The Unnamed Daughter
Jephthah’s daughter has no name. That’s not unusual for biblical characters. Men and women alike are unnamed. The Wise Men, though important and respected, are identified only by their station. Many women exist as appendages of their men, such as Noah’s wife, Lot’s wife, Haman’s mother, and Samson’s mother. Others are named for where they lived: the Syrophoenecian woman, the Queen of Sheba, the Witch of Endor. Like men known as the Shepherd, the Rich Man, the Good Samaritan, the Friend, the Guest, the Builder, and dozens of other archetypal individuals, these people have no unique identity. Jephthah’s daughter is in good company.
But for someone without a name, her tale is rich with possibility.
Her story starts before she is born, with her father’s childhood in Gilead. The son of a prostitute, Jephthah grew up in his father’s household among his half-brothers, all born to his father’s wife. When the boys grew up, Jephthah’s brothers kicked him out, refusing to let him inherit anything from their father’s estate. So Jephthah ran with outlaws. He became known as a “mighty warrior” (Judges 11:11). 
Jephthah had no role in politics, though, until the Ammonites waged war against Israel. Then the elders of Gilead begged him to lead the fight against their enemy. Jephthah agreed, but only after convincing them to make him their ruler if he was victorious.
The Foolish Vow
Initially, Jephthah tried to reason with the Ammonites, seeking to avoid a battle, but they refused him. Thus, his only recourse was to fight.
At that moment, “the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites” (Judges 11:29). God had blessed Jephthah’s campaign.
Even so, the man felt moved to make a vow to ensure his victory. “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,” he told God, “then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31).
To our modern ears, this seems harsh. What right did he have to offer up someone else as a burnt offering? To Israelite ears, the vow would have been, if not cruel, at least rash. According to Jeremy Hugh Baron, in his book Fifty Synagogue Sermons, the Talmud writers censured Jephthah for the vagueness of his promise. What if an unclean animal came out from his home, one unsuitable for a sacrifice? What would he do then? 
Jephthah’s Return Home
Jephthah didn’t have to worry about that. He had other problems, for when he returned home victorious, he was joyfully greeted by one who was eminently unsuitable for a sacrifice. “[T]here was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing” (Judges 11:34). How horrible. The tragedy was made worse for Jephthah because she was his only child, and she was a virgin. She had no children of her own. If she died, no one would be left to carry on Jephthah’s name.
In despair, he tore his clothes and wailed. “Alas, my daughter!” he cried. “You have brought me very low; 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” (Judges 11:35).
Let us not judge Jephthah too harshly for reproaching his daughter. When we are distraught, we often say things we don’t mean. We incriminate others; we deflect. But we all know she didn’t cause his trouble. He was the one who opened his mouth.
Indeed, his daughter reminded him of this. “My father,” she said, “if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth” (Judges 11:36).
The Brave Daughter
What a lot of maturity she showed. In one sentence, she gently turned the blame back on her father, letting him understand that he must accept responsibility for his impulsive promise, even while she consented to her fate, as if sacrificing one’s child were a reasonable thing to do. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, in her book about the women of the Bible, notes that other fathers sacrificed their beloved children. The Phoenician kings did this, as did Agamemnon and the king of Moab.  That didn’t mean it was accepted practice.
Jephthah’s daughter would have heard about these other children, yet she took the specter of her death calmly. Her poise emphasized her father’s foolishness.
And Jephthah was indeed a fool. He might have been a master military leader. During his six years as a judge over the people, he might have ruled well. But he was impetuous. Could he not have guessed his daughter might rush out to welcome him home? Did he think God would keep her safe, leading some other soul to the sacrifice? This was the time of Judges. God no longer intervened in the lives of the people. Jephthah was not thinking.
But his daughter was. We don’t know if she’d been warned about her father’s vow. Baron points out that since Jephthah had already been filled with God’s invincible spirit, he hadn’t needed a vow to ensure his success. Therefore, he may have uttered his promise publicly, less to influence God than to inspire his men. Given this, it’s possible the girl knew what her father had promised. If so, she’d have had time to consider what to do, including making a choice to be first out of the house so that no one else would face the terrible death of a sacrifice. 
Mourning One’s Virginity
Jephthah’s daughter was mature, kind, obedient, and considerate. Whether she worried over the vow during the lonely days before her father returned from war, or whether she came up with the idea on the spur of the moment, Jephthah’s daughter made a surprising suggestion. “Grant me two months,” she said, “so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.” (Judges 11:37). Jephthah’s daughter had a lot to grieve over.
Yet if the culture mourned her untimely death, it seemed to do so more because she never made love to a man than because a courageous and wise human being was lost to the world. Back then, death was common. Hardship was no secret even to the wealthy. That didn’t mean parents felt no misery when their children died. Jephthah wailed and tore his clothing when his daughter danced through the door of his home. I imagine he felt true despair at the thought of losing her, yet his despair was worse because, after his child’s death, no one would remain to remember his name.
There was no happy ending there, not for anyone.
The Book of Judges is full of unhappy endings. The people turn from God and disobey his commandments.  Therefore, God sends enemies to conquer them. When the people repent, God sends a savior, like Jephthah, to rescue them. Of course, the people sin again, so the cycle repeats. Like Jephthah, other men and women rule as judges, yet as the book progresses, they become increasingly incompetent. Wars intensify. The depredations grow more and more terrible. The vulnerable suffer. Perhaps, as Frymer-Kensky suggests, this chaos was meant to prepare the Israelites for the upcoming rule of kings. 
The story of Jephthah’s daughter was part of this process. Could this incident and the more gruesome ones to come be signs of God’s hand manipulating Israel’s history? If so, God hid his hand well, for in the absence of a monarchy or constitution, men ruled over their families. If they were cruel and unfair to their loved ones, no human had the power or the right to intervene. And still God stayed out of the way.
Frymer-Kensky notes that this also meant there was no one to whom fathers could turn when they needed help, such as when Jephthah made his foolish vow.  All they had was a distant God who let his people suffer the consequences of their mistakes.
A Society Falls Apart
In this story, then, lay the beginning of a nation’s unraveling. Hebrew society was falling apart. The tales in the Book of Judges became more and more violent and ugly. For instance, there was the story of the Levite’s concubine, who was a wife to the Levite, though a minor one.
The couple visited the town of Gibeah. There, some men from the community surrounded the house where they were guests, demanding that the homeowner send the Levite out to them so they might “have sex with him” (Judges 19:22). To save himself, the Levite shoved his wife outside to the men. All through the night, they raped and abused the poor woman. Finally, she died from her torment. The Levite cut her body into twelve pieces and sent those pieces throughout the land.
“Everyone who saw it was saying to one another, ‘Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came out of Egypt. Just imagine! We must do something!’” (Judges 19:30 NIV).
This call to do something has been heard throughout the world for thousands and thousands of years. Although the writers of the Book of Judges would like us to believe that strong kings will keep the people from devouring one another, the monarchy did not save the Israelites. We have never figured out how to maintain a just society. Kings can be as corrupt as judges, as can presidents. Even a democracy can become corrupt. The system of law can be subverted. The poor, women, children, and outsiders have always been vulnerable to sacrifice, whether as burnt offerings or as scapegoats for the anger and fear of the powerful. They still are.
Things Get Worse
Jephthah may have mourned, but his foolishness cost his daughter more than it did him. Whether of a nation, a town, or a household, leaders have responsibilities. They should be careful with their words. They should consider the consequences of their actions. But at least after his initial shock, Jephthah accepted responsibility. When his daughter reminded him that it was he who “opened his mouth” when he should have kept it shut, Jephthah did not deny this truth.
No one has the right to offer up someone else in sacrifice to the gods. Even during a time when only the head of a household had autonomy, when a daughter was property, the community understood that Jephthah had done wrong. They mourned and honored the girl’s memory. As the story tells us, “there arose in Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite” (Judges 11: 40).
The foolhardy vow Jephthah made did not go well. Then things in Israel got worse.
The Levite’s Concubine
Recently, a patient at the hospital where I work asked me about the story of the Levite and his concubine. This gruesome tale is made worse because, as he dismembered her body, he showed no remorse toward nor compassion for the tortured woman, but only outrage at those who dared to threaten his personhood and abuse his property.
The patient could not understand how a man could do such a thing, nor could she imagine what God was trying to teach us in such a text. I suggested that the Levite sent the woman’s body parts throughout the nation to show his countrymen that they were responsible for the violent act of desecration that killed her. When a country allows marauding bands to threaten and destroy, everyone is culpable. Nowadays, when young men who have access to automatic rifles kill scores of children, when a president makes veiled – and not so veiled – threats to those who oppose him, and when his followers prepare to fulfill his wish, we all share culpability.
Those of us who are complacent and comfortable often refuse to look at the reality around us. We refuse to get involved. Because the ugliness dismays us, we look away. This allows the horrors to continue. In the story of the concubine, the abusive men did not act on their own. They acted with the blessing of a culture that cared little or nothing for the sanctity of human life, especially female life. When leaders abused power, when outlaws swept through their towns, the citizens hid behind barred doors. No one could stop the aggressors; no one dared try. When good people do nothing, evil flourishes.
A Cautionary Tale
The concubine’s story is a cautionary tale. So is that of Jephthah’s daughter. In such a world, and even in a world like ours, ignorant and brutal leaders can gain control. When we revere the strong man, when we turn to him in the hope that he will save us, we become vulnerable to tyranny. So it was in the Bible. In their longing for peace, the people gladly accepted the despotic rule of kings.
But perhaps we expect too much, for no ruler is perfect. After all, Jephthah wasn’t so bad, was he? We all have moments when we forget, when we lose ourselves in dreams of glory. Our fears, lusts, greed, and humanness get the best of us. In a just society, though, a way will exist for us to make amends, to repair the damage we have done, to heal the rift, to return to God’s good graces, to be welcomed back into community. As far as we know, Jephthah never found such a way. By her request for two months of mourning, though, his daughter may have been trying to give her father time to reconsider, to sit with God, to find a path back to grace and mercy. Did he discover that path?
Was Jephthah’s Daughter Killed?
Some commentators suggest that, instead of being sacrificed, Jephthah’s daughter spent the rest of her life in the isolation of one who is given to God. After all, the text only says, “At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made” (Judges 11:39). That’s vague. Can we be certain she died?
Rabbi Jonathan Magonet points to the word “vav” that is part of the initial vow. Generally translated as “and,” Magonet explains that it can also be translated as “or.” Thus, instead of meaning that Jephthah would give the one who first greeted him to God and as a burnt offering, he really meant he would do one or the other.  This gives Jephthah a convenient loophole.
But that’s not the point. God does not want legalistic obedience. God wants love. He wants us to love him with all our hearts, our souls, and our might (Deuteronomy 6:4). And if it is love God wants, and love God gives, then our relationship with God is about forgiveness and compassion, for isn’t that the core of loving someone? Such love does not hold a man to a promise that turns him against his daughter. Yes, we need he take responsibility for what we do, but that doesn’t mean God wants a child to die. Does Jephthah’s daughter count for nothing here?
Regardless of how the story turned out, whether the girl was burned in a sacrificial fire or sent away to a temple or some other isolation, the ending was not a victory. Jephthah may have won a war, but he lost his heart, and he damaged others in his rashness.
The Courage to Love
Scriptural stories like these are not meant to be models for our behavior. They are meant to warn us, to encourage us to return to right relationship, to focus on love. When we forget our that our true purpose is love, society falls apart. Leaders fail, and the people rise up in fear and anger. They take their confusion and their hatred out on anyone weaker than they are, and no one can stop them.
This is not what God wants. For God, only our loving obedience matters. Nothing else. Not saving face, nor power, nor wealth, nor in-groups or out-groups.
Yet how do we learn to love in the face of our fear and disdain? Jephthah’s daughter shows us the way. She shows us that with integrity, wisdom, wit, patience, kindness, and faith, we can do what is right. We can love our families and our communities. We can choose actions that heal rather than harm. Even now, in our own country, we can either protect ourselves in our cloistered communities, or we can stand up to the foolish, the brazen, and the violent. Sometimes that means that, like Jephthah’s daughter, we will be sacrificed.
I am in awe of this young woman who showed such faith in God and such courage. May we, too, be brave enough to hold love and faith above all else.
In faith and fondness,
- All translations NRSV unless otherwise noted.
- Baron, Jeremy Hugh, Fifty Synagogue Seminars, New York: Hamilton Books, 2010, 27.
- Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, Reading Women of the Bible, New York: Schocken, 110-111.
- Baron 32.
- Throughout I use the male pronoun for God because in the Book of Judges, God is male.
- Frymer-Kensky 100.
- Ibid 117.
- Magonet, Jonathan, “Did Jephthah Actually Kill His Daughter?,” The Torah, https://www.thetorah.com/article/did-jephthah-actually-kill-his-daughter, accessed 9/30/19.
Photo jephthah’s daughter – Jean-François Portaels, wikimedia [Public domain]
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved