The following examination of the subject of Jephthah’s daughter was recently composed as an answer to a question on Facebook. I’ve changed the more personal parts of the examination to fit the purposes of this blog. I hope you find it up building.
Critics of God are mostly the ones who pull out the story of Jephthah and his vow. the way the argument goes in part is that when Jephthah offer to give god whoever first came out of his house "as a fire offering" in exchange for victory that God gave him that victory and thus accepted a human sacrifice in violation of his own law when the first one to come out was Jephthah’s daughter, his only child. That is used to portray God as both bloodthirsty and inconsistent in his actions. It also has implications for the subject at hand which is why I brought it up.
The story is found at Judges 11:29-40 for those who may not already know. The fact that God’s spirit comes down on Jephthah and moves him to make the vow also makes it look even worse. However, can we really imagine a judge of Israel doing such a scandalous thing? Although I imagine you do realize there was something symbolic in it what is takes is both a little knowledge of the law beyond what we’ve already discussed, and the Ancient Hebrew language to put all the pieces of the puzzle together properly.
God’s law strictly forbade human sacrifice, and especially the local one of sacrificing ones children in the fires:
Lev 20:3 And I will set my face against that man,
and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed
unto Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name.
Lev 20:4 And if the people of the land do any ways
hide their eyes from the man, when he giveth of his seed unto Molech, and kill
him not. Lev 20:5 Then I will set my face against that man, and against his
family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit
whoredom with Molech, from among their people.
So given these commands how can we get to the truth of Jephthah’s vow and what really happened?
The first thing to keep in mind is, Semites often have a habit of speaking in ways strange to us, exaggerating things blowing them up, kind of a bit like bargainers in most markets around the world. One good rule of thumb is to remember that the bible is an eastern and Semitic book, not a Western one and has to be read with that in mind
Another thing to keep in mind is that our understanding of Ancient Hebrew, especially Hebrew from before the Babylonian conquest is incomplete at best, so nuances in the text may very well be lost to us. I think that is partly the case in the text where Jephthah’s vow is recorded for us in the first place, as I’ll demonstrate as we go on.
The real key to understanding the passage and what really occurred is at the end of the passage in verse 40 where the Hebrew verb “tanah” (תנות, H8567) is used in describing just what the daughters of Israel did every year for four days every year. Most translations render it to say that they “mourned” for Jephthah’s daughter on that anniversary. That makes it sound like she was sacrificed at the altar, doesn’t it. But that is a very inaccurate rendering of the form of the verb as it’s used in the verse. The verb basically gives the idea of “to tell again, recount, rehearse,” And can also mean to lament or wail. However, one form of the verb carries the idea of “to celebrate” (BDB, pg 1072) and that’s the form of the verb we see used in the verse. I know... ancient Hebrew verb forms can be quite strange to the Indo-European language mindset because in their most ancient forms they conjugate for intensity instead of time. This is strange for us but needs to be taken into account.
So what we’re being told in the verse is that every year the daughters of Israel went to Jephthah’s daughter for four days out of the year to celebrate her sacrifice and support her keeping her father’s vow. So where was she? The law allowed for different kinds of service to Jehovah, including service on the grounds of the tabernacle and later temple where a person dedicated themselves to the service in a helping capacity, as if they were a sacrifice. And as far as Jephthah was concerned his daughter might as well have been. By making his vow he essentially agreed to give the person up to God’s service as thoroughly as if he’d sacrificed them in the fires. It being his daughter made the sacrifice especially hard since she was his only child and any hope for the continuation of his line, which was very important to any Jew at the time, went down the toilet. So indeed it was a great sacrifice for both him, and her.
So we find in this instance that the charge that God is a bloodthirsty monster who countenanced a gross violation of his own law doesn’t stand up to close inspection. We can give an answer to those who criticize, but our faith in The New Testament’s portrayal of him as a kind and loving God is reinforced for us.