apologetics, The Bible

Bible Difficulties 1: Judges 11:29-40

I have written a new post discussing this Bible story because I no longer hold the positions of this post. See Jephthah, Human Sacrifice, and God: What should we make of Judges 11:29-40? for more.

This is the first in a series of posts on Bible difficulties. See the introductory post here.

Summary

Judges 11:29-40 (see it in its entirety below) is a section of Scripture I struggled with for some time. In this passage, Jephthah, a Judge, vows to God that he will sacrifice whatever comes first out of his house if God grants him victory in a coming battle. God does grant victory. His daughter is the first to come out of his house. Thus, he despairs, for he has sworn to God to sacrifice her. She is obedient, and asks only that she is given time to mourn that she is unmarried before Jephthah does “as [he] promised”.

Why is this passage difficult?

A number of questions arise: Do these verses imply that God condones human sacrifice? Did Jephthah actually kill his daughter? Did God really want Jephthah to kill his daughter?

Often web sites that feast on Bible difficulties will point to these verses to “demonstrate” that God condones human sacrifice (interestingly, they often cite the near-sacrifice of Isaac also, ignoring the fact that God would have known the outcome in advance, and so was clearly not condoning it to begin with–but that’s something for a different post, I suppose). I think there is more here than meets the eye.

Commentary

These verses questions have a couple different ways to answer. The first answer is perhaps the simplest. Jephthah did indeed kill his daughter because of his vow to God. A vow to God is higher than any other law, so this is what had to happen. Thus, Jephthah simply offered his daughter as a burnt offering.

I think this answer is unsatisfactory. It doesn’t seem to fit the text. A better solution is offered, I think, by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe in The Big Book of Bible Difficulties. They argue that Jephthah would have been aware of the law prohibiting human sacrifice (see Leviticus 18:21). Further, Jephthah could have offered his daughter as a living sacrifice, not a burnt offering. The Hebrew word is olah, one meaning of which is “sacrifice” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon). This helps explain why Jephthah’s daughter doesn’t mourn her coming death, but rather that she will remain unmarried. The concept of living sacrifice entails remaining unmarried for one’s life.

Another answer that fits the text is to simply say that yes, Jephthah did offer his daughter as a burnt offering. But this doesn’t somehow mean that God condoned the action. One could very well vow to God that one would murder as many people as is physically possible, if only God would let the sun rise tomorrow. This doesn’t somehow mean that the sun rising means God condones the action of murdering as many people as physically possible. The text never states God’s position on the matter. As far as I can tell, it is simply reporting what happened. Jephthah told God he’d offer a sacrifice of whatever came from his house, he did so, the end. It doesn’t say that God wanted this to happen or that God approved of the action.

As with many other cases in the Bible, people seem to confuse description of events with these events somehow being prescriptive. They believe that just because the Bible says something happened, that means this is what the Bible somehow says should happen. That’s simply not the case. Describing what happens does not mean that someone agrees with it. I could describe the holocaust. That doesn’t mean I commend it or am glad it happened. No, I think it was a horrible atrocity! In the same way, the Bible often reports events that happened. That doesn’t mean that the Bible is saying this is how things should be.

I believe that any of these answers can solve the problem. Here are the three solutions offered again:

1. Jephthah made a vow to God, which superceded anything else. It doesn’t mean the vow was a good thing, but it was a vow nonetheless.

2. Jephthah’s daughter was only to be a “living sacrifice”–she merely remained unmarried the rest of her days, much to her chagrin.

3. The Bible simply reports what happened. This doesn’t mean it was right.

Judges 11:29-40 states (ESV):

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. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD : “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 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.”

32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. 33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

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. 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.”

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. 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.”

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. 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 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from cited material which is the property of its respective owner[s]) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

9 thoughts on “Bible Difficulties 1: Judges 11:29-40

  1. This may be more of a criticism of Thomas Howe than yourself, though in turn it demolishes your own justification. How could Jephthah fulfill his promise of a burnt offering with a living sacrifice? If he vowed to give a burnt offering, then retracts the burnt bit, he’s changing and dishonoring the vow. The passage clearly states that he honored his agreement (that is to say he honored his agreement to produce a burnt offering of the first thing to come out his door), therefore he MUST have offered his daughter as a BURNT offering. There is no ambiguity in the text about this.

    Secondly, your point about Issac, I’d like to ask you why God posed the test in the first place if he already knew the outcome. God is omniscient, yes? So why did he need to set out a test for which he would have already known the answer? There was no need for him to put both Issac and Abraham through the emotional torment involved with preparing for human sacrifice.

    Posted by Christien Bowman | May 19, 2010, 8:22 AM
    • The Hebrew word for “burnt offering,” “olah” also means simply “sacrifice” (as I cited directly in my post–Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon). Thus, taking the verse’s meaning as that of a living sacrifice can be consistent, because the Hebrew word doesn’t only mean burnt offering. I personally don’t think this is how it should be taken, but textually it is a possible reading. Therefore, far from “demolishing” anything, the answer still stands (I prefer answer 3).

      Isaac was a side note here and I definitely didn’t give it the justification it deserves. “why did he need to set out a test for which he would have already known the answer? ” Because it was not for God’s benefit, but for Abraham’s.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 19, 2010, 9:32 AM
      • I’m going with #3 (“The Bible simply reports what happened. This doesn’t mean it was right”). He was an idiot. God never commanded him to make a vow nor to keep it. I think that the language is pretty clear that he expected a human sacrifice. The IVP OT Commentary makes this point well: “While it is true that the Israelite house accommodated animals, animals do not go out to meet someone. Dogs were not kept in houses, were not kept as pets and were unsuitable for sacrifice. Furthermore, a simple animal sacrifice would not be suitable for the extent and significance of the victory Jephthah has achieved. It can therefore be concluded that Jephthah is anticipating a human sacrifice…. In all of the over 250 occurrences of the term used here, it refers to an actual sacrifice literally burnt on an altar. It is never used figuratively or symbolically.”[1] I also did my own query on the word in Logos and it confirms the findings of IVP.

        [1] Matthews, V. H., Chavalas, M. W., & Walton, J. H. (2000). The IVP Bible background commentary: Old Testament (electronic ed.) (Jdg 11:31). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

        Posted by Dan | October 20, 2012, 11:11 PM
      • Dan,

        Thanks for the comment. I think the third answer is very informative, but not necessarily a comprehensive look at this passage. Have you read my other post on the passage? If so, what do you think?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | October 20, 2012, 11:17 PM
  2. Nope, I never saw the second post. Heading over to it now….

    Posted by Dan | October 22, 2012, 9:22 AM

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Bible Difficulties Introduction « - March 28, 2010

  2. Pingback: Judaism and the Jewish People | World Top News | Google Hot Trends | Yahoo Hottest Searches | www.WorldTopNews.Info - March 31, 2010

  3. Pingback: Description is not Prescription: A tale of interpretation « - February 1, 2011

  4. Pingback: Jephthah, Human Sacrifice, and God: What should we make of Judges 11:29-40? « J.W. Wartick -"Always Have a Reason" - November 30, 2011

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