Jephthah’s Foolish Vow (A Study of Judges 11)

“And he carried out his vow.” Judges 11:39

In the years before God established David as the first king of Israel, the Lord sent judges to rule and administer justice. One of these judges was Jephthah. Born out of wedlock, Jephthah was driven from his home by his half-brothers. He settled in the land of Tob, which scholars believe was southeast of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Jordan River. Jephthah built an impressive army there, and he became widely known as “a mighty man of valor.”

A few years later, the neighboring army of Ammon (a territory northeast of the Dead Sea in ancient Palestine/modern-day Jordan) declared war against Israel. Separating the two countries was Gilead. The cry of war caused the elders of Gilead to ask Jephthah to be their defense commander.

As a judge, Jephthah chose diplomacy first to settle Ammon’s concerns, but the king refused Jephthah’s offer of peace. So, Jephthah and his army set out to defend Gilead and Israel.

God’s choice of appointing Jephthah as a judge indicates he was, as the author of Hebrews describes, a man “of faith” who “executed justice (Hebrews 11:32–34).” He was not one to be irrational and hasty. In fact, Judges 11:29 says the Spirit of the LORD was with him. Yet, he made an unusual promise to God on his way to the battlefield.

“If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (v30–31)

What makes Jephthah’s promise so unusual and foolish is rooted in ancient middle east culture: After a victorious battle, women came out in a celebratory procession to welcome the men home (Exodus 15:20; Judges 5:28; 11:34; 1 Samuel 18:6). Unfortunately, when Jephthah returned from defeating the Ammonites, his only child — his daughter — was the first to greet him. He would have to sacrifice her to the Lord as a burnt offering.

We might assume Jephthah forgot this custom as he made his promise in the heat of combat. Or maybe he never intended to sacrifice anyone or anything at all.

The Honorable Jephthah

Jephthah was considered a very honorable man. Hebrews 11 counts him among several great men of the Bible.

“For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of the aliens.” Hebrews 11:32–34

Judges 11:29 tells us the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah just before he made his vow. We can conclude, then, that the vow was divinely ordained. He was working with the Holy Spirit and not against Him. If he were working against the Lord, it is unlikely the writer of Hebrews would count him in the “biblical hall of faith” in Hebrews 11.

We also see Jephthah’s honor by examining other great men in the Bible. Their sins were always disclosed. For example, David had an affair with Bathsheba and murdered her husband (2 Samuel), Moses struck a rock instead of speaking to it (Numbers 20), Peter denied Jesus three times (Matthew 26), and Paul persecuted and executed Christians (Galatians 4).

The Bible does not mention any sin regarding Jephthah, which means he continually kept his honor even here in Judges 11.

Symbolic Offerings

Since Jephthah was such an honorable man and knew the local custom, he was unlikely to expect anyone other than a woman to come out of the house when he returned from battle. What he probably did not expect was that it would be his own daughter. However, it does not necessarily mean he intended to give her as a burnt offering to the Lord.

According to Mosaic Law, the purpose of a burnt offering was to offer a sacrifice as a sign of total devotion to God. Priests would take whichever animal a person offered, kill it, cut it into pieces, place it on an altar, and allow a fire to consume it completely. But not everyone submitted an actual burnt offering.

Symbolic sacrificial offerings are also common throughout the Bible. We see an example when Moses gave Aaron and his sons as a wave offering to the Lord (Exodus 29, Leviticus 8). Paul admonishes us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), and we are also to offer a contrite heart to the Lord (Psalm 51:17).

Not every act of worship is physically burned. So, it is likely Jephthah intended to give his daughter to the Lord only symbolically.

Jephthah’s Daughter

Whatever Jephthah’s plans, a sacrifice was still required, according to the vow he made in Judges 11:30. It seems his daughter understood this requirement and her father’s intentions. Verse 36 shows us she encouraged her father to keep his vow.

“So she said to [Jephthah], ‘My father, if you have given your word to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth because the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the people of Ammon.’”

What is confusing about this passage for many people is what comes next. His daughter calmly asks for permission to take a vacation with her friends

“Then she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months that I may go and wander on the mountains and bewail my virginity, my friends and I.’” (v37)

We might expect Jephthah to deny her request. After all, he had a vow to keep. But he did not. He allowed her to go away for two months and mourn the fact that she would not marry and have children.

We again might assume she wanted to mourn her virginity because she soon would be dead, and it seems logical that she mourns her death. But she does not, which only adds to the confusion.

It is because of her calm response and Jephthah’s willingness to allow her to go away with her friends that we can conclude he did not intend to kill her. It is very likely he intended to give her as a virgin servant in the tabernacle instead. Such servants were common at the time, as we see in Exodus 38:8 and 1 Samuel 1:11, 2:22, 22–28.

Psalm 68:25 also illustrates how virgin women played timbrels in a procession when the Levites brought the ark of the covenant into the holy sanctuary.

“The singers went before, the players on instruments followed after. Among them were the maidens playing timbrels.”

It was considered an honor to serve in the tabernacle; however, Jephthah’s daughter would have felt very sad about it. The Bible seems to indicate Jephthah had no other children. Sending her to serve in the tabernacle would have left him alone. Plus, his daughter was a virgin, which means the family line would end.

A Foolish Vow’s Consequences

When Jephthah’s daughter returned from her trip, Judges 11:39 tells us her father kept his promise to God.

“And it was so at the end of two months that she returned to her father, and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man.”

Jephthah sent his daughter away, and she remained a virgin for the rest of her life. He offered her symbolically to the Lord as a sacrifice to serve in the tabernacle, not as a burnt offering.

Though he spared his daughter’s life, Jephthah’s foolish vow illustrates how impulsiveness can affect an entire family, sometimes tragically. His daughter paid a heavy price for her father’s rash pledge, and Jephthah was left with no family.

Proverbs 8:11 tells us wisdom is better than rubies. Likewise, Proverbs 14:15 says a prudent person considers well his steps. Jephthah reminds us to be wise before the Lord, to think before we speak, and not give in to hastiness.

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