The book of Hebrews has a whole chapter about Old Testament men (and women) who achieved great things by faith.
One of them had his daughter killed--as a human sacrifice.
What are we to make of this?
Hebrews on Jephthah
NOTE: This post is part of a series on the "dark passages" in the Bible. Click here to see all of the posts in the series.
Hebrews 11 discusses various Old Testament figures who had faith in God and did amazing things. Toward the end of the chapter, we read:
And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets--who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions . . . [Heb. 11:32-33].
It continues in the same vein.
The point is: These men, together with some notable women the chapter also mentions, did amazing things as a result of their faith.
One of the people mentioned in this passage is Jephthah.
Who was he?
The Stage Is Set
The stage for Jephthah's first appearance is set in Judges 10, where we read about how the Israelites have been worshipping foreign gods and, as a result, they have become oppressed by a group of foreigners: the Ammonites.
The Israelites repent, and God is moved to have mercy on them.
So God will make sure that they are delivered from the persecution, but what historical form will this deliverance take?
The leaders of Gilead (part of the territory of Israel) start consulting about how they can free themselves from the Ammonite oppression.
Specifically, they decide that if they can find a man to lead the fight against the Ammonites, they're willing to let him be the leader of Gilead.
Turning the corner into chapter 11, we meet Jephthah:
 Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a harlot. Gilead was the father of Jephthah.
 And Gilead's wife also bore him sons; and when his wife's sons grew up, they thrust Jephthah out, and said to him, "You shall not inherit in our father's house; for you are the son of another woman."
 Then Jephthah fled from his brothers, and dwelt in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows collected round Jephthah, and went raiding with him.
So already, Jephthah has had a hard life. Think about his family situation!
He's the son of a prostitute, but his father took him (as a boy) to dwell in his own house anyway, with the sons of his wife.
Ouch! Think about how painful that must have been for everyone involved!
Then when his half-brothers are grown up, the legitimate sons drive Jephthah out so that he can't inherit anything (meaning: he leaves penniless or close to it).
Jephthah then descends into a life of banditry.
So: Hard life. Social and familial outcast. Enters a life of crime.
But he does have one thing that people need . . .
Men at His Command
As the leader of a group of armed bandits, Jephthah has at his disposal potential military power. This was in short supply in Israel at the time, since there was as yet no king or standing army.
The elders of Gilead thus come to him and promise that he can be their leader if he will beat back the Ammonites.
To Jephthah's praise, there follows an extended parley which explores the historical roots of the conflict, in which Jephthah argues that the Ammonites should not trouble Israel.
This effort fails, and Jephthah makes ready to do battle.
He is uncertain of victory, though, so he makes a promise to God . . .
 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, "If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand,
 then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD's, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering."
This is Not Good.
The ancient Hebrew audience knew that God had rejected human sacrifice as a means of worshipping him.
That's part of the point of the story of the (non-)sacrifice of Isaac: God rejects human sacrifice and allows animal sacrifice in its place.
What's more, child sacrifice was explicitly forbidden by the Law of Moses (which was already in effect at this point):
There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering [Deut. 18:10a].
The early audience, hearing this story read aloud, would have been chilled to the bone at this point.
While Jephthah may have imagined an animal would come out of his door first (animals were often housed indoors in Israel), he's made an extremely rash and foolish vow, because it could easily be a human being, even a child, who comes out first.
This is madness on his part!
(Note: I mention the possibility of an animal because some commentators have suggested it, but it is not obvious that he is thinking of an animal as fulfilling the vow; he may have full well meant it to apply to a human being.)
What Happens Next?
Ultimately, God does allow Jephthah to drive back the Ammonites and deliver Israel from oppression.
He has been merciful to Israel.
But then the horrible folly of Jephthah's vow is made explicit--both to the audience and to Jephthah himself:
 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.
 And when he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow."
So Jephthah's daughter--his only child--is the first one to come out to meet him, and in celebration of her father's victory!
But his vow requires her to die.
That means, among other things, that if he fulfills his vow, his line ends here. He will have no descendants, which was a great tragedy for Israelites.
Jephthah has doomed his daughter and brought shame and disgrace on himself.
And--the text makes sure we know--he carried out the vow.
Some have suggested that this only meant he had his daughter consecrated to God, not actually killed, but this goes contrary to the text.
While it was possible to consecrate children to the service of God, as workers at the Tabernacle (like Samuel's mother did for him when he was a boy), that is not what is happening here.
The vow specifically stated: "I will offer him up for a burnt offering."
So Jephthah, in his madness, put himself in a position where, in order to fulfill his vow, he would have to violate Deuteronomy 18:10 and commit the sacrilege of child sacrifice.
This is the epitome of the rash vow, and the author of Judges expects us to realize that.
What Are We to Make of This?
It's become clear that Jephthah isn't a knight in shining armor. He is not, fundamentally, a heroic figure.
He's a tragically flawed individual. Like many flawed individuals, he was dealt a bad hand of cards early in life, and--unfortunately--he never fully overcame that.
But despite this, he was able to serve as an instrument of God's mercy in delivering Israel.
It would have been better if he had more faith--if he had trusted in God for victory without making his foolish and immoral vow.
Should Jephthah have kept his vow?
From our perspective, the answer is an obvious NO!
For the ancient audience, the matter would have been less clear, but even for them it was clear that Jephthah should never have made the vow in the first place.
It was even clear to Jephthah himself in the end.
We thus do not have the book of Judges endorsing Jephthah's behavior.
From the perspective of the author of Judges, God will be faithful to his promise to deliver Israel when they repent of their sins, but he does so in a way that allows humans to still make mistakes and sin.
Many of the judges are depicted as extremely flawed individuals, but God still uses them as instruments of mercy.
Jephthah is one of those: He does deliver Israel, but he is also extremely flawed, and his daughter dies as a result.
And that brings us back to the place where we started . . .
Hebrews on Jephthah
What did the author of Hebrews think about Jephthah's vow?
Does the fact that he's mentioned in Hebrews 11 mean that the author approves of the vow, or that he considers it unimportant?
The author of Hebrews is intent on showing the importance of faith and how those who have faith can achieve great things.
Jephthah did that. He had the faith in God to put his life on the line in battle, and he delivered the Israelites from foreign oppression.
He gets credit for that, and that's the only credit Hebrews is giving him.
We can be sure of that in two ways . . .
Gideon, Barak, Samson, David, and Samuel
First, what about those other guys who are named along with Jephthah? Were they paragons of virtue?
There is fault that can be found with these figures.
To cite just one example: David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle.
This is explicitly regarded, in the Old Testament itself, as a grave sin on David's part, for which he suffers.
The author of Hebrews hardly thought David was sinless--or even that he was free of grave sin--and he didn't think the other people he names were sinless, either.
Hebrews on Sacrifice
Second, the idea that Hebrews would have regarded Jephthah's vow as a good thing is simply not credible.
First, Hebrews was written by a Christian, and Christ was rather cool toward making vows in the first place (Matt. 5:33-37, though that's a subject that would take us too far afield for this post).
Second, the author of Hebrews doesn't even want people to sacrifice bulls and goats any more! His whole letter is oriented against the idea of continued blood sacrifices, and . . .
Third, he was a Jew, and there is no way that he would have regarded child sacrifice as a legitimate thing to do (per Deut. 18:10, among others).
So if we had asked him, "Do you think Jephthah was right to make his vow?" we can be entirely sure that he would have said no.
And if we asked him why he did mention Jephthah, we can be sure he would have mentioned other factors.
If you like the information I've presented here, you should join my Secret Information Club.
If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.
I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.
In fact, the very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is information about what Pope Benedict says about the book of Revelation.
He has a lot of interesting things to say!
If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy sign-up form:
Just email me at email@example.com if you have any difficulty.
In the meantime, what do you think?