Rethinking Jephthah's Foolish Vow

Most Christians struggle to understand the narratives recorded in the book of Judges. Consider the opening account where Adonai Bezek is captured by the tribe of Judah, humiliated by having his thumbs and big toes cut off, and then dies in Jerusalem. What about Gideon’s fleece in Judges 6, or Samson’s repeated relationships with illicit women in Judges 14–16? How do we understand and explain such difficult texts? Do we ask, “Who are the Adonai Bezek’s in your life?” or “What would Samson do?” Maybe it would be better to “dare to be a Gideon,” but I don’t think so.

Another troubling episode recorded in the book of Judges appears in 11:29-40, when the judge Jephthah makes a vow that many have argued cost him the life of his daughter and only child—a human sacrifice. How could Jesus, in good conscience, proclaim that such a narrative testifies to him (John 5:39; Luke 24:44), or how could Paul understand this text as the gospel promised beforehand (Romans 1:2)? Did Jephthah really kill his daughter in order to fulfill a foolish vow made in the heat of battle? For many, the answer to this question is a troubling “yes.” But there is another option.

It is also possible that Jephthah never intended to sacrificially kill anyone or anything that came out of his house after he had returned from battle. Rather, this vow may be symbolic of a full or complete offering to the LORD as an expression of thanks for his grace in delivering Israel from their oppressors. Let’s consider the evidence together.

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Author: Miles Van Pelt

Keywords: Jephthah's Daughter, Human sacrifice, Jephthah killed his daughter, Jephthah sacrificed his daughter, Virginity, rash vow, vow, Jephthah's vow, daughter of Jephthah, Jephthah daughter, Jephthae, Jephthah, Jephthah's sacrifice, Jephthae

Bible reference(s): Judges 11:30-31, Judges 11:35-40, Heb 11:32

Source: “Rethinking Jephthah’s Foolish Vow,” The Gospel Coalition, October 14, 2014.

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