In the Old Testament, did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering? The book of Judges contains some of the most horrific events in the history of Israel. It was a time of idolatry and rampant sin. In fact, the book of Judges ends with these haunting words, which are repeated throughout the book:
“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
Those words ring so true of the world today. “There is no moral absolute,” says the average person in today’s world. It’s all about cultural relativism or personal preference. In other words, I’ll do what’s right in my own eyes. This kind of thinking always has catastrophic results in a society, and it leads to horrific sins and rapid spiritual decay.
Did Jephthah Sacrifice His Daughter?
The passage regarding Jephthah is a controversial and difficult one. In his desire to defeat the children of Ammon, Jephthah made a foolish vow to the Lord:
“And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, “If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering” (Judges 11:30-31).
Upon returning home after defeating Ammon, Jephthah’s daughter–his only child–came out to meet him. He immediately tore his clothes in sorrow, for he knew the vow he had made. He then tells his daughter that he made a vow and “cannot go back” (Judges 11:35).
Surprisingly, his daughter consents, but she requests two months to bewail her virginity.
The question we have to ask is this: Did Jephthah offer her as a burnt offering (killing her), or did he merely dedicate her to the LORD as a perpetual virgin and/or laborer in the service of God? That’s the question. Unfortunately, many Bible teachers are divided on this issue, for there is good evidence for either interpretation.
I think the best evidence and most natural interpretation is that Jephthah did not kill his daughter, and instead, he offered her as a perpetual virgin in the Lord’s service.
Evidence that Jephthah Did Sacrifice His Daughter
The evidence or arguments used to suggest that Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter is as follows:
- The Bible clearly says that whatever he sees first, he will offer as a burnt offering to the Lord.
- The Hebrew word used for burnt offering, “olah,” is unambiguous. It is always used when speaking of a literal burnt offering in the Old Testament.
- He was so upset to see his daughter that he “rent his clothes.”
- Judges 11:39 tells us that “she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man.” The language “who did with her according to his vow” seems to stress that he followed the vow exactly as he said he would (burnt sacrifice).
- Judges 11:40 tells us that women returned yearly to “lament” the daughter of Jephthah, which could indicate a sort of memorial service.
- Finally, human sacrifice, while abhorred by God, was rampant in the surrounding pagan nations. Some argue that Jephthah could have been influenced by these nations, especially since this period marks one of idolatry and sin in Israel’s history.
Evidence that Jephthah Did Not Sacrifice His Daughter, but Offered Her as a Virgin
Even though there are reasons to believe that Jephthah did literally kill his daughter and offer her as a burnt offering, there are also good reasons to believe otherwise:
- His daughter agrees to this arrangement quickly. Would any sane human gladly offer themselves to be killed and sacrificed? It doesn’t seem likely. However, Isaac apparently submitted to Abraham’s request in Genesis 22:9.
- His daughter wants to “bewail” her virginity for two months, and great emphasis is given to her “virginity” and “not knowing a man.” Wouldn’t being a virgin be the last thing on your mind? Wouldn’t you be far more concerned about your impending death? This is a strong argument for the fact that she would remain alive yet never have children or a husband, which was a strong desire for any Israelite woman. One could understand how a woman might consent to dedicating her life to the Lord (as do modern “nuns”), but it is hard to imagine one willingly offering to be killed.
- Jephthah’s sorrow could have stemmed from the fact that his only child would no longer be there to keep him company. In other words, she would be dedicated to work in God’s service, much like how Hannah offered Samuel (1 Samuel 1:11).
- Some have suggested that rather than use the conjunction “and” in verse 31, the conjunction “or” could also be used. Thus, Jephthah would have said in Judges 11:31, “shall surely be the Lord’s, or I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” In other words, he would either dedicate whatever comes out of his house to God’s perpetual service, or he would kill it and offer it up, depending on the circumstance.
- The women of Israel coming to “lament” could have meant they merely visited his daughter yearly to comfort her in her dedicated service.
- The Israelites might have killed Jephthah for such an act. The Old Testament is clear that God hated human sacrifice, and God ordered the death penalty for any person performing human sacrifice in the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 20:1-5). Never would God suggest such an act of worship or thanksgiving.
Conclusions: Did Jephthah Sacrifice His Daughter or Offer Her as a Virgin?
While either view is acceptable, it seems most likely that he merely offered his daughter as a perpetual servant to the Lord, of which he may scarcely have seen her again, and she would have never married or had children. Setting aside children for a special service to the Lord was a practice that some Israelites did, as noted in 1 Samuel 1:11.
There is nothing wrong with taking the other position, and many respectable Bible teachers have done so.
One last thought: If Jephthah did the “worst case scenario” and sacrificed his daughter, we must remember that the Bible is merely recording the account. God certainly isn’t condoning this practice, for He explicitly and repeatedly warns against child sacrifice. It is an abomination to God.