Human Sacrifice and Jephthah’s Daughter

10 Nov
from Google Images

from Google Images

Richard Dawkins realizes that Christian apologists do interpret Genesis 22 differently than he does, and he abhors what we claim.[1] If he didn’t, what sense would his book, The God Delusion, make, and, perhaps more to the point, what profit could he ever make in commercializing God in a negative style? With the Abraham-and-Isaac event behind him, he goes on to tell us of another human sacrifice in the book of Judges:

In Judges, chapter 11, the military leader Jephthah made a bargain with God that, if God would guarantee Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah would, without fail, sacrifice as a burnt offering ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return’… Not surprisingly, his daughter, his only child, came out of the house to greet him (with timbrels and dances) and – alas – she was the first living thing to do so. Understandably Jephthah rent his clothes, but there was nothing he could do about it. God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering, and in the circumstances the daughter very decently agreed to be sacrificed. She asked only that she should be allowed to go into the mountains for two months to bewail her virginity. At the end of this time she meekly returned, and Jephthah cooked her… [2]

There is a problem with authority in thinking this account means that Jephthah actually burned his daughter, because the Levite priests would have had to also comply with Jephthah’s vow (Judges 11:30-31) and burn his daughter for him at the altar of sacrifice at the Tabernacle. The fact is the priests were not compelled by Jephthah’s vow to do anything other than what the Lord had commanded to be done under the Mosaic Law. Moreover, Jephthah would have had no power over a friend, a neighbor or their spouses or children had they been first to come out of his house to greet him. So, there seems to be the necessity of some consideration concerning what could have answered to Jephthah’s offering to God. In other words some interpretation is necessary, because Jephthah had no power over some people who could have come out to greet him.

Secondly, even when we consider that which was under Jephthah’s authority, the Mosaic Law stipulates that human sacrifice is forbidden. In Deuteronomy 12:31 (see also Deuteronomy 18:10) it clearly specifies that Israel was not to worship the Lord in the same manner as the Canaanites worshiped their gods, and this verse specifically mentions child sacrifice as abhorrent to the Lord. Knowing this, it could hardly be understood that the Levite priests would be obliged to comply with Jephthah’s vow, had he meant to actually burn his daughter on the altar to God (or any other human being for that matter). A pet dog (if Jephthah owned a pet), if it was the first living thing to come from his house, couldn’t be sacrificed, because it was an unclean animal. Unclean animals were never sacrificed on the altar of God. So, even those things under his authority were still subject to the Law of Moses, and the Levites were not compelled to break the Law over Jephthah’s vow.

Rather, I believe the Scripture should be understood that Jephthah was offering to God whatever came from his home to greet him, that he (or she) would be wholly and completely dedicated to God. That is, he or she would serve in the Temple, like Samuel did from early childhood (cf. 1Samuel 1:20-22), or like Anna did from the time her husband died (cf. Luke 2:36-38). The Hebrew word we’re concerned with is olah (H5930), and it simply means a rising up like smoke. The idea of it being a burnt sacrifice is read into the word, and, admittedly, this is the usual translation. However, if we consider its meaning when applied to the Mosaic Law concerning humans, the idea of it being a burnt sacrifice seems out of the question. It cannot be so translated, and the word is translated differently in 1Kings 10:5 and Ezekiel 40:26, showing us that consideration must be made for context.

Therefore, even if Jephthah had actually meant that he would actually burn the flesh of the one who came out to greet him, it would be clearly against the Law of Moses, and he would be doing so against the authority of God. But, even so, he could have redeemed his daughter with money according to the Law (Leviticus 27:1-8), and since both Jephthah and his daughter were distressed over his rash vow, it makes no sense that he wouldn’t choose such a course of action, had an actual burnt sacrifice been intended. Therefore, it seems that Dr. Dawkins is simply wrong, as it pertains to his theological understanding of ancient Israel and their traditions.


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, (Ealing, Bantam Press, 2006), page 243


Posted by on November 10, 2015 in apologetics


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2 responses to “Human Sacrifice and Jephthah’s Daughter

  1. Return of Benjamin

    November 10, 2015 at 09:39

    Jephthah, we see in the text, knows the history of his people, but doesn’t seem to be very knowledgeable about theology, as demonstrated by his error in claiming that Chemosh was the god of Moab (when in fact it was Molech). The point of the story is the same as the point of Judges in general: Every man did what was right in his own eyes, pagan worship was co-mingled with the worship of Hashem, the people were ignorant of the Torah, and Israel desperately needed Godly and wise leadership. This paves the way for the creation of the monarchy in 1 & 2 Samuel. It is entirely possible, therefore, that Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter on an altar of his own making, but did so in tragic ignorance of and rebellion against Hashem’s provision of redeeming a sacrifice with money if it was (or became) unfit.


    • Eddie

      November 10, 2015 at 11:47

      Greetings, Rabbi Mike, and thank you for your input. I agree that many things are **possible** when it comes to what was done in Israel’s history. After all, we are not given an exhaustive account, so much is left to interpretation. I believe we do that by comparing scripture with scripture, because to simply judge something is so without any other foundation would be to simply offer an opinion, just as Dr. Dawkins has done in my blog post above. I believe he was wrong, because he has nothing to base his opinion on except his own bias against belief in God and the accuracy of the Bible. That said, we can compare what Jephthah had done either according to the Law of Moses or against it as King Manasseh had done. While I agree with you that the theme of the book of Judges is that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” nothing is said of Jephthah doing evil. He was ignorant, perhaps, and rash in is vow, but the writer of Judges makes no mention of him doing evil. I have to believe, therefore, that as ignorant as Jephthah might have been, he wasn’t so ignorant that he built an altar (against the Law) and sacrificed his own daughter (against the Law) upon it.

      Lord bless you, and thanks for revisiting my blog.


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