Jephthah’s Daughter: Human Sacrifice or Exiled Servant?

If Hagar’s story was a soap opera, Tamar’s an episode of Law and Order, then the story of Jephthah’s daughter is a Greek Tragedy. Found in Judges 11:29-40, this is the account of a single moment of faithlessness in the life of an otherwise godly man. His sin has life-long effects for the innocent daughter he so greatly cherished. And yet as you dig deeper into this story there are some major lessons we can all take to heart.

Jephthah, one of the infamous judges of Israel, made a rash promise to God. If God gave him victory in battle, he would sacrifice to God the first thing that stepped out of his house. … The first thing that stepped out was his teenage daughter. Read the full account here. There is a great deal of controversy regarding this gruesome story. What really happened? Why did Jephthah do what he did? How could God let an innocent girl suffer?

Theory #1: Jephthah was a pagan, and his daughter suffered from the cruelty of his pagan worship.
Some scholars look at Jephthah’s past (Judges 11:1), and assume that because his mother was a woman of ill repute, he also suffered such an upbringing. They assume he thought God would be pleased with a human sacrifice, like the pagan gods of his ancestors. Many, taking a literal reading of the Word, see his daughter’s fiery fate of being given as a burnt offering as inevitable proof of his pagan ways.

Yet this assumption also brings up some questions…If Jephthah was such a pagan warrior, why is he later referenced as being a godly man? (Hebrews 11:32) If Jephthah was such a human-sacrificing, pagan god-worshipper, how could the Spirit anoint him (Judges 11:29)? If Jephthah was truly as horrible as women like Phylis Trible make him out to be, then who raised such a God-fearing daughter?

Theory #2: Jephthah’s daughter didn’t die – She was given to the temple to serve the rest of her life.
Some scholars use the Hebrew language to argue that the daughter was given in service to the temple, where she lived out her days. People come to this conclusion based on the Hebrew language and its use of connecting words. In English, the connecting words “or” and “and” have very different meanings. But in Hebrew, there is only one connecting word which can have many meanings. Usually, based on the surrounding text, it’s not difficult to figure out which connecting word is meant. However, in this case,it is unclear. Jephthah’s vow,“whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me …shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering,” could be read, “Whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me … shall be the LORD’s, or I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” This difference would be life or death to Jephthah’s daughter. If she was simply given to the Lord, this may have meant that she served the remainder of her life serving in the temple.

However, this theory leaves some unanswered questions as well: If she didn’t die, why the need to mourn? If she merely spent the rest of her days in service to Yahweh, why doesn’t Scripture say that? If his daughter’s life wasn’t cut short in such a tragic way, why the need for an entire nation to lament for four days every year?

What happened to Jephthah’s daughter?
This story does not have a happy ending. Whatever happened to Jephthah’s daughter – whether she was sacrificed or lived as a virgin in the temple – it was not the way she dreamed her life would end. My heart aches for her, an innocent girl suffering the consequences of another’s sin. It’s so unfair. And yet, how often do we turn on the news or read the latest headline, only to be accosted by something else that is unfair in the world around us. This is because we live in a fallen world with fallen people living life from a fallen perspective. But God has a plan and purpose for it all. And what Satan means for evil, God can use for good. (Rom 8:28-29) So what is the “good” that comes out of recording such a horrific story within the very pages of God’s Holy Word? What can we learn from this story?

What this story reveals about us…
Jephthah’s unbelief had HUGE consequences on the life of his daughter. The Lord was already gaining the victory that day. Jephthah didn’t even need to make the vow. He was winning. God was on his side. “The Spirit was upon him,” Scripture says. He had this in the bag. But Jephthah looked at the impossible situation before him and he doubted what God could do. And his daughter suffered for his sin of unbelief.

Our sin never affects just us. NEVER. It always is destroying someone else, something else. That is the nature of sin. So often Satan deludes us into thinking that if we can just hide our sin, no one else will be affected by it. And we are tempted to believe him, the father of lies. We rationalize it, saying, “It’s just between me and God, so let’s keep it that way.” The problem is, it’s not. My sin, your sin, will effect everyone in our sphere of influence. Often those closest to us bear the greatest consequences for our sins. “Sin is crouching at your door seeking to destroy you.” (Gen. 4:7) It is right that we grieve as we read this story, it is a tragedy. Let this serve as a powerful reminder of how our sin will effect the lives of innocents around us.

What this story reveals about God…
Trible, in her Texts of Terror, would have you believe that God’s silence in this story shows that He didn’t care. He could have stopped this tragedy from happening, but He didn’t. Trible uses this logic to conclude that God hates women, especially innocent little girls.

If you’ve read anything in Scripture, you know that IS NOT the God of the Bible (Isa. 63; Ps. 36:7). This type of backhanded crack at the character of God goes against every single place in Scripture where it speaks on the loving kindness of a gracious God (Psalm 52, 136; 1 John 3 & 4). Just because God is silent on an issue doesn’t mean He consented to the acts that occurred. Dr. Tim Pierce explained God’s silence by saying, “the problem …is that people miss the unspoken reflections of consequence that God often communicates. Words matter and where God speaks, we need to give those realities added weight because words remove some of the ambiguousness or “guess-work” in interpretation. But we also need to be cognizant of what God is saying by simply letting the consequences run their course and the people harvesting what they have planted.”

Many skeptics over the years have also had a problem with the book of Esther for this exact reason. God’s name is not mentioned one single time throughout the 10 chapters. However, reading the story, the evidence of God’s handiwork is all over it. How else would you explain how an orphaned Jewish girl becomes the Queen of Persia and saves her people from a certain genocide without the help of her all-powerful and sovereign God? The miracle is unexplainable without the work of God. He’s still there, in the silence. And God is still there in the middle of Jephthah’s daughter’s story as well, not consenting with the events, but also not removed from them.

In these four “Texts of Terror,” we have seen fathers and husbands whose sin drastically effects the lives of women in a negative way. Trible, and feminists like her, say that men are obviously the problem. But Scripture is clear – men are not the problem, sin is. These horrific tales of Hagar’s abuse, Tamar’s rape, the concubine’s murder, and the daughter sacrifice, show us the sinfulness of humanity when we turn from God. It is only in Christ that redemption can be found.

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