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It's clear that what Jephthah intended was to sacrifice the first animal that he met when he returned home:

Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah. He marched through Gilead and Manasseh, passing Mizpeh of Gilead; and from Mizpeh of Gilead he crossed over [to] the Ammonites. And Jephthah made the following vow to the Lord: “If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”—Judges 11:29-31 (NJPS)

So when it comes time to follow trough on his promise with his daughter, the text says:

After two months’ time, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. She had never known a man. So it became a custom in Israel for the maidens of Israel to go every year, for four days in the year, and chant dirges for the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.—Judges 11:39-40 (NJPS)

It seems clear that she was, in fact, offered as a burnt offering in violation of Leviticus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 18:10. Wikipedia, however, notes:

According to the commentators of the rabbinic Jewish tradition, Jepthah's daughter was not sacrificed, but was forbidden to marry and remained a spinster her entire life, fulfilling the vow that she would be devoted to the Lord.

And cites as a source:

Radak, Book of Judges 11:39; Metzudas Dovid ibid

Can this position be supported by the text or is it a pious reading intended to clear Jephthah of wrong-doing?

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I'll answer this more tonight. One thing that supporters of the non-death sacrifice (i.e. that she never married) cite is that she says, "I will go to bewail my virginity." She doesn't bewail her coming death, but the fact that she never married. More to come. :) –  Frank Luke Feb 21 '12 at 19:03
    
See also: Did Jephthah sacrifice his daughter? –  Jon Ericson Jan 4 '13 at 21:55
    
Jon, Today I was reading an article in Wikipedia about E. W. Bullinger, an Anglican theologian from the late 18oo's. I noticed a link to a chapter from his commentary on Hebrews, "Did Jephtha Really Sacrifice His Daughter: an Analysis of Judges 11:31." I remembered your question and through you might be interested. [PDF] –  Sarah Mar 31 '13 at 23:41
    
Bullinger points out (see above PDF) that the verse can read, "“If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s OR shall be offered by me as a burnt offering." He says, "This is done by observing the well known rule that the connective particle [vav] is often used as a disjunctive, and mean “or”, when there is a second proposition." He points out the instruction in Lev. 27 for how to redeem a person (v1-8), animal (v9-13), or house (v14-15), if a man has consecrated them in a vow. –  Sarah Apr 3 '13 at 12:40
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7 Answers

up vote 22 down vote accepted

In support of the human sacrifice theory, Kaiser in Hard Sayings of the Bible says:

  1. People, even servants of God, do horrid things. This era was very corrupt and there is no reason to see Jephthah as substantially different than his contemporaries.

  2. The sacrifice of his daughter is the most natural way to interpret the text. Gleason Archer (who opposes this view) states that the term for "burnt offering" is 'ola and always elsewhere means a blood sacrifice wholly consumed on the altar by fire.

  3. Early writers all understood this as a human sacrifice. The idea of perpetual virginity is not found until the Middle Ages.

  4. It is alleged that the grammar of 11:31 allows only human sacrifice coming from the house not an animal.

Some of the supporters of a non-death sacrifice are Gleason Archer in A Survey of Old Testament Introduction and Keil & Delitzsch in Commentary on the Old Testament.

To summarize their arguments (and those of others),

  1. Human sacrifice was always understood from the days of Abraham onward to be an offense and an abomination. It had been denounced and forbidden in Lev 18:21; 20:2-5; Dt 12:31; 18:10. There is no evidence of Israelites offering human sacrifice until the days of Ahaz.

  2. His daughter went for two months to the mountains to bewail her virginity, not the coming loss of life. Though some argue that this should be read as "youth" instead of "virginity," K&D show that the terms are not interchangable. Also, she goes to the mountains to mourn. K&D say that were she mourning her youth, that could be done in town, but bewailing her virginity required that she leave town.

  3. It is stated in verse 39 after Jephthah had performed his "burnt offering" that "she knew not a man." Such wording would be inane and heartless if she had died but is appropriate if she was devoted to service at the tabernacle. There are other examples of such women in Scripture; Ex 28:8; 1 Sam 2:22; and Luke 2:36,37. The pathos here lies not in the daughter's devotion to divine service but in the extinction of Jephthah's line as she is his only child. Both he and she bewailed her virginity.

  4. There is no condemnation of Jephthah's act even though Gideon's heathen acts are condemned.

  5. She was considered a heroine and the women of Israel celebrated her. It is unlikely they would have done so had she volunteered for a pagan ceremony. However, most translations take lthannoth as "lament" or variations thereof. Archer says it can be taken along the lines of celebration. Brown, Driver, Briggs Lexicon points out that this is modern and older versions (including the Septuagint) take the 11:40 as mourn. They [BDB] also point out that the word is used positively in Judges 5:11, "let them recount the victories of YHWH." Jud 5:11 and 11:40 are the only two occurrences of the word in the Hebrew Bible.

  6. Jephthah judges Israel for 6 years afterwards. It is hard to see how the people would have stood for him leading them after this.

Kaiser concludes one way; Archer concludes another. Those are two men whom I respect very much. Personally, I conclude with Archer.

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+1 I had no idea there were such cogent arguments for the perpetual virginity position. I falsely jumped to the conclusion that it was simply a "surely not" position. I will have to think over this more but I am almost entirely persuaded. –  Kazark May 16 '12 at 20:28
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E. W. Bullinger, an Anglican theologian from the late 18oo's, shares some insightful information regarding this question: "Did Jephtha Really Sacrifice His Daughter: an Analysis of Judges 11:31."

Bullinger points out that the verse can read, "“If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s OR shall be offered by me as a burnt offering." He says, "This is done by observing the well known rule that the connective particle [vav] is often used as a disjunctive, and means “or”, when there is a second proposition." He points out the instruction in Lev. 27 for how to redeem a person (v1-8), animal (v9-13), or house (v14-15), if a man has consecrated them in a vow.

This is not a full answer of itself, and better supplements/supports the second half of Frankluke's answer. But I felt it was too rich to leave in the comment section.

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In addition to the above we can be certain that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter as a literal human sacrifice because such a thing was not practiced by true worshipers of Jehovah (Yahweh). It was a characteristic of cruel pagan worship to Baal and Chemosh but not to the true God. Jehovah's view of such sacrifices is plainly seen at Jeremiah 7:31. He describes such cruelty as "a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart." (New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures)

Edit:

In view of the comments below, I might add the rendering in the Revised New World Translation (2013) that makes the text clearer:

Jephthah said: "'Oh no, my daughter! You have broken my heart, for you have become the one I have banished.'" (Judges 11:35)

"She then said to her father: 'Let this be done for me: Let me be alone for two months, and let me go away into the mountains, and let me weep with my friends because I will never marry.'" (Judges 11:37 ftn.)

"She never had relations with a man. And it became a custom in Israel: From year to year, the young women of Israel would go to give commendation to the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year." (Judges 11:39, 40)

The rendering here does not suggest Jephthah had in mind a literal sacrifice, but a lifetime of devotion at the Tabernacle, similar to the devotion of Samuel and to the devotion of other women (1 Samuel 1:11, 24; Exodus 38:8). Why would Jephthah's daughter weep because she would never marry, and not rather because she would die? Also, the rendering in the Revised New World Translation here differs from others when it says that the women of Israel would give commendation to her, rather than mourn her death.

For more information on this view and interpretation, follow this link:

http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2007362#h=14:0-21:317

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While I agree that God commanded Israel to not sacrifice their children and the Jephthah ought to have broken his vow, the text seems to indicate that he did kill his daughter. People in the Bible often do things that are cruel and wicked. So while this is an interesting comment on the question, it doesn't seem to answer it. –  Jon Ericson May 1 '12 at 22:34
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God did not command many things. People still did them. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Mar 31 '13 at 8:21
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-1 for committing the No True Scotsman fallacy and then reading presumptions back into the text. –  Daи Feb 4 at 17:48
    
@JonEricson The pagan nations around them often practiced such cruel and wicked things, but the Bible doesn't record any other examples of faithful worshipers offering human sacrifices with divine approval, as if to imitate their example or set a precedent. In view of the fact that Paul cites Jephthah's example as one to imitate, a rendering that suggests that he performed a human sacrifice seems inconsistent. (Hebrews 11:32) –  John Feb 4 at 20:28
    
Looks like I got an addition downvote =(. Would someone mind commenting on my edit to explain the downvote? –  John Feb 5 at 19:13
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The Old Testament does not shy from death as seen in the Exodus description for breaking the Ten Commandments. This seems to be a similar issue. People try to find a different view that something that is clearly stated in the Bible. Human offerings were not new at the time and was practiced in other cultures. It would be unlikely for the text to have meant something else other than what was stated at the time it was written.

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! I've changed a little formatting on your answer so that it fits with the rest of the site and network (i.e. the link). Thanks for answering and giving a source. Please do more. –  Frank Luke Dec 31 '13 at 16:33
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This is an intriguing segment of the Scriptures.

One. Only Holy Scripture can assist us, at this time.

It is possible to defend both positions from Scriptures. However, as of right now, it is not possible to defend any position from outside Scripture.

The rabbinical text quoted by Bob Jones was written many centuries after the fact, and the author of that rabbinical text makes several grave errors. One such error is placing Jephthah in the same generation as Phinehas. Phinehas was from the time of Moses and Joshua. Jephthah lived some 300 to 400 years later.

We have no extra-biblical evidence or commentary from the days of the Judges, so far, which leaves us reliant on the Scriptures for clues to figure out what happened.

Two. Times of Renewal not Corruption.

I've read in many places that Jephthah lived in a very corrupt time-period, and that in his ignorance, or perhaps in his semi-pagan understanding, it was feasible that he might've killed his daughter.

Unfortunately for that line of argumentation, the Scriptures do not support it. On the contrary, Israel had just repented and turned to the Lord in a powerful way. Just 3 verses before Jephthah is introduced, we read this:

And the sons of Israel said to the LORD, We have sinned. Do You to us whatever is good in Your eyes; only deliver us, we pray You, today. And they put away the strange gods from among them, and served the LORD. And His soul was moved by the misery of Israel.* (Judges 10:15,16)

Finally, Jephthah's immense knowledge of Moses' and Joshua's writings lead to no other conclusion than that he knew very well that sacrificing (to death) a human would not in any way please God, and that he could offer an alternative sacrifice as provisioned in the Law (Lev. 27). His correspondence to the Ammonites in Judges 11 show his mastery of the Scriptures.

I don't claim to know what really happened, but it seems to me that he did not kill his daughter. There may have been another practice -- which involved virginity -- of which we are not aware today.

That Jewish writers, many centuries later, wrote that Jephthah did indeed kill his daughter only shows those writers' thought-patterns, not Jephthah's. Some Jewish authorities from intertestamental times made claims that the Torah existed before God and is more powerful than God, etc. It was against such people and ideas that Jesus stood against.

Conclusion

I hope this helps, or at least guides us in the right direction.

I personally believe the answer must be found in the Mosaic Law or in customs of the day that are unfamiliar to us. Lev. 27:2-8 seem to speak of sanctifying or dedicating people (humans), through a "special vow." This seems to indicate tabernacle service. (Yet, Samuel was sanctified in this way, and he married.) Could this be what Jephthah did, combined with some other practice of his day?

In contrast, Lev. 27:29 seems to speak of things and humans that are "devoted." And they cannot be redeemed, but put to death. Many commentators firmly believe that this is referring to pagan prisoners of war, in which case Jephthah's daughter would not qualify.

Arguments for both sides look for clues in the Hebrew of Judges 11 to know if it was a vow of "sanctifying" or "devoting."

Regardless, it seems obvious to me that something else is going on. We are missing a piece of the puzzle that is not given us. I believe she was not killed, but she was sanctified in a way that she could never be married. And this was celebrated or commemorized by Jewish women for some generations.

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There is a discussion of this answer -- specifically, whether the problematic paragraph should be edited out -- on meta. –  Gone Quiet Apr 3 '13 at 2:37
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Can you support "Some Jewish authorities from intertestamental times made claims that the Torah existed before God and is more powerful than God, etc"? I know of no such scholars making such claims. (I'm also not sure what it has to do with this question, which isn't about such claims.) –  Gone Quiet Apr 3 '13 at 12:39
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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange. It sounds like you have a good knowledge of Scripture; your insights will be welcome I'm sure. I noticed you said, "I've read in many places that . . . " I encourage you, instead of working from memory, to find at least one one of those sources and interact with specific points of their stance. It will strengthen your answer and add to your credibility on the forum. –  Sarah Apr 4 '13 at 13:40
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Rashi says she was killed:

and it was a statute: They decreed that no one should do this anymore (i.e., they publicized that no one should offer a human being), because had Jephthah gone to Phinehas or vice versa, he would have nullified his (i.e., Jephthah’s) vow (i.e., he would have instructed him what the law is in such an instance). However, they were particular about their honor, and as a result she was destroyed. Consequently, they were punished; Phinehas, by the Divine presence leaving him as it is stated in (I) Chron. (9:20) “Previously God was with him,” so we see subsequently God was not with him; and Jephthah was afflicted with boils and dismemberment as it is stated, (below 12:7) “And he was buried in the cities [pl.] of Gilead.” (His limbs were buried in the various cities.) We can also interpret “And it was a statute in Israel” as connected to the following verse.

here

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Excellent find! Not only was she killed, but if Jephthah had submitted the problem to the priest she might have been saved. Seems very reasonable, if a bit speculative. +1 –  Jon Ericson May 27 '12 at 0:40
    
@Jon Of course Jon there is a picture of Christ in it all, but I hesitate to share it. –  Bob Jones May 27 '12 at 1:54
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You see Jesus everywhere. ;-) I see a connection too, but it seems like it would be reading into the text rather than reading out of it. –  Jon Ericson May 27 '12 at 2:58
    
It is not reading into it if God intended it to be there. Jesus said all the scriptures spoke of him. –  Bob Jones May 27 '12 at 3:12
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A tanakh-based answer to a tanakh question is sound (and earned an upvote from me). Adding your Jesus speculation in comments seems like the right approach to me; were it in the answer it would earn a downvote from me instead. –  Gone Quiet Mar 31 '13 at 2:10
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There is no mention in the text of dedication or of the tabernacle, and so the main thing recommending an interpretation involving those things is the bewailing of virginity. I won't go so far as to say that a reading of dedication to tabernacle service is completely unwarranted; but I want to give some push back to some of the points in Frank Luke's answer because I think it's easy for our reading to be skewed in as much as we underestimate the importance the culture of Jephthah's day placed on bearing children.

There are a couple passages worth examining in this regard. Consider the lengths to which Lot's daughters are willing to go in order to bear children and preserve the family line. Or consider the feud in Genesis 29:31-30:24 where Leah and Rachel perceive not only the LORD's love towards them, but also their own sense of worth or disgrace, in relation to their ability to bear children for Jacob, to the point that Rachel demands of Jacob, "Give me children, or I’ll die!"

Even accepting a dedication reading of Judges 11, one cannot fail to see the gravity with which the characters perceived the perpetual virginity of Jephthah's daughter. The prospect of it removes any rejoicing over the victory Jephthah has just won. He tears his clothes in devastation. His daughter requests two months to roam the hills and weep that she will never marry.

The narrative in Judges 21 further extends this point. The Israelites of the day prove quite willing to put to death their fellow Israelites - even for a failure to assemble - but are unwilling and grieved to let the line of the Benjamin be cut off.

So, we might read 11:39 and find "she knew not a man" to be a rather inane and heartless remark if it is in regard to someone who has just died; but would the original readers have found it so?

In my opinion, part of the narrative's contribution to the canon is to underscore the high value placed in that day on a woman's ability to bear children and continue the family line; and it does so by juxtaposing the perceived tragedy of virginity with the tragedy of death. In doing so, it serves to advance the theme of Judges, that, "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit."

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Thanks for the push back. I appreciate it. I found it difficult to find many people supporting the human sacrifice stance today. So you're saying that the biggest tragedy of her death (as the Hebrews would see it) is that it ends her father's line? –  Frank Luke Feb 22 '12 at 22:22
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@FrankLuke I guess I'd say the ending of her father's line would be part of the tragedy in her death, but also just that it was considered a disgrace for a woman to remain barren (cf. Gen. 30:23, Ruth 1:12-13, 1 Sam. 1:6-7, Luke 1:25) because her felt telos was bound up with providing children (esp. sons). Naomi is hopeless not because she has lost her sons (though of course she weeps for that), but because she cannot provide new sons for her daughters-in-law. –  Soldarnal Feb 23 '12 at 0:14
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protected by Daи Feb 4 at 17:51

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