Rethinking Rethinking Jepthah’s Foolish Vow

Giovanni_Antonio_Pellegrini_001Evangelical OT scholar Miles Van Pelt, co-author of a biblical Hebrew textbook and academic dean at RTS Jackson, knows a thing or ten about the Old Testament. And I only know a thing. But I still respectfully disagree with the small article he posted yesterday on “Rethinking Jephthah’s Foolish Vow” at the Gospel Coalition blog. Van Pelt offers six reasons to believe that Jephthah, the (in)famous OT judge did not actually sacrifice his daughter. I recently delivered a faculty in-service lecture at Bob Jones Academy in which I offered precisely six reasons to believe that he did.

  1. Judges 11:39 says very clearly that Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.”
  2. The idea that she wasn’t sacrificed but just consigned to an unmarried state and a life of celibacy didn’t pop up, as best we know, until a major Jewish commentator named Kimchi well-meaningly suggested it in the Middle Ages. So this idea is almost 1,000 years old. But the story is over 3,000 years old.
  3. That’s because of reason three, that a great military leader making an important vow before the biggest battle of his life isn’t going to promise his God a dog. And sheep are unlikely to be the first animals out the door to greet you when you come home. They’re too dumb; they’re going to be in the back bedroom saying, “Duh, what’s going on? Where is everybody?” while the much smarter animals are already getting their treats outside. It actually seems likely that Jephthah intended a human sacrifice, almost certainly of a servant. [I mentioned in the lecture the same thing Van Pelt did, that “whatever comes out the doors of my house to greet me” could equally be translated “whoever.”]
  4. Jephthah’s character is not all that sterling, really. In 11:3 the text says that some “worthless” men (or “vain” men or “scoundrels” or “lawless men,” other translations say) gathered around him. Doesn’t sound too good.
  5. The text goes out of its way to mention in 11:34b that she was his only child; no sons, no daughters but her. Why would it do this except to underscore how important this girl was? She was the last twig on the family tree. [Admittedly, this fits with the consigned-to-perpetual-virginity rule, too.]
  6. Jephthah’s daughter’s sacrifice was celebrated for hundreds of years with a four-day feast (11:39b–40). You don’t do that unless someone died.

Some Responses to Van Pelt

Now a few quick points in answer to Van Pelt:

A. The strongest argument for Van Pelt’s position, it seems to me, is in Hebrews 11. How could Jephthah be named in the Hall of Faith if he committed child sacrifice? But Van Pelt himself answers that question: Samson and Gideon are in there, too, and no one defends their embarrassing sins: sexual immorality (Gideon), sexual immorality with Canaanites (Samson), making an ephod that leads to idolatry (Gideon), etc.

B. Van Pelt did add another strong argument for his side, namely that in the text Jephthah’s vow comes right after the narrator’s comment that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah. I admit that as a weakness in my view, though it’s perhaps not surprising that Judges 13:25 says “the Spirit of the Lord began to stir” Samson, and the very next verse says “Samson went down to Timnah, and at Timnah he saw one of the daughters of the Philistines” (14:1). And Van Pelt himself mentions that Gideon laid out the fleece—not generally considered to be a wholly praiseworthy act—right after the Spirit came upon him.

C. Van Pelt argues that Jephthah’s initial vow may not have intended a literal sacrifice but a symbolic one. And I suppose that’s possible, but here’s OT scholar John Walton at Zondervan’s Koinonia blog a few years back:

In his vow, Jephthah promises a burnt offering (Hebrew, ‘olah). In the nearly 300 occurrences of this word in the OT it is always a sacrifice that is wholly burned on the altar. The first point is simple then—to suggest that this word has a unique and different meaning here is special pleading. The text says what it says, however disturbing that may be.

I’m not sure Van Pelt is arguing for a different sense, and I wouldn’t call his argument special pleading because he doesn’t rely heavily on this point. In any case, however, this point of his cannot prove his view, only save it.

D. That Jephthah’s daughter bewailed her virginity and not her death may say more about her personal—or her culture’s—values than about what Jephthah was about to do to her. If the most precious thing she would miss in dying was marriage, I see no reason for virginity not to be the focus of her bewailing.

The text of Judges is sufficiently clear. If God wanted to communicate that Jephthah actually did sacrifice his own daughter, how could it have said it any more clearly?


I once ran into an unnamed Bible textbook which title its Jephthah lesson for junior highers “Conquering Life’s Calamities.” It compared Jephthah to a Hispanic 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. That, of course, is what happens after his tragic vow. 12:7 says that Jephthah “judged Israel six years” and then died.

But the student textbook and the teacher’s edition both failed to mention Jephthah’s tragic vow. It was completely ignored.

Why? And why do I bother posting on this obscure story? Because I think it helps shine a light on an unhealthy pressure in biblical interpretation. I think it unlikely that Van Pelt suffered from this pressure, but plenty of Bible interpreters in my experience do (like that Bible textbook). Why, though, would any of us want to find a way to get around what the text clearly says in 11:39? What kind of theological pressure causes us to feel like we just can’t take the text the way it stands but have to come up with some alternate explanation?

It is a failure to recognize that the Bible never makes mere mortals into pure and perfect heroes. And yet we tend to want to place every Bible character into one of two baskets, the good eggs and the bad eggs. But we simply must remember that because of Adam’s fall, this is one case where you should and must put all your eggs in one basket! Every human is a bad egg. Fundamentally, we are bent and twisted by sin. God’s image in us keeps us from being as bad as we could be. And surely some eggs (Jephtah) are worse than others (Deborah—about whom the Bible says nothing negative). And God’s Spirit in saved people starts molding us back into proper reflections of God’s character. But if we expect every Bible hero to be a perfect moral example, we will be disappointed.

What is the story of Judges except the story of how Israel failed to trust God enough to rid their land of Canaanites—and then how the Israelites became themselves more and more “Canaanized”? (Van Pelt says this precisely; I’m not sure why it didn’t lead him to my conclusion.) Who is it that sacrifices children to their gods? It’s the Canaanite tribe called the Moabites.

And think even of the judge preceding Jephthah: Gideon. Yes, he is a great hero. But he is a turning point in the book of Judges because after his heroic victory over the Midianites, his life story becomes a terrible soap opera. 70 sons, one of whom ends up murdering all the others. He makes an ephod out of gold that becomes an idolatrous snare to all of Israel. He refuses the responsibility of kingship but takes a lot of the benefits and perks.

The Bible doesn’t glorify sins like these the way Hollywood does. They’re not supposed to be entertaining like they’re made to seem on TV. The sins in Judges are sickening. They make you feel so sad—or at least they’re supposed to.

Gideon is, as I said, a turning point in the book of Judges, because before him, the major judges—Deborah and Barak—are overtly godly. Gideon, on the other hand, is pretty good at first and then pretty bad. Then the judges only get worse. Jephthah, as you know, is worse than Gideon. And Samson is a total mess. The guy hardly ever does anything right until the very last moments of his life.

God used all these very flawed people to deliver His chosen nation. And if you’re wondering what the point is, Judges tells you. Four times in the book, including 21:25, the very last line, the author of the book says, “There was no king in Israel.” And twice it adds the comment, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

This is the point of the story of Jephthah within the whole big story of Scripture: without a good and godly leader, people go wrong. Israel is getting the leaders it deserves, leaders who are as Canaanized as they are. They need a king, a hero who will deliver them from bondage but who won’t be in bondage to sin himself.

There is only one pure and perfect hero, and it is the Great King of whom this judge, Jephthah, is a pale and very faulty reflection. The Bible is the story of what God is doing to redeem His fallen creation. Stories like Jephthah’s are meant to show us how bad mankind can get—even God’s chosen people—without God’s restraining hand and without a godly king. And it is meant to make us long for what the Bible calls “the fullness of time,” the first Christmas day, when God will send that king.

The Literal Meaning of Literal

Open Bible by Ryk Neethling Flickr

In the American South, it can still feel natural to have religious discussions with strangers. My last was with a friendly and professional C-Dry Basement services salesman. Standing in my mildly leaky, retirement-age home (b. 1948), he told me confidently, “You can’t take the Bible literally. It’s all metaphorical and allegorical.”

I replied with a question he didn’t seem ready for: what does “literally” mean?

And I think the question could be helpfully specified further—and then bifurcated, if that’s okay. (Bifurcating is double the fun.)

Here are my two more specific questions:

  1. What do non-Christians like this salesman mean when they say you shouldn’t read the Bible literally?
  2. What do Christians mean when they say that you should read the Bible literally?

1. Non Christians and “Literal” Bible Interpretation

The C-Dry guy means, I think, that Jonah didn’t get swallowed by a whale and that no miracles in the Bible ever really happened—not the way basement leaks happen, anyway. Jonah is a metaphor; so is Jesus walking on water. Jonah teaches us that God will bring you to the depths of despair if you don’t obey; Jesus teaches us that God can keep you on your feet in unsteady times. (Basement leaks teach you that you need more money.)

But if you present this salesman with most other statements in the Bible, I think he’d have a hard time even coming up with a metaphorical or allegorical sense. It takes some real creativity. Like this verse:

As a door turns on its hinges, so does a sluggard on his bed (Pro 26:14 ESV).

This is already a simile, and a pretty funny one. I’m honestly not sure how to invent plausible layers of metaphorical meaning. My C-Dry salesman attends church regularly at what he called a “very liberal” congregation; he’s religious. But if the Bible is all metaphorical and allegorical, his daily devotions must take a lot of energy, because he’s not allowed to read any of it straightforwardly. Even the parts very liberal congregations like. “The meek shall inherit the earth”? No, no—what does that really mean?

I think, of course, that the C-Dry guy was uttering what must politely be called a canard. Christians may disagree over the tenor of a particular metaphor: does “you are the salt of the earth” refer to salt’s distinct taste or its powers as a preservative? But no one thinks that Jesus, in saying this, changed the chemical make-up of the disciples to sodium-chloride. (Of course, if God does want to literally do—and literally communicate—such a thing, He can: Gen. 19:26.)

Every Christian I know recognizes implicitly, along with all other English speakers, that metaphor is fundamental to human language. From “I’m feeling down today” to “So far, we’ve learned three things,” metaphor is actually unremarkable.(1) The HBO film “Temple Grandin,” which features an autistic woman who misunderstands “up with the roosters,” shows hilariously that normal people can be relied upon to interpret metaphor correctly—unless, perhaps, the metaphor is very obscure. “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities” (Amos 4:6) may take a little explaining: their teeth were clean because they had no food; God had sent them a punitive famine. But even today’s newspaper contains metaphors which might require explaining. Language sometimes demands processing power; obscurity is one of the tools good writers are allowed to use on purpose.

My advice, if you hear this particular canard, is to courteously pull out your Bible, turn (at least initially) to some passage other than Jonah or Genesis 1, and read it out loud. Ask the person what its (supposedly erroneous) literal meaning is and what its (supposedly accurate) metaphorical meaning is. I think both of you will find it a clarifying exercise. Your C-Dry salesman is not opposed to literal interpretation; he’s opposed to anything in Scripture that runs counter to his existing belief system.

2. Christians and “Literal” Bible Interpretation

Conservative Christians, however, generally use “literal” to mean that you ought to read (or translate) the Bible “straightforwardly” like you read (or translate) any other text. You read metaphors straightforwardly as metaphors (“I am the door”); you read prosaic statements just as straightforwardly (“he came down with them and stood on a level place”). I prefer “straightforwardly” to “literally” because of the misunderstandings attached to the latter—or rather the general failure of most people to bother to think through what they mean. People are much better users of language than they are analyzers of it.

But I’d actually like to discuss one especially illuminating situation faced by conservative Christians: the use of “literal” by Bible teachers. When a sermon or Sunday School lesson uses the word “literal,” it’s often in a context like this:

The word “striving” here in Colossians 1:29 literally means “agonizing.” Paul was agonizing to complete the workGod had given him to do.

What could possibly be wrong with such a salt-of-the-earth homiletical statement? I like the answers in this insightful paragraph by linguist and biblical scholar Mark Strauss:

Most claims—in both popular and scholarly literature—about the “literal” meaning of a word are wrong….  Sometimes “literal” is used in the sense of primary or most common meaning.  More often, literal means “the first meaning taught to beginning Greek students,” as in “the literal meaning of psychē is ‘soul’,” or “the literal meaning of the preposition en is ‘in’.”  Unfortunately, this meaning is often cemented in the student’s mind as the “real” meaning of the word.  All others are derivative, somehow less precise and accurate. (2)

I repeat this academic point about a common homiletical error not because I want people to become arrogantly critical of their God-given shepherds, but because both preachers and their listeners could feasibly eliminate this error. And the effort would be worthwhile, because this fallacy is almost as bad as that of the C-Dry guy. Even if it rarely ends up promoting heresy, this fallacy suggests a hidden layer of meaning behind the Bible text to which only the cognoscenti—those who have taken a semester of Greek—have access. It suggests that the rest of us can’t really see what’s going on in the Bible.

If the word meant “agonizing,” why didn’t any of the bright English translators who produced the embarrassment of riches on our Christian bookstore Bible racks use the word “agonizing”?

This discussion could go on to massively greater length, but let’s limit it to one point: Bible interpreters, especially those teaching others, shouldn’t use the word “literal” in such a way as to undermine people’s basic confidence in their good Bible translations.

I think it’s worthwhile to preserve a place for the word “literal” in preaching. There are metaphors in Scripture which are so difficult that some translations characteristically translate the whole metaphor, sometimes in fact by making the language “literal”! Amos 4:6 is a good example. The NIV reads,

I gave you empty stomachs in every city (Amos 4:6 NIV).

That’s a hum-drum, literal way of saying what Amos said with some metaphorical panache. I can readily imagine a situation in which a pastor feels it necessary to say, “In the Hebrew, this literally reads, ‘I gave you cleanness of teeth.'” He could then go on to explain the original metaphor—and he might want to make a comment about the character of “dynamic equivalent” translations like the NIV.


I don’t like to quibble with a native speaker’s instinctive use of English. People can mean what they want by “literal.” But I do care about the Bible, about interpreting it with reverent care. Neither the liberal criticism of “literal” interpretation nor the conservative abuse of it (a much more benign sin) treat the Bible with appropriate deference to the way language, God’s invention, really works. Liberals can’t consistently claim that the whole Bible is to be read figuratively. And conservatives shouldn’t talk as if there is some “literal” meaning that good Bible translations habitually obscure.

But of course, this whole post was only a metaphor.


(1) I borrow both of these examples from a fascinating book, Metaphors We Live By.

(2) Mark Strauss, “Form, Function, and the ‘Literal Meaning’ Fallacy in Bible Translation,” unpublished paper,

Rob Lister’s Hermeneutical Method

listerIn the opening pages of his God Is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion, Rob Lister pretty well sums up what I try to do every time I preach:

The relevant biblical data needs to be interpreted with a conscious commitment to formulating doctrine in the context of a “hermeneutical spiral”—the interplay between a passage’s narrow and broad canonical contexts, framed by the major parameters of redemptive history.

Wise words.

Review: Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief

Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian BeliefSystematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief by John M. Frame

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a systematic theology begins with a series of endorsements that are longer than certain other systematics, you know you’ve got either a goldmine or a naked emperor. I didn’t have to even touch the book before I knew I had the former, because Frame is a favorite of mine. He is biblical, above all else (I took it as a compliment when R. Scott Clark complained in his review that Frame is “more ‘biblicist’ than confessionalist”). Frame is self-consciously Reformed while feeling free to prod his tradition when it becomes doctrinaire or semantically pedantic (like his discussion of the use the words author, cause, permit, etc. on pp. 294ff.). It is precisely Frame’s care with words that often endears me to him; in a field in which definition of terms is extremely important and much-discussed, Frame is a rarity: a theologian who maintains a keen sensitivity to the principles of descriptive linguistics. He’s also a great writer, so clear and simple.

Now, I didn’t have to read all 1,000 pages to write a review—did I? Does anyone really expect that? I wish I could deliver, of course. Some day I may. But systematics are meant to be dipped into, not, generally speaking, devoured like a 52-course meal.

So that’s what I did. I read the problem of evil section, and it was classic Frame. Utterly clear and simple, really. Carefully and frequently biblical. And, by the end, triperspectival.

If you, like one reviewer, count yourself among those who just don’t find Frame’s three perspectives helpful—if you find them arbitrary or even confusing—then I still don’t think you’ll mind. You might scratch your head, like I do when I read books full of alliteration or acronyms. But the idiosyncratic (well, Frame’s buddy Poythress uses it, too) terminology of the “normative,” “situational,” and “existential” will not obscure the real substance of the discussions.

I found that substance in other places I dipped, too. His discussion of the means of grace employed his three perspectives (fellowship, word, prayer) helpfully (1047ff.). Those perspectives also illuminated his discussion of the image of God (786ff.). And I could hardly see a page in which he didn’t cite and quote Scripture extensively.

As in the Ten Commandments section in his Doctrine of the Christian Life, Frame appeals regularly to the Westminster Standards. This alone may cause readers in my own segment of Christianity to suspect his biblicism. But everywhere you will see him use those standards as a help (he’s persuaded me fully that they are) and not an authority over Scripture. He’s willing to point to areas of weakness in the confession (866-867).

The things I’ve always disliked about Frame are present: his totally uncharacteristic uncharitableness whenever Westminster West comes up, his unwarranted charitableness toward Norman Shepherd’s “Auburn Avenue” theology (974–975), and I can’t decide how critical to be of his evenhandedness with C. John Collins’ position on the historicity of Adam and Eve (806—Frame himself does not take Collins’ view). Also, his coverage does seem a little odd, making you wonder if this ST was a little rushed or borrowed too heavily from past work—Christology gets 46 pages, for example, compared to 178 for bibliology and 75 for epistemology. As I flipped through the book, on every page I turned to I recognized Framean themes I’ve read in him before; I can’t say how much here is helpfully new. Other reviewers have complained about these things here and there.

But other reviewers have also concluded what I did: these are minor points in a massive, and massively helpful—at least everywhere I looked—systematic. It has a good glossary of Framean terms as well as a good bibliography, and helpful topical and Scripture indices. He also presents all his triads in a helpful chart form.

Frame genuflects toward more structured and lay-friendly systematics like that of Wayne Grudem by including study questions, key terms, memory verses, and a brief bibliography at the end of each chapter. These sections felt a little half-hearted to me, tacked on. Nonetheless, I think Frame’s ST could be as good a read as Grudem for a lay Bible study.

It was not the purpose of this review to engage in detailed discussion of points of disagreement, or even to mention them all (if I were even qualified to do so), but merely to alert you to a valuable resource which I do think belongs on your shelf. Or maybe your desk.

View all my reviews

Sloganeering and Homosexual Marriage

Sloganeering is not generally a persuasive form of argument: “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!” Has any American across the cultural divide from conservative Christianity ever changed his mind after reading that on a billboard or poster?

Somehow I doubt it. A slogan is a way of shouting at others, not a genuine effort at moving them toward the right position. And yet it’s a pity, because that particular slogan encapsulates what is the most important argument I know of in this non-debate: God’s design ought to be viewed as authoritative in public debates over morality.

Jesus’ re-affirmation of that passage is also very important. Look how often Jesus Himself appeals to God’s original design in this little exchange:

Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matt 19)

Jesus views God’s original design as authoritative. Paul also looks to creation for instruction on how marriage—and even the church—ought to function:

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man. For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Cor 11)

I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. (1 Tim 2)

The reasoning of Jesus and Paul wouldn’t make sense if the way God created things in Genesis didn’t hold authority.

But I’m burying the lede here, because for all the strength of this Genesis 1 argument in the homosexuality debate, I think I was lacking a key element of it. The Creation-Fall-Redemption (CFR), redemptive-historical, one-story schema makes it much stronger.

Without CFR you have the possibility of an is-ought fallacy. Only a liberal would say so, but Jesus and Paul might have been confused: just because the world was the way it was in the Garden of Eden doesn’t mean it ought to be that way. A liberal might say, “God created other potentialities for human sexual expression which He simply did not reveal to Adam and Eve.” Of course, a theological liberal doesn’t even believe that Adam and Eve existed as historical persons (a position I think our first parents would have found personally offensive) so he’s free to twist the story in any direction he can persuade others to take it.

But someone who reads the Bible as God’s servant rather than as God’s copy-editor can and must use CFR as a tool for his own theology—and for his public work of persuasion. That’s because the CFR paradigm recognizes that what God will make this world to be is all a reaffirmation of what he made it to be in the first place. Redemption is a restoration of God’s original plan: God intends “to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20). Admittedly, Jesus said that people in heaven neither marry nor are given in marriage—but that appears to be because marriage is transcended into the reality it has always been picturing (the relationship of Christ to His church), not because it is set aside or abrogated.

“I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.” (Col 2:4)