Judges 11:29–40—How could God allow Jephthah to offer his daughter up as a burnt offering?
Problem: Just before Jephthah went into battle against the people of Ammon, he made a vow to the Lord. The vow he made was that if God would grant him victory over his enemies, then “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace ... I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:31). When Jephthah returned, the first one to come out to meet him was his daughter. Jephthah refused to go back on the vow he had made. But, the Bible clearly states that human sacrifice is an abomination to the Lord (Lev. 18:21; 20:2–5;Deut. 12:31; 18:10). How could God allow Jephthah to offer up his daughter, and then list Jephthah among the champions of faith in Hebrews 11:32?
Solution: Many have taken this to mean that Jepthah offered his daughter’s life to the Lord, claiming the inviolable nature of an oath made to the Lord (cf. Ecc. 5:2–6). In addition, they note that a “burnt offering” involves a sacrifice of the life. They justify it on the grounds that a vow to God takes precedence over all else, even human life (cf. Gen. 22). God is sovereign over life and takes it if He wishes (Deut. 32:39), as He does eventually (Heb. 9:27).
However, for several reasons, it is not necessary to assume that Jephthah ever offered a human sacrifice. First, Jephthah was aware of the law against human sacrifice, and if he had intended to offer a human sacrifice, he would have known this would have been a blatant rejection of God’s law.
Secondly, the text does not actually say he killed his daughter in a sacrificial offering. This is simply inferred by some from the fact that he promised that whatever came out of his house first “shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (11:31). As Paul indicated, human beings are to be offered to God “as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1), not as dead ones. Jephthah could have offered his daughter to the Lord as a living sacrifice. For the remainder of her life, she would serve the Lord in the temple and remain a virgin.
Third, a living sacrifice of perpetual virginity was a tremendous sacrifice in the Jewish context of that day. As a perpetual virgin dedicated to the service of the Lord, she would not be able to bring up children to continue her father’s lineage. Jephthah acted as a man of honor and great faith in the Lord by not going back on the vow that he had made to the Lord his God.
Fourth, this view is supported by the fact that when Jephthah’s daughter went out to weep for two months, she did not go out to mourn her impending death. Rather, she went out “and bewailed her virginity” (v. 38).
Finally, if she was facing death at the end of the two month period, it would have been very simple for her to marry some young man and live with him for the two months prior to her death. There was no reason for Jephthah’s daughter to mourn her virginity unless she was facing a life of perpetual virginity. Being the only child of Jephthah, his daughter was not mourning her virginity because of any illicit sexual desire.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.