The subject of what happened to Jephthah’s daughter has been a source of debate amongst Bible Students for many years. There are those who say that it was necessary for him to literally offer her as a burnt offering to Yahweh, because that is what he had vowed to do. And there are others who contend that she was allowed to live, and serve Yahweh in the tabernacle arrangement of things. Whilst we don’t claim to have all the answers, or be able to solve all of the problems involved, the present writer believes that upon a principle of morality, Jephthah did not literally offer his daughter as a burnt offering to Yahweh.
Those who advocate that he did kill his daughter point to the following passages regarding vows:
“… this is the thing which Yahweh hath commanded. If a man vow a vow unto Yahweh, or sware an oath to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word: he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth …” (Num. 30:2).
“When thou shalt vow a vow unto Yahweh thy God, thou shalt not be slack to pay it: for Yahweh thy God will surely require it of thee: and it would be sin in thee” (Deut. 23:21).
“When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he has no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay …” (Eccl. 5:4-5).
The point being argued, is that once a vow had been made, it cannot be broken. Yahweh will surely require that the vow be kept.
However, as with most matters of Scripture, context is key. The vows referred to involve pledging some item or service to Yahweh—but what about if the vow was to commit a particular sin? Does a sin become the right thing to do, because the individual concerned has vowed to do it?
The Scriptures are very clear that to offer up children as burnt offerings was a practice of the heathen, and the people of God were strictly forbidden to engage in this practice:
“When Yahweh thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest to possess them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? Even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto Yahweh thy God: for every abomination to Yahweh, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods” (Deut. 12:29-31)
To offer one’s daughter up as a burnt offering then, is something that is an “abomination” to Yahweh, which he “hateth”. Does that abominable thing which He Hates become the right thing to do, if a person has vowed to do it? To ask the question is to supply the answer: the logic is surely skewed!
Again, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of this evil practice:
“… they have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind” (Jer. 19:5)
Again, the question to be asked is this: Is a vow to commit a heinous sin enforceable? Does that sin become the right thing to do if it has been vowed? The sin would have been to make the vow in the first place: to compound that sin by doing what Yahweh “hateth” in order to fulfil that vow only makes it worse.
THE ACTUAL VOW
The vow made by Jephthah is expressed in the KJV as follows:
“Jephthah vowed a vow unto Yahweh, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, 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 Yahweh’s and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” (Jud. 11:30-31).
It is evident that he did not intend to vow to kill his daughter as a burnt offering. That was not the intent of the vow: but the question is, how could he fulfil this vow without doing what Yahweh “Hateth”? A suggested alternative rendering is that it “shall surely be Yahweh’s or I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” According to this suggestion, Jephthah’s daughter was devoted to the service of Yahweh, and was not burned upon the brazen altar.
Again, another possibility is that she could have become what the Apostle describes as “a living sacrifice”:
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1).
Like Anna in the New Testament (Luke 2:36-37), she could have fulfilled her “reasonable service” before Yahweh by being devoted to worship before him in the Tabernacle. This would also help explain why she had to “bewail her virginity” before Jephthah fulfilled his vow: she was to remain a virgin for the rest of her life.
In short, we believe that for Jephthah to kill his daughter would have been to do what Yahweh “hateth” and forbade his people to do (Exo. 20:13), and the fact of a rash vow did not make such a sin the right thing to do.