Rethinking Rethinking Jepthah’s Foolish Vow
Evangelical 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.
- Judges 11:39 says very clearly that Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.”
- 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.
- 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.”]
- 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.
- 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.]
- 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.