Earlier this morning I saw a link to this blog post by David Murray: Jephthah’s Perfect Vow
I very quickly posted the following on Twitter:
“This has been my understanding & what I’ve taught for years – headhearthand.org/blog/2014/02/2…. Glad to see others discussing this view.”
This is a perfect example of doing too many things at once, not reading carefully, and tweeting too quickly!
I do agree with Murray, Jephthah probably did not offer his daughter as a burnt sacrifice, but rather dedicated her to a life of perpetual virginity as a temple servant. However, I disagree with some of Murray’s reasons along with whether Jephthah’s vow was rash or not.
So, I do believe his vow was rash, yet I do not believe the daughter was offered as a burnt sacrifice. Here are the reasons I have given for this interpretation for nearly 10 years as I have taught OT Survey, Conquest & Settlement, and preached from Judges.
The word Jephthah uses in 11:31 that is generally translated “burnt offering” literally means simply, “wholly dedicated”. A form of the same word is used in the Sampson account (chapter 13) to describe Sampson being “dedicated to the Lord” – clearly Sampson was not offered as a burnt sacrifice. Context must determine if the word means wholly dedicated in the form of a burnt offering or wholly dedicated in some other way.
— A Friend pointed out a problem with the above —
It is the noun form which is used in 11:31 and in fact this form is not used in chapter 13 referring to Sampson. Moreover it is only used one other time in Judges (6:26) where it clearly refers to a burnt offering.
Even more, the noun form, according to HALOT (the generally accepted comprehensive Hebrew Lexicon) attributes the noun form to only those uses meaning burnt offering.
— Therefore linguistically the weight is in favor of “burnt offering”. I am still in favor of my conclusion for the following reasons. However, I am thankful for this correction.
Clearly in the passage the emphasis is on the daughter’s virginity and lack of marriage, not on her death. Within the flow of the text one is left to understand the terrible thing this girl is experiencing is the lack of opportunity to marry and have children. This would be an odd thing to mourn over year after year (vs. 40) if this girl was burned alive.
Verse 34 seems to go out of the way to emphasis this was Jephthah’s only child! To have her killed or to dedicate her to perpetual virginity in the temple would be genealogical suicide. Jephthah would have no descendants to carry on his name, no one to receive his portion of the land inheritance (and yes, God had provided a way to daughters to receive the land inheritance from their father when there were no sons). As a result Jephthah’s vow was terminating his family from the genealogical records of Israel! Regardless of how the vow was carried out this was rash indeed.
The books of Judges is structured in such a way that the character and actions of the judges go from bad to worse. Jephthah is no hero himself to be sure, but Sampson is coming and he is far worse. The book ends with a depiction of the Levites doing things that are almost unmentionable (except they are in the Bible). So structurally the books isn’t yet to a level of depravity where one would would expect to find something so horrific as a child sacrifice. (BTW: I would suggest we don’t see child sacrifices in Israel until much later in their history as this is something God so seriously hates – Lev. 18:21; Deut. 12:31; Ez. 16)
I’ll also say here, this is why I don’t find Murray’s “filled with the Holy Spirit” argument helpful. Even Sampson was filled with the Holy Spirit on occasion. It seems clear that, in Judges, the Holy Spirit “came upon” (probably a better translation here than “filled”) for occasions of power and authority and then departed. This is why we see people who have the Spirit on one occasion doing magnificent things, and then the same person later doing horrific things.
God provided a payment to redeem oneself from a vow of this type – Lev. 27:1-8; 28-29.
Many have observed God’s silence in the rest of chapter 11 regarding the outcome of this event. Based on God’s very loud and powerful statements regarding his hatred for human (and child in particular) sacrifice elsewhere, it is difficult for me conclude that He would be silent if that is what is going on here. I certainly cannot see how one can conclude that God would have “accepted” a human sacrifice here as fulfillment of this vow. From my reading of the passage it seems like God does indeed accept Jephthah’s payment – his daughter’s whole dedication unto the Lord in temple service resulting in her perpetual virginity and the end of Jephthah’s family line.
A couple of years ago I was at a conference where someone was preaching from Judges. He happened to preach the Jephthah narrative. In his sermon is essentially said, “Oh, yeah there are some who think maybe Jephthah didn’t offer his daughter as a burnt offering, but that’s nonsense and silly, they just have weak stomachs.”
Not only in that attitude uncharitable and unhelpful. It also shows an ignorance of the arguments others have put forward for this interpretation, at best, and, at worst, an arrogance in one’s own view.
It is far better when teaching/preaching a passage like this to give the arguments on both sides clearly & helpfully, then conclude with which view you hold and why. As a result people are not just taught to think what you tell them, but they are taught how to think and how to think carefully from the text.