Jephthah’s (Not So) Tragic Vow – Pt.2 (Judges 11:29-12:7)

Jephthah’s (Not So) Tragic Vow – Pt.2 (Judges 11:29-12:7)

1. Jephthath’s  Character  (10:17-11:28)

Allow me to briefly remind you what we covered last week. We noted the way Jephthah was despised and rejected by his half-brothers as they drove him out of Gilead, ensuring he would not receive any portion of their father’s inheritance. Yet, when no one was willing to lead their military against the Ammonites, they went back to Jephthah offering to make him their head. Their self-serving ambitions were evident, but we can often relate struggling with our own pride. We asked the first question in your handout:

How often are we guilty of putting our own interests first? What can we learn from Philippians 2:3-7?

We learned that Jephthah had a questionable background as the son of a prostitute and gathering around himself “worthless men” (both similar to Abimelech). Yet, we also recognize that a person does not have to be defined by the decisions they made in their youth. This led to the second question in your handout:

Does anyone presently possess the level of maturity they had when they were younger?

We also saw Jepthah’s thorough knowledge of Scripture supported by his acknowledgement of the Lord multiple times throughout the opening of this morning’s passage..

We mentioned the main idea from Jephthah’s narrative, but didn’t get a chance to consider the subject in detail until this morning.

One indication of a believer’s maturity is their willingness to uphold their lawful vows.

› Before we read our passage of Scripture this afternoon, let’s ask the Lord for his help in understanding it.

The majority of the commentators (including the best ones!) believe that Jephthah literally sacrificed his only daughter, just like the nations who offering their children to Molech. Athiests like Voltaire and the contemporary Richard Dawkins point to this passage as an example of God condoning wickedness. How could we worship a God who commends someone who could do something like this?

Judges 11:29–12:7 ESV

› But did Jephthah kill his daughter? To answer that question, we need to consider…

2. Jephthah’s  Commitment  (11:29-40) 

Now that we have a positive understanding of Jephthah we can come to this passage without any preconceived notion of his guilt. Since the 12th Century, the leading Jewish scholars interpreted this sacrifice in a figurative way. Some of the Reformers embraced this view (William Perkins, poet John Milton, Jonathan Edwards). 

If you think he’s a bad dude already, in all likelihood you’re going to read this narrative in the worst possible way. But, at least acknowledge how this section begins:

Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites.

Judges 11:29 ESV

Once again, we see the influence of the Spirit of the Lord. I don’t believe the Holy Spirit performed identical functions under the Old Covenant as he does under the New. Ezekiel suggests he takes on a more active role in the hearts of the elect (Ezek. 36:26-27). However, whenever we see the Spirit of the Lord indwelling or descending upon an individual, it is never interpreted as a negative event. In fact, it seems to imply that the Lord is accomplishing his will through this individual. You certainly get that impression when you highlight all of the references to the Lord in this passage. The Lord is not absent or working against Jephthah in any way.

So what do we see Jephthah doing shortly after the Spirit is upon him?

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”

Judges 11:30–31 ESV

Although the Lord does grant him victory over Ammon, it is his vow that becomes the focus of the narrative. This leads Joel Beeke to ask an important question:

“Would the Spirit inspire him to make a vow so clearly contradictory to the Spirit’s own revealed Scripture?”

We need to inspect this vow closely. What would Jephthah expect to run out of his doors to meet him? Whatever or whoever “he/she/it” was, he expected to offer up for a burnt offering. The typical sacrificial animal may have roamed inside the courtyard of a house. But the idea of one coming out to “meet” him upon his return from battle seems odd, to say the least. (This isn’t Narnia or Middle Earth…) The word for “meet” is always used with reference to humans. However, Jephthah’s reaction to seeing his daughter would indicate that he was not expecting to be greeted by her. 

What leads many to interpret this vow as tragic? The several parallels with Abimelech, such as, the “worthless” friends he hung out with and the fact that he agreed to become head of Gilead. They highlight how the text makes no mention of the Lord raising him up. But that was true of all of the minor judges, as well as Barak, Gideon, and Samson. I realize that Gideon and Samson have a more elaborate calling, but nonetheless, these arguments about missing elements in the cycle are problematic. All but the first judge is missing one or more of the elements in the pattern.

Probably the greatest challenges have to do with the language the author uses. Jephthah tears his clothes which does signify deep anguish, but not necessarily over death. Job mourned in this way when all of his children died (Job 1:20), but we see the whole nation repenting in this way in Esther (Esther 4:1). We also see Paul and Barnabas tearing their clothes when the people of Lystra began to worship them (Acts 14:14). So it is a sign of anguish and distress, but not necessarily mourning.

However, doesn’t the yearly custom in Israel clarify any ambiguity?

that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

Judges 11:40 ESV

Wouldn’t that seem to settle what happened? Lamenting is a precise word in English. There’s only one problem. The word in Hebrew (תנה) is actually so rare in the Old Testament that it only occurs three other times, none of which does the translation “lament” make sense. It’s found in the song of Deborah and Barak:

To the sound of musicians at the watering places, there they repeat the righteous triumphs of the Lord, the righteous triumphs of his villagers in Israel. “Then down to the gates marched the people of the Lord.

Judges 5:11 ESV

There it was translated as “repeat/recount”. The other two occurences are found in Hosea likening Israel to those who “hire” prostitutes. So the semantic domain of this word is quite large and hard to pin down. The best translation (per HALOT, cf NASB, NIV, NET) is “commemorate” not “lament”. It is frequently found in extra-biblical literature translated as “console”.

The greatest challenge has to do with עֹלָה, translated as “burnt offering”. This word almost always refers to nonhuman sacrifice except for two instances: 1) Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 22), 2) The king of Edom (2 Kgs 3:27). BUT of the 286 occurrences, it’s always taken in a literal sense, never figurative. 

We should consider the broader sacrificial language which speaks of dedication to the Lord. The Apocryphal book of Sirach 35:6 refers to the “whole burnt offerings” of the righteous who are refined by fire. The Levitical law provided the valuation of humans in order to redeem a child by paying a ransom (Lev. 27:1-7). 

I see something similar to the “wave offering” where every occurence is taken in a literal sense except one. Aaron is called to offer the Levites as a “wave offering”:

and Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the Lord. Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, and you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the Lord to make atonement for the Levites. And you shall set the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and shall offer them as a wave offering to the Lord. 

“Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the people of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine. And after that the Levites shall go in to serve at the tent of meeting, when you have cleansed them and offered them as a wave offering.

Numbers 8:11–15 ESV

You could imagine his shock if we are supposed to interpret it literally. The entire tribe of the Levites would’ve literally gone up in a wave of smoke! Actually though, it’s clear that we are to consider this “offering” in a figurative sense.

The common practice of the nations was to sacrifice infants (never older children). Scripture literally refers to this as “pass through the fire” (although often translated as simply “burned”, cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). So if Jephthah is in fact doing the same thing that the nations are doing, the narrator is not using the same language. The nations also offering their children during a time of need, not as a vow or after the fact.

Her response to mourn her virginity with her friends for two months seems odd, to say the least, if she were about to die. Why wouldn’t she simply mourn her death?

What leads some to interpret the vow as less tragic?

• No tendency to rashness.

• Knowledge of Scripture. Which, by the way, you would think he was familiar that the annulment of vows was allowed (Lev. 5:4-7; or, as mentioned earlier, the provision for the redemption of a vowed individual in Lev. 27:1-7).

• Only one daughter (not multiplying wives).

• The Spirit of the Lord came upon him (29).

• What takes place afterwards (36-40).

No mention of putting her to death! Are we supposed to think that her epitaph read: “And she was a virgin”? What is emphasized in the text is not her death, but her virginity. The KJV interprets this rightly as the explanation of her vow (placing a colon rather than a period before the reference to her virginity). It could be translated “who did with her according to his vow that he had made, [that is] she had never known a man.” This was a sad reality considering she was Jephthah’s only child, and thus he would have no one to carry on his lineage.

This makes much more sense if she has been dedicated to the Lord to serve in the temple. She is wholly devoted to temple service.

He made the basin of bronze and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the ministering women who ministered in the entrance of the tent of meeting.

Exodus 38:8 ESV

Now Eli was very old, and he kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

1 Samuel 2:22 ESV

So we know women served at the temple entrance. 

Jephthah’s dedication of his daughter may have been much like Hannah’s dedication of her son Samuel.

And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”

1 Samuel 1:11 ESV

I keep coming back to the verse in Hebrews which names Jephthah as an exemplary man of faith.

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—

Hebrews 11:32 ESV

We simply cannot take that lightly. Scripture is never negative about Jephthah’s character or commitment. We have plenty of passages that condemn human sacrifices. We know God abhorred the practice. Yet, here God is silent. We might even say, he is approving (at least in terms of Jephthah’s faith). 

I find it hard to believe that God would so clearly approve his faith and leave his murderous idolatry uncondemned. Some argue that David is a similar example of one who is repeatedly commended as being a man after God’s own heart, yet he was an adulterous murderer who was, in the end forgiven. But I think several differences need to be addressed:

1. David’s actions were clearly condemned through the prophet Nathan. Jephthah’s actions are nowhere condemned in Scripture.

2. David plainly repents, acknowledging his sin against God (Ps. 51). Jephthah never repents, but believes he must uphold his vow to the Lord.

What can we learn from the faith of both Jephthah and his daughter?

We too are urged to be a living sacrifice:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Romans 12:1–2 ESV

Have you upheld the vows you made when you joined this church? I encourage you take some time this week to read ch.22 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, with the Scripture proofs, alongside the five vows of church membership in the PCA.

› Similar to Gideon and Abimelech, we see another judge narrative concluding with civil war.

3. Jephthah’s  Conflict  (12:1-7) 

Once again, the hotheaded Ephraimites are stirring up conflict. Gideon diffused their anger with a kind word. Jephthah and the Gileadites fought and killed 42,000 Ephraimites.

What are we to make of this response? If we have interpreted Jephthah to be irrational in his vow, then we will be quick to pile it on at this point and declare him to also be prone to conflict and violence. Note: If this were some kind of judgment from God, it is odd that the one condemned is victorious.

On the other hand, if we have been more gracious to him and interpreted his vow as being “not so tragic”, then we are left wondering how to understand the conclusion to his account. The author is not explicitly or implicitly negative about Jephthah’s actions, even here. But that doesn’t mean he is positive either. It just means we should not read more into the account than is actually provided. 

However, much like Gideon’s unfortunate end, Jepthah’s narrative lacks any reference to his dependence upon the Spirit and civil warfare. It seems to me that the Spirit gave them victory over the Ammonites, but their victory over Ephraim was counterproductive. 

Once again, Ephraim wasn’t innocent. They were short-tempered and easily offended. They began their accusations with a threat to “burn your house over you with fire” (v.1). Jephthah had not done anything to offend them. In fact, it was just the opposite (vv.2-3). They provoked the Gileadites calling them fugitives, which suggests they don’t belong (v.4). At the very least, there is a bit of ambiguity about how Jephthah was supposed to respond.

But Ephraim was still a part of God’s covenant people. The Lord had not cut them off. There was never any instruction for the judges to attack fellow Israelites, so I find it hard to see it any other way but as another negative ending, to an otherwise faithful and exemplary judge.

Attacks from within the covenant community are often the most damaging to her witness. Ephraim, like so many complainers in the church, were more interested in their own agenda than the will of the Lord.

A brother offended is more unyielding than a strong city, and quarreling is like the bars of a castle.

Proverbs 18:19 ESV

It’s easier for a military to defeat a city than to reconcile an offended brother. Is that not a picture of this passage?

What can you do this week to promote unity and peace within the covenant community?

› In summary…


1. Jephthah’s Character helps us to the see the transformation that follows faith for every believer.

2. Jephthah’s Commitment should inspire us in making and keeping our own vows.

3. Jephthah’s Conflict reminds us just how hard it can be to maintain peace and unity within the church. 

However, not even Jephthah’s vow can compare with the covenant vow our Triune God made in the Covenant of Redemption. The Father committed to sending his only Son. The Son committed to taking upon himself this body of flesh, living a life that we could not live, and dying a death that we could not die, and rising again in victory over sin and death three days later. 

It is only because of the willingness of our Lord to uphold his vow that any of us are able to honor our vows before him.