The Book of Judges, Chapter 11 and Jepthah’s “Rash Vow”

In Judges 10, we saw again how Israel fell into idolatry soon after the death of one of the judges.  Going on into chapter 11, we were introduced to Jepthah the Gileadite, who was born out of wedlock.  Gilead’s legitimate sons ran him off in order to keep him from sharing in the inheritance.  He gains a reputation as a man of war, leading a rogue band of warriors.  However, Jepthah was no ordinary rogue.  He knew Israel’s history, and so gave the king of Ammon a history lesson.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  The king of Ammon was about to learn a very hard lesson.

This next section needs a little care, however.  A cursory reading can lead one to a very, very wrong conclusion.  It is a section that skeptics have seized upon to try to invalidate the Bible, or at least to try to invalidate the Christian notion of the God of the Bible.  Worse, even some Christians have fallen into this particular tar pit of “Jepthah’s rash vow”, and it need not be.

 29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.

30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,

31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

~ Jdg 11:29-31

PC Headley’s commentary in “VII. Jeptha’s Daughter” says:

The negotiation closed, and the opposing armies prepared for battle. Then appeared the religious element in the character of Jeptha, however obscured before, in a solemn vow, altogether rashly spoken. He pledged to the Lord, if he would overthrow the legions of Amorites and allow him to return a conqueror peacefully to his dwelling, the first living form he met as a burnt-offering upon the altar of thanksgiving. (Jdg 11:30-31.) It strikes one, from the fact his home was cheered by a loving and only daughter, he must have apprehended the possibility of her welcome upon his triumphant return—but in the brilliant prospects before him and his bleeding country, with the weight of responsibility so unexpectingly assumed, his enthusiasm and the doubtful struggle before him, absorbed all considerations of personal sacrifice, and gave no time for deliberation.

Curiosity is left to conjecture in regard to the particulars of that last parting of Jeptha and his daughter—his fruitless lament while she hung upon his neck, and her soothing accents of cheerful resignation. And when she lay in robes of virgin purity upon the altar, and closed her mild eye, while the high‐priest lifted his burnished blade, what an illustration of the authority of conscience, that brought her there, and which echoes unceasingly when unperverted, the claims of immutable right. It has a whisper more awakening than the trumpet‐blast—and a power that invests a man with the majesty of an angel, or the dark sublimity of a demon.

To this I say when in the politest of moods, “Balderdash!”  Does anyone in their right mind believe this would be acceptable to God Almighty?  What was one of the stated reasons God gave for driving out the Canaanites in the first place?  What particular sin was it that was so contemptuous as to name it?

 30 Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou enquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.

31 Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.

~ Dt 12:30-31

What if a pig came out to greet Jepthah?  Would God be pleased with that as a burnt offering?  A dog?  A cat?  A rat?  A camel?

Notice what occurs right before the “rash vow”:  “Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah”.  Did God know in advance who or what would meet Jepthah when he returned?  Would God’s Spirit give inspiration to a human sacrifice?


Jamieson, Fausset & Brown’s Commentary adds at the end of its commentary on v 31 of The Book of Judges Chapter 11:

shall surely be the Lord’s; and [or] I will offer it up for a burnt offering–The adoption of the latter particle, which many interpreters suggest, introduces the important alternative, that if it were a person, the dedication would be made to the service of the sanctuary; if a proper animal or thing, it would be offered on the altar.

EW Bullinger notes in The Companion Bible:

Here, Jepthah’s vow consisted of two parts: (1) He would either dedicate it to Jehovah (according to Lev 27); or (2) if unsuitable for this, he would offer it as a burnt offering.  He performed his vow, and dedicated his daughter to Jehovah by a perpetual virginity (vv. 36, 39, 40); but he did not offer her as a burnt offering, because if was forbidden by Jehovah, and could not be accepted by Him (Lev. 18.21; 20.2-5).

In addition, I would like to point out Dt 18:10-12:

10 There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch.

11 Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.

12 For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

~ Dt 18:10-12

Jepthah goes on to smite the enemy.

32 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands.

33 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

~ Jdg 11:32-33

Would God have delivered them into Jepthah’s hand if his vow was a sinful one?  Would God have allowed Jepthah to carry through with his vow if it was anything but just?

41 Therefore Saul said unto the LORD God of Israel, Give a perfect lot. And Saul and Jonathan were taken: but the people escaped.

42 And Saul said, Cast lots between me and Jonathan my son. And Jonathan was taken.

43 Then Saul said to Jonathan, Tell me what thou hast done. And Jonathan told him, and said, I did but taste a little honey with the end of the rod that was in mine hand, and, lo, I must die.

44 And Saul answered, God do so and more also: for thou shalt surely die, Jonathan.

45 And the people said unto Saul, Shall Jonathan die, who hath wrought this great salvation in Israel? God forbid: as the LORD liveth, there shall not one hair of his head fall to the ground; for he hath wrought with God this day. So the people rescued Jonathan, that he died not.

~ 1Sa 14:41-45

In addition, may I point out the law of redeeming in Lev 27?  If something cannot be offered, it could be redeemed by the estimation of the priest.  However, the fact that he doesn’t attempt to shows his vow is either a dedication, which cannot be redeemed, or a burnt offering if what meets him is clean.

Of course, his daughter, his only child, meets him upon his return.  He weeps and tells her of his vow.  She actually takes it quite in stride and seems to be the one to comfort him rather than the other way around.

Notice that she does not plead for her life.  Rather, she seems more interested about dying a virgin and without ever being married.  Would this make sense if she were to die?  No, rather, she was to become a special class of worker at the Tabernacle (cf Ex 38:8; 1Sa 2:22; Lk 2:36-37).

So, what does she want to do?  She wants to go with her companions and bewail “her virginity” for two months.  It is interesting to note that a bride then was accompanied by fellow virgins during a wedding (cf Ps 45:13-14; Mt 25:1).  In one sense, she was asking for an “anti-wedding” retreat.

39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel,

40 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.

~ Jdg 11:39-40

I would hotly contest that it would be worded as “did with her according to his vow” if he killed her at this point.  I would also hotly contest that Jepthah himself wouldn’t have been disqualified as leader if not killed if he had done so (cf the disgust felt by Israel when the king of Moab offered his own son (2Ki 3:27).

“And she knew no man” would be an unnecessarily repeated annotation if she had died.

You can go on to Chapter 12 here.

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