it if it were true, but there’s no way that it is. The author doesn’t explicitly say that he killed her and burnt her – it just says “he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed” – but, a) that’s still pretty clear with no wiggle room, and b) the author shies away from the actual killing and burning verbs because he’s embarrassed/ashamed. This is a tragedy – and it’s Israel tragedy. We may own our awful actions but we still speak about them in a discreet fashion, not with lurid description, because it’s hard.

    2. Jephthah’s sacrifice can also be contrasted with Christ’s sacrifice. I did so in a Tweet a little while ago:

    Jephthah’s vow and sacrifice is the crowning religious failure of Man. Needless, detestable, achieving only desolation.

    Christ’s surrender and sacrifice is the crowning religious victory of God. Sufficient, glorious, achieving once-for-all salvation.

    3. Finally, Jephthah is a total narcissist. His daughter has destroyed HIM – wait, whose fault is it? And after, Ephraim is coming up to fight HIM and his people. There are little clues that he’s enormously self-absorbed… and of course, in vowing, he puts the victory on his back. Testing God, as you say, indeed!

  3. Loved this read! Just came across the story of Jephthah and I was stunned. This was a brilliant interpretation as I sought to know more and understand the tragic incident. God bless you!

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