“Jephthah is a rash fool who made a stupid vow and an even more stupid decision to keep it by offering his daughter as a burnt sacrifice.”
That’s the most common view of Jephthah that I’ve come across in the commentaries.
And it’s totally wrong.
Jephthah was a godly man who made a godly vow and who kept that vow in a godly way. No, he did not offer his daughter as a burnt sacrifice. But that’s because he did not vow his daughter as a burnt sacrifice. Here are 10 proofs:
1. His previous godly character: He was not a rash character. Notice how he dealt with the men who had wronged him when they came to ask his help (Judges 11:5-10), and also his patient dealings with the King of Ammon (12-27). He was not rash, but calm, controlled, sober, balanced, and reasonable.
2. He knew the Bible: He knew the history of redemption and used it to argue with the King of Ammon (12-27). Knowing the books of Moses well, he would have known that human sacrifice was forbidden.
3. He was filled with the Holy Spirit: In verse 29, he is filled with the Holy Spirit, followed immediately by his vow in verses 30-31. Would he really make such a rash vow in such a spiritually elevated condition?
4. Alternative translation of verse 31:
The Hebrew in verse 31 can be translated in two ways:
Option 1: When I return in peace whatever I meet “it shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt sacrifice.”
Option 2: When I return in peace whatever I meet “it shall surely be the Lord’s, or I will offer it up as a burnt sacrifice.”
Option 2 is the best translation in this context and outlines how Jephthah has two possibilities in mind here. “If it’s a person, he/she will be devoted to the Lord. If it’s an animal, it will be offered as a sacrifice.”
5. Common Custom: This vowing of a person to the Lord was quite common in these days. There was an order of women (Exodus 38) that were specially devoted to serving the Lord where He was worshipped. Consider also the case of Samuel.
6. The Consequences: The emphasis in the consequences is not on her losing her life, but on losing her opportunity to marry and have children (verses 37-39). This is not about her becoming lifeless, but childless and husbandless.
7. Commemorate not lament: Some versions tell us that “The daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah.” The Hebrew word for “lament” here is not translated “lament” anywhere else in Scripture. It other places it means “to rehearse, to commemorate.” The Israelite women are not going to lament her death but to remember with worshipful joy her devotion to God.
8. Possibility of Repentance: Leviticus tells us that rash vows can be repented off and replaced with money. Jephthah and his family had 2 months to find this out and put it right.
9. Leadership Credibility: Jephthah is not punished for this but reigns for six more years. Would he ever have been followed by people if he had sacrificed his daughter?
10. Hall of Faith: In the only other two places Jephthah is mentioned, he’s commended (1 Samuel 12:11 & Hebrews 11:32). Given that Judges 11 is the only thing we know about Jephthah, he would hardly have been included in such exalted company if the only thing we know about him was a gruesome sacrifice of his daughter.
He did not sacrifice his daughter but devoted her to the Lord’s service. He made a holy vow and kept it in a holy manner by devoting his only child to the Lord’s service for the rest of her days. And his godly daughter demonstrates beautiful godliness and submission as well, effectively counseling her father, “Dad, don’t cry, God’s given us victory over our enemies. What’s my little life for a few short years in comparison with all that He has done for us.”
I think it’s a tragedy how Jepththah and his daughter have been so maligned for such outstanding faith. Lots of commentators are going to have a lot of explaining to do when they meet them in heaven! Anyone want to start a Resurrect Jephthah’s Reputation Society?
You can hear more about the Judges, Jephthah’s faith and how he points us to Jesus in the following podcast.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.
In today’s podcast I reference the following resources:
Nick Batzig on David as a Type of Christ.
Tony Merida on Preaching Christ in all the Scriptures.
Previous podcasts here.