Jephthah is listed as one of the many judges over Israel in the Book of Judges. In his description he is “the son of a prostitute” and was forced out of his home by his brothers because he was “the son of another woman” (Judges 11:1-2). He then makes his home in Tob, east of Gilead, where he is surrounded by “worthless fellows”.
He is chosen to head the nation if he leads Israel against the Ammonites. Fervently yearning for divine direction, a vow was made between Jephthah and God:
“If you without fail give the sons of Ammon into my hand, it must also occur that the one coming out, who comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, must also become Jehovah’s, and I must offer that one up as a burnt offering.” (Judges 11:31)
Unfortunately the first one to greet him after his return was his only daughter who remains unnamed.
As painful as it was, he informs his daughter of the vow. She understands her father must mind the Lord so she asks “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions” (Judges 11:38.) Upon her return he “did with her according to his vow” (Judges 11:40.)
This brief story in Judges 11 is very troubling since it contradicts the Law laid out in Deuteronomy 18:10 “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer”.
Why would the protagonist, Jehovah, allow Jephthah to sacrifice his daughter?
While researching this topic I found it to be highly debatable. According to The Watchtower a human sacrifice was out of the question because “Not only was God’s spirit acting upon Jephthah when he made his vow but Jehovah also blessed his endeavor”. Jephthah’s vow meant that he would devote the first one’s soul he met to the service of God. The vowing of souls is also mentioned in 1 Samuel when Hannah dedicated Samuel to the Lord’s service. Based on this view, he kept his daughter celibate for the rest of her life which would explain the mourning she requested since the most important goal for a Hebrew woman was to give an heir to the family name.
Martin Luther wrote, “Some affirm that he did not sacrifice her; but the text is clear enough.” Ancient Jews understood that the daughter was a literal burnt offering. The Targum of Jonathan states: It was a custom in Israel in order that no one should make his son or his daughter a burnt-offering, as Jephthah did, and did not consult Phinehas the priest. Had he done so, he would have redeemed her with money. Tim Chaffey claims Jephthah is never called a godly man for good reason-he did was was “right in his eyes”. Leviticus 5:4-6 allows for a trespass offering after making a rash vow such as Jephthah’s. As a leader of the Israelites no price was too high to save an only child. He suggest Jephthah either didn’t know the law, and if he did he didn’t use it. It was a symbol of pride and a misunderstanding – or lack of – the Mosaic Law. It is important to remember that in Judges 21:25 is says, “In those days, there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in his eyes.” Jephthah was too arrogant to recieve guidance from Phinehas according to Ralbag, Radak and Idn Ezra. He thought he knew best since he was the general of the Israelite forces. This would explain why Jephthah became ill and lost many limbs-he was punished by the protagonist for sacrificing his daughter and breaking the Law.
Whether the reader has a “dedication view” or “sacrificial view” on this episode in Judges 11, it is just the beginning of Israel’s shortcomings in Judges. Soul dedication seems more logical to me, but this is the Old Testament we are talking about. That being said a literal sacrifice could have actually happened. This story serves as an example to show how the protagonist wants vows to be kept and the Law to be followed.