. What Your View of Judges 11 Says About Your View of the Entire Bible

What Your View of Judges 11 Says About Your View of the Entire Bible

Last week I asked a question that struck a chord in readers. I promised that your answer to that question would “reveal everything you believe about the Old Testament.” Who knew so many people cared so deeply—and had done so much thinking—about whether or not Jephthah sacrificed his daughter in Judges 11?

But before I reveal what I believe about Jephthah’s daughter, let me point out what I do not believe: that everyone who voted differently than I did has a flawed view of the Old Testament. There is room for debate here, and at least one Old Testament scholar I respect greatly has argued in detail for the opposite view. (My replies are here.) In fact, I checked about 40 commentaries, and the proportion of yes and no votes was exactly the same as in the poll from last week’s post.

But still I must vote: I’m with the Yes people—and the Yeesh people. Yes, Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering in Judges 11—and (yeesh) this was a heinous act before God. Though I did not arrive at my view through democratic means, it’s interesting that over 1,000 of you are with me and over 600 of you are, well, still my friends anyway I hope. I held the “yes” view before the poll, and though I loved and learned from readers’ thoughtful comments, nobody managed to change my mind. (Has anyone in the history of Internet comments changed anyone else’s mind?)

Can I really draw a connection from one’s view of this tiny question to to his or her view of the entire Old Testament?

Keep reading; I think that connection shows up in our assumptions, not necessarily in our votes.


I was surprised that a few readers took a “yes” vote to mean divine approval of Jephthah’s actions, and a few voted yes for precisely that reason. Their thinking seemed to go something like this:

  1. Judges like Jephthah are the “good guys.”
  2. Whatever the good guys do is good.
  3. Judges says Jephthah vowed to sacrifice his daughter.
  4. That sacrifice must, therefore, have been a morally good thing—because he vowed to do it .

Interestingly enough, it appears to me that the same basic logic was driving at least some of the “No” voters, but with one premise changed.

  1. Judges like Jephthah are the “good guys.”
  2. Whatever the good guys do is good.
  3. Judges says Jephthah vowed to sacrifice his daughter.
  4. That sacrifice must, therefore, have been something that wasn’t inherently evil—perpetual virginity.

Questioning assumptions

I can’t see inside people’s brains, and perhaps no one was really thinking this way. (Like a soldier on leave, I’ve been way off base before.) But I’m confident I’ve met plenty of faithful, earnest Christians who do follow the reasoning I’ve described.

I want to question the first two assumptions evident in both the yes and the no answers I just summarized.

1. Judges are good guys

It’s easy to assume the Judges were “good guys” because they were singled out to save Israel from oppressors—and because some of them, within the text of Judges, were good guys (or good girls). The text records no sins of Ehud. It paints a glowing picture of Deborah. And Gideon, despite his momentary lack of faith shown in the fleece business, was surely a good guy.

Or was he? My Bible reading just took me through his story a few days ago, and there is a definite turning point in Gideon’s life. Immediately after his great triumph, he commits some significant sins that make him a very tragic figure—selfishness, greed, murderous vindictiveness, the siring of seventy sons.

Judges aren’t all good guys—or, perhaps, they’re not guys about whom all is good. Gideon’s story is actually a turning point in the book of Judges, after which the judges get even worse. Yes, the text says of Gideon and Jephthah and Samson that God’s Spirit came upon them. But the Spirit is free to use extremely flawed vessels, and to use them for more than one purpose at a time.

2. Whatever the good guys do is good

Nobody really believes that whatever the Bible good guys did was good; we all know that only Jesus was perfect. But it’s still easy to assume that the biblical authors selected only good events from the lives of the good guys. After all, Paul says that one of the reasons God provided the Old Testament was to give us moral “examples” (1 Cor 10:6-13).

And this leads us to the strongest argument for the “no” view, something many commenters pointed to: Jephthah and Gideon both show up in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets. (Heb 11:32)

But I have to question assumptions here, too. Does Jephthah’s appearance in this statement constitute a blanket endorsement of his recorded actions? Gideon is in there with him. So is Samson, the judge who had a taste for Philistine women. These three Judges certainly displayed faith, the theme of Hebrews 11, at key points in their lives, but it doesn’t follow that everything they did was good.

Are any Bible heroes free from stain? Abraham, Moses, David, Isaac, Jacob—all of these Bible “heroes” have heinous sins recorded in Scripture (adultery and murder among them)!

Did the author of Hebrews fail to read his Old Testament? Or are we pinning on Scripture a simplistic, white-hats-and-black-hats view of human morality in which everything good guys do is good and everything bad guys do is bad? As dissident Soviet intellectual Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously said, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.” Or, more importantly, as Paul said, “There is none good, no not one.” I found myself nodding over and over as many of commenters said this in various ways: we are all created in the good image of a good God and restrained by God’s common grace from doing all the evil we could do (see Frame’s Systematic Theology on “common grace”), and yet we are all touched by the fall to such an extent that we are all capable of great evil.

I wouldn’t encourage anyone to mimic all the moral choices of Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. And I don’t think Hebrews is doing so.

Old Testament assumptions

If you view Bible stories as, most fundamentally, a collection of heroes to be emulated and villains to be excoriated—a bunch of Josephs and a bunch of Judases—you won’t know what to do with Jephthah. You’ll have to shoehorn him into one group or the other. (Even Judas went on a preaching mission for Jesus in Luke 10.)

I have seen this: I once ran across a Christian school Bible textbook which titled its Jephthah lesson for junior highers “Overcoming Adversity.” It compared Jephthah to a politician who worked hard to rise out of the lowly circumstances of his birth to become a highly regarded, successful man. Likewise, it said, Jephthah rose above the difficulties created by his illegitimate birth and became a great military leader and powerful judge over God’s people.

But the textbook and the accompanying teacher’s edition both failed to mention something about Jephthah’s story, the most memorable feature of his life as recorded in Scripture: his tragic vow. It was completely ignored. Why? Because the very title of the textbook was Heroes and Villains of the Old Testament. Every Bible character had to be one or the other. No one was allowed to straddle the line.

I can’t agree with writer Lawrence Richards, who said,

It is inconceivable that Jephthah would have literally sacrificed his daughter in an act he knew to be repugnant to God. (167)

Yes, human sacrifice is repugnant to God (Lev 18:21), but I’m afraid high-handed sin like Jephthah’s sacrifice is all too conceivable. Several astute commenters wondered why Jephthah didn’t take advantage of the niceties of Jewish law, the opportunity Leviticus provides to redeem his vow for money? That’s precisely the point: Israel’s leader was ignorant (or dismissive) of God’s law.

Theological pressures

Jephthah’s vow to the Lord was this:

If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever/whoever [the Hebrew word is ambiguous] comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

Critically for this discussion, and as several of you noted, Judges 11:39 says clearly that Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.” Though there is some wiggle room in this language, there doesn’t appear to be much.

Anne W. Stewart has an excellent and concise essay on the history of interpretation of this story. She shows—and I find this very interesting—that many of the interpreters who voted “no” over the centuries had to add details to the story so their interpretations would make sense. This is where I place the common idea that Jephthah’s daughter was consigned to perpetual virginity. I definitely feel the appeal of this idea—one first proposed by a Jewish commentator named Kimchi in the Middle Ages. But at best, her “bewailing her virginity” fits with both views. It proves neither. The text never says she was consigned to celibacy; that has to be added or inferred. It does say she was sacrificed. When “no” voters feel they have to add (or infer) such details, this suggests to me that the text as it stands is most naturally interpreted as a “yes”—and not a “yes, he sacrificed her marital future,” but a “yes, he sacrificed her as a burnt offering.” (I’m sorry if my poll was ambiguous on this point; some “yes” votes were made for the perpetual virginity view, I now see.)

The point you’ve all been waiting for

Why would any of us want to wiggle while reading Judges 11:39? What kind of theological pressure, or underlying presuppositions, would incline someone to look for some other way to read this text?

I think it can only be those assumptions I discussed earlier, the idea that the point of the Bible is to set up moral examples. The idea that the good guys do good things and the bad guys bad. The idea that Jephthah is one of these good guys. If so, we’re expecting the wrong thing out of a story like this. Even if you know better, I think the impulse to exonerate Jephthah may indicate lingering propensity to moralize the passage.

The whole point of Judges is to display the cyclical pattern of sin (as several commenters pointed out). That cycle is not like a wheel, spinning round and round. It’s like a coin running down one of those big funnels at the mall. The cycles get lower and lower as sin’s gravity pulls them down. Toward the end of the book, the coin drops. It’s just about the ugliest picture in Scripture.

At the beginning of the book, however, Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar are good (Judges chapter 3). Deborah is good, but the story mocks men for not stepping up to leadership (chapters 4–5). Gideon is good and bad, a turning point in the book (chapters 6–9).

The author of Judges is telling a story in which the Israelites, as they cycle lower and lower, are getting the leaders they deserve. As the people become more and more like the Canaanites, even their rescuers are something of a curse on them and an insult to them. Their judges are more and more like those Canaanites.

So Jephthah sacrifices his daughter, like the Canaanites do (chapters 10–12). And Samson (chapters 13–16), who is supposed to be a pure Nazirite, can’t keep his eyes off the Canaanites—just like the adulterous nation of Israel. After Samson, there are no more judges, just degradation worse than anything Sodom and Gomorrah ever thought to do. The roiling period of the Judges ends only when, in 1 Samuel, God sends a prophet and, finally, a king.

Forest, Copse, and Trees

Your view of the Bible is like your view of a forest, a big-picture view. Your view of Judges is like your view of a copse (a group of trees) within that forest. The story of Jephthah is one tree in that copse, and the story of his daughter’s sacrifice is one branch on that tree.

I believe that the best view of the Bible forest is one which sees it as a movement from Creation, through Fall, to a process of Redemption. In that story, we wouldn’t expect to meet any perfect human heroes. We would fully expect people to be doing that which is right in their own eyes. And yet we would see the hand of God behind it all. The hand of God, who can paint a sovereign picture of human sin and divine mercy using hundreds of years of Israelite history. The hand of God, who is the true hero of the story of Scripture.

I believe that the best view of the Bible’s “copses” (such as the book of Judges) detects a story and a trajectory as well. The masterful book of Judges—forgive me, but it’s one of my favorite Bible books—artfully leads you down a path. Down and down and down. The book as a whole makes points.

I believe the only way to see the biblical trees and their branches correctly is to view them within the movement of this grand story and within the movement of these smaller stories. Jephthah’s story should not be read alone.

So let’s try this poll again. Did you change your view?

mark ward
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. He is the author of multiple high school Bible textbooks, including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption.

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Mark Ward

Christian, husband, father, writer, ultimate frisbee player when possible.

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  • Jephthah did offer his daughter as a burnt offering. Old testament is literal Romans 12 :1-3 Offer your bodies like a living sacrifice. = burnt offering.
    He kept his vow.
    He could have redeemed his vow.
    As Father he could have had authority over his daughter and nullified the vow (I understand he made the vow and not her).
    He could have said “Burning children like the Canaanites nations is an abomination to the Lord.

    Today’s application- Even with the big picture of an redemptive overview of scripture, does this story show a) obedience “swear to your own hurt and change not” Proverbs.
    b) Showing the foolishness of the judges (good and bad thus our sinful nature).
    c) Showing the sin of Israel and God’s power to deliver because they cried out to the Lord for mercy.
    d) Showing that when we sin God gives the enemy a foothold in our lives, allowing him to oppress us.
    e) Preserving a people so that the Messiah could come through the line of Judah. This too is Kingdom overview of scripture.
    f) God was acting according to covenant of Deuteronomy 28-30.Obedience brings blessings and disobedience brings curses. This too is covenant overview of scripture.

    • There are two clear points that Jephthah did not offer his daughter as a burnt offering:
      1. He made this vow and passed through the israel to get to their enemy after the Spirit of the Lord came upon him. There is no way the Spirit of the Lord would inspire a human whole burnt sacrifice (i.e. a sacrifice of total dedication) except Jesus, Until Jesus it would never enter into the mind of the Lord. See where the Lord says this to Israel in regards to human sacrifice.

      2. His daughter did not go and mourn her life, she would if she was to lose it. But she mourned her viriginity because she would lose a fruitful womb for the rest of her life. Her father’s vow made her “barren” and all the shame and discoruagement that was associated with never having children. A great and mournful loss. See Hannah in Judges

      All your points up to your conclusions i agree with but your conclusion to offer human sacrifice would have been far worse than the cutting up of of the nameless priest’s dead concubine which is the lowest point of the book of Judges. The great sins that almost cost Israel a tribe.

    • First time blogging but I love this conversation and appreciate the respect each of you have shown during the discussion.

      I don’t think that ‘living sacrifice = burnt offering’. When lambs without blemish were turned over as sacrifice, there was a holding area near the temple. An animal could be damaged in holding, i.e., trampled on, broken leg. The lamb could not be returned and it could not be slaughtered. It was literally labeled a ‘living sacrifice’. The lamb was now deemed unworthy. Just like us, we are blemished and not suitable to be presented as sacrifice. Jesus alone is worthy… but no one is debating that. Just love to declare Jesus alone worthy for our holiness that Paul called us to in Romans.

      I believe that Jephthah did literally offer up his daughter as a sacrifice. This was sinful. Human sacrifice was declared sin. In addition, virgin or not, she would still have been a “living sacrifice”, unworthy.

  • Well, I still vote no, but I think we had this discussion before, somewhere.

    I don’t agree entirely with the spiral down view of Judges. You actually don’t have an authoritative statement from Scripture that says this is what the author is doing. The theory is just that, a theory. I will grant that it has some merits, but I don’t think that it is an accurate portrayal of the purpose or method of Judges. The last chapters do characterize the people, but they both occur early on in the timeline, not after the periods of the last Judges. The book isn’t meant to portray a straight line descent into Canaanitism.

    Perhaps the greatest argument, to me, against that view is the fact that the next step after the judges period is Samuel, Saul, and David. None of them (including Saul) are living in milieu that is Canaanitish at the outset of their lives, nor do all the Israelites around them reflect that kind of atmosphere. Yes, some do (Eli’s sons, for example). But not all.

    I think the book serves more as a record of what happened than simply to create an art-form to portray a certain period of history in a particular way.

    Further, I believe Jephthah is given a bad rap but is actually a more spiritual leader than some of his contemporaries. But we’ve covered that one before also, I think.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • You’re challenging my view at the most important point (and not questioning it at the other important points, I think, so we’re not necessarily far away from each other). You’re questioning whether my literary/theological read of the entire book is accurate. And your point about Samuel/Saul/David is definitely apropos. I’ll have to give some more thought to this.

      • I was thinking about this a bit more. The “Judges Cycle” comes from chapter 2, especially vv. 11-23. Key verses:

        16 Then the LORD raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do as their fathers.

        The passage implies, I think the heroic and pastoral position of the judges. Of course I will grant that no two judges are created equal and some of them display pretty flawed views of what it means to serve the Lord. But God blames the people for *failing* to follow the judge, not for the judge *failing* to lead them.

        Thus, I opt for a more cyclical than a spiral view of the judges.

        • Don, you are doing the best homework of any of the no voters (you and the military guy who cited a bunch of Leviticus passages). And now you’re forcing me to go back and do some more homework. Preliminarily, I’d say that I’m not alone in my viewpoint, that a number of sensitive readers of the OT are with me, that this in no way guarantees that I’m right =), but that when you look at the major judges (so excluding people about whom we know very little, such as Tola and Jair), there’s a definite downgrade. And after the Judges there’s an even greater downgrade, to Sodom and Gomorrah level and below.

          • This is a fantastic conversation and way more in depth than I have currently been reading. Thank you two – and I am sure other commentators as well – for having a civil and, through that civility, educational back and forth. I’m now excited to read Judges (whenever my plan gets me there).

          • Well, remember we also have Ruth, although as I understand the Hebrew canon, it wasn’t connected to Judges as tightly as our English order gives it, still.. it does reflect a counterbalance to the closing chapters of Judges. It also occurred about the same time.

            I am not arguing, by the way, that Israel was a spiritually happy place during these years. I preached through Judges last year and my basic idea was how do people cope with a worldly surrounding culture. (Not unlike our own day! which was of course my point) And it turns out that without the Holy Spirit and heart devotion to God and his will, people don’t fare well in a worldly surrounding culture. What a shocker!

        • I’m still convinced by the spiral view, but I think Don’s comments about the chronology of the book and 2:16-17 are significant arguments in the other direction.

          I’m not as convinced about the conditions in the days of Samuel. Dempster says of that period, “It is hard to imagine a worse situation than the end of the narrative of Judges, but this is it” (Dominion and Dynasty, 135) In Samuel, the Canaanization of the land has penetrated to the tabernacle and the priests who serviced it. As Goldingay notes, “The beginning of 1 Samuel suggests that people attending Yhwh’s festival at Shiloh will more likely get drunk there than be moved in prayer” (Goldingay, OTT: Israel’s Gosepl, 535f.).

      • I found myself agreeing with Dr. Ward. I think there is definitely a downward spiral in Judges, but in so saying we have to make a clear distinction between sheer chronology and thematic emphasis. The author may not be arguing for a strict chronological spiral, but he does seem to have designed his book around this thematic device. (Think of the gospels that focus more on themes than strict chronology.) Hence, the argument about Saul and David doesn’t necessarily negate the theory. Furthermore, we cannot underestimate the role of Samuel in uniting much of the nation and bringing a degree of “revival” in preparation for the monarchy.

        Let’s review briefly the basic facts: The earlier chapters (3-5) seem to present us with three “good” judges; the middle chapters (6-11) offer us two “fair” judges; and the later chapters (12-16) offer us one “bad” judge. Conversely, the earlier chapters introduce one minor judge, the middle chapters reference two minor judges, and the later chapters reference three minor judges. This inverse structure hardly seems coincidental. Furthermore, the earlier judges represent the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Later judges are from the central tribes and progress northward. The final judge is from the tribe that ended up northernmost: Dan. The move from south to north (away from Judah and toward the idolatrous tribe of Dan) hardly seems coincidental. Similarly, the conquest of territory documented in chapter one was most thorough in the south (Judah & Simeon) and less thorough the farther north we progress. Thus, I think there is enough evidence to suggest a clear literary & thematic emphasis upon downward spiral, rather or not this reflects a strict chronological reality. The spiral structure seems to highlight that the farther the nation moves from Judah (the chosen tribe for the leadership of the nation), the farther down it spirals.

        • Dr Burkett, you also raise some good points. I am not entirely unsympathetic to the spiral view, as I can see how the argument can be a legitimate reading of the text.

          However, to me, the “seems” to be a good argument is simply that, the argument of readers many years removed from original composition telling us what the literary structure of the book is intended to communicate. There is no definite comment from Scripture telling us that this indeed is the point. We suppose it to be the point, but no one can state that conclusively.

          It is like the chiasms we find in the OT (and sometimes NT). I love them as much as the next guy (perhaps more) and yet I have to wonder if chiasms are not in the mind of the beholder and not in the mind of the author, at least some of the time.

          My point is that I don’t want to definitely state a theory of the text that the text itself doesn’t state.

          • Don, you said, There is no definite comment from Scripture telling us that this indeed is the point. I must disagree, In Romans 3: 19-20 We have a key verse for all of the Old Testament, and one of its key purposes, which is to show that all of us, have been found guilty unable to live up to God’s standard, Mr. Ward’s theory as you called it, lines up very neatly with this purpose.

          • Scott, thanks for the note. I am not convinced by Rm 3.19-20. First, it says the Law brings the knowledge of sin, not the OT. Technically, only the Pentateuch is considered to be the Law, but in Romans, I think Paul has an even more limited sense. He means the Jewish Law as law, more than a specific set of writings. Notice he doesn’t say “the Scriptures” which would refer to the whole OT set of sacred writings.

            Secondly, though, even if we grant your point, my view of Judges (more a record of history through a cycle of sin, salvation, relapse than a steady spiral downward) actually shows that man on his own can’t live up to God’s standard. I think both theories of interp will make that point.

            Last, I think that I should mention that Mark and I are good friends, I had him preach for me for Canadian Thanksgiving last year and hope we will be able to have him again sometime in the future. This may be helpful for outside observers to know! So our disagreement here is only a mild one.

            Don Johnson
            Jer 33.3

          • Don, what you said, about Romans 3.19-21 does seem to have some merit, and I will have to think about it. Now, however, in my reference I did not include 21, or 22, which is a continuation on the thought, and includes the phrase the law and the prophets, which I have always understood to be the entire OT, (if I am wrong, please explain how, I do not know that I would agree that, If Paul meant all of the OT he would have said scriptures) and 21 and 22 point to the purpose of all of the Scriptures, to point us to Christ.

            As to the rest, nothing in your replies would I have interpreted as hostile, and you are right, what is being discussed here is a mild disagreement. If I what I said, appears hostile, please forgive me,

          • Scott, thanks for widening the context on Rm 3.19. Interesting. I just finished preaching through Romans (after eight years!). Looking back at my notes, I don’t think I noted the distinction of terms. Grist for another sermon!

            But if you read it carefully, it appears that in v. 19, 20, and 21a, Paul is talking about The Law as either Pentateuch or The Law as a concept derived from the teachings of the Pentateuch, then switches in 21b to say, in effect, “the righteousness that is apart from the law is witnessed in the Law and the Prophets”, i.e., the whole OT.

            So there are two uses of the term law in this passage as I see it.

            In 19-20, Paul is saying that the purpose of the Law as law is to make men accountable to God so they cannot answer back to him, because it is impossible by the works of the Law to achieve righteousness.

            In 21a, Paul says there is a new kind of ‘without Law’ righteousness.

            In 21b, Paul says the whole OT witnesses to the truth of this ‘without Law’ righteousness.

            so… this is taking us rather far afield from Jephthah, except that I am saying that I don’t think the Romans passage gives us a blanket purpose for all the passages of the OT such that we can say, the purpose of the Jephthah story is “to show that all of us, have been found guilty unable to live up to God’s standard”.

            Which puts us back where we started!

          • And so we shall leave it. I can see where you are coming from and I do not know whether I agree or disagree, So as you suggested we can table it. Thank you for your replies


  • “The masterful book of Judges … artfully leads you down a path. Down and down and down. The book as a whole makes points.”

    Spot on, Mark. The Book of Judges *as a whole* details how flawed humans cannot sustain direct theocracy.

    • Interesting. I wanted to dig deeper into Jewish views of the passage; I canvassed them but didn’t go into detail. I’ll check this out.

  • Yes I believe that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter. I am most certain that he regretted his vow.

  • I voted yes – and I still vote yes.
    There are no “good guys” – nobody is good except God (Mark 10/18).
    The bible tells the story how God fulfilled His plan in spite of mankind!
    And this gives me the assurance that He will do the same now.
    Mankind is ever foolish enough to think God needs something from me – a vow, a sacrifice or something I want to give – but He gives out of grace. All I can give Him is my whole life. Nothing else.

  • I said yes before, and I still think so :) Your reasoning was similar to mine, which is gratifying. And I love your breakdown of the underlying assumptions. Thanks

  • Excellent! I enjoyed your suspenseful challenge and agree with your conclusion. I voted yes on the first round with no stipulation for an alternative understanding of the fulfillment of his vow. The story grieved me when I first read it. How foolish and rash! As if God couldn’t have given the victory without such a vow! Lesson learned, his daughter’s death was not entirely in vain.

  • “Their judges are more and more like those Canaanites.”—This is my perspective which allows me to offer both views of Jephthah’s vow. I contend that offering his daughter as a burnt offering and keeping her celibate are both rash vows that exemplify his failure. Of course, a burnt offering is more heinous and disturbing. Yet, for a king-like leader to lose a successor is also damaging to the leader making the vow.

    “her “bewailing her virginity” fits with both views.”—This emphasis in Scripture makes me more sympathetic to the idea that she was not put to death. If someone were to die, why would I make a big deal about their virginity? If my daughter was tragically killed at 20 yrs old, the last thing I would be lamenting is that “she died a virgin.” Further, she went away for 2 months before fulfilling the vow. She could have married someone in those two months to solve this problem. However, the text points out her virginity again after the vow was fulfilled.

    Overall, your point is how I view the book of Judges. Don’t misrepresent the Judges. Some were deeply flawed leaders who show the progressive nature of sin in a society. The worst punishment God can give a person or society is to “give up” on them and let them have what they want (Rom. 1).

  • The K&D Commentary offers the most comprehensive review of all the facts. They lay out everything for consideration and, after examining everything that’s been discussed here in great detail, come to the conclusion that Jephthah’s daughter could not have been sacrificed as a burnt-offering. My guess is the author has read their comments and probably wasn’t swayed, but I think they make the best case when everything is in view. Just my two cents. Good discussion!

    • I like K&D. Definitely worth consulting, and I did consult them. No, I wasn’t persuaded, but attaching their name to a viewpoint definitely means that viewpoint can’t be dismissed easily.

  • When I voted No last time I discussed this with my son (also a pastor) and daughter -in-law. They are on your side.I still vote NO. I will try to state the reasoning behind it.
    1. Did God bring his daughter out 1st? That is the first question we must address. I believe God did bring her out. There is an agreement that it could be Satan who brought her out. But I think God did. What do you think?
    2. If you believe that it was not an “accident” she comes out first then there is an vital part that must be overcome for me to believe that God brought her out. James 1:13 states: “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:”. If you believe that God brought her out first then to me you are saying God is tempting him with evil. The Bible promises that God will NOT do that. If you agree that God is responsible for putting Jephthah in that position, then it is a position the Bible says God will not do.
    This is an important point that is not addressed in your article today. I enjoyed it by the way. But this is part of the story is never addressed. For me to say yes is to put God in a position that is against Scripture. Now you got me up to 6 cents!

    • And I checked with my wife, and she said I could still be friends with people who disagreed with me. =)

      I did not address that point, no. I confess this thought did not occur to me. I’d point, however, to a somewhat parallel situation in Scripture in which we have insight into the inner workings of the divine mind: the first few chapters of Job. I don’t think God tempted Jephthah by providentially arranging for his daughter to exit the gates first. I think he tested him. The difference between tempt and test is the intent, but the visible circumstances are the same. Job mostly passed the test, and he repented from the parts he failed. Jephthah didn’t pass. God providentially arranged Samson’s meeting with Delilah, presumably, too. He orders the end from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean God tempted Samson.

      I’ll have to give some more thought to this, but I can’t say I’m inclined to follow you. God is responsible for me having a commute that takes me past casinos and nasty billboards—but I wouldn’t say God tempted me with evil. He’s testing me.

  • My answer remained the same, and I agree with your analysis of the text and your overall point about how many people over-simplify the scriptures into “heroes and villains.” As Sirius Black put it: “The world is not divided into good people and death-eaters.” That’s as true about the real-world of the Bible as it is the fictional world of Harry Potter.

  • I voted no first time round, and I’ve voted no the second time round. There’s something slightly disingenuous going on here – the specific example was Jephthah, and did he or didn’t he? Each commenter voted according to his/her understanding. I voted no because of the specifics in Judges 11. I shan’t repeat myself, but I do want to say, in light of your own thoughts, Mark, that my understanding of that chapter cannot be conflated with ‘assumptions’. There are, indeed, plenty of examples of bad moral conduct, judges are not all good, no Bible heroes are free from stain, etc and to be included in Hebrews 11 does not have to indicate that we are being presented with faultless people. Far from it. But I do disagree that to vote ‘no’ on the basis of Heb 11 is simplistic – it isn’t. I also disagree with the word ‘rash’ – Jephthah’s vow was far from rash. That is an inference – something that you decry when you quote Anne Stewart to the effect that ‘(a person) has to add details to the story so their interpretations make sense’. What details have the ‘no’ voters added? I don’t think we’ve added any details that are not already there and visible to the careful seeker.
    A really interesting subject, and clearly one about which people have strong feelings, but it’s great that people want to constructively and lovingly discuss these things in the Word of God.
    Best wishes

    • Barry, I so totally don’t want to lose the good will of my readers, especially faithful ones like you apparently are! Let me work to not deserve the label of “disingenuous”! Because I totally agree with the point you make at the beginning of your post: there is no necessary link between your vote on Jephthah’s vow and your view of the OT. It’s only the title of my first post that, I think, implied that claim—and titles don’t provide space for nuance. As Miles Van Pelt and commenter Don Johnson, among others, have shown, the “no” view need not itself be simplistic.

      But would you agree that a number of comments on the first post did display the assumptions I listed? Commentator Larry Richards perhaps put the “good guys do good” assumption on display more baldly than anyone else. But without wishing to cast any aspersions on readers, and fully acknowledging that I held the same view not many years ago, I believe many people do think that the vow and sacrifice simply have to be explained as good actions because they assume that every recorded action of Jephthah was good. That assumption is not the only reason one might have for voting “no”; indeed some people voted “no” while disagreeing firmly with that assumption. Including you, apparently.

      I’m not concerned about people like you. =) I’m concerned about people who come to the Bible with that assumption. For a striking example, take a look at this story about a convert to Islam who couldn’t fathom why the Bible would show Noah as a drunkard. This man’s faulty assumption led him to apostasy. For most Christians I think it leads only to confusion. But I’m concerned by both reactions, of course. I want to help people read the Bible well.

      Personally, I think Jephthah called his own vow rash by regretting it so loudly. But whether the vow itself was sinful or not (and I think it was because I do think he said “whoever comes out” and not “whatever comes out”), carrying out the vow was sinful—if indeed he sacrificed his daughter, as I believe.

      I, too, have really enjoyed this discussion. You know what I like? I like the fact that despite disagreement there can be that constructive discussion you talked about. And I really like the fact that people can do—and actually do—real Bible homework. Several commenters mined Scripture carefully and came up with points I had not considered.

      • Many thanks for your very interesting reply, Mark. I should have said ‘inadvertently disingenuous’ – I don’t think at all that you were being purposely disingenuous.
        And yes, I would agree that some of the commenters did display the assumptions of which you wrote. It was very good, though, to read the range of replies. I love taking the Bible apart (metaphorically) and really looking at doctrines and issues and people etc thoroughly, and from every possible angle, so that I can try to get real wisdom and understanding.
        Best wishes – have a good weekend

  • Judges 11:39 says he did to her what he had vowed. This (the Bible) is either the word of God or it isn’t. You can’t believe one part of it and not believe another part of it. It is all inspired by God. We don’t get to pick and choose what parts of it is true or not true. It is all true. If the vow was to sacrifice her then that was what was done, as it says he did the vow.

    • Now, in defense of the “no” people, there are times when it’s appropriate to pull out the “here I stand, I can do no other—this is what the Bible says” stance. I’m prepared to do that on issues from the resurrection to creation to, well, email me privately for a full list. =) There are times when no breadth of interpretation can be permitted. Again, Jesus rose from the dead or he didn’t and our faith is in vain.

      But I don’t think Judges 11:39 is one of those passages. I do believe there’s enough wiggle room here, enough divinely inspired ambiguity, that I will in not condemn the opposite view. I’m actually more concerned with the theological reasoning informing someone’s view than with their vote in itself.

  • Best blog posts so far. And you didn’t try to sell me anything! Good work fellah.
    I find great comfort in the idea that if Jephtha had known the perfect law of God better, he might have seen that God had already made a way, made some sort of allowance for his depravity and foolishness, and given him a get out of jail free card in paying his foolish vow off. God is good! And it is an encouragement to walk closely with God, who knows our ways and would guide us and teach us. Like David says, the Lord asked him to seek His face, and Your face, oh LORD I will seek.

    • There were provisions in the law, as one commenter on the previous post stated. Yes, I would have urged Jephthah to throw himself in God’s mercy.

  • “It is inconceivable that Jephthah would have literally sacrificed his daughter in an act he knew to be repugnant to God.”

    I agree with your disagreement of the quote above. The most difficult conversations I have with people about the Old Testament (scratch that, and New as well) is who the narrative is about, who are/is “good”, and moving past the moral of the story to the Central Figure of the story. Is it really inconceivable that Jephthah would sacrifice his daughter? More inconceivable than, say, David committing adultery and murdering her husband, his loyal servant Uriah? I believe we are far too quick to fall back into the lie that the Bible was written to instruct men on how to be righteous. The entire narrative from Genesis 3 until the resurrection is a declaration that all of man’s attempts to be made right with God fall flat. We need a foreign Righteousness… God’s Righteousness!

    If we can keep it clear in our minds that the only character that is good, the only character who is perfect, the only character that never changes is God, THE LORD… and that He is the hero of the story… then we can be humble enough to know that we are no better that Jephthah, and that we need the atoning work of Jesus to receive the only sufficient Righteousness, God’s Righteousness.

    • I am so totally with you, but forgive me—as a wannabe theologian I just have to add a word here! Either “I believe we are far too quick to fall back into the lie that the Bible was written primarily to instruct men on how to be righteous.” Or, better, “I believe we are far too quick to fall back into the lie that the Bible was written to instruct men on how to become righteous.” That is, our personal holiness, our sanctification is a major purpose of the Bible’s instruction. Peter says, “Make every effort to add to your faith virtue.” But the Bible’s moral stories don’t tell us how to become righteous, how to be granted that status. They show us that we, like the Bible characters, need that foreign righteousness you talked about.

      • (Let me preface that I’m the farthest thing from a professional theologian… I’m just a 4 year old born again believer)

        I agree with you. Once receiving the Holy Spirit, we are called to grow in living out the Righteousness that has been accounted to us because of our faith. The scriptures are available for instruction in that purpose. Yet still, perfection will be elusive until Glory.

        I actually voted Yes because I’m biased by my view of the human condition as totally depraved apart from being born again in faith to Jesus Christ. I find it interesting how some commenters have referred to the sacrifice as a deplorable or heinous sin, something that was only done by the pagan people of ancient times. Perhaps some choose to ignore the millions of infants being sacrificed in the womb these days. We haven’t come that far as a species, apart from the work of the Spirit.

        You know what I’ve started thinking, what if the outcome doesn’t really matter, whether Yes or No he did sacrifice her? I’m considering this, whether Yes/No, regardless of the outcome, is God still Holy and Righteous and Just and Good? Maybe this is the way I need to be looking at this question of whether it happened or not. My gut tells me, it doesn’t matter Yes/No, God’s character remains untarnished.

  • Mark – I am impressed. You had me thinking you were going the other way. As far as Hebrews 11, the whole point is that faith is given by God, not earned in any way. The fact that the walls of Jericho are included is to illustrate our helplessness in salvation – we simply respond to God. God does not choose based on our righteousness, as Jephthah and Gideon illustrate. Thank God He would include my name were the list compiled today!

  • Powerful lesson. Jephthah may have been blending his religious views about Yahweh with Ammonite religious views about Milkom. Ammonite Milkom worship involved human sacrifice. It is highly unlikely, though, that Jephthah anticipated this resulting in the human sacrifice of his daughter. Human sacrifice was illegal under the law of Moses. A person vowed to God could be redeemed by the payment of a stipulated amount (Lev 27); but obviously in this case no redemption money was paid. The question of human sacrifice here is mute. Good arguments can be made for and against that interpretation of the text. This much is certain: If Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter he sinned in a grievous manner. No vow should be kept if the keeping of that vow involves a greater sin than the breaking of that vow. So the whole story instead of being a warrant for human sacrifice is intended to be a lesson on the exceeding foolishness of hasty vows made in the energy of the flesh.

    Torrey, R. A. Difficulties in the Bible: Alleged Errors and Contradictions. Willow Grove: Woodlawn Electronic Publishing, 1998. Print.

    Smith, James E. The Books of History. Joplin, MO: College Press, 1995. Print. Old Testament Survey Series.

    Kim, Koowon. “Jephthah the Judge.” Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 : n. pag. Print.

  • HOW DID JEPHTHAH FULFILL HIS VOW? She spent the rest of her life as a virgin, serving or assisting the priest at the Temple.
    We know of such women from Ex. 38:8 and 2 Sam. 22:2. Lev. 27 describes vows unto like service. Anna of Asher was such a woman as were the women who followed and ministered to Jesus and 1 Tim. 5:1-16 describes something similar among the widows of the NT church.
    Several factors make clear he did not kill her.
    The oath was made just after the Spirit of the Lord can on him—it was Spirit provoked.
    If he were a wicked man, he would feel no moral duty to fulfill his oath the keeping of which grieved him. A righteous man would repent of a wicked oath.
    He would have known that human sacrifice was abhorrent to God, Deut. 12:31; 18:10.
    Just as Saul’s army refused to let Saul kill Jonathan, no one would allow Jonathan to kill his daughter if that’s really what he intended to do. There was no protest because there was no need of one.
    She lamented that she would never marry, not die and the result of keeping the oath was that she became a virgin. Thus, she devoted her life to service at the Tabernacle.
    WHY DID HE MAKE THIS VOW? To establish his house and his family line as the royal house in Israel.
    Like the rest of Israel at this time, he believed Israel needed an earthly king like the other nations and Jephthah wanted to be that king.
    His vow is an expression of piety, not bargaining. If the Lord should be so gracious as to give him the victory, he recognizes he will be indebted to God and as a token of his gratitude he vows in advance to give something of great value to the Lord.
    The vow indicates a person from the start—he was not expecting an animal.
    “whoever” not “whatever” is the better translation of the masculine.
    “out of the door of my house”—animals for sacrifice don’t live in the house.
    “to great me”—only people would come out the doors to great him on his return.
    “as” a burnt offering means “in the manner of” a burnt offering, where the entire offering is devoted to God, nothing is kept back for the worshipper or the priests and it can’t be redeemed with money.
    By giving up to the Lord someone important from his house to serve in God’s house, he was hoping God would reciprocate and make Jephthah’s house (family line) great.
    That’s why he is so grieved when it is his only child he must give up—no chance to establish a dynasty without her getting married.
    When he made the vow, he was hoping that God would do for him what God eventually did do for David. David declared his intent to build God’s house and God responded with a promise to establish David’s house (family) as the royal family forever.
    David and Jephthah have a lot in common: humble origins, driven from home, gather others around them, fight the Lord’s cause, rise to leadership. But David’s line is the royal line. Jephthah wanted a royal line but is rejected.
    Verse 11:35 “You have brought me very low” means “I had high hopes – great aspirations – but you dashed them.”

    • I don’t necessarily agree with the above, but I like the reasoning.
      1. Examination of the Hebrew words and their implications.
      “whoever” vs “whatever” most translations use “whatever” some use “which”. The idea that the word implies a human vs anything is worth considering.
      “עוֹלָֽה׃” is the Hebrew (from biblehub.com) translated “as a burnt offering” or “for a burnt offering”. The argument being that the implication is “similar to”, a simile not literal. I’m not enough of a Hebrew scholar to know if that usage is legitimate.
      “only people would come out the doors to greet him” Really? Is this based on the Hebrew implications of the word(s) translated “greet” or “meet” (in many translations). Or on experience with animals? Dogs will come out to greet/meet a person, sheep & goats, too.
      2. Examining how things were done at the time. “animals for sacrifice don’t live in the house”. Really? I’ve read that animals were kept in houses; the house acted as a sort of stable.
      3. Speculating motives that are not explicitly in the text. “Jephthah wanted a royal line”. Based on?? It could be there is a lot of clear signaling that this was his motive, but it is not explicitly stated in the text.

      “A righteous man would repent of a wicked oath.” Exactly the point of this article. Jephthah, although used by the Lord to deliver Israel, was not particularly righteous – and had some bad theology (that the Lord would be pleased by the killing of the daughter – as many gods were at the time).

      • 1. The Hebrew word translated whichever/whatever is ambiguous. English requires a choice between the two. Every translation at this point is necessarily an interpretation. “Whatever” is probably safest, because it is more ambiguous than “whoever.” The former could feasibly include a human; the latter could not. When Jephthah saw his daughter emerge, he didn’t say, “She doesn’t count! I said whatever!” He viewed his vow as applying to her.

        With regard to עוֹלָֽה, just take a look at how the word is used elsewhere and you’ll see that the “as a” in the lexical definition does not mean that it is inherently a simile. I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree on that one. =)

        I also think that looking into “greet” and “meet” will leave you with ambiguity, too.

        2. I don’t know, and I don’t know who knows, and I’m not sure anyone can know what the customs were at that precise time and place.

        3. Right, I wouldn’t want to speculate.

  • I am with NO:
    below are some random thoughts
    1. This is at a time of spiritual renewal, Judges 10.10
    2. Jephthah could have had his vow cancelled, if it was a literal / human sacrifice see Leviticus 27.1-8, which was an abomination
    3. While sinners are mentioned in the Hebrews 11 it would foolish to think that the Jew who wrote Hebrews thinks a hero of the faith would commit such an horror
    4. The Spirit of the LORD is upon Jephthah (v.29) making it possible to read his vow, as words that are inspired by the holy Spirit (see 1 Samuel 10.5-10; Numbers 11.25)
    5. There is no mention of actual human sacrifice in Israel till the reign of evil kings like Ahab & Manasseh
    6. The author of Judges does not say he did kill her, it says when he fulfilled his vow, which was after two months. It begs the question for Jephthah why wait to murder his daughter? For his daughter why come back and be murdered”
    7. Family line
    a. Of the previous judge Jair & the next judge Ibzan it is noted, that they had sons, surrounding the story of Jephthah, setting him apart
    b. She bewailed her virginity not her impending death
    c. Note the statement upon her return that “She had never known a man”
    8. The people of Israel during the time of spiritual renewal would unlikely begin a custom to lament & remember her physical sacrifice, but bewail a blood-line becoming extinct, the extinction of a blood line in Israel was considered a curse by God
    9. You will forgive me, but עולה olah and up in smoke went his family line, that remains the key, can עולה be used for a total dedicatory offering
    10. There were full-time female workers 1 Samuel 2.22, both good and bad, but the former were dedicated to God to do good, she would have been a positive influence on young Samuel who come along only a few years later
    11. There is a comparable story, less than 100 years later in 1 Samuel 14.27-28, 41-45; Saul made a vow that ensnares Jonathan his son. Saul ignores his vow upon the advice of the nation.

    ps there is a decline in the time of the Judges, even in the appendic the story of Naomi and Elimelech (Ruth) there was always a Remnant, I would read Jephtah and his daughter in this light.

  • I would suggest a literal human sacrifice of Jepthah’s daughter is more contextual considering how strongly the themes if “cutting” and “cutting off” are in Judges.

    Adoni-Bezek’s thumbs and big toes are cut off.

    Ehud the left-handed descendant of Benjamin (Son of my right hand) plunges a sword through fat Eglon’s belly spilling his bowels.

    Jael piercing Sisera’s temple.

    Gideon tearing the flesh of Succoth’s elders with dessert thorns.

    The woman at Thebez dropping a millstone on Abimelech’s head cracking his skull then run three by his servant with a sword.

    Samson tearing apart the lion.

    Samson’s hair being cut off and the LORD leaving him.

    Samson’s eyes gouged out.

    The Levite’s concubine dismembered.

    The tribe of Benjamin was nearly cut off from Israel but for 600 men.

  • Concerning the spirit of the Lord, read Numbers 24:2. The spirit of the Lord came upon Balaam too. All it means is God empowers as well as commissions a certain act, not the whole person, and not even all following actions subsequent to the coming upon. Balaam apparently immediately enticed the Moabites and Midianites to tempt the Israelites at Peor(where Balak took him to curse them). He was also shortly killed when God commanded Israel to wipe out Midian. He’s about as bad as you can get yet the Spirit can’t upon him as well.

  • Context is king.
    What was the contemporary culture at the time of the story? How would a person reading the story at the time it was written have interpreted it and what cultural idioms & signals would they have picked up on?
    You have to start your interpretation by immersing yourself in the time of the story and the time of the authorship. There can be a separation between the two, and balancing all that can be tricky. But what you must NOT do is start with modern sensibilities.

    During the time of Jephthah child sacrifice was practiced. It wasn’t repulsive & barbaric, it was something people did if they were really committed to their deity. (See Abraham, too.) Also, a woman’s worth was based on how many children (sons) she bore. So dying a virgin would signal she died without being able to carry on the family line. That’s a big deal. It’s not that she never had sex, it’s that she never bore children.

    • There is truth in what you’re saying, but we have incomplete information about ancient cultures. Frankly, I have incomplete information on various cultures that are now within 100 yards of me, and certainly incomplete information on those that are much further away. The Reformation argued for the perspicuity of Scripture, but not the perspicuity of ancient cultures.

      So, actually, I tend to believe that you’re right in your cultural observations. They feel consistent with what the reliable cultural knowledge we can attain from reading the Old Testament. But we can’t help starting with modern sensibilities. Sensibilities aren’t fully set-aside-able. But if we try to be self-conscious about them and if we use reliable cultural knowledge from the OT itself (flavored with archaeological and historical data), we can interpret responsibly.

      • “consistent with what the reliable cultural knowledge we can attain from reading the Old Testament.”
        When doing an anthropological study of ancient Middle Eastern culture, why limit yourself to the Old Testament as a source? There are many other sources available from the time and region that can inform our reasoning about what people at that time and place thought & did.

        Now, I fully admit that access to and understanding of such material is difficult. That’s where scholars, archeologists, anthropologists and the like come in. A company like Logos provides access to some of that background material. And the volume of and ease of access to such material is far greater today than it was 100-200 and maybe even 1000 years ago.

        So as a lay person, I couldn’t hope to understand the many details regarding child sacrifice at the time. But I could read a commentary that said “child sacrifice was common at the time. The Israelites neighbors did it, and there is evidence the Israelites did too.” That informs me that Jephthah wasn’t a loony for carrying out this vow, that it wasn’t unprecedented, and that, yeah, he offered her as a burnt offering.

        • I don’t disagree. I wouldn’t limit myself to the OT; the key word is “reliable.” The cultural information in the Bible is found in an inspired, and therefore fully reliable, source.

  • One distinctive of the Bible is the fact it rarely tells stories of perfect people. The Bible rather shoiws us God’s will, Man’s actions, God’s attempts to deal with Man’s rebellion. Note Jesus Christ’s answer about divorce, God gave divorce to protect women from the men who have betrayed their vows of marriage. Divorce is not in His perfect will. David commited many sins but is a man after God’s own heart. We can take solace in that. I think Japteth thought an animal would be the first out, but his daughter was. I think this shows us how man sometimes makes great presumptions, and falls to temptations. In the New testament we are told not to say I will do blank but if God Wills or permits, I will do blank. Saying I wil do blank gives the same presumption, I can predict the future. I do not think the vow was evil in that I think it was made in the presumption of an animal coming out. I think what was evil than and is now is our presumption to think we can predict the future. You may say this is adding to the text, I say it is reading into the text, and even your commentary, as to what it was thought would be the first to respond, since animals tend to have better hearing. Further more the text makes it clear that Japthah was grieved and it seems surprised his daughter was first out of the doors. I wonder what would have happened if Japthah had done as is scriptural, asked God if He wanted his daughter sacrificed. I would bet the answer would be no. A second question as to rather a sacrifice was to be made would be yes and following through, I think God’s answer would have been an animal sacrifice. You say that is adding to the text. No, I am just saying that the right thing to do,m scripturally is ask God. He would have come up with the answer. Gideon’s fleece to me is a sign of one seeking God’s answer, even though the expected goes against one’s own wishes.

  • Mark,

    You say, “he whole point of Judges is to display the cyclical pattern of sin.” Jesus said, “all the Scriptures” speak of him (Luke 24:27, 44). I think you would do well to take a more Christ centred view of the book of Judges.

    The question is not whether Jephthah is a good guy or a bad guy but how does he prefigure or foreshadow Christ? All the OT figures who foreshadowed Christ were flawed in some way. They saved the people but that salvation fell short of all that was needed. They each illuminate Christ but also leave us looking for a better savior to come. The OT figures who foreshadow Christ are like the OT sacrificial system which taught important lessons about the need for cleansing from sin but also cried out for a better sacrifice. Jephthah was a Christ-like figure who fell short of being the true saviour God’s people needed.
    A. His origin is one of humility and shame.
    1. His father was Gilead, a man with the same name as the region where the tribes of Ruben, Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh had settled on the east side of the Jordan. Jews on the west side of the Jordan might ask, “Can anything good come from Gilead?”
    2. His mother was a prostitute. Joseph initially believed Mary had prostituted herself.
    3. He was despised by his father’s legal heirs and they forced him to leave so they won’t have to share their father’s inheritance with him. They probably threatened his life for he “fled.” Jesus’ own brothers did not believe in him during his earthly ministry.
    4. Verse 7 indicates this had the full knowledge and consent of the elders of Gilead, making him an outcast of the whole society. He had no honour among his own people.
    5. Like Christ, he is the stone which the builders rejected that has become the cornerstone.
    B. His rise to the position of commander of the army and head of Gilead was the gracious leading of God.
    1. First he gained a reputation as a valiant warrior when he gathered around him other impoverished men (not “worthless men” as NKJV) and supported them by raiding their enemies, most likely, Israel’s enemies or Gilead would not have come to him in their need.
    2. When Israel repented and God indicated his favor, Gilead humbled themselves and came to him for help. Their plea was based on an awareness that they could not do it themselves and he was the only one to go to.
    3. Jephthah showed himself honorable three ways:
    a. He agreed to help those who are previously abused him. (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”)
    b. He took their word when they swore an oath in God’s name. (Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.)
    c He was anointed of the Spirit and crossed the Jordan and went to the Tabernacle in Mizpah to confirm in God’s presence his office. Jesus was anointed at the Jordan in the presence of God who spoke from heaven.
    We too must overcome our pride and come to Christ – God’s anointed servant – as the only one who can help us in our need. We come to him because he has already proven himself able to save us by defeating sin, death, hell and the devil, at the cross and in his resurrection.
    A. Jephthah’s first act is a diplomatic one. He is not a man of war but of peace. (Jesus came not to condemn but to save.)
    1. He gives the Ammonites opportunity to repent. When they refuse and make claims on Israel’s inheritance from God as their own, Jephthah responds with a long message recounting history.
    2. The Ammonites have their history wrong and Jephthah makes it clear.
    a. The land between the Arnon and the Jabbok rivers was taken from the Amorites not the Ammonites
    b. Israel left Edom and Moab and Ammon alone, even restoring land to them by defeating the Amorites.
    c. He mocks their god for he and they both know Chemosh was no help to them.
    d. He reminds them how God withdrew protection from Moab and destroyed them.
    3. The thrust is to show the supremacy of Israel’s God, and that only by being Israel’s friend are you safe. God’s promise to Abraham: I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you, I will curse. There is still time for the Ammonites to repent and be Israel’s friend and be blessed. That was the message of Psalm 2 to the kings of the earth, “Kiss the Son” and the essence of Peter’s message on Pentecost.
    B. Great lesson for us: Don’t underestimate the practical benefits of knowing Bible history.
    1. Our God’s supremacy is revealed in the history of his dealings with his people. We need to know that history as the foundation for our faith. The Gospel is first and foremost history, especially the history of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
    2. e.g. Stephen’s speech in Acts 7 was all history, Paul’s defenses were a recounting of events, John’s message was about what they had seen, heard and touched, Paul recounts history in 2 Cor. 10:11 which he says was all written for our benefit.
    3. Don’t respond to the history of God’s victory in Christ (the Gospel) as the king of Ammon did to Jephthah’s history of God’s great works. He paid no attention and he perished.

    When you understand Jephthah as a Christ-like figure who falls short, you are better prepared to understand his desire to be Israel’s king and establish a dynasty, and God frustrating that desire by denying him heirs through the perpetual virginity of his daughter.

    Blessings on your work.

  • I voted no. After reading your commentary, I still would vote no. My vote was not influenced by the assumptions you stated. I enjoyed the challenge to look deeper into scripture. There were many great points brought forth. I look forward to your next question.

    • Can’t win ’em all. =) But like I said to another commenter, I’m not so concerned about your vote as about the theological assumptions/beliefs which drive it. If you aren’t influenced by those assumptions, I’m not concerned. I believe that many Bible readers are, however.

  • Funny how the Lord uses other people to convict me of something that I learn is wrong. I asked the Lord to forgive me of not taking Him at His word, and trying to read into the Bible what I want it to say.

    Thank God for such a thought-provoking pair of blog posts.

    Yes, I have changed my mind: Jephthah sacrificed his daughter on the altar.

    As heinous as I believe this was, the big lesson for me is not to be making rash oaths to the Lord.

  • Wonderful article. In fact, wonderful comments too.

    I think that Jepthah sacrificing his daughter due to knowledge of one part of the law, the seriousness God places on vows, and ignorance on another part of the law, methods of repentance of a vow that couldn’t be honored, fit things quite well. How many times have I read in the Bible of God having issue with priests not teaching the people the law of God or honoring it themselves. What priest was reading the law to Jepthah so that he would know it? Did the priests at that time even know the law of God in full?

    I never considered that Jepthah could have maimed his daughter in an effort to create a loophole within his limited understanding of the law.

    Though, there is that whole, Leviticus 1 being a sacrificial burnt offering, fully and completely consumed, representing Christ. And then there is that other thing about lamenting her virginity and Christ Jesus never knowing a woman before being sacrificed on the cross. Not that I’m suggesting too much, only that it is curious. The vow was to God, the daughter did not wish to be the fulfillment of the vow, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me…’ (Luke 22)

    Okay, replies be nice… this is my first post on this blog.

    • So… after I woke up this morning, I thought, “oh brother, what did I write”.

      In general, I assume that no woman in the Bible represents Christ, rather assuming that women represent the Holy Spirit(a helper is what I mean, so that is, I don’t limit the Holy Spirit to miracles)… or some sort of spirit in the greatly negative cases. These assumptions are probably wrong, but they are my assumptions. (the Holy Spirit helped Christ, right? So therefore, a man and his wife seeking and doing God’s will might in a very tiny, tiny way be like that.)

      Anyway, other than my terrible, awful wording… for both Jesus and Jepthah’s daughter accepted their sacrifice willing, yet with some lament. Oh brother, even the sin caused from the sacrificer by the sacrifice would be held against the as sin. Oh, sheesh, I’ve got to stop thinking about this.

      • I would be extremely hesitant to try to think of many characters in the OT as types of Christ. It seems that they are mostly types of Christ in our own minds rather that being set forth as such. I’m reminded of an ad for Hanes underwear where the inspector says, “It’s not Hanes until I say it’s Hanes.” The point is that, unless the scripture itself makes such a connection, we shouldn’t either. It must always be remembered that the OT is not the same as the NT. Paul speaks of the Law as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. The Law does not, of itself, speak of Christ. Too often the distinction between the two testaments is muddied, if not totally obscured. There is a progress in revelation. It’s not all on one level.

        • So, I would not have said anything more, except that someone named Mike P just replied and reminded me of this discussion.

          1. I agree that we shouldn’t make connections out of thin air
          2. I do not agree with this statement, “The Law does not, of itself, speak of Christ”. For all the prophecy of Christ that I see, for all the ‘this is about Jesus’ that I find myself excited over as I read even as I read the law, for the promise was before the law, there prophecy of the promise is logically within the law. Similarities, but not the same. For we are under grace, and the wine is new. The wine is still wine. There is similarity. The old wine tells of the new wine to come. No, to say that I believe that the law does not speak of Christ would be to say that I only believe prophecy and out of books we title as the major and minor prophets.

          I am not trained in seminary, nor am I wise to the words of likeness, kinds, prophecy, and many more words used in detailed context that classes would certainly detail and require knowledge of. What I do know is that when I read Leviticus, I see Jesus and I thank God. It is okay if we don’t agree. I simply wanted to clear up misunderstanding resulted by my lack of mentioned it.

  • God bless:

    Good article, and each individual reaction to the content, does show some of the deepest assumptions people hold, (in my case about God).

    Thanks for the opportunity to speak our mind, even if we are not experts.

    I believe Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed, but consigned to service in celeibacy.

    My reason for believing so is that Jephthah allowed God to pick the content of the voluntary vow.

    Did God know that Jephthah’s daughter was going to come out first? I believe so, would God allow a burn offering of her? I do not think so.

    Even though it seems that the daughter thought that not getting married was an awful thing, actually, it was a very honorable thing, to serve the Lord. And maybe in the afterlife she found out that serving the Lord is a thousand times better than anything here (power, fame, marriage, etc.).

    God chose wisely, He picked someone that would not object to her father’s vow.

    The text does seem to point to a sacrifice, but the little I know of God, I do not think He would have allowed that to happen:

    God is good, and His h:hesed is forever.


  • This was a very good post Mark. I not only continue to agree with your assessment of Jephthah offering his daughter as a burnt offering, and that the Book of Judges presents a downward spiral, but I think the points you have made in the post above are really important for how we approach the Bible.

    I’m also very appreciative of the comments of all who have contributed to the conversation and the good spirit in which the comments have been made. May God bless us all as we continue to study and share His Word.

  • God bless:

    Just for information; due to this thread, I made a collection in L6. I typed in the rule box the word women.

    I then searched (basic) in the collection for

    Some good information was produced, and some of it not from commentaries.

    After reviewing some of the input found in the resources, I stick with the no vote, as it is just as I assumed is the correct answer (in my opinion and jibing with that of some knowledgeable authors read) by looking into the big context: God directing the whole deal for His glory.

    Blessings, and congratulations Dr. Ward, as other posters have commented, I look forward to your posting other interesting topical / difficult / controversial subjects.

    • Sorry the Bible reference did not appear: searched for Judges 11:31 (in between the lesser than and greater than sign).


  • It seems I’ve come late to this discussion, but since this blog is on the first page of google results, I’m hoping that it will continue. My study group recently came to this passage and are in the midst of discussion.

    I’m on the fence about the “yes” or “no” on this issue, but I’m tempted to desperately search for a way to make “no” viable, and I’ll explain why.

    As some of the “no” readers have already commented, the assumptions in the article are not the assumptions that are pushing me toward “no”. After reading about Samson, it’s clear that judges are not “good guys”. And as it has been discussed in the comments, I understand that the Holy Spirit can come upon an unrighteous person in order to further God’s will (eg. Balaam blessing the Israelites). Here are my assumptions:

    1. The old testament displays a constant cycle of God’s people falling short and being redirected (sometimes with harsh punishment) back onto the righteous path. This harshness is justified in order to set up Israel which will provide the foundation for the rest of the bible and most importantly, for Jesus.

    2. When the Holy Spirit comes upon a person, it is for God’s will to be done, regardless of the holiness of the person being used, or the goodness of the act being done.

    Jeph’ sacrificing his daughter clashes with my first assumption, because this sort of behaviour (making terrible oaths and sacrificing humans to God) is exactly the sort of thing that God seems to be steering Israel away from in the old testament. Golden Calf? 3000 die. Uzzah touches the Ark? Struck dead. There are many harsh punishments in the old testament, but they are justified because it is very, very important that the early Israelites are set apart as a chosen people. If Jeph’ sacrificed his daughter to God (because of a vow made after being filled with the Holy Spirit), it could seem to the Israelites that such sacrifices were acceptable if enforced by an oath. This brings the perception of the Israelite religion one step closer to the pagan religions of the time, which is usually strongly punished by God. (And this oath did make a lasting impression, as indicated by the Israelite tradition it started in the last verse of this chapter)

    The making of the oath clashes with my second assumption as well. When the Holy Spirit fills someone in the Bible, it seems always to accomplish good in the long run- even if the person being used or the individual act being committed is not. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, (not a good person, and not a good act, as it resulted in a lot of suffering in the short-term) but this accomplished an important thing; the cowing of the Egyptian gods with the plagues so that the Israelites could have faith in the power of their God. If Jeph’ sacrificed his daughter (again, not a good person nor a good act), what did it accomplish in God’s plan of redemption? If this oath came from the Spirit, it could have easily been an oath that fit within the laws and structure that God had been imposing upon the Israelites so far. Instead, the oath seems to work against God’s law and plans for the Israelites.

    So now with my assumptions out here, I invite everyone to discuss them. I may be misled in my assumptions, and I’m here for open discussion.

    • This is really great. Some good thinking and good interaction.

      It seems to me that your comment hinges on Judges 11:29, which says that God’s Spirit came on Jephthah. The next sentence says he made this oath. I share your discomfort with the idea that the Holy Spirit of God could come on someone and then that person could sin. This and the placement of Jephthah in Hebrews 11’s Hall of Faith are the two strongest arguments for “no” that I know of.

      But whose power rested on Samson as he lay on the lap of Delilah? And did God’s Spirit rest on Jephthah not just as he gave his oath but as he carried it out? The text doesn’t say. (And I’ve already answered the Heb 11 argument.)

      I don’t think Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter could be used, righteously, to defend child sacrifice—even if supported by an oath. Again, I think the cycle of progressively worse leadership is what Judges is about.

      Thanks for weighing in. Hope this was a help to you, and I’d love for your whole Bible study group to read this and weigh in as well!

Written by Mark Ward