Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Women of the Bible: Jephthah's daughter

Judges 11
In which Jephthah agrees to lead the Israelites against the Ammonites. He promises God that in exchange for victory against the Ammonites he will offer as a sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his door when he returns home. He defeats the Ammonites, returns home, is greeted by his daughter, and therefore has to offer her as a burnt offering. A promise (no matter how boneheaded) is a promise, after all.*

1Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valour, and he was the son of an harlot: and Gilead begat Jephthah. 2And Gilead's wife bare him sons; and his wife's sons grew up, and they thrust out Jephthah, and said unto him, Thou shalt not inherit in our father's house; for thou art the son of a strange woman. 3 Then Jephthah fled from his brethren, and dwelt in the land of Tob: and there were gathered vain men to Jephthah, and went out with him. 4 And it came to pass in process of time, that the children of Ammon made war against Israel. 5 And it was so, that when the children of Ammon made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to fetch Jephthah out of the land of Tob: 6 And they said unto Jephthah, Come, and be our captain, that we may fight with the children of Ammon. 7 And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, Did not ye hate me, and expel me out of my father's house? and why are ye come unto me now when ye are in distress? 8 And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, Therefore we turn again to thee now, that thou mayest go with us, and fight against the children of Ammon, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead. 9 And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home again to fight against the children of Ammon, and the Lord deliver them before me, shall I be your head? 10 And the elders of Gilead said unto Jephthah, The Lord be witness between us, if we do not so according to thy words.

...  **

30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, 31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering. 32 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord delivered them into his hands. 33 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel. 34 And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back. 36 And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon. 37 And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. 38 And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. 39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel, 40 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.

*Although perhaps Jephthah could be excused for believing that maybe if it was his own kid who came out the door, an angel of the lord would stop him mere seconds before he did the deed and offer a ram instead, as he did when Abraham undertook a similar project. There was a precedent, after all.
**The portion of the chapter that I left out here isn't relevant to the story of Jephthah's daughter, but it is interesting in that it contains a long exchange between Jephthah and the Ammonites on the question of whether or not the Israelites stole the Ammonites' homeland.

ETA: I got an email pointing me to these fantastical illustrations of the story, so I had to share them with you. Enjoy!


  1. Anonymous3/26/2014

    Maybe he thought a flawless lamb was going to come waddling out of his front door to greet him.

    Boneheaded indeed.

  2. It's the Jewish Iphigenia story.

  3. Ah patriarchy, where daughters are expendable.

    1. Stephen3/31/2014

      Although technically Jephthah was expendable to his family too.

  4. Anonymous4/07/2014

    The contrast between this story and the Abraham/Isaac story is very interesting. It's not surprising that we basically never hear about this one.

  5. Anonymous7/19/2014

    Woa, woa, please tell me you guys do not think that Jephthah killed his daughter? This vow was to temple service, and the person who was devoted could not get married. ( that's why she lamented over her virginity and not her life) See Deuteronomy 18:9-12

    1. That's an interesting interpretation, but it doesn't really mesh with the context. For one thing, why did the daughters of Israel go yearly to lament her? That seems strange if she just went into temple service. Second, were women even allowed to perform any kind of religious service? Given the fact that they couldn't even enter the important parts of the temple (and couldn't enter the temple at all for a good portion of every month during and after menstruation) this seems doubtful. I know other religions had female priestesses and other temple personnel, but I've never heard of that in ancient Judaism, I could be wrong.

      But more importantly, the word used in this passage indicates a burnt offering (as compared to those that could be eaten). Here's some info from

      Olah: Burnt Offering

      Perhaps the best-known class of offerings is the burnt offering. It was the oldest and commonest sacrifice, and represented submission to G-d's will. The Hebrew word for burnt offering is olah, from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hei, meaning ascension. It is the same root as the word aliyah, which is used to describe moving to Israel or ascending to the podium to say a blessing over the Torah. An olah is completely burnt on the outer altar; no part of it is eaten by anyone. Because the offering represents complete submission to G-d's will, the entire offering is given to G-d (i.e., it cannot be used after it is burnt). It expresses a desire to commune with G-d, and expiates sins incidentally in the process (because how can you commune with G-d if you are tainted with sins?). An olah could be made from cattle, sheep, goats, or even birds, depending on the offerer's means.

      Finally, I think we all know of other examples in the old testament where children were sacrificed (or almost sacrificed - I'm looking at you Isaac) for their parents' action. For one thing, there's David and Bathsheba's baby, and then there's this thing called the Passover, which commemorates the death of all the firstborns of Egypt...

    2. Idiomic language could account for the possibility that the daughter of Jephthah was indeed given up to service of the Lord rather than human sacrifice. As Dr Taylor Marshall states:
      The “and” (Heb., vau) of verse 30 may be an idiom in the sense of “or” (cf. Exodus 21:15 in the LXX [v. 17 Eng. text] — “he who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death”). Thus, this Old Testament character may have been merely suggesting that whatever met him as he returned home would be dedicated to Jehovah, or, offered as a burnt offering — depending upon which was appropriate. See Dr. Hales’ comments (Clarke, p. 153).

      As human sacrifice was forbidden to the Israelite people in Levitical law, it seems rather strange that Jephthah would have made this offer. the mourning of the women for his daughter could have been the mourning for one who would never pass his greatness on to the people of Israel, his bloodline condemned to be stagnated. There was no condemnation or acceptance of Jephthah's actions as one would expect, and the oddly cryptic conclusion seems to leave things without a solid answer.

      Incidentally, both male and female children were given to the temple to serve their entire lives as servants. In Maccabees 3:19-20 we read of the consecrated virgins who lived cloistered within the temple complex. Likewise we see in Exodus 38:8 women who have devoted their lives to watching the tabernacle doors at the tent of the Holy of holies.

      While I am not denying that Jephthah's daughter may have been slaughtered (which was punishable by death for the killer under Mosaic law), it is worth noting as an intellectual and theological reflection that other possible interpretations are not completely without merit.

  6. As you pointed out, context is important. Human sacrifice is an abomination to God, and not by just a little. Being a Jew, he would have been intimately familiar with the law. And it's because of this context we know that he was using burnt offering as a figure of speech. In fact, his expression was a perfect simile for the given circumstance. Furthermore, the Levite priests would never accommodate a human sacrifice, no matter who promised what. It would be worse than suicide. This simile was so obvious to the originally intended readers, that it required no explanation.

    Just as if I told you that what he was saying was similar to "the whole enchilada", you don't need me to explain to you that he didn't mean an actual enchilada, but that nothing would be withheld from the object of his discourse. However, 3,100 years from now, an explanation might very well be needed.

    The scripture states that she and her friends went to the mountains for two months to mourn her virginity, not her life. Still, it was not a small matter. To mourn her virginity was to mourn everything that was implied by it. She was his only child. That meant that his bloodline was wiped off the face of the earth, and cut off from the inheritance. This would have been beyond tragic.

    To understand Jewesses coming to lament her at the temple, where she was, it really helps to understand Jewesses. If you think American girls can be dramatic, forget about it. It was every bit as important for a woman to have children as it was for a man.

    It's my personal belief that he was expecting a servant to come take his horse, bring him some water, a family pet, or something else along those lines. In which case he would give him/her/it to the service of the temple and it would be no real skin of his neck. Instead, his precious daughter comes out beating on timbrels and dancing around to celebrate his victory and safe return. You really have to be a father to understand this part. We love our girls more than you love yourselves. Believe it. That's why you're all so spoiled.

    Whatever was in Jephtha's heart to sacrifice to God, we can be certain that it mirrored Cain's shortcoming, in that it wasn't his best. This is demonstrated by Jephthah's reaction to his best, his only daughter, presenting herself.

    This story is an amazing meditation about acceptable sacrifice, counting costs, and measuring the value of a human life.

    Whenever you're sitting around reading several thousand year old sacred texts that have been championed by the greatest minds the world has ever known, and you find yourself thinking, "Whoah, dude! I just had an original thought that makes me right and everyone else before me wrong, and makes me ethically superior to God, and smarter than Newton, Pascal, etc..." Pause and reflect on it for a bit.