We come now to one of the most difficult passages in the book of Judges—the story of Jephthah. The story is more important than one would at first suspect, for the critics have seized upon it as evidence that God is self-contradictory, bloodthirsty and devoid of any sense of equity and justice. Similarly, those who adhere to the belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture have found the story to be a stone of stumbling, especially since the book of Hebrews includes Jephthah by name in its famous catalog of the heroes of faith (Hebrews 11:32-34).
If the common understanding of the story is correct, we surely have a very odd series of facts to explain. Jephthah demonstrated a detailed knowledge of the history of his people, a history he could only have learned from the books of Moses (see Judges 11:12-28). Yet, if this is so, how do we explain his apparent ignorance of the blaring prohibition against child sacrifice contained in the books of Moses? (Leviticus 18:21; Leviticus 20:2; Deuteronomy 12:31-32; Deuteronomy 18:10-12)
Again, immediately after sending the ambassadors to Ammon "the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah" (verse 29). But if this is so, how could a person led by the Holy Spirit be so absolutely callous as to sacrifice his own child? In fact, Jephthah's vow is made immediately after receiving the Spirit (verse 30)—how is that to be explained? Moreover, if the common understanding of the story is correct, God gave Jephthah the victory over Ammon knowing full well that Jephthah would sacrifice his child, and yet He never said a word—not in person, not in a dream, not by a prophet.
And further, how could a man who was so scrupulous to keep his vow (verse 35) be so unscrupulous as to murder his innocent child in flagrant disobedience to God's law? Additionally, when his daughter learned of her father's vow, she encouraged him to keep the vow and asked only to be able to go and mourn her virginity for two months, at the end of which time she voluntarily returned so that her father could carry out his vow. Jephthah's daughter exhibits no terror, no pleading for her life—even the friends with whom she mourned her virginity allowed her to return! How is that to be explained?
And why didn't Jephthah avail himself of the laws for redeeming things vowed (Leviticus 27)—he said, "I cannot go back"—when such an option would have been open to him?
And finally, if the common understanding of Jephthah's vow is correct, where is that marvelous and self-evident faith that caused the writer of Hebrews, probably the apostle Paul, to unhesitatingly include him in his catalog of the heroes of faith?
The confusion can be cleared up by carefully examining Jephthah's vow. Let us notice it in the New King James Version: "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" (verses 30-31). First, notice that it is a conditional vow (if...then). Second, the phrase "whatever comes out to meet me" is actually "the one who comes forth to meet me" in Hebrew, an apparent reference to a person. The Nelson Study Bible concurs: "The phrase to meet me seems to refer more appropriately to a human than to an animal" (note on Judges 11:31).
How then are we to understand Jephthah's vow? The Hebrew of verse 31 is the source of the difficulty—or rather, the translation of the Hebrew text is the source of the difficulty. The next phrase could just as well be translated, "...shall surely be the Lord's, OR I will offer it a burnt-offering." The Nelson Study Bible notes, "The conjunction in Jephthah's pivotal statement in v. 31, that whatever or whoever came out of the door 'shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering' could be translated or. Thus, if a person came out first, he would dedicate that person to the Lord, or if an animal came out first, he would offer the animal as a burnt sacrifice" (note on Judges 11:39). This explanation, however, has left out the possibility of an unclean animal, such as a dog, coming out. Presumably, a clean animal in this scenario would be sacrificed while an unclean animal would be dedicated like a person. But there is a possibility that this translation is not entirely correct either, as it leaves out the possibility of nothing or no one coming out to meet Jephthah. This brings us to the next apparent problem in translation.
The clause "or I will offer it up as a burnt offering" could also be rendered, "or I will offer Him a burnt offering." If that is correct, then we are left with Jephthah imagining a person coming out to meet him and stating, in a perhaps corrected rendering of verse 31, "The one who comes forth to meet me I will consecrate to the Lord, or [if no one comes out] I will offer Him [i.e., the Lord] a burnt offering." This changes the complexion of the difficulty entirely.
What emerges from a clear understanding of the Hebrew is significant. First, let's note that Jephthah was making a conditional vow with God. If God would give Jephthah the victory and bring him safely home, then Jephthah would either dedicate a person of his household to God or he would offer a burnt-offering to God if no one came out. Once God performed His part of the vow, Jephthah was bound to fulfill his part.
Second, and most important however, Jephthah left the choice in God's hands! Jephthah could not control who would come out of the doors of his house to greet him (or whether anyone would), just as Abraham's servant had no control over who would give him drink (see Genesis 24:12-14). The vow contained a choice to be made by God: either accept a consecrated person or a burnt offering. Therefore, Jephthah was perhaps, to a degree, acting on faith, allowing God to choose how Jephthah would fulfill his part of the covenant.
Yet it still appears that the vow was rash and unwise. Jephthah had apparently not thought this through well enough. He was shocked and deeply grieved that his daughter was the one who came out to meet him, stating that this had brought him very low (verse 35). He was clearly expecting it to be someone else—probably a household servant. No doubt, he learned a powerful lesson that day.
Thankfully, as the evidence seems to support, Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter—he devoted her to the service of God, much as did Hannah devote Samuel to the service of God. As such, Jephthah's daughter would remain a virgin as she served at the tabernacle as part of a special class of dedicated women (compare Exodus 38:8; 1 Samuel 2:22; Luke 2:36-37). It appears that they acted as door porters, singers, musicians and workers in cloth (most valuable and needed when the tabernacle stood, as it did in Jephthah's day). This dedication meant that Jephthah would have no grandchildren—for his daughter was his only child—and thus no heir.
As we know, the Israelites viewed barrenness as a stigma, and for the family line to end was considered virtually a curse from God. Now becomes very clear the grief of Jephthah (for he would have no inheritor) and of his daughter (for she would have no children) and of her friends (for their friend would never become "a mother in Israel," and possibly mother of the promised Messiah) and of the people of Israel (for their hero would not leave them descendants and his name would "perish out of Israel")! It is interesting to note the contrast between Jephthah and the judges immediately before and after him. They both had 30 sons (Judges 10:3-4; Judges 12:8-9), while Jephthah had just this one and only daughter.
As a final observation, we must note verse 39 again. The sacred historian records that Jephthah "carried out his vow with her which he had vowed" and then adds, "she knew no man." It is not recorded that Jephthah sacrificed her—that is apparently a conclusion based upon an incomplete understanding of the above scriptures. Some will argue that this last clause just magnifies the tragedy of her death—that she died young without ever marrying. But if, indeed, Jephthah's daughter was sacrificed in gruesome and flagrant disobedience to God, this added statement about knowing no man would seem to be superfluous and inane; it only appears to make sense if she continued in a state of celibacy after Jephthah fulfilled his vow.
The writer of Hebrews, then, is vindicated for including Jephthah in the heroes of faith. Though Jephthah was evidently rash and unwise in making his vow to start with, he nevertheless obeyed God's command to pay one's vows to Him (Deuteronomy 23:21-23), even when it was to his own hurt (compare Psalm 15:4). In that sense, Jephthah's fulfilling of his vow may be seen as a real act of faith! He was willing to give up his only hope of grandchildren and perpetuation of the family line, enduring a social stigma, in order to obey God. Why? Because he looked forward to the promises that he had seen and embraced (Hebrews 11:13), which would be bestowed in that country of God (verse 14) when he would be raised in that better resurrection (verse 35)! Truly, then, Judges 11 reveals Jephthah to be, in the end, a courageous man of integrity, faith and vision!