Did Jephthah Actually Kill His Daughter?
The Case against Jephthah
If Jephthah were to be arrested for the killing of his daughter, the prosecutor would have some evidence, though largely circumstantial. First there is his infamous and rash vow to God, that if God granted him victory over the Ammonites then the one who came out from the door of his house to greet him on his return would belong to the Lord and he would offer that person, or possibly animal, up as a burnt offering (Judges 11:30-31). Indeed Jephthah wins the victory, but the first to greet him with timbrels and dancing on his return is his daughter.
The final comment of the biblical text on the subject is the laconic statement that Jephthah fulfilled his vow, though the text gives no details of her death.
In his defense, Jephthah might point out that it was actually his daughter who insisted that he fulfill his vow to God (Judges 11:36) perhaps mitigating to some extent his responsibility. Her death might even be regarded as an act of martyrdom, not unlike Samson’s willingness to die for the sake of his God and his people.
Moving Beyond Summaries: The Narrator’s Point of View
The problem with this, or any other brief summary of the story, is that it leaves out so much of the material that the biblical narrator has considered important to present. Such details need to be taken seriously.
The Story in Context
The story begins at the end of the previous chapter of the book of Judges. (It is always important to remember that chapter numbers were first inserted into Bible in the thirteenth century, and do not reflect a Jewish division of the text.) In Judges 10:17, we learn that the Ammonites are besieging Gilead. In response, the leaders of Gilead decide that ‘the man who begins to wage war against the Ammonites will become the head (rosh) of all the inhabitants of Gilead’ (10:18).
Jephthah is introduced in chapter 9 as a גבור חיל, “an able warrior,” in biblical terms a high accolade. Jephthah’s misfortune is to be the son of a prostitute. His father, Gilead, had a number of sons from his wife and when these boys grew up they drove Jephthah away so that he would not inherit from his father. Jephthah was forced to flee and settled in the “land of Tov.” There gathered around him other similarly displaced men, the biblical term being, רקים, literally ‘empty’, presumably landless or otherwise without a place in society.
Jephthah becomes the Leader of Gilead
When the incursions of the Ammonites become more pressing, the elders of Gilead invite Jephthah, who has presumably developed a reputation as a warrior, to come back from the land of Tov and fight on their behalf. In the negotiation that follows, something of Jephthah’s anger at his previous treatment, but also his personal ambitions are revealed (Judges 11:6-10).
Elders: Come, please, and be our katzin, commander, and we will fight the Ammonites.
Jephthah: Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house, why come to me now that you are in trouble?
Elders: Therefore now we have turned to you that you may come with us and fight the Ammonites, and be our head (rosh) over all the inhabitants of Gilead.
Jephthah: If you are bringing me back to wage war against the Ammonites, and if the Lord deliver them before me, I will be your rosh.
Elders: The Lord will be the witness between us if we do not do as you say.
Presumably, Jephthah knew the earlier decision of the leaders of Gilead to make the one who begins to fight against the Ammonites the “head (ראש)” of all the inhabitants of Gilead. Thus, when they offer Jephthah the role of קצין, a mere military figure, he refuses and the elders recognize that he is holding out for the higher rank of ראש and are quick to offer it.
Presumably, the title ראש would represent his complete rehabilitation as a leading figure of the society, despite his origins. This would explain what was personally at stake for him in this transaction and hence his subsequent attempt to guarantee success through his vow to God.
How Clear is Jephthah’s Vow?
The vow is unique in the biblical record because of its puzzling specificity. To vow to make a sacrifice as a thanksgiving offering was a biblical convention with the appropriate cultic apparatus available for fulfilling it. In this case, however, who knows who or what might come out to greet him? As the rabbis pointed out, if an animal, it might be unclean, and therefore, unacceptable as an offering.
Nevertheless, some ambiguity inheres in the actual wording of the vow.
יא:ל וַיִּדַּ֨ר יִפְתָּ֥ח נֶ֛דֶר לַי-הֹוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אִם נָת֥וֹן תִּתֵּ֛ן אֶת בְּנֵ֥י עַמּ֖וֹן בְּיָדִֽי:יא:לא וְהָיָ֣ה הַיּוֹצֵ֗א אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵצֵ֜א מִדַּלְתֵ֤י בֵיתִי֙ לִקְרָאתִ֔י בְּשׁוּבִ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם מִבְּנֵ֣י עַמּ֑וֹן וְהָיָה֙ לַֽי-הֹוָ֔ה וְהַעֲלִיתִ֖הוּ עוֹלָֽה:
11:30 And Jephthah made the following vow to Yhwh: “If You deliver the Ammonites into my hands, 11:31 then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be Yhwh’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.”
The vow consists of two parts: firstly, that the
- One who comes out shall belong to the Lord,
- Jephthah would offer him/her/it up as a burnt offering.
The flexibility of the vav conjunctive linking the two statements would allow it to be read here as ‘and’, so that ‘belonging to the Lord’ meant the burnt offering mentioned immediately after. But the ‘vav’ could also be read as ‘or’, so that whatever or whoever came out would be dedicated to God, and, only should it prove appropriate, would be sacrificed. This latter suggestion runs the risk of sounding like apologetics, designed to give Jephthah a certain amount of leeway, but the ambiguity is present in the text.
Jephthah’s Daughter’s Request
Jephthah’s daughter is the one who goes out to meet him and he must fulfill his vow through her. She accepts her fate but makes an unexpected request of her father before the vow was to be fulfilled.
She said to her father: ‘Do this for me, release me for two months and I will go and ‘go down’ upon the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my women companions. (Judges 11:37)
Jephthah agrees, and she and her women companions go and weep for her virginity on the mountains.
Why Jephthah may not have Sacrificed his Daughter
Jephthah’s daughter returns two months later to her father and “he fulfilled his vow.” Does that mean he sacrificed her? Two elements in the story push me to think that he did not.
1) The Yearly Ritual of Lamenting Jephthah’s Daughter
The following verses note that “this was a statute in Israel” (11:39), and presumably the nature of this statute is to be found in the following sentence, that every year the daughters of Israel would go לְתַנּוֹת לְבַת יִפְתָּח הַגִּלְעָדִי four days a year (11:40). Here too there are ambiguities and all translations are speculative.
Most scholars assume that it refers to some kind of ritual lamentation for her fate, translating the preposition ‘lamed’ before ‘the daughter of Jephthah’ as “about.” However, it could mean “to,” i.e., that they are speaking to her and commiserating with her, implying that she is still alive. If this is true, then “fulfilling his vow” and “sacrificing his daughter” are not coterminous.
Along the same lines, the duration of this ritual is expressed as ‘miyyamim yamimah’ (11:40), which, when associated with a ‘statute’, can mean ‘in perpetuity’ (Exodus 13:10). But it is also used of Hannah’s annual visit to Shiloh, which would limit it to a regular occurrence during the lifetime of a particular individual (1 Samuel 1:3; 2:19).
If this is the intent of the verse, that Israelite women made a pilgrimage to her every year, it explains why this apparently institutionalized practice of lamenting Jephthah’s daughter as an annual rite is never mentioned anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. This suggests that the ritual was only institutionalized as long as she was alive; in other words, it belongs to the narratives concerning Jephthah recorded here, but we have no knowledge as to whether it became part of Israel’s holiday or ritual cycles.
2) The Extreme Emphasis on Virginity?
Immediately following the statement about Jephthah fulfilling his vow, we are told that his daughter “did not know a man.” If she is dead, then this information is hardly relevant, so presumably it belongs to some broader issue in the narrative.
This perception is strengthened by the extreme emphasis on virginity.
- She asks that she and her friends be allowed to cry for her virginity (not her death) for two months.
- The request is granted and she and her friends do in fact cry for her virginity (not her death) for two months.
- When the vow is fulfilled we are told she never knew a man (a strange thing to say after recording the sacrifice of a virgin).
Why is the emphasis on her remaining a virgin and not on her death? I believe that this suggests that she wasn’t actually killed, and that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life.
Jephthah’s Only Child
What is the meaning of this episode? Why the emphasis on her virginity, what happened to her at the end, and what is the lesson in it all?
The Tragedy of the Vow from Jephthah’s Perspective
Jephthah’s horrified reaction serves to confirm just how much he had at stake in the successful outcome of the battle. His first words, the emphatic repetition of the verb כרע, ‘to bow’, ‘bend the knee’, ‘you have surely brought me down’, do not seem particularly concerned about the possible fate of his daughter. Rather it is his own hopes that have been brought low, and perhaps this echos his desire to become the ראש, for that ‘head’ too is now literally bowed.
Jephthah next casts the blame onto his daughter, describing her as his ‘troubler’ or ‘disturber’ (עכרי), just as King Ahab and Elijah will later mutually accuse one another (I Kings 18:17-18). But since the victory ensures that he will become ראש, what else might her appearance have ‘disturbed’, beyond the fatherly love that he might be expected to have for her?
One clue would seem to lie in the earlier remark when the text first introduced her. She was Jephthah’s only (child), ‘apart from her he had neither a son nor daughter’ (Judg 11:34). To lose her would mean the end of any long-term family or dynastic intentions that Jephthah might have.
Born to a woman who was outside the family framework, he would now be unable to pass on his rehabilitated status to another generation. The effect of his vow, however it might be carried out, would rob him of his future.
The Tragedy of the Vow from Jephthah’s Daughter’s Perspective
The material about the journey to the mountains with her companions to weep for her virginity, and statute that it evoked, suggest the possibility that she truly saw herself as dedicated to God according to the opening words of the vow, and as a consequence accepted a different fate from that of other women, namely a life of seclusion.
She sacrificed the most important priority affecting women in the Biblical world, the necessity of having children.
Perhaps this should be connected as an extreme variant on the tradition of the nazirite as reflected in Numbers 6:1-21, where a man or woman may take a vow of abstinence for a limited period. Once a year she would receive a visit in her isolation from her companions who would ‘call out’ to her.
Jephthah is a tragic figure. His problematic origins make the restoring of his status in society crucial to him. Yet, his story ends with no chance of his handing his improved status on to his progeny, since his own vow forces his daughter into permanent celibacy as a woman consecrated to the Lord.
Her story is double-edged. She is clearly troubled by giving up her future as a mother. She cries about it for two months, as do her friends, and all the women of Israel do so for four days every year until she dies. Nevertheless, Jephthah’s daughter is also the symbol of what may have been a unique experiment in women’s spirituality, ‘belonging to the Lord’ as expressed in the opening words of Jephthah’s vow. Moreover, when her father seems ambivalent about whether to go through with the vow, it is she who takes responsibility for her faith and pushes him to do what he swore. As such, perhaps she is not only a woman to be pitied, but one to be admired as well.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
June 25, 2015
September 22, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Rabbi Jonathan Magonet is the former Principal of Leo Baeck College and Emeritus Professor of Bible. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg and his ordination from Leo Baeck College. Magonet is the author of A Rabbi Reads the Torah, and is the editor of ‘Seder Ha-Tefillot‘ Forms of Prayer: Daily, Sabbath and Occasional Prayers as well as the journal, European Judaism. His latest book is, How Did Moses Know He Was a Hebrew?: Reading Bible Stories from Within (Hakodesh Press, 2021).
Essays on Related Topics: