Friday, August 21, 2009

Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?

In my report of Joel Beeke's morning addresses at the recent Aberystwyth Conference, I mentioned that the preacher used Jephthah's daughter (Judges 11:34-40) as an example of "contagious submission" to the Lord. As I said in the report, I profited greatly from Beeke's messages. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Joel Beeke as a godly man and able minister of the gospel. But I disagree with his view that Jephthah did not really sacrifice his daughter as a burnt offering. This is not a matter of huge importance and I don't want to carp on about it, but a comment was left asking me why I differ from Beeke on this point, so here goes.
Let me say right now that this is one of the most troubling passages in the turbulent book of Judges and so we must proceed with some caution. On the face of it, the textual evidence seems to be stacked against Beeke's view. Compare Judges 11:30-31 with Judges 11:39. We are told that Jephthah fulfilled his vow. He offered to the Lord as a burnt offering the first thing to meet him when he returned from battle - his daughter. But the preacher offered seven reasons why in his opinion Jephthah did not really consign his only daughter to the flames. I will take them one by one and offer a response in blue type.
1. Jephthah was not a rash man. He negotiated with the elders of Gilead before becoming their leader (Judges 11:1-11).
But normally level headed people sometimes act impulsively. Just because Jephthah was a tough negotiator does not mean that he was incapable of making a rash vow on the brink of a make-or-break battle. Indeed, wasn't the vow itself a misguided attempt to bargain with the Lord?
2. He was familiar with Scripture and so would have known that sacrificing ones children was contrary to the law of the Lord.
The judge was certainly in command of biblical history as Judges 11:12-28 shows. No doubt he was aware of the prohibitions on human sacrifice in the Pentateuch. But this is the period of the Judges, when "everyone did what was right on his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). Presumably Samson, the very next judge, would have been aware of the laws against intermarrying with pagan women, but that didn't stop him, Judges 14:1-3.
3. The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah.
True, Judges 11:29, but once more, the Spirit of the Lord also came upon Samson before he married a Philistine wife (Judges 13:25) and after (Judges 14:6, 19). It seems that the Spirit of God clothed the judges with power to kill lions, lead armies and fight battles, but his coming upon a person did not necessarily have a powerful sanctifying effect.
4. Judges 11:31 could be read to mean that Jephthah left two options open. He vowed that whatever came out of his house to meet him (this seems to indicate purposeful human action), would either "surely be the LORD’s, or [Beeke's translation] I will offer it up as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:31). In other words a human being would be dedicated to the LORD in some way, while an animal would be sacrificed on the altar.
Beeke posits that we read the Hebrew prefix waw as "or" rather than "and" in this verse. That seems like an unlikely reading as in the majority of cases waw when used in this way usually means "and". For what it's worth, none of the more serious English Bible translations (AV, NKJV, NIV, ESV) render the text as Beeke suggests.
Besides, what does "shall surely be the LORD's" mean in this case? Beeke argues that it it means a man or woman would be devoted to the LORD's service in an perpetually unmarried state. Hence Jephthah's daughter bewailed her virginity (Judges 11:38) because as one devoted to the LORD she could never marry. However, there is no evidence from elsewhere in the Old Testament of men or women forswearing marriage to devote themselves to the Lord. Even the high priest was free to marry! Having to live as a virgin with no possibility of marriage or children would have been a heavy blow for an Israelite woman. In this instance it would have meant the end of Jephthah's family line. But as Matthew Henry points out, "had she only been confined to a single life, she need not have desired two months to bewail it in: she had her whole life to to that. Nor needed she to have taken such a sad leave of her companions". The dutiful daughter bewailed her virginity because she was going to die a virgin, not because she was going to have to live as a virgin.
Also Beeke argued that even if we should not read "and" as "or" in this text, the language of "burnt offering" is sometimes used in a figurative sense in the Bible. That may well be so, but there is no indication of this being the case in Judges 11.
5. Jephthah had time to change his mind about literally sacrificing his daughter to the LORD. She was given two months grace (Judges 11:37).
Yes, but still we are told that after the period ended, he "carried out his vow", Judges 11:39.
6. Even if Jephthah did make a rash vow, Leviticus 5:4-6 offered him a get out clause.
That is the case, but we are not told that the judge availed himself of this provision and substituted an animal for his daughter. "She returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed" (Judges 11:39 emphasis added).
7. Jephthah is never reprimanded for his actions in Scripture. He is even mentioned as a hero of the faith in Hebrews 11:32.
Fair enough. But the author of Judges is not prone to editorialise on the faults of the characters covered in his book. Writing in the Deuteronomic tradition, he expects his readers to know right from wrong without him having to point it out in a moralistic fashion. He usually prefers to let the facts speak for themselves. Judges 21:25 is enough to tell us that much that happened in the period of the Judges was profoundly disordered. Even the best of men in that time were deeply flawed and prone to sin.
Womanising Samson also gets a mention in Hebrews 11, not to mention Abraham who could be a little economical with the truth, Jacob the manipulative twister, and David who committed adultery. Inclusion in Hebrews 11 does not give a man or woman a clean bill of spiritual and moral health. The chapter was written to illustrate the faith by which we are justified (Hebrews 10:38-39). As Luther famously pointed out, we are "simultaneously justified and yet sinners". Beeke made a good stab at exonerating Jephthah of the dreadful crime of human sacrifice, but I'm afraid that the text, at least as I understand it does not let him off the hook.
See Dale Ralph Davis' commentary on Judges, (Christian Focus), p. 144 for a defence of the view that Jephthah tragically kept his vow to offer his only daughter as a burnt offering to the LORD. Ironically perhaps, DRD is the main speaker for Aber 2010.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, it's always good to get different perspectives on things, and I think your view does make more sense. It does seem a bit odd though, that she would bewail her virginity if she was about to be offered as a burnt sacrifice. But as you say, it's not of huge importance, so let's not carp on about it.

Jonathan Hunt said...

tres, tres, interesting, thanks for this post. It helps when it is something I can understand ;-)

in said...

Surely bewailing one's virginity is to bemoan the fact that the function of the woman was to carry on the promise of God to Abraham that his seed shall be innumerable, which ain't happening when your dead now is it?
More interesting is the twisted reasoning to escape the frank brutality of the record. Pampering to modern sensibilities one supposes so just call it 'friendly fire' and leave it at that.

Guy Davies said...


I've updated point #3 to address the bewailing of the daughter's virginity.




I wouldn't accuse Beeke of "twisted reasoning" to fit with modern sensibilities. His motivation seemed to be a desire not to think ill of an otherwise godly man. Older interpreters also went for the "perpetual virgin" interpretation - see Matthew Poole and Matthew Henry, both of whomm argued against that view in favour of a literal burnt offering.

Gary Brady said...

Thanks for this Guy. I'm sure your exegesis is correct but also agree with the other thigs you say.

Guy Davies said...

Thanks Gary. Thinking about it, I wonder given all the complications whether Jephthah's daughter is altogether the best example of contagious submission. Yes, she submitted to her father's vow saying "it is the LORD". But the prophets tell us that sacrificing ones children didn't even come into His mind. De facto it was the LORD because he is sovereign in all things. But it is for us to obey his revealed will, not to second guess providence.

If I asked my daughter to do something that was against the Bible, she would be better of saying, "Sorry dad, but no." Children are called to obey their parents "in the Lord" (Ephesians 6:1), not offer blanket submission.

Jonathan shows us the way when he (supported by the Israelite army) refused to go along with Saul's rash oath (1 Samuel 14:24ff (esp 24, 43-45).

Family Blogs said...

Excellent post Guy, on a secondary but thorny issue. I think your balance of tone here is excellent - critiquing Dr. Beeke's point, without discrediting him or his ministry.

I particularly liked your point that "Judges 21:25 is enough to tell us that much that happened in the period of the Judges was profoundly disordered. Even the best of men in that time were deeply flawed and prone to sin."

Rereading Judges recently I was struck afresh by the dark embroidery at the edges of its chracters sketches. God sovereignty is absolute over all in the text, but often in the tangential sense of using people in spite of the deep deep moral flaws that the author of Judges portrays.

Once again, thanks for this very thoughtful treatment.

DJP said...

"This is not a matter of huge importance...."

It was to Jephthah's daughter.

(ba-dum bum)

Guy Davies said...

Thanks Andrew.

And yes Dan, for Jephthah's dauther it was a matter of very huge importance!

Unknown said...

'If I asked my daughter to do something that was against the Bible, she would be better of saying, "Sorry dad, but no." '

Maybe Jephthah's daughter did not say 'No' because the sacrifice was commuted?

Guy Davies said...

I know what you mean Rhiannon, but Judges 11:39 seems pretty emphatic that Jephthah did exactly what he had vowed to do.

The Rock Delusion said...

Well, I want to point out that it is not only "Beeke's translation it is also Rabbi David Kimchi's translation "or" instead of "and".

Also, Why are we obsessing about a burnt sacrifice? if a female animal had come, would he have offered it as a burnt sacrifice? You can read all through the 613 laws and you'll never see a female as a burnt sacrifice.

davesgud said...

I love that we don't have a problem with the gambling, womanising, lying, cheating psychopath that is Samson, but we struggle with the man who would not break his Vow to God!

Poustman said...

Thanks for this; your thinking happens to be paralleled by my own in my response to David Murray on the same matter. ( I read your response after posting my own.

Jeff S. Wiebe

blessedbyGod said...

Deut 12:31 makes it clear that God would not accept a child sacrifice. Samson et al may have committed awful sins but everyone would agree that God would have preferred they didn't. Therefore to go with the idea that he actually sacrificed his daughter must be assuming that he did this out of some kind of skewed idea about what God wanted as we know that God did not want this.

Timmy Jimmy said...

Hi Guy,
I've always viewed this passage as another episode in the wretched history of Israel that pointed forward to Christ, another One who was sacrificed by a Father's vow, but this time, not a rash vow.

Other than that, it troubles me to no end...