Normally, articles that begin with a question answer that question in the negative. But in this case, the answer is yes. The only respectable way to interpret Judges 11:30-40 is to conclude that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. However, many Christians, including Hebrew scholar Miles Van Pelt, have argued otherwise. In this article, I will be responding to Van Pelt’s six arguments against the traditional interpretation of the passage.
His first argument is that Hebrews 11:32 lists him among the heroes of the faith. He asks, “Could the author of Hebrews rightly include Jephthah in this list if his last act as Judge included the illegal and horrific slaying of his own daughter?” But this argument overlooks the great sins of the other heroes of the faith. Samson was sexually immoral, Barak disobeyed the Word of God as prophesied by Deborah, David was an adulterer and a murderer, Solomon engaged in idolatry, Noah was a drunkard, Abraham was a habitual liar, and Peter denied Christ three times. With the exception of Jesus, all of the heroes of the Bible are flawed characters in need of a savior. This is especially true in Judges where everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25). Jephthah’s rash vow is in keeping with the book’s theme of presenting the judges of Israel as flawed heroes who are only instruments in God’s hands. Another mistaken assumption here is that a judge in Israel must be a righteous man or woman parallel to the qualifications to be an elder in the church. Egalitarians use the same logic to argue that women can be pastors because Deborah was a judge of Israel which was a position of leadership. The requirement to be a judge in Israel is not tied to being morally above reproach, but being able to liberate Israel from her enemies.
Second, he argues that “the book of Judges itself affirms the calling and work of these men” so that “to impugn the work of the judge is to impugn the work of the LORD through that judge.” I’m sorry, but this is incredibly poor reasoning. Is he actually arguing that the judges are above reproach so that to dare to impugn them with moral wrong would be tantamount to impugning God with wrong? Where in the book of Judges does it say that God supernaturally prevents the judges from engaging in great sin? Is it impugning the work of Samson to point out that he was a man enslaved to sexual lust? Compare Judges 16:1 with 15:1 and Genesis 38:16-18. He was also infatuated with Delilah which resulted in the poetic irony of having his eyes put out. Another argument he makes at the end of this section is that the text does not explicitly condemn Jephthah for what he did. This is true. But it is also true that Judges does not explicitly condemn the sexual immorality of Samson either. This is why Van Pelt has to argue that Samson was not in fact sexually immoral which is a novel rereading of the text.
Third, he argues that the Spirit came upon Jephthah before he made his rash vow and therefore this vow was the result of the Spirit of the Lord instead of something sinful. But it does not follow that because the Spirit was upon him that somehow he was protected from sinning. This is the Spirit’s work of empowering and gifting him for the work to which God had called him. It is a supernatural gift from God enabling him to defeat the enemies of God’s people. The coming of the Spirit upon him is tied to his work of leading the army of God, not to his rash vow. But if Jephthah’s vow is something that came from the Spirit of God, then why does he regret it later when his daughter walks through the door?
Fourth, he argues that the verb “to meet” in verse 31 implies that Jephthah had in mind meeting a person and not an animal. This may very well be correct because he was expecting to sacrifice a servant in his house instead of his daughter. But it only accentuates how rash and tragic his vow was.
Fifth, he argues that the term “burnt offering” is being used symbolically, not literally. The problem here is that olah is always used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a literal burnt offering. In addition, if this was only a symbolic offering of his daughter to serve the Lord, then why is he so devastated by her coming through the front door? Why would he tear his clothes if she was going to have the honor of serving the Lord in the temple? Why would the daughters of Israel weep year after year for her if this was merely serving the Lord in the temple? Wouldn’t it be a blessing rather than something to weep over continually? Why would she and her friends weep for two whole months as if they would never see each other again? After Jephthah fulfilled his vow, the daughters of Israel continued to mourn for her for four whole days out of every year which assumes she is no longer present with them. Why don’t they do this for the other women who serve at the temple?
Sixth, he argues that child sacrifice was forbidden by God. Of course, that is exactly the point. Jephthah made a rash vow and never should have gone through with it. Van Pelt argues instead that the vow was fulfilled by giving his daughter to the temple to serve God as a perpetual virgin. But Van Pelt is anachronistically reading back into the text the concept of a vow of perpetual virginity from Roman Catholicism which is an evolution of the pagan tradition of having vestal virgins who serve at their temples. The Old Testament knows nothing of vestal virgins or vows of perpetual virginity. The texts Van Pelt cites of women serving at the temple do not prove that these women were all virgins, not married, or would remain unmarried for the rest of their life. Some of these women could have been married to men in the tribe of Levi, older women who already had grown children, women who were infertile, or who were not married yet. To assume that those who were not married would remain unmarried for the rest of their life must be read into the text. What if the father of one of these young women finds a husband for her?
The book of Judges points us to our need for a savior who is without sin and never makes rash vows or kills innocent human beings in violation of Deuteronomy 18:10. We need a savior who offered up himself as a sacrifice for our rash vows. In this sense, Jephthah’s daughter is a type of Christ who submitted herself to her father’s will to be sacrificed for his sin of making a rash vow as Christ submitted himself to his Father’s will to be sacrificed for our sins. The difference is that while Jephthah was a sinful father, our heavenly Father is perfect and always has the best interests of his children in mind.