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Hebrew Corner 16: Jephthah’s Daughter

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First, I just want to mention that this will be the last Hebrew Corner post (at least for awhile). After the holidays I will be starting a new series called "Bible Backgrounds" dealing with background issues from the ancient Near East that help us to interpret the Bible with fresh insights.

It would be difficult to find in the Bible a more tragic story than that of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges 11:29-40. The question arises from time to time whether he really sacrificed his daughter—perhaps he dedicated her to lifelong service in the sanctuary where she would have remained a virgin. Some of the arguments used are that the text emphasizes her mourning her virginity (seemingly not the biggest issue if she were being sacrificed), that Jephthah as a judge on whom the spirit had come would not do such a despicable thing, and that no priest would have officiated at such a sacrifice. These can be answered by noting how having children was important in their understanding of afterlife, and how depraved behavior was in the Judges period—even by judges and priests. We would note also that Jephthah hardly had grown up in an environment where he would have been instructed in the law.

All of this having been said, the real issue deals with some of the details of the Hebrew text, which is why this passage is included in our Hebrew corner today. There are two Hebrew elements to explore, both in 11:31. 

The first is an issue of lexical semantics. In his vow, Jephthah promises a burnt offering (Hebrew, ‘olah). In the nearly 300 occurrences of this word in the OT it is always a sacrifice that is wholly burned on the altar. The first point is simple then—to suggest that this word has a unique and different meaning here is special pleading. The text says what it says, however disturbing that may be.

The second issue occurs earlier in the vow when Jephthah indicates that he will sacrifice "whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph" (NIV). What scenarios does Jephthah imagine here? While it is true that the Israelite four room house could accommodate animals, animals do not go out to meet someone. Dogs were not kept in houses, were not generally kept as pets and were unsuitable for sacrifice. Cows, goats and sheep do not come forth to meet someone. Furthermore, a simple animal sacrifice would not be appropriate for the extent and significance of the victory Jephthah has achieved. Returning champions were commonly greeted by a procession from the town to welcome them home.

If we inquire about the Hebrew word translated "whatever" we will find that this is a translator’s interpretation. The Hebrew text has a participle, a word that could be stretched out as "the one who comes forth." It would be highly unlikely that Jephthah would use this form with the meaning "the thing that comes forth." It can therefore be concluded that Jephthah is anticipating a human sacrifice. If his expectation is clear and the intended action is clear, the text leaves us no legitimate alternatives.

Why then did God allow Jephthah to have the victory if such was the Judge’s intention? The spirit empowered him to bring deliverance for Israel, and that was what God’s plan was. God need not indulge the foolishness of individuals at the expense of his plan for his people.

Waltonjpic John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).

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