“Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering’ ” (vv. 30–31).
Deuteronomy 23:3–6 tells us that the Ammonites joined with the Moabites to hire Balaam to curse the Israelites as they made their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan (see Num. 22). However, the antagonism of the Ammonites to Israel did not cease with the passing of the exodus generation. In the days of the judges, the Ammonites joined with Eglon in subjugating the people of Israel (Judg. 3:12–14). And although Ehud the Benjaminite freed Israel from Eglon’s oppression, the Ammonites rose up again to harass Israel, making a false claim to Israelite territory. Jephthah became judge to rescue God’s people from oppression (10:6–11:28).
Today’s passage tells us that the “Spirit of the Lord” came upon Jephthah, and that he fought the Ammonites, subduing them “before the people of Israel” (11:33). We can be grateful that the Lord intervened to give Jephthah the victory. However, Judges 11:30–31 tells us that before he fought the Ammonites, Jephthah vowed that if God gave him success—if he would “return in peace”—then he would offer up as a burnt offering the first thing that came out of his house. When Jephthah returned, he saw his only child—his daughter—coming out to celebrate the victory (v. 34). This led to great mourning, for Jephthah thought himself bound to the vow, and he kept it (vv. 35–40).
But what did Jephthah actually do to his daughter? Some commentators have argued that he did not actually kill her but only that she was given over to a life of celibacy and that she bore no children, ending Jephthah’s line. However, that is not what most likely happened. Ancient commentators held that Jephthah’s daughter was actually sacrificed, that she was put to death, and there is no real reason to think otherwise given the language of the passage.
The likely reason that some suggest that Jephthah did not put his daughter to death is because it is hard to reconcile such an act with Hebrews 11:32 and its record of Jephthah’s being a man of faith. Yet we should note that the author of Hebrews is giving an evaluation of Jephthah with respect to his military victories, not this specific incident. In Scripture—as in the world today—people who trust in God sometimes commit awful sins. That is not to excuse transgression. Jephthah should have repented of his rash vow and not killed his daughter, for God does not want us to fulfill vows that break His commandments. We can be grateful that God’s grace covers all of our sin when we trust in Christ, but that gives us no license for evil.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
If God’s grace did not cover the sins of God’s people, then we would be utterly without hope. Believers can do awful things, and thanks be to God, they are forgiven when they turn to Christ. However, that does not give us license to transgress God’s law. If we do so, we will incur God’s fatherly displeasure and discipline, and we will bring suffering in our wake.