“whatever.” This is masculine. It is likely that Jephthah did not even consider one of the women coming out to meet him. More likely a slave or servant. Jephthah was not expecting his daughter to come out of his house, but he was expecting someone or something to come out.
“and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” We agree with E. W. Bullinger,a J. V. McGee,b and C. F. Keilc that Jephthah did not burn his daughter to death upon the altar, but rather dedicated her to the Lord to serve at the Tabernacle, in much the same way as Samuel’s parents dedicated him to the Lord and he served at the Tabernacle (1 Sam. 1:22-28).
There are many reasons to come to this conclusion, but nevertheless, a large number of scholars think that Jephthah did indeed burn his daughter as a human sacrifice. Those scholars generally cast Jephthah as an ungodly and crafty man who lived on the east side of the Jordan and was influenced by the Ammonite and Moabite cultures that engaged in human sacrifice. But that opinion is at odds with the biblical text, which portrays Jephthah as a man of prayer and faith, and a hero of the faith (Heb. 11:32). Also, that ungodly portrayal of Jephthah is also at odds with the character of God, who called Jephthah one of the “judges” of Israel (Judg. 12:7) and supported him by putting His spirit upon him to empower him in war (Judg. 11:29).
Interestingly, scholars who assert that Jephthah dedicated his daughter to the Lord without killing her have reached that conclusion by two different ways. Scholars such as E. W. Bullinger see the Hebrew vav, usually translated “and,” as being an “or” instead of an “and.” In that case, Judges 11:31 would read, “…shall be Lord’s or I will offer it up as a burnt offering. Bullinger writes:
“The Hebrew vav is a connective particle, and is rendered in many different ways. It is also used as a disjunctive, and is often rendered ‘or’ (or, with a negative, ‘nor’)…Here, Jephthah’s vow consisted of two parts: (1) He would either dedicate it to Jehovah (according to Lev. 27); or (2) if unsuitable for this, he would offer it for a burnt offering. He performed his vow, and dedicated his daughter to Jehovah by perpetual virginity (Judg. 11:36, 39, 40); but he did not offer her as a burnt offering because it was forbidden by Jehovah and could not be accepted by Him.”d
Scholars such as C. F. Keil see the vav as an “and,” but conclude that Jephthah was using “burnt offering” in a way that refers to total dedication, not actually an offering that was burned upon the altar, and we believe that is more likely the case. There is biblical evidence that just as Samuel was given to the Lord to minister to Him, that certain women were also given to the Lord (Exod. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22). Also, Keil correctly points out that we cannot expect every custom in the Bible to be spelled out for us in the text; we often have to be sensitive to the context to get the full picture of what is going on in Scripture.
Of the two alternative translations for the vav, “and” and “or,” we feel the stronger case is for “and” because Jephthah’s saying, “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return,” would normally have been spoken of a person. Even animals that were brought into the house at night for safety were outside during the day. In contrast, Jephthah’s servants in the house would have been looking for him to return, and he would have expected one of them to come out to meet him.
The evidence in Scripture is that Jephthah was a godly man and would have followed the Law of Moses. Although he lived on the east side of the Jordan, that does not mean he would not have known or obeyed Yahweh. Scripture never finds fault with Jephthah, and, as was previously stated, he is listed in Hebrews 11:32 as one of the heroes of faith. God put His spirit upon him to empower him, and Yahweh gave the Ammonites into his hand (Judg. 11:32). Many commentators state that Yahweh would have given him victory over the Ammonites without him vowing, and that may be the case, but it misses the point: the reason that Yahweh put His spirit upon Jephthah was certainly due to his godliness. Besides, when Israel sinned, they were often defeated, as Joshua found out the first time he attacked Ai (Josh. 7:1-11), and as God had said they would be (Deut. 28:25).
Also, God specifically called Jephthah one of the “judges” in Judges (Judg. 12:7). Only nine other people in Judges are called “judges,” and they were all people who had human weaknesses but walked with God. In contrast, there was a ruler in Judges who was not godly and ruled without the spirit of God. Earlier in Judges, Abimelech, a son of Gideon, was a crafty, deceitful man who “ruled” Israel for three years (Judg. 9:22) but is never said to have “judged” Israel, and never said to have had the spirit of God come upon him. Thus, the internal evidence in the book of Judges is that Jephthah was a godly man who walked with God.
Jephthah showed a very good knowledge of Israel’s history (Judg. 11:15-27) so we can assume he would have known the Law also, especially commandments such as “Do not murder” (Exod. 20:13) and the many commandments that forbid human sacrifices (Deut. 12:31; cp. Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 18:10). If God would “look the other way” when a man murdered someone in his household whom he had authority over, such as a child or slave, just because he had made a vow, that would have opened the door to much evil. Also, Jephthah was obviously very upset at the consequence of his vow and did not want to have to give his daughter to the Lord, and it seems from that, if Jephthah was the crafty, conniving man that many commentators paint him to have been, he would have figured out a way to get out of his vow. But instead, he saw the importance of keeping his vow to God even though he did not want to (Judg. 11:35). In fact, keeping one’s vows even when it hurts is the mark of a godly person (Ps. 15:4).
Also, although some commentators claim Jephthah made a “rash vow,” there is no actual indication of that in the text. He was not in a war at the time, and the fact that he tried to negotiate a peace treaty with the Ammonites rather than fight a war shows he was not arrogant or uncaring. He made his vow before he ever entered the war, just as Gideon had bargained with God using a fleece before he entered a war (Judg. 6:36-40). It is more reasonable to believe that Jephthah understood what his vow meant than to say he made a rash vow, but we can see he was caught off guard when his daughter was the first one out of his house—he almost certainly expected it to be one the servants who was charged with caring for and protecting the house.
As to the accusation that Jephthah was just a rough man living among rough men and so he would not have been bothered by human sacrifice, we point out that Jephthah was very upset that his daughter was the first to meet him; and besides, his life seems to parallel the life of David when David had to take to the woods when his society rejected him, and David did not become ungodly just because he was rejected, lived in the land of the unbelieving Philistines, and was accompanied by a band of malcontents.
Also, Jephthah fulfilled his vow; he “did to her according to the vow that he had vowed” (Judg. 11:39). But there are a couple things about that phrase that are very revealing. For one thing, if “burnt offering” meant an actual human sacrifice to Yahweh (Judg. 11:31), that would mean the girl would have had to have been sacrificed by the Levitical priests at the Tabernacle, which they would have never agreed to. So, Jephthah would have then had to sacrifice her on some other altar and the priests would not have been Levites. But if that were the case, it would not have been a sacrifice to Yahweh at all. If Jephthah had been a crafty, manipulative person, and had burned his daughter as a human sacrifice on some unholy altar somewhere in the Transjordan with either non-Levitical priests or with himself acting as a priest, his sacrifice would not have qualified as being a sacrifice to Yahweh.
Furthermore, the very way the phrase is written, that Jephthah “did to her according to the vow that he had vowed,” seems somewhat supportive of the act, not the condemnation of it that we would expect if he had performed a human sacrifice. That sacrifice would have been a huge sin, and the book of Judges is not easy on people’s sin. For example, the sin of the people is pointed out over and over (cp. Judg. 2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1), and when Gideon, a judge and hero, sinned and made an idol, the text points out the sin and says “it became a snare” to him and Israel (Judg. 8:27). It seems that if Jephthah had really performed a human sacrifice, which would have been the first human sacrifice in the history of Israel, there would have been some kind of condemnation of it rather than the text simply telling us that he did what he vowed to do.
We also can see that Jephthah did not burn his daughter to death when we study the verses about her. Jephthah’s daughter saw the importance of Jephthah keeping his vow, but she asked for two months so she could “weep over my virginity” before being given to Yahweh (Judg. 11:37). That point alone should have told commentators that she was not going to be put to death. If she was going to die in two months, it does not seem reasonable that she would want to be with her friends and weep about dying as a virgin. She would have wept over dying.
Furthermore, the phrase in Judges 11:39, “and she knew no man” would be superfluous; of course she did not have sex if she was killed! The point was that she was dedicated to Yahweh, and so she never married, which is why she wanted two months to weep over her future life as a virgin never to be married and bear children.
Also, we can understand why she would want to go to the mountains for two months (Judg. 11:37). It would take some time for a young woman to adjust to the fact that instead of being a wife and mother, she would be a virgin her whole life. She needed some time to get used to her future and work through her emotions, and it would be proper to do that alone with friends, not in town where everyone could hear, which would make it seem that she was dishonoring her father’s vow. Furthermore, it would have dishonored both her father and her God if she showed up at the Tabernacle without having worked through the many emotions she would have been feeling. She needed to show up ready to serve. The tears she would shed would explain why she wanted to get away from people and go to the mountains for two months (Judg. 11:37).
Furthermore, after Jephthah’s daughter was given to Yahweh, it became a custom for the women of Israel to go to the Tabernacle four days a year to “recount” or “retell” the story of the experience of Jephthah’s daughter, which would have been done with her present (Judg. 11:40). Since Jephthah’s daughter was alive and serving at the Tabernacle, she would have had great wisdom and encouragement that she could have given the women who came to see her and talk with her. The word translated “recount” is the rare Hebrew word tanah (#08567 תָּנַה), and it means “recount,” “rehearse,”e “recount,”f It also occurs in Judges 5:11, where it is also translated “recount.” Many English translations, assuming that Jephthah’s daughter was dead, translate tanah as “lament,” but that translation is based upon an assumption and is incorrect. There would be no need to mourn for her death yearly, and especially for four days, and there certainly would be no need to take four days to retell the story if the girl’s death were due to a rash vow made by a hard man.
Jephthah made a vow to God without taking into account every possible outcome, but kept his vow even though it cost him dearly. Many people find themselves in that situation when unexpected things happen. Psalm 15 says the kind of person who can live on God’s holy mountain is a person “who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change his mind;” (Ps. 15:4). Jephthah was such a person.