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March 13, 2024

Jephthah and the Sacrifice of his Daughter

Jephthah meets his daughter. Codex 602, folio 434b. Monastery of Vatopaidi. 13th century. A rare Byzantine depiction of Jephthah's reception of his daughter. It is the moment after the battle, when Jephthah, accompanied by warriors, arrives home and meets his daughter outside his house while she is holding cymbals in her hands. Jephthah is depicted with a halo.

By Maria Skabardonis

The book of Judges is the seventh book of the Old Testament, it belongs to the so-called historical books and deals with the life and history of the Judges. The Judges were people to whom God entrusted the protection of the Israelite people when they turned away from Him.

Jephthah was one of the most notable and greatest Judges of Israel, and he is the 13th Judge in number. His story is described in the book of Judges chapter 11 verses 1–39.

This story has much in common with that of Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon's father was asked to sacrifice because it would appease the wrath of the goddess Artemis.

Jephthah came from Gilead, and while he had been cast out by his brothers for being the illegitimate son of a harlot, he later led the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites. He was particularly bold and brave, but his life was linked to a specific event: the sacrifice of his daughter, an event that many take advantage of to accuse the Old Testament of practicing human sacrifice. Let's look at it in detail.

Jephthah made a promise to God that if He would grant him victory against the Ammonites, he would sacrifice the first person who would run to meet him. However, life dealt him a bad hand, as the one who ran to meet him after his victory was his beloved daughter!

Various Thoughts On The Matter

Jephthah's sacrifice is a unique sacrifice that a worshiper of God promised to make in the entire Old Testament. God, through the Mosaic law, forbade human sacrifices and for this reason in Deuteronomy He says the following about those peoples He decided to be killed: "Because they burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods" (Deuteronomy 12:30–31).

God disapproved of human sacrifices and never accepted human sacrifice for His pleasure.

It must be pointed out, in the text of Judges there is the phrase "and she knew no man" which refers to Jephthah's daughter. There are scholars who have come to the conclusion that Jephthah's daughter was not sacrificed, but kept her virginity for her entire life, a fact that was then considered a sacrifice, because every woman wanted and expected that she would produce children. Jephthah thus did not observe the marriage custom of the time, and his daughter may have remained chaste as long as he lived, given the fact that the Mosaic law was already in place and human sacrifice was prohibited.

Therefore, this sacrifice, whether done in the normal way or with the eternal preservation of virginity, was not God's responsibility, but Jephthah's own.

Jephthah made the mistake of vowing on behalf of the first person he saw after his victory, without thinking of the consequences. So this was his mistake, because he believed that God wants an exchange and even a sacrifice of a person to do him a favor, but also because he promised something completely blindly.

And indeed, this reference to Jephthah may have been used to edify the reader and show him two things: a) first, that God does not need a vow to grant you a request, and b) that you cannot vow anything without first filtering it in your mind properly. Jephthah fell into these two mistakes and vowed something that was forbidden by the then Mosaic law, but it is obvious that he was forgiven since he is also referred to among the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11:32).

God is not responsible for a man's mistake and impulse, but the Old Testament highlights the mistakes of even its heroes in order to educate and perfect us morally.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

Some Further Notes:

It should be further noted that in the story of Jephthah and his daughter, Jephthah’s daughter is concerned about her virginity and not her death (Judges 11:37-39). She requested permission to go up to the mountain to weep because of her virginity (v. 37-38). She cried because she was going to be a virgin the rest of her life. Judges 11:39 says that after her father “did to her according to the vow which he had made,” it then says “she had no relations with a man,” and it is even implied that yearly the daughters of Israel would go to her and lament for her for four days. Why is that important if she is dead? The repeated concern since verse 37 is that she will not marry and will be childless. Judges never says that his daughter was killed or sacrificed. To not marry and have a children was a great dishonor in Israel at that time. Marriage and children are a sign of God’s blessing (Genesis 1:28; Psalm 127:4-5; Proverbs 18:22).

Furthermore, Jephthah knew human sacrifice was forbidden (Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:29-31; 18:9-14). Since Judges 11:29 says the Holy Spirit was upon Jephthah why would he make a vow that was contrary to the law of God?  Jephthah is honored in Hebrews 11:32 along with Gideon, Samuel, David and others as a man of faith. If he committed the horrible sin of human sacrifice, how could he be so honored? Furthermore, the words "burnt offering" in Judges 11:31 is mistranslated in English, as the Hebrew root word "olah" only denotes something being offered up to God.

It is true that some early church fathers and historians believed that Jephthah’s daughter was literally sacrificed. Some of these writers include: Ephraim the Syrian, Augustine, Origen, Ambrose, and John Chrysostom. However, their main concern in the story was about the concept of vows, which the story is a warning about. Seeing that these men were educated men of their times, they may also have had the story of Iphigenia on their minds, which ends with her being sacrificed. Furthermore, Judges 11:31 misleadingly translates in the Septuagint to mean she was to be offered up as a "burnt offering".

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