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Did Jephthah Actually Kill His Daughter?
The Torah ^ | Prof. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet

Posted on 11/08/2019 9:53:19 AM PST by SeekAndFind

The Daughter of Jephthah. Alexandre Cabanel. Date 1879 

The Case against Jephthah

If Jephthah were to be arrested for the killing of his daughter, the prosecutor would have some evidence, though largely circumstantial. First there is his infamous and rash vow to God, that if God granted him victory over the Ammonites then the one who came out from the door of his house to greet him on his return would belong to the Lord and he would offer that person, or possibly animal, up as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30-31). Indeed Jephthah wins the victory, but the first to greet him with timbrels and dancing on his return is his daughter. 

The final comment of the biblical text on the subject is the laconic statement that Jephthah fulfilled his vow, though the text gives no details of her death. 

In his defense, Jephthah might point out that it was actually his daughter who insisted that he fulfill his vow to God (Judges 11:36) perhaps mitigating to some extent his responsibility. Her death might even be regarded as an act of martyrdom, not unlike Samson’s willingness to die for the sake of his God and his people. 

Moving Beyond Summaries: The Narrator’s Point of View

The problem with this, or any other brief summary of the story, is that it leaves out so much of the material that the biblical narrator has considered important to present. Such details need to be taken seriously.[1]

The Story in Context

The story begins at the end of the previous chapter of the book of Judges. (It is always important to remember that chapter numbers were first inserted into Bible in the thirteenth century, and do not reflect a Jewish division of the text.) In Judges 10:17, we learn that the Ammonites are besieging Gilead. In response, the leaders of Gilead decide that ‘the man who begins to wage war against the Ammonites will become the head (rosh) of all the inhabitants of Gilead’ (10:18).[2]

Jephthah is introduced in chapter 9 as a גבור חיל, “an able warrior,” in biblical terms a high accolade. Jephthah’s misfortune is to be the son of a prostitute. His father, Gilead, had a number of sons from his wife and when these boys grew up they drove Jephthah away so that he would not inherit from his father. Jephthah was forced to flee and settled in the “land of Tov.” There gathered around him other similarly displaced men, the biblical term being, רקים, literally ‘empty’, presumably landless or otherwise without a place in society.[3]

Jephthah becomes the Leader of Gilead

When the incursions of the Ammonites become more pressing, the elders of Gilead invite Jephthah, who has presumably developed a reputation as a warrior, to come back from the land of Tov and fight on their behalf. In the negotiation that follows, something of Jephthah’s anger at his previous treatment, but also his personal ambitions are revealed (Judges 11:6-10).

Elders: Come, please, and be our katzin, commander, and we will fight the Ammonites.
Jephthah: Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house, why come to me now that you are in trouble?
Elders: Therefore now we have turned to you that you may come with us and fight the Ammonites, and be our head (rosh) over all the inhabitants of Gilead.
Jephthah: If you are bringing me back to wage war against the Ammonites, and if the Lord deliver them before me, I will be your rosh.
Elders: The Lord will be the witness between us if we do not do as you say.[4]

Presumably, Jephthah knew the earlier decision of the leaders of Gilead to make the one who begins to fight against the Ammonites the “head (ראש)” of all the inhabitants of Gilead. Thus, when they offer Jephthah the role of קצין, a mere military figure, he refuses and the elders recognize that he is holding out for the higher rank of ראש and are quick to offer it. 

Presumably, the title ראש would represent his complete rehabilitation as a leading figure of the society, despite his origins. This would explain what was personally at stake for him in this transaction and hence his subsequent attempt to guarantee success through his vow to God. 

How Clear is Jephthah’s Vow?

The vow is unique in the biblical record because of its puzzling specificity. To vow to make a sacrifice as a thanksgiving offering was a biblical convention with the appropriate cultic apparatus available for fulfilling it. In this case, however, who knows who or what might come out to greet him? As the rabbis pointed out, if an animal, it might be unclean, and therefore, unacceptable as an offering.[5]

Nevertheless, some ambiguity inheres in the actual wording of the vow. 

יא:ל וַיִּדַּ֨ר יִפְתָּ֥ח נֶ֛דֶר לַי-הֹוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אִם נָת֥וֹן תִּתֵּ֛ן אֶת בְּנֵ֥י עַמּ֖וֹן בְּיָדִֽי:יא:לא וְהָיָ֣ה הַיּוֹצֵ֗א אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵצֵ֜א מִדַּלְתֵ֤י בֵיתִי֙ לִקְרָאתִ֔י בְּשׁוּבִ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם מִבְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֑וֹן וְהָיָה֙ לַֽי-הֹוָ֔ה וְהַעֲלִיתִ֖הוּ עוֹלָֽה:
11:30 And Jephthah made the following vow to Yhwh: “If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, 11:31 then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be Yhwh’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”

The vow consists of two parts: firstly, that the

The flexibility of the vav conjunctive linking the two statements would allow it to be read here as ‘and’, so that ‘belonging to the Lord’ meant the burnt offering mentioned immediately after. But the ‘vav’ could also be read as ‘or’, so that whatever or whoever came out would be dedicated to God, and, only should it prove appropriate, would be sacrificed. This latter suggestion runs the risk of sounding like apologetics, designed to give Jephthah a certain amount of leeway, but the ambiguity is present in the text.

Jephthah’s Daughter’s Request

Jephthah’s daughter is the one who goes out to meet him and he must fulfill his vow through her. She accepts her fate but makes an unexpected request of her father before the vow was to be fulfilled.

She said to her father: ‘Do this for me, release me for two months and I will go and ‘go down’ upon the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my women companions. (Judges 11:37)[6]

Jephthah agrees, and she and her women companions go and weep for her virginity on the mountains. 

Why Jephthah may not have Sacrificed his Daughter

Jephthah’s daughter returns two months later to her father and “he fulfilled his vow.” Does that mean he sacrificed her? Two elements in the story push me to think that he did not.

1) The Yearly Ritual of Lamenting Jephthah’s Daughter

The following verses note that “this was a statute in Israel” (11:39), and presumably the nature of this statute is to be found in the following sentence, that every year the daughters of Israel would go לְתַנּוֹת לְבַת יִפְתָּח הַגִּלְעָדִי four days a year (11:40). Here too there are ambiguities and all translations are speculative.[7] 

Most scholars assume that it refers to some kind of ritual lamentation for her fate, translating the preposition ‘lamed’ before ‘the daughter of Jephthah’ as “about.” However, it could mean “to,” i.e., that they are speaking to her and commiserating with her, implying that she is still alive. If this is true, then “fulfilling his vow” and “sacrificing his daughter” are not coterminous. 

Along the same lines, the duration of this ritual is expressed as ‘miyyamim yamimah’ (11:40), which, when associated with a ‘statute’, can mean ‘in perpetuity’ (Exodus 13:10). But it is also used of Hannah’s annual visit to Shiloh, which would limit it to a regular occurrence during the lifetime of a particular individual (1 Samuel 1:3; 2:19).

If this is the intent of the verse, that Israelite women made a pilgrimage to her every year, it explains why this apparently institutionalized practice of lamenting Jephthah’s daughter as an annual rite is never mentioned anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. This suggests that the ritual was only institutionalized as long as she was alive; in other words, it belongs to the narratives concerning Jephthah recorded here, but we have no knowledge as to whether it became part of Israel’s holiday or ritual cycles.

2) The Extreme Emphasis on Virginity?

Immediately following the statement about Jephthah fulfilling his vow, we are told that his daughter “did not know a man.” If she is dead, then this information is hardly relevant, so presumably it belongs to some broader issue in the narrative. 

This perception is strengthened by the extreme emphasis on virginity.

  1. She asks that she and her friends be allowed to cry for her virginity (not her death) for two months.
  2. The request is granted and she and her friends do in fact cry for her virginity (not her death) for two months.
  3. When the vow is fulfilled we are told she never knew a man (a strange thing to say after recording the sacrifice of a virgin).   

Why is the emphasis on her remaining a virgin and not on her death? I believe that this suggests that she wasn’t actually killed, and that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life.[8]

Jephthah’s Only Child

What is the meaning of this episode? Why the emphasis on her virginity, what happened to her at the end, and what is the lesson in it all?

The Tragedy of the Vow from Jephthah’s Perspective

Jephthah’s horrified reaction serves to confirm just how much he had at stake in the successful outcome of the battle. His first words, the emphatic repetition of the verb כרע, ‘to bow’, ‘bend the knee’, ‘you have surely brought me down’, do not seem particularly concerned about the possible fate of his daughter. Rather it is his own hopes that have been brought low, and perhaps this echos his desire to become the ראש, for that ‘head’ too is now literally bowed. 

Jephthah next casts the blame onto his daughter, describing her as his ‘troubler’ or ‘disturber’ (עכרי), just as King Ahab and Elijah will later mutually accuse one another (I Kings 18:17-18). But since the victory ensures that he will become ראש, what else might her appearance have ‘disturbed’, beyond the fatherly love that he might be expected to have for her?

One clue would seem to lie in the earlier remark when the text first introduced her. She was Jephthah’s only (child), ‘apart from her he had neither a son nor daughter’ (Judg 11:34).[9] To lose her would mean the end of any long-term family or dynastic intentions that Jephthah might have.[10] 

Born to a woman who was outside the family framework, he would now be unable to pass on his rehabilitated status to another generation. The effect of his vow, however it might be carried out, would rob him of his future.[11]    

The Tragedy of the Vow from Jephthah’s Daughter’s Perspective

The material about the journey to the mountains with her companions to weep for her virginity, and statute that it evoked, suggest the possibility that she truly saw herself as dedicated to God according to the opening words of the vow, and as a consequence accepted a different fate from that of other women, namely a life of seclusion. 

She sacrificed the most important priority affecting women in the Biblical world, the necessity of having children.[12] 

Perhaps this should be connected as an extreme variant on the tradition of the nazirite as reflected in Numbers 6:1-21, where a man or woman may take a vow of abstinence for a limited period. Once a year she would receive a visit in her isolation from her companions who would ‘call out’ to her.  


Jephthah is a tragic figure. His problematic origins make the restoring of his status in society crucial to him. Yet, his story ends with no chance of his handing his improved status on to his progeny, since his own vow forces his daughter into permanent celibacy as a woman consecrated to the Lord.

Her story is double-edged. She is clearly troubled by giving up her future as a mother. She cries about it for two months, as do her friends, and all the women of Israel do so for four days every year until she dies. Nevertheless, Jephthah’s daughter is also the symbol of what may have been a unique experiment in women’s spirituality, ‘belonging to the Lord’ as expressed in the opening words of Jephthah’s vow. Moreover, when her father seems ambivalent about whether to go through with the vow, it is she who takes responsibility for her faith and pushes him to do what he swore. As such, perhaps she is not only a woman to be pitied, but one to be admired as well.

TOPICS: Judaism; Moral Issues; Theology
KEYWORDS: jephthah; oldtestament

1 posted on 11/08/2019 9:53:19 AM PST by SeekAndFind
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To: SeekAndFind

Yes, he killed her; in cold blood no less.

2 posted on 11/08/2019 10:26:56 AM PST by Poison Pill
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To: SeekAndFind

From MY reading, all sacrifices were to be done at the tabernacle. If a sacrifice was not proper, the person offering could buy another better sacrifice for the offering, however, BOTH dedicated sacrifices would still belong to the Lord as they had been dedicated.

Since I doubt the priests would have accepted a human sacrifice, even though dedicated, a replacement was in order, but the daughter would still belong to the Tabernacle as she was dedicated to the Lord.

3 posted on 11/08/2019 10:36:03 AM PST by Ruy Dias de Bivar
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To: SeekAndFind

the first nun

4 posted on 11/08/2019 3:37:28 PM PST by tbw2
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To: Poison Pill; SeekAndFind
Yes, he killed her; in cold blood no less.

I disagree. Nowhere does God ever demand or even accept a HUMAN sacrifice of His people - it was detestable to Him. It was the pagans who did such things. We have this from Scripture:

    Deuteronomy 18:10 ESV
    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.

    Leviticus 18:21 ESV
    You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.

    2 Kings 21:6 ESV
    And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger.

    Deuteronomy 12:31 ESV
    You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

    2 Kings 3:27 ESV
    Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.

    Jeremiah 7:31 ESV
    And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

    Jeremiah 32:35 ESV
    They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.

    Psalm 106:37-41 ESV
    They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood. Thus they became unclean by their acts, and played the whore in their deeds. Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he abhorred his heritage; he gave them into the hand of the nations, so that those who hated them ruled over them.

    Ezekiel 20:31 ESV
    When you present your gifts and offer up your children in fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. And shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, declares the Lord God, I will not be inquired of by you.

The only time that the Lord even suggested the offering up of a man's daughter or son was when God tested Abraham with the sacrifice of his son Isaac and then He stopped him from actually carrying it out. It was a testing of his faith. I believe it was also a foreshadowing of when Jesus Christ, the Son of God would shed His blood and die upon a cross for the sins of the world.

In all the sacrifices that the Lord commanded of His people Israel for sin offerings, it was to always be an unblemished animal and the blood was to make atonement for sin. In Leviticus He tells us that only by the shedding of blood is there atonement for sin. Until Christ came, the blood offerings of the priests of the temple were as covering for sins (expiation). When Christ died, His blood made propitiation (taken away) for all sin and His once-for-all sacrifice would never need to be repeated. When we accept that Christ died for our sins, we are cleansed and made righteous in Him. Everything God does is for a purpose.

5 posted on 11/08/2019 9:40:49 PM PST by boatbums (Republicans don't need a War Room because they have a WARRIOR!)
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To: SeekAndFind

Same language as used when Abraham offered Isaac as a burnt sacrifice.

6 posted on 11/09/2019 6:19:20 AM PST by jjotto (Next week, BOOM!, for sure!)
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To: boatbums
Nowhere does God ever demand or even accept a HUMAN sacrifice

First off, yes He does. He demands Abraham sacrifice his son. The command word He uses in the Binding of Isaac story is "olah" which means: burnt offering. That He later allows the ram to be substituted does not change the fact that He DID command a human sacrifice. You can't just pretend you don't see that.

Secondly, God isn't making any demand in the Jephthah story. Jephthah is going rogue. The word Jephthah vows is the same as God's command to Abraham: "olah".

Finally, there is no substitution in the Jephthah story.The text says that he did as he vowed. That's it. He killed her and burned he up.

You have to deal with the text as it exists. You can't add, subtract or ignore elements to fit your desires. When people try to whitewash this story, they wind up missing the whole point. Jephthah wasn't trying to please God. Jephthah was trying to be God.

7 posted on 11/09/2019 12:24:58 PM PST by Poison Pill
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To: Poison Pill; SeekAndFind
First off, yes He does. He demands Abraham sacrifice his son. The command word He uses in the Binding of Isaac story is "olah" which means: burnt offering. That He later allows the ram to be substituted does not change the fact that He DID command a human sacrifice. You can't just pretend you don't see that.

Did you not read what I said? How can I pretend I didn't see it when I commented on that very passage? Are you pretending that God contradicts Himself by condemning the sacrificial burning of human beings to Him and then expecting someone to do that very thing? Like I said - and Scripture confirms - this was a TEST of Abraham's faith. Can you find anywhere else in the Bible where God demands the sacrifice of a human being on a burnt altar?

As to your other points, I agree that Jephthah acted foolishly and impulsively and he lived to regret it which reinforces the teachings about the making of vows to the Lord such as:

    When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it, because He takes no pleasure in fools. Fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, and do not tell the messenger that your vow was a mistake. (Ecclesiastes 5:4-6)

And again I disagree with your conclusion that Jephthah actually killed his own daughter, his ONLY child, as a burnt sacrifice to God. Had he really done that, we would read about God's condemnation of him as well as His rejection of the offering - and we don't. In fact, he was appointed as a judge over Israel for six years and we are told that "the Spirit of the LORD came upon" him. I reason that if Jephthah had sinned against the Lord by murdering his daughter - a clear proscription of God, he would have been condemned by the Lord and he would have lost his place as judge of the people of Israel - what kind of example would he have been?

I respect your right to interpret this event in the way you choose. I disagree with you because I believe it goes against God's character to have excused and/or accepted something He condemned others for doing. It's not "whitewashing" the story to understand that the ancient Hebrew language used words that could have alternate meanings depending upon the context as described in the OP of the thread article.

8 posted on 11/09/2019 7:11:32 PM PST by boatbums (Republicans don't need a War Room because they have a WARRIOR!)
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To: Poison Pill
No, Jephthah did not kill his daughter.

  • And what shall I more say? for the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, and of Barak, and of Samson, and of Jephthae; of David also, and Samuel, and of the prophets:
  • Who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions,

Hebrews, Catholic chapter eleven, Protestant verses thirty two to thirty three,
as authorized, but not authored, by King James

9 posted on 11/10/2019 6:55:50 PM PST by af_vet_1981 (The bus came by and I got on, That's when it all began)
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To: af_vet_1981

Glad we found agreement on this! :o)

10 posted on 11/10/2019 7:26:49 PM PST by boatbums (Republicans don't need a War Room because they have a WARRIOR!)
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To: af_vet_1981
No, Jephthah did not kill his daughter.

You "bible believing" Christians are a curious bunch. You can't be true to the text if you are willing to make up something that contradicts it's clear language.

11 posted on 11/10/2019 9:30:56 PM PST by Poison Pill
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To: Poison Pill
You "bible believing" Christians are a curious bunch. You can't be true to the text if you are willing to make up something that contradicts it's clear language.

  • Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.
  • And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,
  • Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

Judges, Catholic chapter eleven, Protestant verses twenty nine to thirty one,
as authorized, but not authored, by King James

12 posted on 11/11/2019 3:41:30 AM PST by af_vet_1981 (The bus came by and I got on, That's when it all began)
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To: Poison Pill
Firstly it is important to emphasize that Judaism has always viewed human sacrifices as a reprehensible abomination. Regarding the Canaanites, Moses says: “For every abomination to G‑d which He hates, they did to their gods; for also their sons and their daughters they would sacrifice in fire to their gods.”3

Based on this idea, many of the biblical commentators4 maintain that Jephthah did not offer his daughter as a sacrifice. In fact, his original vow, “whatever comes forth . . . shall be to G‑d, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering,” had a dual intention: if it will be a person, then it “shall be [consecrated] to G‑d”; and if it should be an animal, then “I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (The Hebrew prefix ו which precedes the words “I will offer it” can be translated as “and” or “or.”)

According to this interpretation, Jephthah’s daughter was sent to the mountains to live in seclusion. She never married and dedicated her life to the service of G‑d.

4. Ralbag, Radak and Ibn Ezra (cited in Nachmanides on Leviticus 27:29).

13 posted on 11/11/2019 3:43:02 AM PST by af_vet_1981 (The bus came by and I got on, That's when it all began)
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