Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be yours, O Lord, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he smote them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a very great slaughter. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And when he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.” And he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made. She had never known a man. And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.
Scholars and theologians have debated for a long time whether or not Jephthah really sacrificed his daughter. I think it’s plain that he did, and until the Middle Ages, every commentator on record (even Josephus, Antiquities, 5.7.10) thought so. But since the 13th century, both Jewish and Christian apologists have claimed that Jephthah dedicated her to God rather than sacrificed her — that is, sent her away to the tabernacle where she became a lifelong Nazirite.
After all, these apologists claim, his daughter did not bewail the fact that she was about to die; she bewailed her virginity and that she had never known a man. But it’s one and the same thing. In Israelite culture a woman’s view of her worth was often based on producing children. That’s why Sarah (Gen 16:2), Rachel (Gen 30:1), and Hannah (I Sam 1:6,10-11) are so desperate over the question of their barrenness. Rachel even says that she would prefer death over barrenness. Jephthah’s daughter agonizes over her virginity precisely because she is going to die without having left the world any children — a “worthless woman”, in effect.
There are other problems with the “dedication” view. The most glaring one is the fact that Jephthah’s daughter isn’t even eligible to serve at the tabernacle. The Torah forbids tabernacle service to anyone of illegitimate birth, and to that person’s descendents down to the tenth generation (Deut 23:2). Jephthah was the son of a harlot (Judges 11:1), so neither he nor his daughter could enter the assembly of the Lord. If he really wanted to dedicate his daughter in some way like this, he would have had to redeem her with a ransom price of 30 shekels (Lev 27:2,4), because she could not serve there.
Jephthah sacrificed his daughter exactly as the text implies. The question then becomes whether or not God approved the sacrifice.
Was the human sacrifice approved or condemned by God?
Neither, I’m afraid.
Atheists and skeptics enjoy pointing out that because “the spirit of the Lord” was upon Jephthah, his vow and sacrifice of his daughter were indeed divinely approved. This allows them to revel in the fact that God is a bloodthirsty deity who approves human sacrifice. Christian apologists are held in check by this charge, which is why they argue so strenuously against the plain meaning of the text.
In fact, the text does not say that the spirit of the Lord inspired Jephthah’s vow. The spirit of the Lord is what caused him to marshal an army and advance quickly on the Ammonites. Only after this did he make his vow. The Hebrew Bible is replete with examples of “the spirit of the Lord coming on people” to do certain things, and yet these people go on to do bad things. One example is Samson, who under the spirit of God killed a lion with his bare hands (Judges 14:6) and 1000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone (Judges 15:14-15). But he also fornicated with a prostitute (Judges 16:1) and had an affair with Delilah (Judges 16:4-20). Balaam, Gideon, Saul, and David are other examples. David is an especially righteous figure, but God didn’t approve him killing a man and stealing his wife.
These figures were understood to be righteous down into New Testament times. The epistle of Hebrews lists Jephthah as a clear hero of the faith — right alongside Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, and Samuel (Heb 11:32-34). He is not discredited for sacrificing his daughter, any more than David is for committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing Uriah; any more than Samson is for his perfidies.
And there’s the rub. Jephthah is a clear biblical hero. He’s not a Cain, or a Jezebel, or a Herod, or a Judas. If God didn’t approve his human sacrifice, he didn’t find it repugnant enough to blackball him. Skeptics have a point when they brandish Jephthah’s sacrifice as something very ugly, and apologists have understandable reasons for pretending the event didn’t happen. The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter isn’t approved, but nor is it judged to be unspeakable. Jephthah — no less than Abraham — remained forever in the bosom of the Lord.