One of my women’s classes just reached the story of Jephthah’s daughter. Once again I have enjoyed watching the dawning of realization in the eyes of those who thought they knew something but found otherwise, followed by the absolute joy of discovery as they looked again at old passages and found new things. It’s addictive.
Studying Judges 11 is about learning what “context” really means. The context of that chapter isn’t just the chapters before and after. It isn’t even just the whole book of Judges. The context involves the Law of Moses, both the historical and legal aspects, the prophets, and even the gospels.
Jephthah did with his daughter “according to his vow,” 11:39. If you want to know exactly what he did, you first need to investigate the laws about vows.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with making a vow. All my life I have heard about the “rash vow made in the heat of battle.” Wrong. The vow was well before the battle. I have heard about “the lack of faith in making a deal with God—if you’ll do this God, I’ll do that.” Wrong. The law expected men to make such vows. It was common and considered a sign of piety and devotion to God. After all, they went to God with their requests, not to an idol. In fact, Jacob and Hannah both made vows with the same formula (Gen 28 and 1 Sam 1), as did others.
Jephthah did not expect an animal to greet him at the gate when he came home. The correct reading of 11:31 is whosoever not whatsoever. Perhaps he expected a servant to be outside working, to see him coming from a distance and meet him to help him unload his gear. Whoever he expected, it was not his daughter.
The Law did make provisions for vowing people. Just read Leviticus 27. When a person was vowed to God, they were redeemed with a certain amount of money, and then their lives devoted to God. Ever read the story of Hannah and Samuel? Hannah did the same thing to Samuel that Jephthah planned to do to whoever came to meet him, vowed him to God, which to his dismay turned out to be his daughter.
Besides knowing the law, it helps to know the meaning of the word “devoted.” The Israelites were required to “devote” Jericho to God as the firstfruits of the land of Canaan. To do this they burned it, Josh 6:18,24, except for a few things that were “devoted” to the treasury. That Hebrew word for “devoted,” is also translated “cursed,” “destroyed,” “consecrated,” or “dedicated,” depending upon what is devoted. It is found all through Lev 27, the very place we found how to vow people to God. When Jephthah speaks of offering a “burnt offering,” he is simply using an idiom for “devoting” someone to God. According to the law, she had to be redeemed instead of killed and burned.
So how was she devoted to God? Evidently it involved celibate service of some kind. What was it she mourned? Her virginity—the fact that she would never marry, 11:37, not impending death. What happened immediately after he fulfilled his vow? “She knew not a man” 11:39, evidently for the rest of her life. That phrase makes no sense if she were killed. For men celibacy was not an issue--Samuel had sons--but I can well believe that for women in that culture who wished to vow themselves, or who were vowed by another, it had to be otherwise. In fact, according to the law, a husband could undo his wife’s vow, so it made sense that she should not put herself in a position where that might happen if she truly wished to devote herself to God. We read of women who served at the door of the tent of meeting in 1 Samuel 2:22. In Luke we read of Anna who, after her husband’s death, instead of remarrying, spent her remaining days at the temple, which turned out to be several decades.
And finally: in the Law, human sacrifice was perhaps the most odious crime listed. “Thou shalt not…” it plainly said, Lev 18:21. It was “an abomination,” Deut 12:31. Anyone who did was to be “put to death,” because God would “set his face against that man,” as well as the people who tolerated it, Lev 20:2-5. Jephthah was not only not executed, he served as judge for six more peaceful years, Judges 12:7, and that was after successfully putting down a rebellion, 12:1-6. Get out your Bibles and read your prophets, particularly Jeremiah 19. God would never have allowed Jephthah to continue as judge, or succeed in battle (“and the Lord gave them into his hand” 11:32), if he had participated in human sacrifice.
See what I mean about context? Where did we go to find all this information about vows and devoting people to God? We went to Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1 Samuel, Jeremiah, and Luke. If you don’t know your scriptures, you can make some dreadful mistakes. For one thing, you can misjudge a man and completely miss some of the lessons his faithful life can teach you—which we will look at next time.
American Standard Version (1901)--And the daughters of Israel went yearly to celebrate the daughter of Jephthah…
New World Translation--...the daughters of Israel would go to give commendation to the daughter of Jephthah…
King James Version, New Encyclopedic Reference Edition margin--And the daughters of Israel went yearly to talk with the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year. Judges 11:40.