The sacrifice of the daughter of Jephtah from the point of view of textual
analysis. What we can know from the reading of this story given the context
of cultural and historical background.
1. Jephtah (Yif-tach)is described as an honorable man, (ISH HAYIL) in Hebrew,
in verse one. This term is used to describe the honorable or virtuous woman
of Proverbs 31, (ESHET-HAYIL) and denotes moral strength of character as well
as physical. The point to be made here is that Jephtah was not a savage, but
rather someone with honor and courage.
2. He was familiar with the "Bible" of his day, the Torah, as evidenced by
his recital of the history of the entry of Israel into Canaan. This is the
basis of his negotiations with the Ammonites. (vs. 15-22). Jephtah was not an
3. Jephtah was sworn in as leader when he "spoke his words" before the
Lord. The God of Israel was the agreed upon witness between himself and the
elders (vs. 10-11), and not a foreign god.
4. He acknowledges the Lord, the God of Israel, as "our God" and dis-avows
the foreign God of the Ammonites (vs. 23-24).
5. The word used to describe God as Lord comes from the personal name, the
"tetragrammaton" (yod-heh-vav-heh) or Hebrew four-letter name for God which
is ONLY used to describe the God of Israel. There is no doubt Jephtah
intended the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses to be his God and
Judge -- Jephtah was not an idolator. Human sacrifice was prohibited by law
on pain of being "cut off" (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5 and Dt. 18:10). While recognizing
the fact that human sacrifice was practiced by nations around Israel, there is
no evidence that Jepthah himself partook. Indeed, he refers in Judges 11, vs. 24,
during his discourse with the Ammonites that Chemosh is "YOUR god" while
the "Lord" (Yahweh) is "OUR God".
6. No private altars were allowed under the sacrificial system (Dt. 12:5-14).
Whatever offerings Jephtah brought would have to be performed by the
officiating priest and probably in the presence of the elders. Had all these
condoned a human sacrifice, they would have been culpable under law and
subject to the same penalty as Jepthah. There is no record of such
punishment in the case of Phinehas, the priest at that time. Human sacrifice
with official sanction was unknown in Israel until the time of King Ahaz and
Manasseh (2 Kings 16:3 and 21:6) circa 8th century BCE or about 350 years after
7. The Spirit of God came upon Jepthah (vs. 29), it is unlikely anyone would
make an un-holy vow while under the power of the Holy Spirit of God. The vow
he makes is acceptable according to Torah as a "NEDER" -- (vs. 30). This is a
voluntary offering in return for a petition granted in which priest and
offerer eat a portion of the animal sacrificed (Lev. 7:16). Cannibalism has
never been a practice of Judaism let alone a commandment of God.
8. Additionally, Jephtah specifies an offering called "OLAH" (vs. 31) -- commonly
translated as burnt offering. The term comes from the root word, ALAH, meaning
"to ascend" and is descriptive of the smoke of the burnt offering ascending up
to God. Of the six types of blood sacrifices under law, the Olah was the only
one of which neither priest nor offerer partook. This offering, made for the
sin nature, as opposed to the "Hataat" sin offering, made for a specific act of sin,
"went up whole" to the Lord. An Olah as a type of offering dedicated whole solely
to the Lord could be made of houses, fields, money, possessions, anything set apart
to the Lord (Lev. 27).
NOTE 1: people or animals devoted to destruction under the "ban" were
so designated by God, not by an individual. They were never offered as
sacrifices since they were considered cursed as objects of wickedness and
NOTE 2: animals sacrificed as burnt offerings to God under the law of
the Olah were always specified to be MALE (Lev. 1:3).
9. IN the case of "people" consecrated to the service of the Lord, we have
First born ------------------- Ex. 13:2 and 11:3
Nazirites -------------------- Num. 6:2
Kohathites ------------------- Num. 4:2, 3
Gershonites ------------------ Num. 4:22-23
Merarites -------------------- Num. 4:29-30
Samuel ----------------------- 1 Sam. 1:11
Samson ----------------------- Jud. 13:5
Women in the time of Moses --- Ex. 38:8
Women in the time of Samuel -- 1 Sam. 2:22
Anna the prophetess ---------- Luke 2:36-37
10. Jepthah's daughter (vs. 37) does not bewail the loss of her life at a
young age, which would be "Neurim", but rather the word used here is "Betulah",
specifically denoting the subject of her concern as her "virginity" from the
fact that she would be required to serve God in a way that would not allow
for having husband, family, and children --- seen as a very great loss in [that]
era. Particularly painful since she is the only child of Jephtah, himself an
illigitimate child and otherwise without heirs. The phrase in vs. 39 that
she "knew no man" only makes sense in the context of not having children
since, if death were implied, it would make no difference one way or the
other. The two month period spent with her friends is approximately equal
to the time period for preparing a young bride for her marriage.
11. The word used in vs. 40 to describe the actions of the daughters of
Israel in coming to visit for four days each year (L'tanot) is often
translated as "lament" - where the under-lying meaning is to praise or to
compliment and is equally applied to the living as well. An example of this
is the visit each year of Samuel's mother to bring him a gift.
12. Jepthah's name was not cut off, he is remembered in the New Testament;
Hebrews 11:32-34, as an example of the faith who performed "acts of
rightousness". This is in contrast to Dt. 12:31 where the Lord condemns human
blood sacrifices as "abominable acts". Whether or not Jephtah dedicated his
daughter to serve as consecrated to the Lord or simply had her remain
un-married is an open issue. The weight of evidence from language, law,
context, culture, and scripture as it's own witness, including the New
Testament references, does not support any kind of human blood sacrifice.
God promises in Isaiah 56:5 that those for whom sons and daughters have
been "cut off" will receive from Him an everlasting memorial and "a name
better than that of sons and daughters" which will never be cut off. God
certainly "opened a way" for the name of Jephtah to be remembered,
memorialized in the pages of the Bible as a faithful servant in a way that
sons and daughters could never perpetuate. Incidental to this is the note
of interest that Jepthah ("Yiftach") means "He will open". The writer of the
New Testament book of Romans 12:1, 2 urges us to present ourselves as "living
sacrifices" to the useful service of God. It's quite likely that he may
have had this story in mind as we all have some element in life that must be
surrendered in the hope of assurance that the Creator Himself will make
things right in His own Time.
(Special thanks for assistance and encouragement from my Hebrew teacher,
Asher Keshet and with references from his father, Dr. Gleason Archer Jr.)