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.

Assumptions

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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Written by Mark Ward