Rethinking Rethinking Jepthah’s Foolish Vow

by Oct 15, 2014Exegesis, Theology4 comments

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.

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  1. Bill Lowry

    Thanks for the article, Mark. I agree that we do ourselves and our readers/listeners a disfavor by avoiding these kinds of texts, rather than using them to show how bad humanity is and how good our Lord is. I am constantly amazed that the Lord Jesus always had the right answer to say to every individual he met. That is a constant rebuke to me, as well as a lesson.

  2. dcsj

    Hi Mark, well, having discussed Judges a bit with you this summer, I think you know I take a different view. I don’t see how Jephthah can be in Heb 11 as a human sacrificer. That really would be incomprehensible. I agree that Samson is problematic, but I think that the faith he showed was his final act – a death-bed conversion if you will. Possibly the only time in his life when he actually exercised faith in God. Gideon I don’t see as negatively as you do, and I don’t see how he can be entirely blamed for the actions of Abimelech. We would have similar criticisms of David as of Gideon, so I am not sure Gideon and Samson diminish Jephthah’s presence in Heb 11.

    When it comes down to it, the Bible doesn’t actually say exactly what Jephthah did. It leaves the outcome ambiguous, so the outcome is not really the point of the story.

    I think that there is a good deal to be made of the notion of “no king in Israel” and the seemingly increasingly “kingly” attitudes and actions of many of the later judges. Several judges in Jephthah’s immediate context are full of large families, such as a king might have. Gideon, Ibzan, Abdon. Jephthah effectively has no family – and that is the point that is emphasized. Barry Webb said this: Ibzan and Abdon “recalls the similar ostentation of Jair and his family (10:4). In the light of this, and the career of Gideon’s son Abimelech, there is a suggestion that from Gideon onward judgeship was always on the verge of turning into kingship, in which sons would succeed their fathers.” (p. 345)

    Just a few years down the line, as Samuel (finally a good judge) is aging, the people demand a king and they get Saul. He turns out no better than the judges, but it is this frustration with kingly attempts by weak judges and a weak king that fails the people’s expectations that seems to me to be a thread running through the narrative from Judges to Samuel.

    Anyway, don’t have much time to expand on this, but I am reluctant to insist the Scripture is saying something it doesn’t explicitly say.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

    • Mark Ward

      Fair points. My main response is this: how much more explicit do you expect the Bible to be than Judges 11:39? “At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made.” If the author of Judges wanted to communicate that Jephthah really carried out his rash vow in a distinctly literal fashion, what else would you want him to say? Do you want him to give the gory details (something the Bible tends not to do, in my opinion—though Judges would, admittedly, be the place to do it [cf. Judges 19:29])?

      But actually, my biggest concern in this post is not Jephthah at all but our tendency to place every Bible character in the hero or villain categories, something the Bible doesn’t do.

  3. dcsj

    How about this: Jeremiah 7:31 “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind.

    The act of child sacrifice is so abominable it gets explicit mention in passages like Jer 7.31. I don’t know how Jephthah could be counted worthy of Heb 11 if he had committed such an act.

    I agree, though, that the judges are not black and white characters. However, I think Jephthah actually comes off fairly well, especially compared to Gideon or Samson, especially considering his beginnings. He shows a strong familiarity with God’s word and seems to genuinely want to follow the Lord.

    Anyway, I know that this point has been debated ad infinitum in the commentaries and elsewhere, so we are not likely to solve it here. Just chipping in my 2c. (Or maybe a nickel, since we don’t have pennies in Canada anymore)

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3


  1. Lessons from an Examination of How the Grace of God Abounded to Jephthah | A People for His Name - […] discussion of some pros and cons for holding the view that he did sacrifice his daughter, see this post…