The story of Jephthah appears in Judges 11. The first 29 verses describe his military exploits as a commander in a war against the Ammonites. Judges 12 continues the account of his military victories. The intervening section (11:30-40) describes Jephthah’s vow to make a sacrifice to God and his terrible dilemma in having to sacrifice his daughter to fulfill that vow.

And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, “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 the LORD’S, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” … Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; 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 he did with her according to the vow he had made.

Judges 11:30-31, 34-35, 39
The Daughter of Jephthah, Alexandre Cabanel, 1879. Wikimedia commons.

This section poses a number of problems, the foremost being that the book of Deuteronomy specifically condemned making human sacrifices (Deuteronomy 12:29-31; 18:10), and there is a scholarly consensus that Judges is “Deuteronomistic,” that is, the books share many themes in common (together with Joshua, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings). It is quite unexpected to see tacit approval being given to a human sacrifice in a Deuteronomistic book, or for it not to be condemned. Several attempts have been made over the centuries to justify Jephthah’s actions, or to explain them in terms other than human sacrifice. One explanation which has been popular since it was first offered by the medieval Rabbi David Kimḥi (1160–1235) is that the daughter wasn’t actually sacrificed but spent the remainder of her life in seclusion.

Thomas Römer, an eminent Swiss biblical scholar, has noted that the story of Jephthah’s vow and sacrifice is literarily quite different to the surrounding verses and there are signs that it was inserted at a later time.1 For example, verse 29 begins with “then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah” and whenever we find this expression elsewhere in Judges it immediately causes the defeat of the enemy (e.g. Judges 3:10; 14:19 see also 1 Samuel 11:6). Römer thinks it is “quite astonishing” that here it is followed by Jephthah’s vow instead of the expected defeat of the Ammonites which comes in v.32-33. If “the spirit of the LORD” had come upon him he would have been empowered by such to defeat the enemy and a vow would have been unnecessary. It is equally astonishing that when Jephthah recounts his victories to the men of Ephraim (12:1-6) he completely omits any mention of the huge personal cost involved. This might suggest that the earliest version of Judges did not include the story of the vow and sacrifice. A somewhat similar story involving vows appears in 1 Samuel 14:24, describing how Saul “committed a very rash act on that day. He had laid an oath on the troops, saying, ‘Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on my enemies.'” The story goes on to explain that his son Jonathan, unaware of his father’s vow, ate some wild honeycomb (v. 27) and was condemned to death by his father (v. 39-44). However, the people rallied to Jonathan’s defence and refused to allow the execution (v. 45-46). In view of this story, also in a “deuteronomistic” history, we would be right to question why no attempt was made by anyone in the story of Jephthah to persuade him to change his mind or condemn his rash behaviour. Even stranger is the fact that God is silent and does not intervene or even comment one way or the other.

Römer also noted that there is an inclusio between verses 30 and 39. An inclusio is marked by similar phraseology which acts like ‘bookends’ around a text marking the beginning and end of the text or section and is fairly common in biblical Hebrew. The ‘bookends’ here are the words וַיִּדַּ֨ר יִפְתָּ֥ח נֶ֛דֶר Jephthah vowed a vow (v. 30) and וַיַּ֣עַשׂ לָ֔הּ אֶת־נִדְר֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָדָ֑ר he did according to the vow he had vowed (v. 39). This could suggest that this story once stood alone as an independant text and was incorporated into the story at a later stage of editing or redaction. However, Römer has detected a number of features which convince him that the story of the vow and sacrifice never existed independantly but was composed at a late stage to fit into its context. Together with other scholars, he argues that the tale of Jephthah’s vow and sacrifice contains several motifs which can be found in folk literature all over the world, such as a rash vow bringing disaster on the person who made it, and a father being obliged to sacrifice his only child (including the tale of Iphigenia in Greek mythology). Römer thinks that the writer of this section in Judges 11 was aware of Euripides’ version of the tale of Iphigenia. I won’t go into all the similarities here, except to say that in both stories the daughters run to greet their father, they both accept voluntarily to be sacrificed and both stories end with the daughter being lamented and memorialised by other young women.

We know from other biblical texts which were written during the exile or later (such as Ecclesiastes (aka Qohelet) that ‘official’ Deuteronomistic theology was challenged as a result of its inability to adequately explain the reasons for the exile. Ecclesiastes includes some advice about vows:

When you make a vow to God, do not delay fulfilling it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Fulfill what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not fulfill it. 

Qohelet / Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 (3-4 in Hebrew)

This maxim seems to be speaking directly about Jephthah’s situation. Römer argues that the account of Jephthah’s vow and sacrifice in Judges 11:30-40 is a late addition to Judges, made by the final redactor in the post-exilic Persian period or early Hellenistic period. As such, it is “a narrative application of Qohelet’s sceptical maxim” which criticised Deuteronomistic theology in the same way Qohelet / Ecclesiastes does. His arguments have not convinced everyone2 but they do provide an interesting and rational explanation for a problem which might not otherwise be solved.

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1 Römer, Thomas C. “Why Would the Deuteronomists Tell About the Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter?”. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 77 (1998): 27-38.

2 See for example Janzen, David. “Why the Deuteronomist Told about the Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 29, no. 3 (2005): 339-57.