Unlike the popular Abraham and Isaac in which an angel of God released Abraham from sacrificing his son, the story of Jephthah's daughter is left to be forgotten. The events surrounding Jephthah can be found in Judges 10:6-12:7. The story of his daughter's sacrifice is covered in Judges 11:29-40.
Jephthah was one of Israel's judges who made a vow to God in exchange for a victory against the Ammonites. He would sacrifice, as a burnt offering, the first person who came out his house to greet him on his return. As fate would have it, it turned out to be his only child, his virgin daughter. He kept his vow.
To deflect comparison against Abraham and Isaac, this story is usually dismissed as a folk tale or a case of bad judgment. To those who take the Bible seriously, it can be neither-this is God's book. Jephthah made a deal with God. God kept his part of the bargain and he didn't release Jephthah from keeping his part for reasons that will be explained in the commentary section.
Jephthah vowed to God that if he is given victory over the Ammonites, he will make a burnt offering with whoever comes out to greet him when he returns victorious.
30 31 (Judges 11:29-31)
So God gave him the Ammonites and twenty more cities.
3233 (Judges 11:32-33)
When he came home, his daughter came out to meet him. She was his only child.
He was shocked because he could not take back his vow.
Who did he expect? A stranger?
She understood his dilemma and promised to cooperate. Jephthah honored her one final request for two months leave so she may bewail her virginity.
3637 38 (Judges 11:36-38)
She returned after two months and Jepthah kept his vow.
3940 (Judges 11:34-40)
1. This is no folk tale. The last verse, 11:40, calls it a yearly four-day holiday. Obviously, it was once taken seriously.
2. Since his daughter was his only child, Jephthah must have been hoping some other family member would come out to greet him. Who could it be? His wife? His mother-in-law? We don't know. But the bottom line is that Jephthah was willing to sacrifice a family member in exchange for victory.
3. And what of God? No angel came down to stop the burnt offering like in the story of Abraham and Isaac. God delivered and Jephthah had to keep his vow. Deuteronomy tells us that vows must be paid for.
2122 23 (Deut. 23:21-23)
4. Another difference between Abraham and Isaac: Abraham's son was a male virgin; Jephthah's daughter was a female virgin. God seems to prefer virgin girls.
5. The Ammonites were major adversaries. Before Jepthah's victory, God was punishing the Israelites for worshipping idols. The Ammonites were oppressing them for eighteen years until Jepthah defeated them. We can be fairly certain that the price of redemption for lifting the curse had to be someone clean and pure-a virgin girl.
78 (Judges 10:7-8)
6. Jepthah was the son of a prostitute. His father's wife disinherited him from any family property. This does not seem to have any relevance to his career.
12 (Judges 11:1-2)
Except according to Mosaic Law, he should not have been a Judge because he was a bastard.
7. According to Mosaic Law, a vow once made must be kept no matter what the consequences.
2122 23 (Deut. 23:21-23)
8. In the final analyses, Jephthah was chosen by God to fight Israel's enemies. An impious man would not have taken such a vow. He had every reason to believe that God kept his part of the vow BECAUSE it was embedded in his culture. Whether or not he would have won anyway, or if he made a mistake would be second guessing. He had to keep his vow as a sign of faith. For all he knew, there would have been worse consequences if he reneged. Maybe God was testing him. Especially, this story tells us that child sacrifice in the name of Yahweh was once a part of Hebrew culture. Excuses that Jepthah was irresponsible don't hold up.
Let’s examine some of the usual excuses given for why Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter.
Excuse 1: The chapter doesn’t explicitly say God influenced Jepthah in any way.
Retort: If the sacrifice was Jephthah’s idea alone, leaving God two bad choices, God did not register an objection nor channel him into a different vow. More so, not only did God accommodate Jephthah's request for victory over the Ammonites, he gave him victory over twenty more cities! How could Jephthah NOT take that as an endorsement?
And finally, if God did not know Jephthah’s daughter would be first to greet him, then God has no prescience. On grounds of prescience, we could reasonably argue that knowing it would be Jephthah’s beloved daughter and only child, God gave him twenty more cities as compensation! The story ends here, so we do not know if Jephthah had more children later, perhaps even a son.
Excuse 2: According to Leviticus 22: 18-19, burnt offerings have to be male.
17(Lev. 22: 17-19)
Retort: The Leviticus passage assumes a freewill offering of an animal. A freewill offering under Deuteronomy 23:21-23 makes no exceptions.
Excuse 3: According to Deuteronomy 12:31, human sacrifice was strictly forbidden by law.
Retort: Despite protestations to the contrary, the leaders and people of ancient Israel practiced human sacrifice at various times. See Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel.
The Book of Judges emphasized the problems that precipitated the need for prophets and kings. As we see in 1 Samuel, some Judges were corrupt as Samuel’s sons were.
1(1 Sam. 1:1-3)
This motivated the elders to plead with Samuel for a king. When Samuel prayed to God, God complained that they had forsaken him to serve other gods.
7(2 Sam. 1: 7-8)
We have it on the highest authority that Judges were far from perfect. To argue that Jephthah would not sacrifice his daughter misses that salient point.