Saturday, February 25, 2012

Jephthah And His Daughter (Judges 11)

The following quote is taken from

"Jephthah Burns His Daughter - "At that time the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he went throughout the land of Gilead and Manasseh, including Mizpah in Gilead, and led an army against the Ammonites.  And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD. He said, "If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the LORD the first thing coming out of my house to greet me when I return in triumph.  I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.

"So Jephthah led his army against the Ammonites, and the LORD gave him victory.  He thoroughly defeated the Ammonites from Aroer to an area near Minnith – twenty towns – and as far away as Abel-keramim. Thus Israel subdued the Ammonites.  When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter – his only child – ran out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy.  When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish.  "My daughter!" he cried out.  "My heart is breaking!  What a tragedy that you came out to greet me. For I have made a vow to the LORD and cannot take it back."  And she said, "Father, you have made a promise to the LORD.  You must do to me what you have promised, for the LORD has given you a great victory over your enemies, the Ammonites.  But first let me go up and roam in the hills and weep with my friends for two months, because I will die a virgin."  "You may go," Jephthah said. And he let her go away for two months.  She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never have children.  When she returned home, her father kept his vow, and she died a virgin.  So it has become a custom in Israel for young Israelite women to go away for four days each year to lament the fate of Jephthah's daughter."   (Judges 11:29-40 NLT)

            Let us examine the story of Jephthah and his daughter.  Jephthah was a judge of Israel, during the time period of the Judges (circa 1380-1050 BCE), which took place in between when Israel settled in the land God had promised them (Canaan) and the time when kings began to rule them.  Jephthah was somewhat of an outcast; his father was named Gilead, and his mother was a prostitute (Judges 11:1).  When he grew up, his half-brothers by his father's wife drove him into exile, so that he would not be able to share the inheritance with them (Judges 11:2-3).  Jephthah went into exile and apparently traveled with a band of men, most likely outcasts like himself.  At some point he had a daughter, although the text does not mention if he ever got married, or if the child's mother was around.
            Eventually, the Gileadites turned to him for help in fighting against the Ammonites, who had been oppressing the Israelites for several years (Judges 10:7-9).  They made him their leader and commander, and he went to battle for them against the Ammonites.  As the text shows above, he then made a foolish vow; stating that if given victory, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of the door of his house as a burnt offering (it is entirely possible that he had livestock where he lived, and so he most likely assumed that the first thing that would come out would be an animal fit for sacrifice).
            There are two major flaws in Jephthah's hasty vow.  First of all, God had already taken pity on the Israelites, and had determined to have mercy on them and deliver them from the Ammonites (Judges 10:16).  God did not give Jephthah victory in response to his vow, but in spite of it.  Secondly, Jephthah, for whatever reason, never considered the possibility that his daughter would be the one to come out of the door to meet him.  Human sacrifice was forbidden in the Law: "Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire" (Deuteronomy 18:10).  Jephthah should have kept this in mind before making his vow.
            It is interesting to note that Jephthah's daughter mourned with her friends over the fact that she would never marry or have children; the text does not specifically say that she was mourning that she was about to die.  Likewise, the original Hebrew text is ambiguous about what actually happened; stating only that "her father kept his vow" and "she died a virgin".  It does not specifically say that he killed her and made a burnt offering of her.  This has led some scholars to speculate that he did not actually kill her, but instead he gave her to the Tabernacle as a lifelong servant, which meant that she would never marry.
            Whether or not Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering, the moral of the story is not to make foolish vows, especially vows that break God's law.  This story does not promote human sacrifice; likewise, the text never states that God approved of what took place.