Jephthah’s Foolish Vow (A Study of Judges 11)

"And Jephthah carried out his vow." Judges 11:39

"Jephthah’s Foolish Vow (A Study of Judges 11)" by Steppes of Faith

“And he carried out his vow.” Judges 11:39

In the years before God established Saul as the first king of Israel, the Lord sent judges to rule and administer justice (hence the book of Judges). One of these judges was Jephthah.

Born out of wedlock, Jephthah was driven from his home by his half-brothers. He settled in the land of Tob, which scholars believe was southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Jephthah built an impressive but ragtag army there and became widely known as “a mighty man of valor ” (Judges 11:1).”

A few years later, the people of Ammon (a territory northeast of the Dead Sea in ancient Palestine/modern-day Jordan) declared war against Israel. In the middle, separating the two territories was Gilead. The cry of war caused the elders of Gilead to ask Jephthah to be their defense commander, and Jephthah agreed in exchange for being their permanent leader.

As a judge, Jephthah chose diplomacy first to settle Ammon’s concerns, but the king refused Jephthah’s peace offer. So, Jephthah and his army set out to defend Gilead and Israel (v12-22).

God’s choice of appointing Jephthah as a judge indicates he was, as the author of Hebrews describes, a man “of faith” who “executed justice (Hebrews 11:32-34).” Typically, he was not one to be irrational and hasty. In fact, Judges 11:29 says the Spirit of the LORD was with him. Yet, he made an unusual promise to God on his way to the battlefield.

Ancient Customs

According to ancient Middle Eastern culture, women customarily came out in a celebratory procession to welcome the men home after a victorious battle (Exodus 15:20; Judges 5:28; 11:34; 1 Samuel 18:6). Knowing this custom, Jephthah made his promise.

“If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the people of Ammon shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (v30-31)

Understanding the custom, Jephthah probably had human sacrifice on his mind, a widely used practice that expressed profound devotion. He knew he would have to kill whoever came out of the house first. Unfortunately, when he returned from defeating the Ammonites, his only child—his daughter—was the first to greet him. He would have to sacrifice her to the Lord as a burnt offering.

It is unclear whether Jephthah seriously intended to sacrifice anyone or anything at all. Nevertheless, he had a choice to make—keep his promise and sacrifice his daughter or sin against the Lord.

The Honorable Jephthah

Jephthah was considered a very honorable man. Hebrews 11, the Bible’s “hall of faith,” counts him among several great men of the Bible.

“For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.” Hebrews 11:32-34

Judges 11:29 tells us the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah just before he made his vow. We can conclude, then, that the vow was divinely ordained. He was working with the Holy Spirit and not against Him. If he were working against the Lord, it is unlikely the writer of Hebrews would count him in the “hall of faith.”

We also see Jephthah’s honor by examining the Bible’s other great but sinful men. For example, David had an affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband (2 Samuel), Moses struck a rock instead of speaking to it (Numbers 20), Peter denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26), and Paul persecuted and executed Christians (Galatians 4).

Like the other great men, Jephthah kept his honor despite his sin and foolishness.

The Bible records that Jephthah kept his honor because he kept his promise to sacrifice his daughter.

Just a Symbolic Offering?

Jephthah knew the local custom of women greeting the men “with tambourines and dancing” upon their victorious homecoming after a battle. However, he likely did not expect his daughter to be the first person to greet him. Verse 35 says he “tore his clothes” and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot go back on it.”

Given the circumstances, one might suggest (and many do) that Jephthah did not necessarily intend to keep his promise of physically sacrificing his daughter to the Lord.

According to Mosaic Law, the purpose of a burnt offering was to offer a sacrifice as a sign of total devotion to God. Priests would take whichever animal someone offered, kill it, cut it into pieces, place it on an altar, and allow a fire to consume it completely. But not everyone submitted an actual burnt offering.

Symbolic sacrificial offerings are also common throughout the Bible. We see an example when Moses gave Aaron and his sons as a wave offering to the Lord (Exodus 29, Leviticus 8). Paul admonishes us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), and we are also to offer a contrite heart to the Lord (Psalm 51:17). Not every act of worship is physically burned, which is why some scholars contend that Jephthah did not kill his only child but only offer her symbolically.

However, given the text, Jephthah likely kept his word in the literal sense. Though God considers human sacrifice an abomination, it was still a common practice in Moabite and Ammonite cultures to ensure victory.

To be sure, the Lord still would have delivered Israel and Gilead without Jephthah’s hasty vow. The Lord does as He pleases. Nevertheless, He allowed Jephthah to suffer the consequences for his irresponsible pledge.

Jephthah’s Daughter

Whatever Jephthah’s thoughts or intentions, his vow still required a sacrifice (v30). His daughter understood this requirement. She urged her father to keep his vow just as the Lord kept His.

“So she said to [Jephthah], ‘My father, if you have given your word to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth because the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon.’” (v36)

What is confusing about this passage for many people is what comes next. His daughter calmly asks permission to take a vacation with her friends to mourn the fact that she will never marry or have children.

“Then she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.’” (v37)

It is because of the daughter’s calm response and Jephthah’s willingness to allow her to go away with her friends that many conclude he did not intend to kill her. Perhaps she would be a living sacrifice and become a virgin servant in the tabernacle instead, as some scholars claim. Such servants were common at the time, as seen in Exodus 38:8 and 1 Samuel 1:11, 2:22, 22-28.

Psalm 68:25 also illustrates how virgin women served the tabernacle by playing timbrels in a procession when the Levites brought the ark of the covenant into the holy sanctuary.

“The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after. Among them were the maidens playing timbrels.”

It was considered an honor to serve in the tabernacle. However, when we look at the natural sense of the original Hebrew text (literally, “he did to her his vow that he had vowed”), we see that Jephthah did not commit her to the tabernacle but rather killed his only child upon her loyal return.

Jephthah's family line ended when he sent his daughter away to be a virgin servant in the tabernacle.

A Foolish Vow’s Consequences

When Jephthah’s daughter returned from her trip, Judges 11:39 tells us her father kept his promise to God.

“And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man.”

Whether his virgin daughter served in the tabernacle never to be seen again or died as a sacrifice does not matter. In either case, Jephthah’s family line was cut off without any successors. Ancient customs dictated that having no children would disgrace him and sever his “name” from his father’s household (1 Samuel 24:21).

Many considered it to be the worse fate one could experience.

Verses 39-40 tell us that it became customary for young Israeli women to commemorate Jephthah’s daughter for four days each year. And despite his shame, Jephthah is still honored in the Bible’s “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11 because he kept his word. Nevertheless, his foolish vow illustrates how impulsiveness can affect an entire family, sometimes tragically. His daughter paid a heavy price because of her father, and Jephthah was left with no family.

Proverbs 8:11 tells us wisdom is better than rubies. Likewise, Proverbs 14:15 says a prudent person “considers well his steps.” Jephthah reminds us to be wise before the Lord, to think before we speak, and never give in to hastiness.

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