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Sunday, January 24, 2021

What can the tragedy of Jephthah teach us about living rightly before God?

Interesting question asked in a discussion group:

 Did Jephthah kill his own daughter? (Judges 11:39-31)

The Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible cites that if the object were a person, they could be dedicated to the Lord’s service instead, while it also observes that the grief level implied only seems justified if it was her literal death that the vow required.[1] The NET Bible Commentary says the verb tense makes it more likely the subject, even a human, would be burnt as the offering.[2] The NET Bible Commentary also notes that her condition at the time of her death was that of a virgin; whether that death was as a burnt offering or later after her years of service came to an end in older age.[3]

Exodus (22:28-29; 34:19-20) indicates that the first born was to be a gift to God, but that he was to be redeemed. So the precedence is set for the redemptive option. However, we’ve already seen that Israel was not living out a lifestyle submitted to Torah so anything is possible if they had abandoned YHWH and “each one did what was right in his own yes” (Judges 17:6).

I think the wording “he did to her as he had vowed” makes it straight forward.

NET Bible: 39 After two months she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. She died a virgin. Her tragic death gave rise to a custom in Israel. (Jdg 11:39)

The Lexham English Bible: 39 At the end of the two months she returned to her father, and he did to her according to his vow; and ⌊she did not sleep with a man⌋. And it became an annual custom in Israel. (Jdg 11:39)

I would have to conclude that he did, in fact, murder his daughter for YHWH. Knowing his ancestor Abraham’s story, he may have reasoned that she was no greater than Isaac who was almost offered in such a manor. The sacrifice was not God’s will, but the men did as they see fit without consulting God, which is what the whole book is about.

It’s a sad story that reflects (a) what happens when we don’t consult God before we start moving and (b) when we don’t consult God after we’ve made a mistake. He had at least two or three opportunities to turn to God and be redeemed from his words and chose neither. Even the months she was away could have been an opportunity for him to turn to YHWH for answers, or at least the instructions of Moses.


Follow Up: Are there other Burnt Offerings? Does the fact he killed his daughter mean he was more "sold out" for God?

According to the commentaries, the Burnt Offering specifically related to a whole burnt offering in which the entire thing (animal/person) offered is burnt completely. The smoke that rises is thought to send the offering to God.[4] Yes, I think she was killed by her father “in the name of God”.
Sold Out for God

Yes, in one sense, Jephthah could be considered “more sold out” given that he burnt his daughter on an alter like Darth Vader’s funeral pyre. He was dedicated to YHWH so much he was willing to do so even though it clearly caused him exceedingly great grief.

As I understand the Ancient Near East (ANE) from previous readings and from the references in scripture, other contemporary societies sacrificed children to the gods. Therefore, it was not atypical for a member of the culture. It was grief-inducing, and it was a sign of his dedication to YHWH; however, it was not atypical for the culture. 

“In early times whole burnt-offerings of children were sometimes… made to other gods.”[5] 

The phrase “each one did what was right in his own eyes” is offered at the end by the compiler of Judges as a summary to explain what the reader had just experienced (including this story)(Judges 17:6, 21:25). 

Also, the Mosaic Torah was available (though obviously not widely used as standard), so he “should” have known better.

Therefore, I conclude that he had every reason to know better, YHWH was pleased with his dedication but not his actions or decision, and the example remains a sad case of what it looks like when people try to serve God from whatever they think is right without consulting his Word or his Spirit in the process.

Which poses another interesting lesson for those of us in Bible School. Many pastor’s kids grow up to become bitter and angry at God. The first ministry of any of YHWH’s children is to his own family (1 Timothy 3:1-7). A man who goes off half-cocked for God, without being wise and Spirit-Led, will end up burning down his own household and children in the process.




[1] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (1871) (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), Judges 11. “shall surely be the Lord’s; and [or] I will offer it up for a burnt offering—The adoption of the latter particle, which many interpreters suggest, introduces the important alternative, that if it were a person, the dedication would be made to the service of the sanctuary; if a proper animal or thing, it would be offered on the altar.[1]” // 34. Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances—The return of the victors was hailed, as usual, by the joyous acclaim of a female band (1 Sa 18:6), the leader of whom was Jephthah’s daughter. The vow was full in his mind, and it is evident that it had not been communicated to anyone, otherwise precautions would doubtless have been taken to place another object at his door. The shriek, and other accompaniments of irrepressible grief, seem to indicate that her life was to be forfeited as a sacrifice; the nature of the sacrifice (which was abhorrent to the character of God) and distance from the tabernacle does not suffice to overturn this view, which the language and whole strain of the narrative plainly support; and although the lapse of two months might be supposed to have afforded time for reflection, and a better sense of his duty, there is but too much reason to conclude that he was impelled to the fulfilment by the dictates of a pious but unenlightened conscience. //

[2] NET Bible®New English Translation (NET), Online Notes Edition (HarperCollins Christian Publishing; Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C.), Judges 11:31, Note 54, accessed January 21, 2021, “tn Some translate “or,” suggesting that Jephthah makes a distinction between humans and animals. According to this view, if a human comes through the door, then Jephthah will commit him/her to the Lord’s service, but if an animal comes through the doors, he will offer it up as a sacrifice. However, it is far more likely that the Hebrew construction (vav [ו] + perfect) specifies how the subject will become the Lord’s, that is, by being offered up as a sacrifice. For similar constructions, where the apodosis of a conditional sentence has at least two perfects (each with vav) in sequence, see Gen 34:15-16; Exod 18:16.” // tn Heb “the one coming out, who comes out from.” The text uses a masculine singular participle with prefixed article, followed by a relative pronoun and third masculine singular verb. The substantival masculine singular participle הַיּוֹצֵא (hayyotseʾ, “the one coming out”) is used elsewhere of inanimate objects (such as a desert [Num 21:13] or a word [Num 32:24]) or persons (Jer 5:6; 21:9; 38:2). In each case context must determine the referent. Jephthah may have envisioned an animal meeting him, since the construction of Iron Age houses would allow for an animal coming through the doors of a house (see R. G. Boling, Judges [AB], 208). But the fact that he actually does offer up his daughter indicates the language of the vow is fluid enough to encompass human beings, including women. He probably intended such an offering from the very beginning, but he obviously did not expect his daughter to meet him first.

[3] NET Bible®, Judges 11:39, Note 70. tn Heb “She had never known a man.” Some understand this to mean that her father committed her to a life of celibacy, but the disjunctive clause (note the vav + subject + verb pattern) more likely describes her condition at the time the vow was fulfilled. (See G. F. Moore, Judges [ICC], 302-3; C. F. Burney, Judges, 324.) She died a virgin and never experienced the joys of marriage and motherhood.

[4] M. G., Easton’s Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893), URNT OFFERING—Hebrew olah. “BURNT OFFERING—Hebrew olah; i.e., “ascending,” the whole being consumed by fire, and regarded as ascending to God while being consumed. Part of every offering was burnt in the sacred fire, but this was wholly burnt, a “whole burnt offering.” It was the most frequent form of sacrifice, and apparently the only one mentioned in the book of Genesis. Such were the sacrifices offered by Abel (Gen. 4:3, 4, here called minhah; i.e., “a gift”), Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen. 22:2, 7, 8, 13), and by the Hebrews in Egypt (Ex. 10:25).

The law of Moses afterwards prescribed the occasions and the manner in which burnt sacrifices were to be offered. There were “the continual burnt offering” (Ex. 29:38–42; Lev. 6:9–13), “the burnt offering of every sabbath,” which was double the daily one (Num. 28:9, 10), “the burnt offering of every month” (28:11–15), the offerings at the Passover (19–23), at Pentecost (Lev. 23:16), the feast of Trumpets (23:23–25), and on the day of Atonement (Lev. 16). On other occasions special sacrifices were offered, as at the consecration of Aaron (Ex. 29) and the dedication of the temple (1 Kings 8:5, 62–64). Free-will burnt offerings were also permitted (Lev. 1:13), and were offered at the accession of Solomon to the throne (1 Chr. 29:21), and at the reformation brought about by Hezekiah (2 Chr. 29:31–35). These offerings signified the complete dedication of the offerers unto God. This is referred to in Rom. 12:1. (See ALTAR, SACRIFICE.)”

[5] Wilhelm Gesenius et al., The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament: From A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. (Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906), II. עֹלָה n.f. whole burnt-offering. “II. עֹלָה n.f. whole burnt-offering (that which goes up to heaven (al. on altar)) — the whole burnt-offering (beast or fowl) is entirely consumed and goes up in the flame of the altar to God expressing the ascent of the soul in worship. All of the victim is laid on the altar except the hide and such parts as could not be washed clean. If beast the ˊע‍ must be a male without blemish, of herd or flock; if of flock, either sheep or goat; if fowl, either turtle-dove or young pigeon, the latter usu. offered by the poor. A lamb was offered by individuals, and by the nation at the עֹמֶר offering, and daily at the עֹלַת הבֹּקֶר, and at morning and evening עלה תמיד, עֹלַת תָּמִיד(הַ). These were doubled at the עֹלַת שַׁבָּת. A ram was offered by Aaron and his sons; but a young bullock was of greater value, at consecration of Levites, so calves; on great occasions bullock + rams, bullocks + rams + lambs; one of each kind offered by tribal chiefs. In ritual of חֹדֶשׁ(ה) עֹלַת and at מצּות and Pentecost 2 bullocks, 1 ram, and 7 lambs were added to daily offering; at offering of new bread at Pentecost 1 bullock, 2 rams, and 7 lambs; on the 1st and 10th of the 7th month and at עצרת 1 bullock, 1 ram, and 7 lambs, in addition to the offerings of the new moon; the system culminated in 70 bullocks, 14 rams, 98 lambs for the 7 days of Tabernacles. In early times whole burnt-offerings of children were sometimes made, e.g. Jephthah’s daughter; Isaac proposed as, but ram substituted; made to other gods. The offerer imposed his hands on head of animal, then slaughtered it, and flayed it. The priest washed the pieces; arranged them on the altar above the wood; the fire devoured them, they went up in the flame, according to character of offerer. עֹלָתָה, עוֹלוֹת v. also עַוְלָה sub I. עוּל.”



Shalom: Live Long and Prosper!
Darrell Wolfe (DG Wolfe)
Storyteller | Writer | Thinker | Consultant @

Clifton StrengthsFinder: Intellection, Learner, Ideation, Achiever, Input
16Personalities (Myers-Briggs Type): INFJ


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