Jephthah’s Holocaust

Posted by Vlad October - 29 - 2009 - Thursday

[The following, previously published elsewhere, is given as background for the following post.]

“People will have it that he did not offer her, but there it stands plainly in the text.”—Martin Luther

It was the consensus among the church fathers as well as Jewish commentators that Jephthah did indeed kill his daughter in sacrifice; and the great majority of modern biblical scholars would agree, so Luther is not alone in his grim reading of of Judges 11. The view that Jephthah only sacrificed her in the sense that he committed her to a life of celibacy and service to God is relatively new. [1]

It must be admitted that the text itself is ambiguous at several places. It is unclear from the Hebrew whether what Jephthah envisioned sacrificing was the first thing or the first person out of his house—the pronoun can refer to a person, animal, or something inanimate. It is possible that Jephthah imagined an animal coming out of his house given that the ground floor of an Israelite home was used for cooking, working, and stabling animals, though this would include animals unfit for sacrifice. [2] If, in fact, he did envision an animal coming out, his agony over his hasty vow is explained. If he had a member of his household in mind it is far less likely, though still possible, that he meant a literal burnt offering. But the narrator does not tell us, and it is tempting to think, from a literary perspective, that it’s on purpose.

The phrase “he carried out his vow that he had made toward her” in verse 39 is also vague. It would have settled the matter if the account had stated outright whether she died or began her service at the sanctuary, but this is the critical lacuna. Then we are told as a matter of fact that she was a virgin, but the grammar around the verb (“did not know a man”) does not specify if she was a virgin at the time the vow was fulfilled—which would lean towards that being her death—or if she was ever-after a virgin.

And what exactly did the daughters of Israel do every year according to 11.40? Did they lament (ESV, JPS, LXX), commemorate (NIV, HCSB), or celebrate (ASV) Jephthah’s daughter? The Hebrew word occurs only twice, here and at Judges 5.11, where it clearly means to “recount” or “tell of”. If we follow this gloss or the Septuagint, there is little reason to think that it must involve a living person and quite a bit of reason to think that it must not, though it would still allow for it (lamenting or mourning her fate of virginity, say).

It is debatable if the overall timbre of this portion of the narrative points in any particular direction, namely, whether the reactions of Jephthah and his daughter are commensurate with death or dedication. Clearly they fit if she were to be put to death, but it is also possible that these are the responses of a man who is going to lose his daughter to the service of God and lose his opportunity to have an heir—the account emphasizes strongly, redundantly so, that he had no other child—and a young woman who is to remain barren. This was for both of them a social stigma, an indication of God’s disfavor, a financial loss, and a personal tragedy.

The narrator then ends the account without commentary. There is no moral judgment passed on the action Jephthah took, whether it was an action of faith or immorality. It seems likely, though, that if the story were being told as a warning example of one who followed sacrilegious practices the narrator would make that explicit, given that Jephthah is otherwise portrayed as a victorious judge who had the spirit of YHVH. It seems strange to have a story of a moral failing in between Jephthah’s victories against Ammon and Ephraim, which indicate Yahweh’s approval and blessing. [3] Beyond that, he’s marked as faithful at both 1 Samuel 12.11 (possibly the same author as Judges) and Hebrews 11.2. And it is absurd to think that the narrator reported the sacrifice of his daughter approvingly, as the second of three meritorious acts, when the meta-narrative rails against false gods, the worship of which involved child sacrifice. Chemosh is named specifically. [4]

I think the evidence is inconclusive, despite the consensus around the macabre interpretation. Though I don’t think the character of God is impugned, at least when compared to all the other scandalous things that happen in this book, I don’t know what to make of Jephthah personally or what the narrator intended us to make of him. On balance, perhaps giving more weight to the internal cohesion of the narrative than is warranted, I’m inclined to vindicate him. But that may just be my need to clean up this distasteful story. Most literal versions, to their credit, don’t impose a definitive answer in the translation.


[1] The thinking is that Jephthah vowed to give someone metaphorically as a burnt offering. Leviticus 27.1-8 specifies a policy for this kind of a gift or dedication to God.

[2] Perhaps “living in the land of Tob” could indicate a foreign and/or less urban setting, making it more likely that his animals would have been kept in a pin separate from the house, but this is assuming that he wasn’t living in a city in that land, or that local architecture was different, and is in any case highly speculative.

[3] It could be argued that Jephthah behaved commendably rather than reprehensibly since he kept a very difficult vow. However, the sacrifice of a child would eclipse the keeping of the vow, both intuitively and under the Law, by any reasonable interpretation.

[4] See 2 Kings 3.26,27. The attribution of Chemosh as the deity of the Ammonites in Judges is seen by some as erroneous, but Chemosh and Molech may be one and the same, the local names given by a related yet distinct peoples.

One Response to “Jephthah’s Holocaust”

  1. […] Jephthah’s Holocaust[2] Jon Levenson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of […]

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