OT Judges:11 = Human sacrifice?

If you know the story, than you understand my questions. If you aren’t familiar with the story, here is a version of it. Basically, a Judge, Jephtah, was in a bind militarily. So he makes a deal with God that if he won his battle, he would sacrifice whatever came out of his house first. He wins, he gets home, and what is greeting him at his door? His daughter, “with timbrels and with dances.”

What is up with this story? Why is it included in the canon? How do interpretations / rabbinical discussions treat this passage? Do any sects still follow the custom of four day’s lamentation? Is it really what it seems to be? Please note, I am not asking in a snide, ‘ha ha I found a biblical contradiction’. Rather, I know there is a good explanation out there, but I just can’t seem to place my finger on it.

If you do have insight, could you also take a look at my other question regarding Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Thanks.

Well,if you read it in context, there are a few problems. Mainly that she “bewails her virginity, and the fact that she will never marry”, as opposed to giving up her “life”. Some have guessed that her “life” as a “woman” was 'sacrified", ie she was given up as a sort of nun. (see Ex 38:8, 1Sam. 1:28). This is my best guess.

Issac Asimov postulates that there was a heathern ceremony of “life, death & rebirth”, ie the feminine mystery rites of Spring, and that the writers thought up this story to justify those rite. Maybe.

But, no Priest would have officiated at such a ceremory/sacrifice, if it DID happen, the Laws* against Human sacrifice are very clear, and were one of the big differences between Judiaism and the other local religions in that period. So, if he did actually slay his daughter, it was not to “G-d”, per se, as only a Priest can perform the ritual sacrifices.

*Lev 18:21, Lev 29:2>5, Deut 12:31, Deut 18:10.

Since the KJV is pretty tough to wade through, here’s the New International Version down at the bottom if anybody’s interested. If not, just scroll past it to the next post.

My guess would be that the story was included in the Bible because it’s an important part of Hebrew history. Jephthah won some important victories against the enemies of Israel, and if you left it out, there’d be a big gap in the record. Also, it includes the story of the word “shibboleth”.

Here’s what the Wycliffe Bible Commentary, edited by Charles Pfeiffer, Copyright 1962 by the Moody Bible Institute, has to say (in part):


[Jephthah] was, however, the son of a harlot, which gave him inferior status within the family. The legitimate sons of Gilead called Jephthah the son of a strange woman, and sought to have him disinherited.

Tob was probably northeast of Gilead. Later the men of Tob were allied with the Ammonites in their war with David (II Sam. 10:6-8). It was a kind of frontier district, where men like Jephthah could lead a lawless existence on the fringes of society.

Jephthah and his companions were esteemed “vain”, i.e. wild and reckless, in contrast to “respectable” members of society.

The form taken by Jephthah’s vow is reminiscent of his half-heathen background.

Perhaps Jephthah expected a servant to appear first.

To Jephthah the vow was sacred, and it had to be carried out. Human sacrifices were forbidden in Israel, but Jephthah had lived on the fringes of society, where heathen ideas prevailed.

Althought some commentators suggest that her perpetual virginity would have been a fulfillment of the vow, the text seems to leave no doubt that Jephthath’s daughter died at the hands of her father.

The word “shibboleth” (an ear of corn) served as a password because it contained a consonant which was not pronounced in the Ephraimite dialect. The Ephraimites pronounced the word “sibboleth” and thus identified themselves to the Gileadites. The existence of distinct dialects of Hebrew during the period of the Judges is consistent with the concept of tribal rather than national consciousness that appears throughout the book.

Judg 11:1 Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute.
Judg 11:2 Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.”
Judg 11:3 So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him.
Judg 11:4 Some time later, when the Ammonites made war on Israel,
Judg 11:5 the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob.
Judg 11:6 “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”
Judg 11:7 Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”
Judg 11:8 The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.”
Judg 11:9 Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me–will I really be your head?”
Judg 11:10 The elders of Gilead replied, “The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.”
Judg 11:11 So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them. And he repeated all his words before the LORD in Mizpah.
Judg 11:12 Then Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonite king with the question: “What do you have against us that you have attacked our country?”
Judg 11:13 The king of the Ammonites answered Jephthah’s messengers, “When Israel came up out of Egypt, they took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, all the way to the Jordan. Now give it back peaceably.”
Judg 11:14 Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king,
Judg 11:15 saying: "This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites.
Judg 11:16 But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the desert to the Red Sea and on to Kadesh.
Judg 11:17 Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh.
Judg 11:18 "Next they traveled through the desert, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.
Judg 11:19 "Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’
Judg 11:20 Sihon, however, did not trust Israel to pass through his territory. He mustered all his men and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.
Judg 11:21 "Then the LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his men into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country,
Judg 11:22 capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.
Judg 11:23 “Now since the LORD, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over?
Judg 11:24 Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the LORD our God has given us, we will possess.
Judg 11:25 Are you better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them?
Judg 11:26 For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn’t you retake them during that time?
Judg 11:27 I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the LORD, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.”
Judg 11:28 The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him.
Judg 11:29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites.
Judg 11:30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands,
Judg 11:31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”
Judg 11:32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands.
Judg 11:33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.
Judg 11:34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter.
Judg 11:35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”
Judg 11:36 “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites.
Judg 11:37 But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”
Judg 11:38 “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry.
Judg 11:39 After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom
Judg 11:40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.
Judg 12:1 The men of Ephraim called out their forces, crossed over to Zaphon and said to Jephthah, “Why did you go to fight the Ammonites without calling us to go with you? We’re going to burn down your house over your head.”
Judg 12:2 Jephthah answered, “I and my people were engaged in a great struggle with the Ammonites, and although I called, you didn’t save me out of their hands.
Judg 12:3 When I saw that you wouldn’t help, I took my life in my hands and crossed over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave me the victory over them. Now why have you come up today to fight me?”
Judg 12:4 Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, “You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh.”
Judg 12:5 The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,”
Judg 12:6 they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.
Judg 12:7 Jephthah led Israel six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died, and was buried in a town in Gilead.


I still think that my 1st theory is better. But, there are 2 things. 1. this may be better in GD (Mannie?), and 2, I would like to hear our Talmudic experts opine on this.

Jewish sources deal with this in several ways.

Some commentators (Redak , Abarbanel) posit exactly as my buddy Danielinthewolvesden does (i.e. that she lived a life of solitude).

One opinion in the Talmud (Taanis 4) indicates that Jeptaph did sacrifice his daughter. However, all the commentaries make it plain that this was not the proper thing to do.
In Jewish law, there are grounds for annulling vows (in special circumstances). Jepthaph is roundly criticized for not seeking to have his vow annulled.

In any event, he was not required to do anything. If someone makes vow (for example) to bring a pig as a sacrifice, the vow is meaningless, since a pig is eligible to be a sacrifice. Another option he had was to donate a sum to the Temple.

Zev Steinhardt