Don’t rescue Jephthah

Judges 11 is one of the darkest chapters in the Bible. God’s judge, Jephthah, offers up his only child as a human sacrifice, under the incredibly sinful assumption that Yahweh is worshiped in the same way the pagan gods are. The story stands as evidence that without faith, God’s people are as depraved as the world, and that Israel is in desperate need of a savior better than a Judge.

(10-11) wrong becomes right [2]

In the last few weeks I’ve read two articles (here [3] and here [4]) that have argued against that understanding of Judges 11, essentially saying, “no, no…you have it all wrong…God wouldn’t allow one of his Judges to do something that horrible… Jephthah didn’t sacrifice her, he asked her to live a life of chastity in service to Yahweh.”

I think this attempt to rescue Jephthah’s reputation comes up short though, and here is why:


The Vow:

Jephthah’s story is in the deep, dark days of the judges. His mother was a prostitute (Judges 10:1 [5] [6]), and he had innumerable step-brothers who hated him. They forced him from his home, where he surrounded himself with “worthless fellows” for companions (11:3).

But even in his state of ill-repute, when the tide of war with the Ammonites turned against his step-brothers, they called for him and agreed to make Jephthah their leader. Jephthah agreed, and then led the Gileadites into battle against their foe, and Yahweh’s Spirit came upon him, so that he would deliver Israel.

So far—other than the companions who were worthless fellows—so good. But trouble comes at the start of the battle when Jephthah makes this vow to Yahweh:

If you really do hand the Ammonites over to me,  then whoever is the first to come through the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from fighting the Ammonites– he will belong to Yahweh and I will offer him as a burnt sacrifice (Judges 11:30-31 [7] [8]).

The problem with this is two-fold. First, God is not impressed by vows. But second, when the battle was won, his daughter emerged from their home to greet him. Jephthah told his daughter about the vow, she agreed that he should keep it, and simply asked for two months to mourn the fact that Jephthah’s line would end with him, as she was his only child. At the end of two months, Jephthah offered her as a burnt offering to Yahweh.

The debate:

This story bothers people for obvious reasons. Child-sacrifice is bad, and when it is done by those who have God’s Spirit, well…that makes it even worse.

This is perhaps why some commentators want to rescue Jephthah from his vow. They attempt to say that “offer it up as a burnt offering” means something along the line of just letting her serve Yahweh for the rest of her life. I’m actually not entirely sure what they think that means in the days of the Judges—maybe something like what Hannah would do with Samuel a few generations later: just drop the sacrifice off at the temple and let the person live out the rest of his/her days serving Yahweh vocationally.

Why this matters

While this debate may not seem that important, it is critical for understanding the book of Judges. In the traditional view (that “burnt offering” means Jephthah sacrificed his daughter), the book of Judges is a dark book. There are no heroes, only compromised leaders of an apostate people. Barack would not fight without a woman leading. Gidean was a coward, who usurped the priesthood and wore an Ephod, claiming to be the king of Israel. Jephthah thought God would be honored by human sacrifice. Samson apparently only knew three or four of God’s commands, but that’s good because he also made it his goal to violate all that he knew.

These were the days when Israel became worse than Sodom. They tried to anahiliate two of the twelve tribes, and were practically successful with one of them. Benjamin had accepted homosexuality that was every bit as evil as anything Lot oversaw. The point of the book of Judges is to simply show that nobody in Israel was righteous, and everyone did whatever they wanted because they rejected God as their king—the Judges themselves included.

But attempting to rescue Jephthah from his foolish vow changes all this. It’s not only that it takes Jephthah and makes him into a virtuous leader (just like Hannah!), but it also takes the whole concept of negotiating with God, and makes it into a something righteous. It legitimizes telling God, “If you give me this, then I will give you that,” as if God needed anything to begin with. Suddenly Judges 11 becomes an example to follow, rather than the pit of depravity.

The arguments:

Attempts to rescue Jephthah focus on these points: 1). The OT forbids child sacrifice, 2). The NT says Jephthah was a man of faith, 3). Jephthah had God’s Spirit so there is no way he would have done something that sinful, 4). Jephthah’s daughter mourned her virginity, not her death.

I think all four of these are insufficient to cast doubt on the clear meaning of the text.

1). The OT forbids child sacrifice. True, but the whole point of the book of Judges is that Israel had become worse than Sodom. The OT forbids all kinds of things that all kinds of Judges do. Honey out of a dead lion, murdering concubines, marrying Philistines, slaughtering a tribe or two, kidnapping wives, and worshiping Baal—these are all things the OT prohibits, and all things that happen in every chapter of Judges. Obviously what happened in Judges 11 was displeasing to God—that’s the whole point!

2). But doesn’t the NT say Jephthah was a man of faith? Yes, along with Samson and Gideon, two other Judges whose sins are somewhat famous. Oh, and Noah was a drunk, Moses was a murderer, and Rahab was a prostitute, yet they all eek into Hebrews 11 too. The point is that all of those were terrible sinners, but they still trusted Yahweh over the idols that their compatriots worshiped. [Its’ worth a quick side-note here to point out the irony that people who otherwise are so “gospel-centered” suddenly miss the point of the gospel in Hebrews 11—of all places!—by trying to rehab the reputations of sinners who were saved by grace; as if the pinnacle of the gospel would be better illustrated if those who believed it sinned less. But I digress].

3). Jephthah had the Spirit of God on him. Of all the arguments here, this is the one that most betrays a person’s position on the continuity/discontinuity spectrum. Is being used by the Sprit in the OT the same as being sealed in the NT? If you say yes, then you are likely to want to separate Jephthah’s indwelling from his human sacrificing. But the truth is Yahweh sent his Spirit to raise up Judges to deliver Israel from her enemies. His Spirit did not sanctify them, but simply used them to accomplish his purpose and drive Israel to repentance. His Spirit also came upon Samson (whilst tied up with a prostitute), to say nothing of Saul, or even Baalam.

4). Would Jephthah’s daughter have mourned her virginity if she was going to die? I remember a classmate of mine in seminary (who himself was notoriously single) asking this question to the professor, as if it was the insurmountable question for the traditional understanding of the passage. The idea being, if she was about to die, would she really spend a few months mourning the fact she had never married? The professor responded to the classmate: “You obviously don’t understand women.”

I understand that Judges 11 is uncomfortable. But that is the point. Every chapter of Judges is worse than the one before it, and even after Jephthah, things get worse—much worse—in Israel. Rather than trying to rescue Jephthah, we should let the text stand, let God rescue Jephthah through his faith, and through the coming of the better judge.