Child Sacrifice in Judges 11?

Richard Anthony

Question: It seems that Judges 11:29-40 is an account of a child sacrifice to God. Did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter to Almighty God? Can you explain this?

Here is the context and summery of Judges 11, from verse 1 to verse 40.

Jephthah, the son of Gilead, was a great and valiant captain. The Israelites, against whom God was irritated, being forced to go to war with the Ammonites (nearly about the time of the siege of Troy), assembled themselves together to oblige Jephthah to come to their succor, and chose him for their captain against the Ammonites. He accepted the command on conditions that, if God should give him the victory, they would acknowledge him for their prince. This they promised by oath; and all the people elected him in the city of Mizpeh, in the tribe of Judah.

He first sent ambassadors to the king of the Ammonites to know the reason why he had committed so many acts of injustice, and so many ravages on the coast of Israel. The other made a pretext of some ancient damages his people had suffered by the primitive Israelites, to countenance the ravages he committed, and would not accord with the reasonable propositions made by the ambassadors of Jephthah. Having now supplicated the Lord and being filled with his Spirit, he marched against the Ammonites, and being zealously desirous to acquit himself nobly, and to ensure the success of so important a war, he made a vow to the Lord to offer in sacrifice or as a burnt-offering the first thing that should come out of the house to meet him at his return from victory.

He then fought with and utterly discomfited the Ammonites; and returning victorious to his house, God so permitted it that his only daughter was the first who met him. Jephthah was struck with terror at the sight of her, and tearing his garments, he exclaimed, "Alas! alas! my daughter, thou dost exceedingly trouble me; for I have opened my mouth against thee, unto the Lord, and I cannot go back." His daughter, full of courage and piety, understanding the purport of his vow, exhorted him to accomplish what he had vowed to the Lord, which to her would be exceedingly agreeable, seeing the Lord had avenged him of his and his country's enemies; desiring liberty only to go on the mountains with her companions, and to bewail the dishonor with which sterility was accompanied in Israel, because each hoped to see the Messiah born of his or her family.

Jephthah could not deny her this request. She accordingly went, and at the end of two months returned, and put herself into the hands of her father, who did with her according to his vow. Jephthah's daughter was not really sacrificed, but her virginity was consecrated to God, and she separated from all connection with the world. This indeed seems to be implied in the scriptural account, "And she knew no man" (Judges 11:39)

This was a kind of mysterious death, because it caused her to lose all hope of the glory of a posterity from which the Messiah might descend. From this originated the custom, observed afterwards in Israel, that on a certain season in the year the virgins assembled themselves on the mountains to bewail the daughter of Jephthah for the space of four days.

Verse by Verse

Verse 30-31:
When Jephthah went forth to battle against the Ammonites, he vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said:

"If thou wilt surely give the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatsoever cometh out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall either be the Lord's, or I will offer it up (for) a burnt-offering" (Judges 11:30, 31).

According to this rendering of the two conjunctions, 'either,' 'or,' (which is justified by the Hebrew idiom thus, "He that curseth his father AND his mother" (Exodus 21:17), is necessarily rendered disjunctively, "His father OR his mother" by the Septuagint, Vulgate, Chaldee, and English, confirmed by Matthew 15:4, the paucity of connecting particles in that language making it necessary that this conjunction should often be understood disjunctively) the vow consisted of two parts:

  1. That what person soever met him should be the Lord's or be dedicated to his service; and,
  2. That what beast soever met him, if clean, should be offered up for a burnt-offering unto the Lord.

This rendering and this interpretation is warranted by the Levitical law about vows. Leviticus 27:1-5 is where the Lord prescribes the price at which either males or females, who had been vowed to the Lord, might be redeemed. This also is an argument that the daughter of Jephthah was not sacrificed; as the father had it in his power, at a very moderate price, to have redeemed her: and surely the blood of his daughter must have been of more value in his sight than thirty shekels of silver.

This was a wise regulation to remedy rash vows. But if the vow was accompanied with devotement, it was irredeemable, as in the following case,

Leviticus 27:28, “Notwithstanding, no devotement which a man shall devote unto the Lord, (either) of man, or beast, or of land of his own property, shall be sold or redeemed. Every thing devoted is most holy to the Lord.“

There are three distinct subjects of devotement to be applied to distinct uses,

  1. The man to be dedicated to the service of the Lord, as Samuel by his mother Hannah (1 Samuel 1:11);
  2. The cattle, if clean, such as oxen, sheep, goats, turtle-doves, or pigeons, to be sacrificed;
  3. And if unclean, as camels, horses, asses, to be employed for carrying burdens in the service of the tabernacle or temple; and the lands, to be sacred property.

This law therefore expressly applied to Jephthah's case, who had devoted his daughter to the Lord, or opened his mouth to the Lord, and therefore could not go back, as he declared in his grief at seeing his daughter and only child coming to meet him with timbrels and dances: she was, therefore necessarily devoted, but with her own consent to perpetual virginity in the service of the tabernacle (Judges 11:36, 37).

This instance appears to be decisive of the nature of her devotement. Her father's extreme grief on the occasion (Judges 11:35) and her requisition of a respite for two months to bewail her virginity (Judges 11:38), are both perfectly natural. Having no other offspring, he could only look forward to the extinction of his name or family; and a state of celibacy, which is reproachful among women everywhere, was peculiarly so among the Israelites, and was therefore no ordinary sacrifice on her part; who, though she generously gave up, could not but regret the loss of, becoming 'a mother in Israel.' And he did with her according to his vow which he had vowed, and she knew no man, or remained a virgin, all her life (Judges 11:34-39).

Verse 35:
"Thou hast brought me very low." He was greatly distressed to think that his daughter, who was his only child, should be, in consequence of his vow, prevented from continuing his family in Israel; for it is evident that he had not any other child, for besides her, says the text, he had neither son nor daughter (Judges 11:34). He might, therefore, well be grieved that thus his family was to become extinct in Israel.

Verse 36:
"And she said unto him." She was at once obedient. A woman to have no offspring was considered to be in a state of the utmost degradation among the Hebrews; but she is regardless of all this, seeing her father is in safety, and her country delivered.

Verse 37:
His daughter said, "that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows." Notice that she bewailed not her death, which would have been the chief cause of lamentation if that had been vowed, but her virginity. She was to live and die without being married and having children, which Jewish women very much regreted. It is plain, from the language of the sacred writer, that she was devoted to God in such a way as required her to remain unmarried and childless. The word "fellows" in this verse, in the Hebrew, refers strictly to "female companions" (maidens) only.

Verse 39:
It appears evident that Jephthah's daughter was not sacrificed to God, but consecrated to him in a state of perpetual virginity; for the text says, "her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed..." then adds, by way of declaring the matter of that vow, "and she knew no man. for this was a statute in Israel." Those thus dedicated or consecrated to God would live in a state of unchangeable celibacy. Therefore, she continued a virgin all the days of her life.

Verse 40:
This Verse says, "And it was an ordinance in Israel that the daughters of Israel went from year to year to the daughter of Jephthah, that they might comfort her for four days in a year.” This verse also gives evidence that the daughter of Jephthah was not sacrificed: nor does it appear that the custom or statute referred to here lasted after the death of Jephthah's daughter.

Other Considerations why Jephthah could not possibly have sacrificed his daughter

  1. The sacrifice of children to Molech was an abomination to the Lord, of which in numberless passages he expresses his detestation, and it was prohibited by an express law, under pain of death, as a defilement of God's sanctuary, and a profanation of his holy name (Leviticus 20:2, 3). Such a sacrifice, therefore, unto the Lord himself, must be a still higher abomination, and there is no precedent of any such under the law in the Old Testament.

  2. No father, merely by his own authority, could put an offending, much less an innocent, child to death upon any account, without the sentence of the magistrate (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and the consent of the people.

  3. The Mischna, or traditional law of the Jews, is pointedly against it; ver. 212, 'If a Jew should devote his son or daughter, his man or maid servant, who are Hebrews, the devotement would be void, because no man can devote what is not his own, or whose life he has not the absolute disposal of."

These arguments appear to be decisive against the sacrifice; and that Jephthah could not have devoted his daughter to celibacy against her will is evident from the history, and from the high estimation in which she was always held by the daughters of Israel for her filial duty and her hapless fate, which they celebrated by a regular anniversary commemoration four days in the year (Judges 11:40).

Jephthah's Vow

Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD. The text is "vehayah layhovah, vehaalithihu olah"; the translation of which, according to the most accurate Hebrew scholars, is this: "I will consecrate it to the Lord, or I will offer it for a burnt-offering;" that is, “If it be a thing fit for a burnt-offering, it shall be made one; if fit for the service of God, it shall be consecrated to him.” That conditions of this kind must have been implied in the vow, is evident enough; to have been made without them, it must have been the vow of a heathen, or a madman. If a dog had met him, this could not have been made a burnt-offering; and if his neighbor or friend's wife, son, or daughter, etc., had been returning from a visit to his family, his vow gave him no right over them. Besides, human sacrifices were ever an abomination to the Lord; and this was one of the grand reasons why God drove out the Canaanites, etc., because they offered their sons and daughters to Molech in the fire, i.e., made burnt-offerings of them, as is generally supposed.

Hebrews 11:32 lists Jephthah among the men of faith. That Jephthah was a deeply pious man, appears in the whole of his conduct; and that he was well acquainted with the law of Moses, which prohibited all such sacrifices, and stated what was to be offered in sacrifice, is evident enough from his expostulation with the king and people of Ammon (Judges 11:14-27). Therefore it must be granted that he never made that rash vow which several suppose he did; nor was he capable, if he had, of executing it in that most shocking manner which some people have contended for. He could not commit a crime which himself had just now been an executor of God's justice to punish in others. Those who assert that Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter attempt to justify the opinion from the barbarous usages of those times: but in answer to this it may be justly observed, that Jephthah was now under the influence of the Spirit of God (Judges 11:29); and that Spirit could not permit him to imbrue his hands in the blood of his own child; and especially under the pretense of offering a pleasing sacrifice to that God who is the Father of mankind, and the Fountain of love, mercy, and compassion.

It has been supposed that the text itself might have been read differently in former times; if instead of the words "I will offer IT a burnt-offering," we read, "I will offer HIM (i.e., the Lord) a burnt-offering": this will make a widely different sense, more consistent with everything that is sacred; and it is formed by the addition of only a single letter, (aleph) and the separation of the pronoun from the verb. Now the letter aleph is so like the letter ain, which immediately follows it in the word olah, that the one might easily have been lost in the other, and thus the pronoun be joined to the verb as at present, where it expresses the thing to be sacrificed instead of the person to whom the sacrifice was to be made. With this emendation the passage will read thus: Whatsoever cometh forth of the doors or my house to meet me-shall be the Lord's; and I will offer HIM a burnt-offering.”

For this criticism there is no absolute need, because the pronoun hu, in the above Verse, may with as much propriety be translated him as it. The latter part of the Verse is, literally, "And I will offer him a burnt-offering (olah)," not leolah, "FOR a burnt-offering," which is the common Hebrew form when for is intended to be expressed. This is strong presumption that the text should be thus understood: and this avoids the very disputable construction which is put on the vau, in vehaalithihu, "OR I will offer IT up," instead of "AND I will offer HIM a burnt-offering."

Young's Literal Translation Bible

Judges 11:30-31, "And Jephthah voweth a vow to Jehovah, and saith, `If Thou dost at all give the Bene-Ammon into my hand -- then it hath been, that which at all cometh out from the doors of my house to meet me in my turning back in peace from the Bene-Ammon -- it hath been to Jehovah, or I have offered up for it -- a burnt-offering.'"

Judges 11:39-40, "and it cometh to pass at the end of two months that she turneth back unto her father, and he doth to her his vow which he hath vowed, and she knew not a man; and it is a statute in Israel: from time to time the daughters of Israel go to talk to the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four days in a year."

Your Questions Answered

  1. Where in the Hebrew Bible was a daughter vowed to God to be a virgin?

    Answer: With the exception of Judges 11, there is none. And where in the Hebrew Bible was a daughter vowed to God to be a human sacrifice? There is none. Only pagans did this to their false gods.

  2. But we do not find any law, usage or custom, in all the Old Testament, which says that virginity was any branch or article of religion.

    Answer: And do we find any law, usage or custom, in all the Old Testament, which says that cutting the throat of an only child, was any branch or article of religion? If a dog had met Jephthah, would he have offered up that for a burnt-offering? No: because God had expressly forbidden this. And had God not expressly forbidden murder?

    Exodus 20:13, "Thou shalt not kill."

  3. How do you explain Leviticus 27:28-29?


    Leviticus 27:28-29, "Notwithstanding no devoted thing, that a man shall devote unto the LORD of all that he hath, both of man and beast, and of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing is most holy unto the LORD. None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be redeemed; but shall surely be put to death."

    This is not to be understood that a man could thus devote to destruction a member of his family. The cases mentioned in Scripture are such as that recorded in Numbers 21:2-3, where the Israelites devoted to destruction a Canaanitish people that had made war upon them; or where God himself ordered such a devotion to be made, as in the case of Jericho and all its possessions (Joshua 6.17-19).

    The law mentioned in these two verses has been appealed to by the enemies of Divine revelation as a proof, that under the Mosaic dispensation human sacrifices were offered to God; but this can never be conceded. Had there been such a law, it certainly would have been more explicitly revealed, and not left in the compass of a few words only, where the meaning is very difficult to be ascertained; and the words themselves differently translated by most interpreters. That there were persons, devoted to destruction under the Mosaic dispensation, is sufficiently evident, for the whole Canaanitish nations were thus devoted by the Supreme Being himself, because the cup of their iniquity was full; but that they were not sacrificed to God, the whole history sufficiently declares.

    This verse says, "Devoted of men", not by men, as some would elude. For it is manifest both from this and the foregoing verses, that men are here not the persons devoting, but devoted to destruction, either by God's sentence, as idolaters (Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy 23:15), the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:17), the Amalekites (Deuteronomy 25:19, I Samuel 15:3,26), Benhaded (I Kings 20:42), or by men, in pursuance of such a sentence of God (Numbers 21:2; 31:17), or for any crime of an high nature (Judges 21:5, Joshua 17:15).

    But this is not to be generally understood, as some have taken it, as if a Jew might by virtue of this text, devote his child or his servant to the Lord, and thereby oblige himself to put them to death. For this is expressly limited to all that a man hath, or which is his, that is, which he hath a power over. But the Jews had no power over the lives of their children or servants, but were directly forbidden to take them away, by that great command, thou shalt do no murder (Exodus 20:13). And seeing he that killed his servant casually by a blow with a rod was surely to be punished (Exodus 21:20), it could not be lawful wilfully to take away his life upon pretence of any such vow as this. But for the Canaanites, Amalekites, &c. God the undoubted Lord of all men's lives, gave to the Israelites a power over their persons and lives, and a command to put them to death. And this verse may have a special respect to them or such as them.

    But what has Leviticus 27:28-29 to do with human sacrifices? Just nothing. No more than the execution of an ordinary criminal, or a traitor, in the common course of justice, has to do with a sacrifice to God. In the destruction of such idolaters, no religious formality whatever was observed; nor any thing that could give the transaction even the most distant semblance of a sacrifice.

Final Thoughts

It is really astonishing, that the general stream of people, should take it for granted, that Jephthah murdered his daughter!

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