On 7/19 we will discuss the actions taken by Jephthah against his daughter. Here is the piece I wrote while a student at Capital Bible Seminary:
In the mythical poem Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Gawain, a knight of Arthur’s fabled round table, accepts a challenge by a green skinned knight to strike him with an axe, if he will take an oath to allow the same to happen to him one year later, should the green knight live. Gawain accepts, decapitating the knight; however, though headless, the magical knight lives and Gawain is faced with the challenge of keeping his sworn oath.
In the book of Judges, a similar circumstance is faced by Japhthah. Japhthah is called on to defend Israel (though they had deposed him from his land) from the Ammonites. Japhthah accepts the challenge, swearing an oath to God that if he is victorious he will sacrifice the, “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me” (Judg 11:31). When he returns home, his only daughter greets him. This text has led Bible scholars like, L. Wood, to question, “…the manner in which Japhthah carried out this vow” (Distressing Days of the Judges, 288). Did Japhthah actually kill his daughter, or did he commit her to a life of service in the temple?
Three reasons are given for a life of servitude in the Tabernacle. The first is noted by Paul P. Enns in his work, Judges, when he writes, “The text emphasizes her perpetual virginity” (93). “His daughter and her companions wept because of her virginity, and the result was that she had no relations with a man” (Judges, 93). Enns follows his argument suggesting that the emphasis on her virginity reveals that Japhthah did not kill his daughter as a burnt offering, but instead offered her up as a tabernacle servant. Enns is not alone. Keil and Delitzsch agree, defining the phrase “knew no man” as a reflection of her sorrow. This sorrow was not due to her impending death, but directly related to not having children (Keil, Judg 11:39-40).The BKC adds that her grief was great because, “…she would die childless (whether sooner or later) and Japhthah would lack descendants” (402).
The second argument for a servitude life comes from Japhthah’s own words. Enns argues in Judges that, “the conjunction in 11:31 can be translated ‘or,’ suggesting a distinction between the two phrases as follows: ‘it shall be the Lord’s, or I will make it up as a burnt offering” (93). Adam Clarke agrees, adding that Japhthah’s vow denotes a “devotion” of his daughter to the temple. This devotion, once uttered in a vow, could not be taken back, despite his anguish, and the laws in Lev 27 (Clarke, Judg 11:39).
Finally, the argument about Japhthah’s piety is presented as an argument for servitude. Enns argues in Judges that Japhthah was a man of God familiar with God’s laws and would have been thinking about Lev 27 when he made the vow. Lev 27 addresses vows and the ransom price that can be paid to redeem what belonged to the Lord (93). L. Woods, author of Distressing Days of the Judges, agrees with Enns assessment of Japhthah’s faithfulness when he notes “…he actually was one who had a high respect for God and His will” (289). Woods expounds on his statement by suggesting four pieces of evidence that reveal no murder took place because Japhthah, being a man of God, would have not violated the prohibition against human sacrifices (Lev 18:21, 20:2-5, Deut 12:31). (1) That Japhthah demonstrated his belief in God when he agreed with the oath at Mizpah “before the Lord” (Judg 11:11-12). (2) No other Judge had made a vow to God during war, which shows that Japhthah’s faith in God was tested and he sought favor. (3) Evidence of his spiritual insight, and his empowerment from God, and the resulting heroic victory over the Ammonites, is mentioned in other scriptures (Heb 11:32, 1 Sam 12:11). (4) Lastly, because he was filled with the “Spirit of the Lord,” (Judg 11:29) God would not void his own rules by allowing the sacrifice.
Given the evidence above, it seems difficult to believe that Japhthah would have literally sacrificed his own daughter. Woods notes several reasons why such a conclusion can be drawn: (1) His excessive grief reveals a tragic event, (2) the mourning of the daughters of Israel (3) The Transjordan’s unfamiliarity with God’s law (4) finally, the wording at the end of the story that suggest, “he did to her as he had vowed” (Judg 11:39) ( Distressing Days Of The Judges, 292). However, it is not until authors like Frank Gaebelien are considered before a darker side of Japhthah’s character is revealed. Gaebelien writes, “the death of this innocent girl came about because of a rash vow” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 3, 456). Gaebelien continues, adding to the sad affair of events that the reason for Japhthah’s dismay came about because, “Japhthah quickly realized what he had done; for his daughter was an only child, and her death would mean the end of his family line” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 3, 456). Gaebelien’s conclusion reveals a sinister side of Japhthah’s character, as an emotionally rash man who saw his vow as, “treating his daughter as a ‘person devoted to destruction’” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol 3, 456). In other words, seeing the item he prized as he saw his enemies. D. Block writes in his book, Judges, Ruth, “Although the present story ends with the death of the young girl, her father is the tragic figure, presenting a pathetic picture of stupidity, brutality, ambition, and self centered,” (373). This conclusion is far from the pious Godly man filled with the Spirit.
Japhthah’s daughter goes into the wilderness and mourns with her friends. Upon her return, Japhthah keeps his vow; but, what did he do? Paul Enns states, “While the text is clearly an interpretive problem, there appears to be more problems suggesting Japhthah sacrificed his daughter as a bunt offering” (Judges, 95). If Enns’ conclusion is true, then what, if anything, is significant of Japhthah’s daughter’s vow? In this case, after two months in the wilderness, much like Gawain who returned to the green skinned knight to be sacrificed (though the knight spared his life), she comes home to face her destiny. The BKC notes, “Whether by death or by perpetual sanctuary service…she submitted herself to her father’s will” (402). In a book where faith waxes and wanes according to the situation, Japhthah’s daughter’s faithfulness to her father’s vow, despite the difficulties for her own welfare, reveals the trust that God seeks from His chosen people; for, “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart” (Ps 51:17). This faithfulness elevates her position in the tale, to the point where her death is almost martyrdom. Therefore, while the text would indicate he did sacrifice his daughter, it is her reaction to the sacrifice which reveals a foreshadowing of Christ’s dedication to the will of God for His life.