Longing for the Divine

Jephthah’s Dark Vow: Changing Our View of God

Some of my fondest childhood memories are the bedtime stories my father read to me and my siblings on the family couch before I was tucked into bed, where I would dream about the tales. We read one set of Bible books until they were dog-eared. The story that most piqued my interest was the one about Jephthah, the valiant warrior of Gilead, who sacrifices his one and only daughter to keep his vow. The version my father read was softened, geared toward children. In it, the daughter is not literally sacrificed but is nonetheless an offering, as she commits to a life of celibacy. The story explains that in those days, it was a great sacrifice to not to marry and have children. When I read the story in the Bible years later, however, I discovered that Jephthah sacrifices his only daughter as a burnt offering to God. 

The story is found in chapter 11 of the Book of Judges, where an unlikely hero has been selected to deliver the Israelites. As the son of a prostitute, Jephthah had been driven away as an outcast, but when the people of Gilead face war with the Ammonites, he is called back home to command their armies. They promise that if Jephthah leads them in battle, they will make him ruler of the inhabitants of Gilead. Jephthah accepts, but before going to battle, he makes a vow to the Lord: 

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.”

Judges 11:30–31, NRSV

Middle East scholar Kenneth E. Bailey argues that this vow only makes sense when we understand that ancient people commonly kept animals in their homes (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 2009, p. 30). The story is tragic because Jephthah expects that an animal will first bound out the door after being cooped up all night (Leviticus 7:16; 1 Samuel 28:24). However, that particular morning, his exuberant daughter runs out first to meet him, dancing to the sound of tambourines (Judges 11:34). The problem with Jephthah’s vow is its lack of specificity, for “Jephthah had left open the identity of the sacrificial victim” (Roy Gane, God’s Faulty Heroes, 1996, p. 84).

“When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow’” (Judges 11:35, NRSV).

Jephthah’s daughter requests two months to lament her virginity, and what Jephthah does to his daughter after she returns from her lament is debated, as the text is ambiguous. Does she become a child sacrifice—burned on the altar as he vowed—or as the storybook suggests, is she offered up like Samuel, remaining an unwed maiden in sacred seclusion for the rest of her days?

I think there is more compelling and helpful way to read the story. When read in community, the text becomes a dialogue with the past that impacts the present and the future. The Bible is not unchanging literal text to be read as a code book. Its meaning is found not only in what is written but also in what we come to understand by rereading and asking questions. Its reading requires a community tradition to help us fill in the gaps, so we can achieve a better understanding of the text and a clearer view of God.

Rabbinic texts invite us into this tradition. In the midrashic account, Jephthah’s daughter argues that the sacrifice should be an animal from the herd or flock, not a human (Leviticus 1:2):

As Jephthah was making ready to offer up his daughter, she wept before him and pleaded, “My father, my father, I came out to meet you full of joy, and now you are about to slaughter me. Is it written in the Torah that Israel should offer the lives of their children on the altar?” Jephthah replied, “My daughter, I have made a vow.” She answered, “But Jacob our father vowed, ‘Of all that Thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto Thee.’ [Gen. 28:22] Then, when the Holy One gave him twelve sons, did he perchance offer one of them on an altar to the Holy One? Moreover, Hannah also vowed, ‘I will give him unto the Lord all the days of his life,’ [1 Sam. 1:11] —did she perchance offer her son [on an altar] to the Lord?’”

Though she said all these things to him, Jephthah did not heed her, but he went up to the altar and slaughtered her before the Holy One. 

At that moment, the Holy Spirit cried out in anguish, Have I ever asked you to offer souls to Me? I commanded not, nor spoke it, neither came it into My mind [Jer 19:5].

Translated by William G. Braude, 1992, The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, p. 109

I agree with the theology of Jephthah’s daughter, who convincingly argues another side to the story—a protest against death and violence and advocacy for life. I like that God is filled with anguish that Jephthah is so willing to sacrifice his only daughter. There is no restraint, no determination to find another way.

For Jephthah, revoking his vow seems a retraction of victory. He is portrayed as a strict believer, as devoutly upholding God’s law that “if a man makes a vow to the Lord … he he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth” (Numbers 30:2, NKJV). Jephthah’s extreme act of obedience to God follows the manner of false worship. Though his own ignorance of God his worship mingles too closely with the customs of the day. Among the spiritually declining Israelites, human sacrifice was accepted when worshiping idols (Judges 10:6). In a similar manner, the king of Moab had sacrificed his son as a burnt offering to win a battle (2 Kings 3:27).

God helps Jephthah deliver the Israelites, but why doesn’t the story end—as Isaac’s does—with divine intervention for Jephthah’s only child? The problem is both God’s silence and a father who does not make his daughter’s well-being his main concern. The Bible stories I was read as a child suggest that God always sends His angels to keep children safe. An angel was sent to deliver Isaac from the fate of sacrifice, but there is no such intervention for this poor unnamed girl. Instead, the story ends with, “for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite” (Judges 11:40, NRSV).

Christian author Rachel Held Evens emphasizes that it is the daughters of Israel who engage in this public ceremony of grief, marking the injustice to honor this girl. It is the women who acknowledge this was a tragedy. While the story’s horror is never rectified, its details record a lament through which we can witness the other side—the exploited, the abused, and the neglected (A Year of Biblical Womanhood, 2012, p. 63–64).

Maybe we should listen to Jephthah’s daughter and the lamenting women. In them, we can see a sacrificial love that does not change a stubborn deed but nonetheless shines through the narrative, inspiring us to a better understanding of God and one another.

We cannot resolve the conflict between Jephthah and his daughter until we reach Jesus, who says, “do not make any vows!” (Matthew 5:34, ESV). We are never to make foolish or selfish vows. In a related story, Jesus shows that God is not absent by coming to the home of another Gilead ruler to stop the mourning and wailing over the death of another virgin daughter—to bring life out of death and joy out of sorrow. The tragedy of Jephthah’s story is subverted when Jesus comes to Gilead to raise Jairus’ only daughter from the dead (Mark 5:22–43). He comes tenderly with outstretched arms to heal, to save, and to bear her wounds and ours. He would rather sacrifice Himself than others. He comes to take up our lament, injustice, and violence as well as the horrific experience of Jephthah’s daughter, so she can be restored among us. Through His faithfulness, Jesus comes to return every daughter and son to life through the power of God.

There is a degree of consent in the cooperation of Jephthah’s daughter, as she submits as Isaac did. This consent becomes Jesus’ life-giving theme, as He submits to the violence perpetrated on Him, however; it is God’s self-giving and not the harsh hands of a father sacrificing His only child (John 3:16). God comes to unite with your suffering and mine—with Jephthah’s daughter and every other child who suffers.

The Book of Hebrews praises the faith of Jephthah but not the traumatic act of sacrificing his daughter (Hebrews 11:32). What part of faith teaches irrationality and violence? Unquestioning allegiance is not what God wants. Jephthah was wrong to keep a rash vow (Proverbs 20:25), and his act accomplished his own punishment. It extinguished not only his greatest joy but also his dreams of receiving an inheritance (Leviticus 20:5). Expressions of courage and dedication are not wrong, but Jephthah did not understand God properly. God would use him in spite of his faults, but he needed a faith beyond irrevocable obedience to a vow. Jephthah’s perspective of God was warped and misguided; he needed a better understanding. This is where the faith of Jesus can help.

Dr. Richard Nies, one of my favorite Bible teachers, once said that if our view of God is the same as it was years ago, months ago, or even weeks ago, then we are essentially worshiping an idol. Our understanding of God should be always growing and evolving. My understanding of God today at age 48 is not the same as it was when I was 10 because while God hasn’t changed, my understanding of Him has. Likewise, the God I believe in today will differ from the God I believe in ten years from now. God does not change, but my perception of Him does. Our understanding of God must continually change for the better. The story of Jephthah tells me that it is good to break from the static structures of expressing faith, to break through the rigidity of religion into new and better understandings of God. Jesus is the means by which we can achieve such dynamic and growing faith. Our faith comes from Him, always deepening, growing and changing. How disappointing and conflicted life would be if this were not true. 

Craig Ashton Jr.

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