Jephthah Didn’t Have to Do It!

For my weekly quiet time last night, I was listening to a good sermon by Steve Mays entitled Ephraim’s Obnoxious Attitude. It was on Judges 11-12, the story of Jephthah.

What was good about it was that Mays didn’t try to justify Jephthah’s actions–regarding his daughter or his harsh treatment of the complaining Ephraimites. Rather, he stated that Jephthah didn’t handle either situation as well as he should.

Mays affirmed that, if Jephthah had known his Torah, he would have realized that he didn’t need to sacrifice his daughter. Leviticus 27, after all, allows Israelites to redeem what they’ve vowed to the LORD. And the Torah also bans human sacrifice (Exodus 13:13; Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5).

In a lot of the sermons and commentaries that I encountered, there was a sense that Jephthah knowingly vowed to perform a human sacrifice. Jephthah said to God, “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 11:30-21 NRSV). “What could possibly come out of Jephthah’s house to greet him?,” commentators ask. “A cow? A sheep? No! Jephthah expected a person.” The problem was that he didn’t think his daughter would be that person. According to such exegetes, Jephthah was anticipating one of his slaves to come out of the door. Bummer!

Of course, I know what a lot of biblical scholars will say: “We don’t know if Leviticus was written before the Jephthah story,” or “the Bible speaks with different voices on human sacrifice.” But, homiletically speaking, Mays does well to highlight the value of God’s word in providing guidance to us. Without God’s word, we are left to our own devices on how to please God. And, in the words of that hackneyed cliche from Alcoholics Anonymous, “Your own best thinking is what got you here” (in trouble, that is).

What’s interesting is that, in Jewish rabbinic tradition, there are similar views that Jephthah did not have to go through with his vow. Here are some quotes from the online Jewish Encyclopedia article on JEPHTHAH:

“He is classed with the fools who do not distinguish between vows (Eccl. R. iv. 7); he was one of the three men (Ta’an. 4a), or according to other authorities one of the four men (Gen. R. lx. 3), who made imprudent vows, but he was the only one who had occasion to deplore his imprudence. According to some commentators, among whom were Kimchi and Levi b. Gershom, Jephthah only kept his daughter in seclusion. But in Targ. Yer. to Judges xi. 39 and the Midrash it is taken for granted that Jephthah immolated his daughter on the altar, which is regarded as a criminal act; for he might have applied to Phinehas to absolve him from his vow. But Jephthah was proud: ‘I, a judge of Israel, will not humiliate myself to my inferior.’ Neither was Phinehas, the high priest, willing to go to Jephthah. Both were punished: Jephthah died by an unnatural decaying of his body; fragments of flesh fell from his bones at intervals, and were buried where they fell, so that his body was distributed in many places (comp. Judges xii. 7, Hebr.). Phinehas was abandoned by the Holy Spirit (Gen. R. l.c.).

“The Rabbis concluded also that Jephthah was an ignorant man, else he would have known that a vow of that kind is not valid; according to R. Johanan, Jephthah had merely to pay a certain sum to the sacred treasury of the Temple in order to be freed from the vow; according to R. Simeon ben Lachish, he was free even without such a payment (Gen. R. l.c.; comp. Lev. R. xxxvii. 3). According to Tan., Behukkotai, 7, and Midrash Haggadah to Lev. xxvii. 2, even when Jephthah made the vow God was irritated against him: ‘What will Jephthah do if an unclean animal comes out to meet him?’ Later, when he was on the point of immolating his daughter, she inquired, ‘Is it written in the Torah that human beings should be brought as burnt offerings?’ He replied, ‘My daughter, my vow was, ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house.’ She answered, ‘But Jacob, too, vowed that he would give to Yhwh the tenth part of all that Yhwh gave him (Gen. xxviii. 22); did he sacrifice any of his sons?’ But Jephthah remained inflexible. His daughter then declared that she would go herself to the Sanhedrin to consult them about the vow, and for this purpose asked her father for a delay of two months (comp. Judges xi. 37). The Sanhedrin, however, could not absolve her father from the vow, for God made them forget the Law in order that Jephthah should be punished for having put to death 42,000 Ephraimites (Judges xii. 6).”

Jewish tradition is rather unfavorable to Jephthah. You see the “Jephthah didn’t know his Torah” line, but, even when he was confronted with the Torah, he stubbornly refused to abandon his vow. His pride led him to disregard the Torah’s nuances and its humanitarian elements. The fact that his pride was religious didn’t make it any better. And, like Mays, Jewish tradition doesn’t care much for Jephthah’s slaughter of 42,000 Ephraimites either, even if they did threaten to burn down his house.

A lot of the Christian sermons I heard are more favorable to Jephthah. Their reason is that he makes the hall of faith in Hebrews 11:32, so he must have done something right. And so some see Jephthah as a man who kept his word–who set his mind on something and did it. In a world where many of us don’t fulfill our resolutions, that’s pretty admirable. But Jewish tradition highlights where it can be downright foolish in certain circumstances!

What do Christians do with Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter? Some believe that he offered her as a burnt offering. Many contend, however, that he simply made her a lifelong virgin, since Judges 11:39 emphasizes that she had never slept with a man. In those days, a woman becoming a virgin was somewhat like death, since childbearing was a huge function of womanhood. Plus, when Hannah dedicated Samuel to the LORD, she didn’t exactly offer him up on an altar (I Samuel 1), so maybe that’s not what Jephthah did when he gave his daughter to God.

There are all sorts of positions. But I appreciated Mays’ take on the issue: We’re really stumbling in the dark without the light of God’s word! Actually, we’re stumbling around when we’re left to our own devices, period! Because of my black and white thinking, I need others to tell me what my options are. Otherwise, I jump to conclusions, or I see my choices as limited, or I just plain act unwisely. And that’s the way it was with Jephthah: he didn’t know his Torah, so he was unaware of his options.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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5 Responses to Jephthah Didn’t Have to Do It!

  1. Steven Carr says:

    Jephthah is a hero of faith in Hebrews 11.

    Child sacrifice does not mean you do not believe in God , it seems.

    Jephthah only had to pay a sum to the sacred treasury of the Temple.

    Of course, he would have had to build a Temple first.


  2. Steven Carr says:

    Balaam in Numbers 22:18 does exactly the right thing.

    His first thought is to learn what more the Lord may say to him, before making a decision to go with the servants of Balak or not.

    And God tells him that very night to go with the servants of Balak.

    Balaam , unlike Jephthah, is a supreme example of the importance of waiting to consult God before making any decision.


  3. James Pate says:

    Hi Steven,

    Yeah, I wonder what the Hebrew is in that text. Was that rabbi making an anachronism? There is the rabbinic maxim of “no earlier or later in Torah.” Or maybe temple just means tabernacle there.

    I agree that Jephthah should have consulted God. Of course, I know why you’re bringing Balaam into the picture: he sought God’s will, God told him to go, then Balaam went out and an angel was there with a sword, about to kill him. I don’t know how Jewish interpreters handle that, but a lot of Christians just say that Balaam was “seeking” God’s will, yet was about to go anyway, or was trying to delay and get more money out of the deal, or whatever.


  4. Steven Carr says:

    That is because a lot of Christians know that Balaam was a bad guy, so are ready to judge him as guilty, no matter what the text says.


  5. James Pate says:

    A lot of it’s an attempt to harmonize. They wonder why God allowed Jephthah to go, then sent an angel to kill him when he did go.

    But Balaam’s a pretty complex character. There are times when he stands for what’s right. In the end, though, he got the Moabites and Midianites to send their women to tempt Israel, so he got killed in the Conquest (according to most biblical traditions).


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