Whenever I come across an odd story in the Old Testament, I feel compelled pull it apart and try to make some sense out of it. Why is it there? Does it have some symbolic meaning of which we are unaware? Are we misinterpreting crucial aspects? Would it make more sense within the cultural milieu? Such is the story of Jephthah, one of the Biblical judges.
This strange little story begins with an "unlikely hero," Jephthah, the son of a prostitute. He was taken into his father's family and raised there, but after the death of his father the legitimate children forced him to leave. He made some reputation for himself among a band of "vain men," so that when his countrymen needed help against the Ammonites, they came to him. Jephthah agreed to captain an army against Ammon, in return for being named their titular head. His first military action was an attempt to negotiate with the enemy. When that did not work, he gathered together the men of Israel. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he went forth to battle, making a interesting vow to the Lord. If the Lord would help him win the battle, he would dedicate to the Lord and offer up for a burnt offering whatever should come forth from the doors of his house to meet him when he returned.
After a successful conquest, Jephthah returned home and was greeted by his daughter, his only child. That she was a precious and only child is pointed up by the fact that the judges immediately before and after him were Jair (who had thirty sons who rode on thirty ass colts), and Ibzan (who had thirty sons and thirty daughters). The number of children is the only fact we are told about these two judges, making it very likely that they are there solely for the reason of emphasizing Jephthah' only begotten child. But she was a female.
Not only was human sacrifice forbidden by the Lord, (Deut. 18:10), but burnt offerings were to be firstborn males (Lev. 1:3). Nevertheless, Jephthah had made a vow, and intended to keep it. His daughter acquiesced, asking only for two months time to go up to the mountains with some friends and "bewail her virginity." At the end of the two months, she returned to her father, and he "did with her according to his vow which he had vowed, and she knew no man." Thereafter it became a custom for the daughters of Israel to go up four days in a year to lament the fate of the daughter of Jephthah.
The tradition of Biblical scholars is to interpret this vow of Jephthah's as an impetuous and evil action which had disastrous consequences. That Latter-day Saints have followed in this tradition is clear from the chapter heading of Judges 11: "He makes a rash vow which leads to sacrifice of his only daughter."
This interpretation is problematic for at least two reasons. First, if this was a "rash vow," why would the Lord be given credit for bringing about the victory of Jephthah's army? In the Book of Judges, the people are punished with captivity and defeat when they forsake the Lord. Second, why would Jephthah make such a vow? Did he think perhaps an animal would be the first out the door to greet him? (In ancient Israel the animals were sometimes kept in the house.) What if the animal was an unclean one, such as a dog? To offer up such a sacrifice would be a great affront. But perhaps the greatest problem Biblical scholars face in the exegesis of this passage is the inclusion of Jephthah in Hebrews 11--the "faith chapter." Here Jephthah is included along with the great heroes of the Old Testament in obtaining "a good report through faith."
I rather favor an interpretation that became popular in medieval times--that Jephthah was promising only to dedicate his daughter to the Lord and not to kill her. This would parallel Jephthah's daughter more to Samson and to Samuel than to Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac. But it would preserve the Messianic shadowing. Several points make this interpretation possible:
- The Hebrew "vav" usually translated "and" may also be translated as "or" rendering the reading in Judges 11:31: "whatsoever cometh forth...to meet me...shall surely be the Lord's, or I will offer it up as a burnt offering." Thus Jephthah's method of sacrifice would depend upon what came forth out of his door.
- The daughter departed into the mountains to "bewail her virginity," not her death. It is possible that she was being offered to some type of temple service which would necessitate her remaining unwed for the rest of her life. Note verse 39 which says that Jephthah kept "his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man." This last clause would seem awkward and unnecessary if she were being put to death.
- Certain Hebrew scholars believe that for as long as she lived, the virgins of Israel went at different times, each for four days in the year, to provide comfort and encouragement to the daughter of Jephthah at the tent of meeting. This custom must have ended at her death, since there is no further reference to it in scripture or Jewish history.