Human Sacrifice: A Retelling of Jephthah’s Vow
Imagine, for a moment, a short story one would know well. The short story is memorable because of how well written and surprising it is. However, the short story has always been read literally, never metaphorically. When the short story is read metaphorically, it becomes more understandable.
Take this example and apply it to the story of Jephthah and his vow in Judges 11. Instead of Jephthah literally sacrificing his daughter, there is another perspective which says that his sacrifice was more metaphorical––she was devoted to a life of celibacy and service in the temple rather than being put to death by her father.
Based on the fact the Lord would not permit literal human sacrifice, his Law that he gave his people, examples of people being consecrated to the Lord’s service, and the meaning behind burnt offerings, the story of Jephthah’s vow is best understood metaphorically rather than literally.
Promises and Oaths
Before the opposing stories of Jephthah’s vow are told, it is important to understand vows in the Jewish culture of the time.
Promises, oaths, and vows all build off each other. To understand vows fully, oaths and then promises need to be examined briefly.
Promises are contained within oaths and they are simply “a person’s statement of intention that he or she will or will not do something (Cartledge 14).” An example of this would be a promise many teenagers have made, “I promise I will take out the trash, mom.” It is a simple statement that something will be done.
However, oaths take promises further. Instead of stating that one will do something, an oath says that something will be done, and if the promise is not done there will be a curse (Cartledge 15). To take the previous example further, teenagers could make an oath saying, “I promise I will take out the trash, mom. If I do not, you can take my allowance for the next month.”
With that foundation built, vows can now be understood. Vows are like oaths because they build off promises and add a curse. However, rather than starting “with human action,” vows start “with a plea for divine action, followed by a conditional promise of the worshiper’s response (Cartledge 16).” Basically, vows are more serious because they start with a plea to God for him to do something. The person will then do something in response to God fulfilling the vow.
Simply put, when a vow is made, God will fulfill his agreement, which means the person must fulfill their end of the vow or he/she will be sinning against the Lord (Deut. 23:21-23).
Now that vows are understood, the story of Jephthah’s vow can be further understood.
The typical telling of Jephthah’s vow is literal. In verses 29-32, Jephthah was preparing to go into battle with the Ammonites and he made a vow with the Lord so that he could win. Then, after Judges 11:36-39a, when his daughter went into the mountains to “weep for [her] virginity,” (Judg. 11:37, ESV) he then offered her up as a burnt offering like he would with any other animal, just as he vowed to the Lord.
However, the other telling of Jephthah’s vow is taken more metaphorically. It is important to remember that, although this position is labeled “metaphorical,” the events leading up to the “sacrifice” are still literal.
The metaphorical interpretation argues that “Jephthah dedicated his daughter to perpetual virginity (Crossway 460).” Reason being that in v. 39 it says that “she had never known a man” which indicates that she “remained unmarried and childless all her day” (358) because she was devoted to serving at the temple (Chisholm 407).
Therefore, the debate surrounding Jephthah’s vow is concerned with how he carried out his vow.
There are clearly ethical problems that need overcome for a literal interpretation to be correct.
The first issue deals with human sacrifice. The Lord never allowed human sacrifice in his law (Beeke 358). In fact, there are many laws where the Lord expects restitution when human life is taken.
Therefore, a priest would not have even performed the sacrifice because their conscience would be held captive to the Law. If the priests did sacrifice Jephthah’s daughter, they would have to be killed, along with Jephthah, for killing another human.
Abraham and Isaac
Both [sacrifices] are seen by Christian commentators as having atoning value and as foreshadowing the crucifixion of Jesus.
— Moshe Reiss, Jephthah’s Daughter
Second, the story of Abraham and Isaac is an example to consider when dealing with this ethical debate (Marcus 38).
When reading Genesis 22, the Lord commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in v. 2. Abraham may have had his reserves when it came to sacrificing his only child, but he nonetheless followed what the Lord said. However, an angel of the Lord intervened before the sacrifice was carried out, sparing Isaac (Gen. 22:11-12).
This story is significant because there is an explicit command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Even though this is before Mount Sinai, God still has his set of morals. For God to allow Abraham to carry out the sacrifice would have gone against the sixth commandment.
Likewise, if the Lord allowed Jephthah’s vow to be carried out literally, he would have gone against what he commanded. Even more so after the law was given at Mount Sinai because his Law would have been fully revealed.
Another reason for the significance of this comparison is that there seems to be a connection to Jesus Christ.
Moshe Reiss concluded that “despite Isaac being saved and Jephthah’s daughter being sacrificed … both are seen by Christian commentators as having atoning value and as foreshadowing the crucifixion of Jesus (62).” In short, although God spared Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter was sacrificed metaphorically; God would not spare the life of his Son and he wanted his people to know that he would not.
Third, there is an example in Scripture of someone being consecrated to service in the temple. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1:21-28, gives Samuel to Eli in fulfillment of her vow. Therefore, Jephthah consecrating his daughter to temple service is not out of the ordinary.
Finally, this leaves v. 31 when Jephthah says that he will offer a “burnt offering” to the Lord.
Based on this language, he would literally have to sacrifice his daughter. However, based on the above reasons, it would be impossible for him to follow through. Does that mean Jephthah did not fulfill his vow?
To reconcile this, Leviticus 1:1-17 needs to be examined. Based on this passage, when an animal was sacrificed as a burnt offering, the whole animal was sacrificed; there was no part left. It can be concluded that––since Jephthah’s daughter was to be consecrated to the Lord for a life of service––the burnt offering was fulfilled because her whole life would’ve been consumed by godly ministry.
Based on the above evidence, Jephthah’s daughter was not literally sacrificed, but was sacrificed metaphorically.
This can be concluded because she mourned her virginity, the priests would never perform a human sacrifice, there are no recorded human sacrifices in the Bible performed by the Israelites, and there are recorded examples of people being consecrated to the service of the Lord, which all leads to taking the burnt offering figuratively.
Instead of being slaughtered on the altar, her entire life was dedicated to serving the Lord in the temple and living a celibate life (Rom. 12:1).
The Ethical Challenge of Jephthah’s Fulfilled Vow by Robert Chisholm
Jephthah and His Vow by David Marcus
Jephthah’s Daughter by Moshe Reiss
The Reformation Heritage Study Bible from Reformation Heritage Books
Vows in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East by Tony Cartledge
The ESV Study Bible from Crossway
The Reformation Study Bible from Reformation Trust
Jephthah the Judge by Koowon Kim