“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.

Link to Jesus On Every Page 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.

  • Gordon Woods

    David, given that the Hebrew and be translated as either “and” or “or”, what translation uses “or”? Your exposition certainly makes better sense than what I’ve read before.

    • David Murray

      Hi Gordon. The KJV has this as a marginal note. The NET Bible also allows that some translate this “or,” although it does not agree with that view. The Hebrew allows for it.

      • Simon

        Does any major translation support your argument by having “or” in the text of the passage?

      • http://madisonruppert.com/ Madison Ruppert

        Why do you think that all major translations have opted to go with “and” instead of “or”?

        • David Murray

          1. I think it’s driven by overly negative presuppositions about the Judges in particular and Jephthah in particular (see “Not Like Any Other Book” by Peter Masters)

          2. Not enough weight is given to the context (see above).

          3. Little consideration given to the other positive Scripture references to Jephthah (1 Sam. 12:11; Hebrews 11:32-40).

          4. Perhaps some translators saw the offering up of the daughter as an “olah” being fulfilled in a spiritual sense (i.e. the daughter devoted wholly to the Lord and His service). See Edersheim on this http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/edersheim-old-testament/volume-3/chapter-18.html

          5. On the use of the wav in a disjunctive sense see Paul Joüon and T Muraoka, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew (Roma: Pontificio istituto biblico, 2006), 319.

  • Robert Andrejczyk

    Dr. Murray,

    Thank you for this helpful explanation. Ever since I was a child, I was confused by the the logical inconsistency between how this text is usually interpreted (Jephthah kept his vow by sacrificing his daughter) and how he is presented to us in the rest of scripture (godly leader, member of the Hall of Faith, etc.).

    As someone who does not know Hebrew, I appreciate those who can parse the text in the original language and provide this kind of exegesis.

  • Dan Phillips

    Unique read.

    As to Judges 11:31, the LXX has καὶ (“and”). Young’s literal version has “or.” The Spanish language versions Nueva Biblia De Los Hispanos and La Biblia de Las Americas have “o,” meaning “or.”

    • FrankFusion

      You read Spanish?

      • Dan Phillips

        De vez en cuando.

  • Daryl Little

    I found this helpful. Even as a kid it made no sense to me that a girl about to be sacrificed would lament her not being able to marry. It seemed to me that larger fish were frying than simply marriage.

    Perhaps I misunderstood the value of marriage in ancient Hebrew culture, but still, I can’t see it being elevated above life itself.

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  • John Alan Willby

    This article has a response to this view. http://exiledpreacher.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/did-jephthah-really-sacrifice-his.html I tend towards that view rather than David’s. Read them both and make up your own mind!

    • Jeff S. Wiebe

      Read your article after posting my response– which echoes your thinking. I tend to agree with you, which doesn’t make us right but is pleasant.

      Jeff S. Wiebe

  • Tom

    While this seems well-reasoned, I’m not entirely sure about the first two points here.
    A. I’m not sure if I’d make the jump from “not rash” to “Godly.” Consider the fact that “a gang of scoundrels/worthless fellows” collected around him, as outlined in verse 3.
    B. I’m not sure if his knowledge of how Israel came to hold Ammon’s land came from knowledge of the Torah, but rather, well, history. It’s a bit like saying that because an American can outline the Revolutionary War that he could quote you the Declaration of Independence.

    • David Murray

      Hi Tom. Thanks for your comment. The word for “worthless” can also be translated “nobodies” or “nothings.” Not necessarily a moral category, but can be taken in a social way, perhaps outcasts like Jephthah. They seemed to be quite the fighting band.

    • PuritanD71

      Did not David also hold the same type of company when he was on the run from Saul?

  • Jeff S. Wiebe

    Thanks for this interesting piece. I took a night to mull it over, and have a few thoughts.

    a) Although I smiled, I also need to gently demur from your characterization of the ‘common view’ of Jephthah. I think you oversimplify by stating what is only part of that common view. Cartooning now, that view would state that Jephthah was indeed rash in the case of his stupid vow and stupid decision to sacrifice his daughter. But it would include the recognition of Jephthah’s valiance, his place in the great cloud of witnesses, his determination to keep a vow (even when it hurts – Ps 15:4). In short it would consider Jephthah a deeply flawed hero of the faith.

    b) It’s possible that the common view(s) in commentaries are wrong in this case. In any case, really. However, when the common view is this monolithic, it would seem a somewhat heavier burden of proof for any new view.

    c) I both admire and am nervous about the bold stand you take when you say of this common view “it’s totally wrong.” I admire that boldness because the academic hedging and qualifying of interpretations I’m trained in rankles and irritates me way down deep: I like that you’re taking a stance and banging sword on shield, calling out those who disagree. I’m nervous about it because I’m not convinced the text demands and compels this interpretation.

    d) Your fourth paragraph, beginning “Jephthah was a godly man who made a godly vow and who kept that vow in a godly way” is doubling down on your new position which I’ll cartoon as ‘Jephthah is all good’ rather than the common view, which I stated above as, ‘Jephthah is a deeply flawed hero of the faith’. (I recognize that I’m privileging my own summary of the common view and bullrushing your contrarian view into something of a corner. Hoping to provoke a response, as I enjoy your thinking.)

    e) Your point 1. seems to equate “godly” with “not rash”. Now, I can hesitantly accept that godliness includes not-rashness, but I’m confident you’d agree the two are not equivalent. Nor does not-rash equate to calm, controlled, sober, balanced or reasonable.

    f) Nor are we compelled by the text to compliment Jephthah with these tags (calm, controlled, etc.) anymore than we are compelled to call him a coward because he “fled from his brothers”, a turncoat because he settled in Tob, or a scoundrel because scoundrels gathered around him and followed him. (11:3) We are not compelled to call him a whiner or a grudge-holder because of 11:7. Or a doubter and misanthrope because of 11:9. The text offers support for these tags, but it doesn’t compel this reading. And if the text doesn’t compel a reading, I think we ought to so read with caution, and to treat opposing views with caution as well.

    h) Often via the analogy of faith another Scripture will cement which possible reading we ought to take; in this case the only other mention of Jephthah is Hebrews 11. Which only mentions his name. But it does so in the company of the Great Cloud, each of which were flawed heroes. From Noah the persevering faithful man (who got drunk and naked) through Abraham God’s friend (who lied about Sarah) and Moses the murderer of the Egyptian and covenant-breaker who God nearly slew for failing to circumcise his son. Jephthath is mentioned with Gideon the doubting idol-maker, Barak the doubter, Samson the fornicator, David the adulterer, and Samuel the father who failed to raise his sons in his ways.

    g) Here is my thesis: The text does not compel us to evaluate Jephthah as either all good (Murray) or all bad (Murray’s summary of common view). It offers sufficient material to argue both, but the best view is what I think is the actual common view: Jephthah, like the other judges, and like all the rest of the Great Cloud, was a deeply flawed hero of the faith.

    h) Did Jephthah know the Bible (Murray point 2)? And/or the “history of redemption”? Well, he knew a few facts about the travels of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan. This does not equate to “knowing the books of Moses well”, anymore than the Pharisees and Saduccees in Christ’s time. Nor does knowing that human sacrifice was forbideen preclude a character in the Bible– especially the book of Judges– from doing it anyway.

    i) The theme of Judges is explicit and repeated: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” (17:6; 21:25) Rather than following the King– who is the Lord they rejected shortly afterwards (1 Samuel 8:7). Judges can be safely and faithfully read as being an account of this lawless and godless time of rebellion in Israel in which even their leaders– men called and empowered by God’s Spirit– were horrendously flawed. It is an encouragement to us regarding God’s longsuffering, mercy, his deigning to use even the most soiled and depraved vessels as his servants, of his saving and keeping such as his own elect (confirmed by Hebrews 11) in spite of the huge masses of sin clinging to them. The common view reading of Jephthah is entirely in line with this; Murray’s new reading– while delightful in several ways– is not.

    j) Jephthah was filled with the Holy Spirit in v. 29 and vowed in v 30-31. God’s Spirit began to stir Samson in 13:25 , moved Samson to seek a godless Philistine wife (14:4), and came on him in power before he went back to marry the daughter of god-haters in 14:8. Is this supportive of Murray’s point 3, that a ‘spiritually elevated condition’ precludes rash vows (and presumably rash deeds)? No. Rather, the Holy Spirit works to will and do in sinful, conflicted vessels. Besides the Lord Jesus, that is the only kind of human vessels that there are.

    k) Murray’s point 4, the alternative translations, is delicious. Any translation suggested should appear to the suggestor as “the best translation in this context”. Murray’s point is one I happen to find refreshing and fascinating, but one that even he admits cannot be said to be compelled by the text (“the Hebrew in verse 31 can be translated in two ways”.)

    The range of meaning of the conjunctive waw is generally accepted as of a correlating and coordinating force: by far the most common meaing is accepted to be “and”. “But” is less correlating and coordinating, introducing a more contrastive thought, and is less commonly accepted as the meaning. “Or” like “but” moves away from correlation and coordination: nevertheless it is a legitmate translation, especially if the correlated and coordinated elements cannot by their natures be in an “and” relationship.

    Murray here seems to take a position similar to the New World translators, who say of waw (which they summarize as “and”!) that “we express it by using transitional words or phrases with the sense that the Hebrew leads us to feel.” [http://wcl.wikia.com/wiki/New_World_Translation_of_the_Hebrew_Scriptures,_Volume_I(Genesis_to_Ruth)] Murray feels “or” is “the best” translation, and his qualifications to speak dwarf my own. Yet I retain the faint protest that the text does not compel this reading, though it may allow it.

    l) In citing “common custom” Murray has a point I find strong on the one hand, reminding us of the order of women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting in Ex 38:8. How ‘devoted’ to the Lord these women were in this era is a question, since they slept with Eli’s sons in 1 Sam 2:22. Nor were these women necessarily dedicated by the decision of others: they voluntarily parted with their mirrors as an expression of personal zeal (Matthew Henry, Jamieson-Fausset-Brown). The Pulpit commentary cites Spencer as saying that, “The sacrifice of the[ mirrors] for a sacred purpose is rather to be ascribed to their own self-denying piety than to any command issued by Moses (Spencer).”

    Samuel certainly was devoted to the Lord by parental vow some years after Jephthah’s time.

    m) Murray’s point 6 of the emphasis of the consequences of Jephthah’s daughter’s future being only losing her opportunity to marry is telling indeed. I find this his strongest point, and the closest to being a text-compelled reading.

    Nevertheless, in a culture in which not-marrying and not-childbearing were considered among the greatest disgraces possible, which arguably would dominate the existential perspective of any individual female (witness Hannah shortly after in 1 Samuel 1:7, who wouldn’t even eat because of this), not-marrying could conceivably be the most salient part, to her, of dying young. As an only child of her father, by not reproducing, she would also be part of the reason her father’s name would not be remembered among his people. (see Ruth 4:10; this point could easily be elaborated from plentiful OT passages.) And knowing her father’s history of being shut out from the community of Israel, this could arguably have been the focal point of her feeling of loss at dying.

    Again, my point is not to denigrate Murray’s reading as much as it is to assert that his reading is not compelled by the text any more than is the ‘common view’.

    n) Murray’s point 7 is another which hinges on a translation choice; I’m not persuaded that “commemorate” is necessarily absent the grief-laden force which inheres more in “lament”. Again, Murray’s reading is refreshing and fascinating, and maybe better, but the text supports both quite comfortably.

    o) Murray’s point 8, about rash vows being repent-able, is fine, but it really has no force. Jephthah made a vow to do X; the fact that he could, legally have repented of X is no argument that he didn’t do X. I suggest that it is quite faithful to the impetus of the text to read Jephthah as a decisive man, in a somewhat tenuous leadership situation, feeling obligated to the Lord to keep his bargain with God, who therefore would have had strong reasons to not repent of his vow, even if the letter of the law might have allowed it.

    p) Murray’s point 10 is his weakest; Jephthah’s inclusion in the Hall of Faith (Great Cloud) gives us no reason whatsoever to think that by being there he clearly must have been free of any particular gruesome sin. As I suggest in my points g) and h) above, his inclusion here actually supports the reading of his having sinned horribly, and in a manner which would disqualify him from inclusion in a ‘moral heroes’ model of why biblical figures were in the Hall of Faith/Great Cloud.

    Concluding, then: Murray’s reading is new (to me, at least), exciting, and immensely thought provoking. The text offers it strong support. But because it does *not* compel such a reading, I suggest we ought to so read with caution, and be slower than Murray to dismiss (and accuse of slanderous error!) the common view.

    Written with much respect and gratitude to Dr. Murray. I’ve benefitted from his writing and his speaking repeatedly and am grateful for his friendly reception of my interaction on a face-to-face level as well as via social media.

    Twitter @JeffSWiebe [Plugin repeatedly failed to sign me in-- sorry.]

    • David Murray

      Jeff: Although we disagree, I’m grateful for the thoughtful work you put into this comment. I’m sure it’s very helpful to everybody reading and seeking to know the Lord’s mind and will on this matter. I also appreciate your respectful tone. May God make us teachable and lead us all into the truth.

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  • John N

    Right… I see where you are coming from and your points are well thought through – thank you for making us think a little more about the Bible! My one question would be this – if the translation was the word ‘or’ instead of ‘and’, Jephthah would have considered the option that he was dedicating a person to the Lord rather than offering up a burnt sacrifice. If so, why was he so full of anguish when his daughter appeared to greet him? He would’ve thought about the possibility surely and would’ve then been able to reconcile himself to the situation. Also, his daughter and her friends go away and weep as well – why? If she was going into the service of the Lord, this was something for rejoicing as you say! From this, I think that the translation ‘and’ is justified and therefore Jephthah would’ve had to sacrifice his daughter, as we are told that he ‘fulfills his vow’. Jephthah does get a lot of bad press (perhaps too much!), but it was a vow that he shouldn’t have taken, from all viewpoints considered.

  • PuritanD71

    Dr. Murray,

    I do agree with your arguments here and I have argued the same line of thought as well. Dr. Hugenberger an adjunct at Gordon-Conwell taught along a similar line using Judges 2:18 and being a 2nd Moses figure to argue that these men are more godly than we tend to give them credit for.

    He had plan on writing a book on Judges and unsure if he ever got it published. But, you are not alone in this and I do believe is the correct understanding for Jepthah.

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  • Jalamb

    Dan, how would you understand this passage?

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