by Al Maxey

Issue #224 ------- December 9, 2005
Misfortune and experience are lost
upon mankind when they produce
neither reflection nor reformation.

Thomas Paine (1737-1809)

Jephthah's Reckless Vow
Reflective Analysis of Judges 11

Somewhere around the year 1200 B.C., Joshua, one of the great leaders of the people of Israel, died at the age of 110 (Judges 2:8). "And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all of the days of the elders who survived Joshua, who had seen all of the great work of the Lord which He had done for Israel" (vs. 7). In the course of time, however, "there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel" (vs. 10). As a result of this, "the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the Lord to anger" (vs. 11-12).

For the next several generations the Lord's dealings with His people would be notably cyclical in nature. First: The people would sin, turning from their God to engage in the evil practices of the peoples around them (Judges 2:11-13; 3:7; 3:12; 4:1; 6:1; 8:33-35; 10:6; 13:1). Second: God would severely punish them by giving them into the hands of their enemies (Judges 2:14 -- "And the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and He gave them into the hands of plunderers who plundered them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies around them, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies." Also: 3:8; 3:12; 4:2; 6:1; 10:7; 13:1). Third: The people would cry out to their God in their distress, repenting of their evil (Judges 2:18; 3:9; 3:15; 4:3; 6:6-7; 10:10). Fourth: The Lord would raise up a deliverer for the people of Israel who would deliver them from the hands of their enemies and bring peace (Judges 2:16; 3:9; 3:15; 4:4,6; 6:8-11; 11:1-11; 13:5). Fifth: The judge would eventually die, and the people would return to their evil ways. This cycle repeated itself time and again throughout this period, a time often characterized as The Dark Ages of Jewish History.

In Acts 13:20 the apostle Paul recounts a bit of history to the assembled Jews in Pisidian Antioch, informing them that God "gave them judges until Samuel the prophet." Unfortunately, as evidenced by the cyclical nature of their relationship with their God, the people of Israel repeatedly failed to learn from their many mistakes. This is seen clearly in a distressing passage that characterizes the people during this dark period of history --- "Then the Lord raised up judges who delivered them from the hands of those who plundered them. And yet they did not listen to their judges, for they played the harlot after other gods and bowed themselves down to them. They turned aside quickly from the way in which their fathers had walked in obeying the commandments of the Lord; they did not do as their fathers. And when the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge and delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed and afflicted them. But it came about when the judge died, that they would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them and bow down to them; they did not abandon their practices or their stubborn ways" (Judges 2:16-19).

Jephthah: The Man

Jephthah was the son of a man named Gilead; a resident of the region of Gilead. They occupied the land across the Jordan River to the east. The name Jephthah comes from the Hebrew Yiptah, meaning "he will open" (perhaps referring to the fact that God would open doors for this child). Jephthah would need that divine assistance, for his early years would not be easy ones. The problem was: Jephthah was not the son of Gilead's wife, but rather "the son of a harlot" (Judges 11:1). Some feel this woman may have been a cult prostitute in one of the pagan temples. However, if this was the case she most likely would have been referred to in Hebrew as qedesha, rather than the word zona (which is actually used in the text). The Septuagint uses a phrase that signifies "a common harlot." Apparently, therefore, Gilead had gone and employed the services of a common prostitute, and then took the child into his own home to raise. However, "when his wife's sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, 'You shall not have an inheritance in our father's house, for you are the son of another woman'" (Judges 11:2). This may signify that Gilead was at this time deceased, thus no longer in a position to be able to provide protection to his illegitimate son, and the legitimate heirs wanted Jephthah to have no part in the inheritance left by Gilead. Therefore, his other sons took the opportunity to rid the family of this "embarrassment" and to protect their inheritance.

"So Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob" (Judges 11:3). The land of Tob was located "on the Euphrates River to the NE of Ramoth-gilead" (The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 3, p. 432), which corresponds to present day southern Syria. During his years in the land of Tob, Jephthah gained quite a reputation among the people as a "valiant warrior" (Judges 11:1). "Worthless men banded together with Jephthah and went out raiding with him" (Judges 11:3, NKJV). The first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus referred to these men (which the NIV characterizes: "a group of adventurers") as "that army which he maintained at his own expense" (Antiquities of the Jews, book 5, chapter 7, section 8). Most biblical scholars feel these "adventurers" were more likely outlaws and robbers, and that Jephthah was leading raids against caravans and small communities, living off the plunder. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible describes him as "the robber baron" of the land of Tob, and that he had "formed a robber band" (vol. 3, p. 432). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia takes much the same view: "He became leader of a band of robbers in the area known as Tob. The marauding band under Jephthah's leadership would survive by making periodic raids on merchant caravans and settled communities in the Tob district" (vol. 2, p. 983). "He gathered around him a band of dubious character but great courage, who lived by preying on other groups" (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 894). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible calls him "a brigand chief" (p. 684).

Jephthah: The Deliverer

For 22 years Jair the Gileadite had judged the people of Israel (Judges 10:3). Following his death, however, "the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord. ... they forsook the Lord and did not serve Him" (vs. 6). Thus, "the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and He sold them into the hands of the Philistines, and into the hands of the sons of Ammon" (vs. 7). "For 18 years they afflicted all the sons of Israel who were beyond the Jordan in Gilead" (vs. 8). "Then the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, 'We have sinned against Thee, for indeed, we have forsaken our God and served the Baals'" (vs. 10). The Lord then reminds them of the cyclical nature of their relationship with Him, saying, "Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress" (vs. 14). However, the people continue to cry for deliverance, and "they put away the foreign gods from among them, and served the Lord; and He could bear the misery of Israel no longer" (vs. 16). Therefore, He determined once more to raise a deliverer for them. That deliverer would be in the form of a man who had been driven from their very midst some years before --- Jephthah.

The people, as well as the elders of Gilead (the primary area of Israel being afflicted by the warring nations), were at a loss to find someone who could lead them successfully in battle against the enemy (Judges 10:17-18). They determined, though, that if the right man could be found, he would "become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead" (vs. 18). At some point, these elders of Gilead thought of Jephthah. He may well have been their last choice, because of the way in which he had formerly been treated, but they were desperate! "Doubtless his brothers were in the group of elders of Gilead" (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 894). So, "the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob" (Judges 11:5). They found him and asked him to come be their leader in the fight against their oppressors. His response was one of skepticism and disdain: "Did you not hate me and drive me from my father's house? So why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?" (vs. 7). They continued to plead with him, however, and he offers them a deal: he will lead their army against the enemy, IF they will make him their leader when he wins the victory (vs. 9). They agree to these terms, and so "Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them" (vs. 11). "When Jephthah returned with the leaders to Mizpah, he also confirmed his intentions 'before the Lord' (vs. 11), and the agreement with Gilead was sealed. The ceremony at Mizpah had the makings of a coronation as the people installed their new leader" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 451).

Jephthah's first official act was to try and negotiate a peace with those who were oppressing Israel (Judges 11:12-28). Some have wondered why Jephthah would do this, but, in point of fact, it was a requirement of the Law of God. "When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves" (Deut. 20:10-14). Some believe Jephthah's actions here reflect a certain degree of knowledge of the Law of God; demonstrating he was not totally unaware of the principles and teachings of the Mosaic Covenant. This, if true, will be important in our perception of his vow, and in what sense he may have uttered it and then later carried it out.

When all of his diplomatic efforts proved to be futile, Jephthah began to raise up an army from among certain of the Israelite tribes most directly affected by the oppressors God had previously raised up to punish His rebellious people. Not all of the tribes were summoned to participate in the upcoming battle, however, and this would later cause quite a problem. The people of Ephraim, for example, were greatly offended that they had not been included. Jephthah told them that he had sought their help, but he had perceived them to be unwilling. This disagreement eventually led to a bloody conflict between the people of Gilead and the people of Ephraim during which tens of thousands would perish. The account may be read in Judges 12:1-6. It was during this conflict that we encounter the infamous term "Shibboleth." For a fuller discussion of this later conflict, and the spiritual significance of this tragic event for the people of God today, I would refer the reader to Reflections #66 --- The Shibboleth Syndrome.

Jephthah's critical battle against the Ammonites went exceedingly well. "Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel" (Judges 11:32-33). "And Jephthah judged Israel for six years. Then Jephthah the Gileadite died and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead" (Judges 12:7). I think it is rather significant that this man who had been run off from the household of Gilead, and from the land of Gilead, was, at the end, paid tribute to as "a Gileadite" and given a burial place in the land of his father! God has a way of righting wrongs!

Jephthah: The Vow Maker

As Paul Harvey, the noted news commentator, likes to say, "Now, for the rest of the story!" Prior to going into battle with the Ammonites, Jephthah made a vow to the Lord God, a vow most scholars regard as reckless, and one that would prove very costly to him and to one whom he loved dearly. In Judges 11:30-31 we read his vow to God --- "If You will hand over the Ammonites to me, whatever comes out of the doors of my house to greet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites will belong to the Lord, and I will offer it as a burnt offering." One has to wonder what could have been going through Jephthah's mind when he made this vow!! What, or who, did he think might be the first to emerge from his house to greet him? Was he expecting it to be an animal of some kind? After all, a good many of the peoples of that time did keep certain animals within their dwellings. Or, did he perhaps consciously vow to offer a human being in sacrifice to God, and, if so, why would he do such a thing? Some suggest that he may have expected a servant to come running to meet him, rather than a family member. However, a human life is still precious, whether that life be slave or free. I suppose we will never know exactly what was in Jephthah's mind when he uttered this vow, but the outcome of these few words would haunt him for the remainder of his life.

That vow, and how Jephthah sought to fulfill it, has generated serious debate over the centuries, and scholars are still divided over what actually happened. One thing we do know is that the first thing out his door was his only child: a beloved daughter. "When Jephthah went to his home in Mizpah, there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with tambourines and dancing! She was his only child; he had no other son or daughter besides her" (Judges 11:34). Although there is probably no spiritual relevance associated with the following, it is nevertheless somewhat interesting to note that the judge who led the people just prior to Jephthah (Jair the Gileadite) had 30 sons (Judges 10:4), and the judge who followed Jephthah (Ibzan of Bethlehem) had 30 sons and 30 daughters (Judges 12:9). Nothing further is said in the passage about either of these men, which leads some scholars to the conclusion that the mention of the number of the children they had was given specifically to highlight the fact that Jephthah had only one.

It was not unusual for the women to come out to meet returning warriors, and to greet them with visible expressions of joy at their safe and victorious return. Jephthah's daughter came to meet her father "with tambourines and dancing." After Moses led the people of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and the army of Pharaoh was swallowed in the sea after the parted waters came back over them, "Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took the timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing" (Exodus 15:20). When King Saul and the young David returned, after David had killed Goliath, "the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with joy and with musical instruments" (1 Sam. 18:6). Many scholars feel, in light of this common cultural practice, that Jephthah surely knew the first out the door of his house to greet him would most likely be a human being and not an animal. Thus, they declare, Jephthah had a human sacrifice in mind from the very beginning.

Although human sacrifice was absolutely abhorrent to the Jewish people, it was a rather common practice among many of the pagan peoples surrounding God's people. "The notion of human sacrifice was all but universal among ancient nations, and it was specially prevalent among the Syrians, among whom Jephthah had lived for so many years" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2, p. 233). The Pulpit Commentary is in full agreement -- "Now it is well known that human sacrifices were frequently practiced in Syria, and it cannot surprise us that a man brought up as Jephthah was, and leading the life of a freebooter at the head of a band of Syrian outlaws, should have the common Syrian notion of the efficacy of human sacrifices in great emergencies" (vol. 3, p. 125). "In that reckless vow he exhibited a rude and unenlightened piety that was typical of the wild mountaineer fighter that he was" (Edith Deen, All of the Women of the Bible, p. 75). "Israel's neighbors sacrificed their children, and this custom might have influenced Jephthah" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 3, p. 455).

Thus, a good many scholars do indeed believe Jephthah intended a human sacrifice when he made his vow. The problem was: he didn't expect that sacrifice to be of his only child. Other scholars, however, disagree vehemently, suggesting that if a human sacrifice was the original intent of Jephthah, "it must have been the vow of a heathen or a madman" (Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 151). Those who oppose the notion that Jephthah intended a human sacrifice also point out that the verse immediately preceding the verse that contains his vow says, "Now the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah" (Judges 11:29). How, they demand, could a man upon whom the Spirit of God was resting vow to do that which God considered an abomination? There must be some other explanation to this vow, they say. Those who believe Jephthah's intent was to offer up a human being as a burnt offering counter by saying that the Holy Spirit only came upon Jephthah to give him victory in the upcoming battle over the Ammonites, not to transform his moral character. Some don't buy this explanation -- "Jephthah was now under the influence of the Spirit of God, and that Spirit could not permit him to imbrue his hands in the blood of his own child" (ibid, p. 152).

It is an established fact, and was even during the time of Jephthah, that God was opposed to human sacrifice, regarding it as an abomination. One would think Jephthah would have been aware of this fact. Lev. 18:21 and 20:1-5 make it abundantly clear how God feels about those who offer their children as human sacrifices. Those guilty were to be executed. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke against this practice in the strongest of terms (Jer. 7:31-32; 19:5-6; Ezek. 16:20-21; 20:31). In the two Jeremiah passages we find God saying that the sacrifice of these children was something "which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind." The Holman Christian Standard Bible phrases the last thought this way: "I never entertained the thought." Indeed, we discover in Deut. 12:29-31 that the sacrifice of children as burnt offerings was one of the reasons God drove out the pagan peoples before the Israelites! He abhorred the practice!

Nevertheless, we are forced to acknowledge that the language of the text, at least as it appears in most English translations, certainly does lend itself to the interpretation that a human sacrifice was intended by Jephthah when he made his vow. Thus, either this was indeed his intention, or we are misreading the text in some way, or it has been erroneously translated. The great reformer Martin Luther, for example, wrote, "Some affirm that he did not sacrifice her, but the text is clear enough!" Josephus declares that Jephthah's daughter was indeed offered up as a burnt offering, but he says this act "was neither conformable to the law, nor acceptable to God" (Antiquities of the Jews, book 5, chapter 7, section 10). If Jephthah actually intended to offer a human sacrifice, and then later actually carried it out, this constitutes a heathen action which would be viewed by God as an abomination worthy of death (so says the Mosaic Law). Yet, we know from Hebrews 11:32 that Jephthah is listed by name as one of the giants of faith ... a man "of whom the world was not worthy" (vs. 38). Some biblical scholars declare, in light of this NT endorsement of Jephthah, that he could not possibly have intended the abominable act for which he is credited, much less have carried it out. To have done so would hardly have generated the applause of heaven!!

Jephthah: The Vow Keeper

As already noted, when Jephthah returned home from his great victory over the Ammonites, his only child, a daughter, came out to meet him. "When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, 'Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back'" (Judges 11:35). Jephthah obviously knew the law of God sufficiently well to know that when one made a vow to God, one was obligated to keep it. "If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth" (Numbers 30:2; see also: Deut. 23:21-23). Jephthah was apparently aware of this law. Thus, would he not also have been aware of the laws forbidding human sacrifice?! One would certainly think so, and if he wasn't, one would certainly assume that others who heard of this vow, and his determination to carry it out, would have known it was a reckless and ungodly one, just as the people realized the same with regard to King Saul's odious oath, stopping him before he could commit this abomination. The fact that none of this happened, and that the people of the area actually seemed to commemorate this action of his involving his daughter (Judges 11:40), seems to argue against interpreting this event in terms of a literal human sacrifice.

Yet, we know that Jephthah did carry out his vow to the Lord. The daughter of Jephthah, whose name we are never given, said to him, "My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon" (Judges 11:36). Her only request was that she be allowed to have two months "to go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions" (vs. 37). This request he granted. "And it came about at the end of two months that she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made" (vs. 39). Thus, this man, who is named as being among the giants of faith in Hebrews 11, fulfilled his vow to the Lord. The question that has troubled students of the Bible for centuries, however, is -- Did he actually kill her and offer her body as a burnt offering? Again, the wording in our versions of the Bible seems to suggest this, but there is also no question that if he did this raises some almost insurmountable theological difficulties, as we have already noticed.

It should also be pointed out that this event has been frequently used by atheists, agnostics, and others to cast doubt upon the holiness of our God. For example, in a work known as "The Woman's Bible," feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton suggest that the submission of Jephthah's daughter to her father "is truly pathetic." But, she rationalized, "like all oppressed classes," this girl was "ignorant of the fact that she had any natural, inalienable rights." She suggested Jephthah's daughter should have refused to be a part of her father's rash quest to appease his unloving God, saying to him, "Better that you die than I, if the God whom you worship is pleased with the sacrifice of human life." In an article titled "Child Abuse Yahweh's Way," Farrell Till observed, "Only in the Twilight Zone of biblical times could one become a 'hero of faith' by killing his daughter in order to keep a foolish oath." In his article he refers to Jephthah as a "nincompoop."

But, did Jephthah actually slaughter his daughter and burn her body on an altar as a "sweet smelling odor" unto God? Was a human sacrifice even part of the vow he initially made to God? I'll admit that it is certainly possible. Righteous men, after all, have on occasion done some rather unrighteous things, and have still been regarded by God as men after His own heart. King David, for example. However, I believe there are some legitimate arguments against the view that a literal human sacrifice was what happened in this account. These are key arguments that should at least be given a fair hearing and some intense reflective consideration, as they certainly tend to eliminate many of the difficulties long associated with this story, and they also present both Jephthah and our God in a far more positive light.

If indeed Jephthah did intend for this to be a human sacrifice unto his God, then he did have at his disposal several legitimate legal options whereby he might avoid the death sentence for his daughter and still fulfill his obligation to his God. The Lord apparently knew that at times men would make rash, reckless vows, the literal fulfillment of which might actually cause more evil than good. "A promise to do evil is void from the first. It is wrong to make such a promise; to fulfill it is to add a second wrong. We can never bind ourselves by vow to do that which it would not be right for us to do without the vow. ... it would be sinful to fulfill such a vow as Jephthah's" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 3, p. 130). Thus, in the Mosaic Law God provided a way whereby difficult vows could be redeemed. In other words, you could buy your way out of them! This is found in Leviticus 27, which starts out, "When a man makes a difficult vow, he shall ..." (vs. 2). Numbers 18:15 reads, "Every first issue of the womb of all flesh, whether man or animal, which they offer to the Lord, shall be yours; nevertheless the first-born of man you shall surely redeem." Jephthah had a legal way out!

A price tag, if you will, was placed upon men, animals, and property, which constituted the cost of redeeming that which was the subject of a "difficult vow." Had Jephthah originally intended a human sacrifice, but had not expected it to be his daughter, he did have a way to redeem her! It seems unlikely that he would not have availed himself of this option to save her life. "He may have redeemed her with money -- Lev. 27:1-8" (Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, p. 894). In a brief footnote by the translators of the works of Josephus, they point out that if in fact Jephthah did vow to offer his daughter as a human sacrifice, "she ought to have been redeemed -- Lev. 27:1-8" (Antiquities of the Jews, book 5, chapter 7, footnote). As Adam Clarke correctly pointed out, "The father had it in his power, at a very moderate price, to have redeemed her; and surely the blood of his daughter must have been of more value in his sight than 30 shekels of silver" (Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 152).

Jephthah's vow, as rendered in most of our versions and translations of the Bible, poses almost insurmountable problems, as there are any number of possible scenarios where his vow could not have been acceptably fulfilled without raising the wrath of both God and men, yet such anger was seemingly not raised on the part of either! Strange, is it not?! This suggests to many biblical and linguistic scholars that perhaps we have not adequately understood or translated the vow of Jephthah. I think they may have a point!

An Alternative View

Until about the time of the Middle Ages, the majority of biblical commentators, including Josephus, believed Jephthah actually killed his daughter and offered her as a burnt offering unto God in fulfillment of his vow. From the Middle Ages on, however, biblical scholars have increasingly come to reject this view, and there is some scholarly evidence to suggest this rejection may be valid. The alternative view is two-fold: (1) Jephthah redeemed his daughter's life by making a payment to release him from his "difficult vow," as the Mosaic Law provided, and his daughter lived the remainder of her life in exclusive service to the Lord, or (2) Jephthah's vow was actually uttered in two parts, the fulfillment of which depended upon what or who came forth from the house to meet him. Thus, the choice of the sacrifice, and the nature of the sacrifice, was left in the hands of God. The Lord would provide the offering. In both cases, few would argue with the fact that his vow was a reckless one, showing lack of trust in God to bring victory to the people of Israel. Jephthah doubted, and this led him to seek to "cut a deal" with the Lord. His lack of faith and trust would prove costly ... no matter what interpretation one favors regarding this text.

The first suggested alternative involves the redeeming of his daughter's life from a foolish and difficult vow. This was certainly allowed under the Law. The difficulty with this view is that the biblical account does not even hint that Jephthah redeemed his vow. Had he done so, there would have been little cause for the grieving that is witnessed. Some say he redeemed her and that she then spent her remaining days in service to the Lord in a celibate condition (unmarried and without children). There is no reason why she should have done so, however, if indeed she had been redeemed, unless it was by her own choice. The text does not seem to validate this view. Thus, although redeeming his vow was a legal possibility, and he did have that option, there is no indication he did so. Indeed, the text declares that he kept his vow. I would therefore have to discount this first scenario.

The much more logical explanation, it seems to me, is that we have simply not adequately understood the nature of that vow itself. There are a couple of words and phrases that do indeed allow for alternate renderings of the text, and these would clear up the matter tremendously. Adam Clarke, for example, provided in his commentary the Hebrew text of the vow, and then noted, "the translation of which, according to the most accurate Hebrew scholars, is this: 'I will consecrate it to the Lord, or I will offer it for a burnt-offering.' That is, 'If it be a thing fit for a burnt offering, it shall be made one; if fit for the service of God, it shall be consecrated to Him'" (Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 151). This argument is based largely on a single Hebrew connective particle in the latter part of Jephthah's vow, and whether or not it should be understood disjunctively. The phrase, as usually translated, is: "Whatever comes out of the doors of my house ... shall be the Lord's, AND I will offer it up as a burnt offering" (Judges 11:31). If this connective particle is to be understood disjunctively, however, which it often is in the biblical text, then the phrase would be translated: "Whatever comes out of the doors of my house ... shall be the Lord's, OR I will offer it up as a burnt offering."

There are translations and versions of the Bible, by the way, that have so rendered this phrase. Notice, by way of example, Young's Literal Translation -- "And Jephthah voweth a vow to Jehovah, and saith, 'If Thou dost at all give the Bene-Ammon into my hand -- then it hath been, that which at all cometh out from the doors of my house to meet me in my turning back in peace from the Bene-Ammon -- it hath been to Jehovah, or I have offered up for it -- a burnt offering." Dr. Ellicott points out that "the margin gives the alternative reading or instead of and" (Ellicott's Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 2, p. 234). I personally believe that it makes very good sense to interpret this connective particle as a disjunctive, thus acknowledging in the translation that there are two parts to this vow, and they depend upon who or what first emerges from the door of Jephthah's house. This not only solves many problems associated with this account, but also paints Jephthah in a somewhat more positive light (as Hebrews 11:32 would seemingly necessitate), even though I am still convinced that his vow was ill-advised at best (but more likely foolish and faithless due to lack of trust in God's ability to deliver the enemy into his hands).

The correct interpretation, then, if the above grammatical construction is accepted (which I believe it probably should be), is that if an animal emerged first from the door of his house to greet him, he would offer it up as a burnt offering. Obviously, if that animal was not one acceptable to God, then it could be redeemed and the vow still kept in that fashion (see: Lev. 27:11-13 where redeeming unclean animals is discussed). On the other hand, if a person came forth first to meet him, which in fact was the case, Jephthah's vow was that this person "shall be the Lord's." That is, they would be given over into service to the Lord God. It was not uncommon for females to be consecrated into service to the Lord. Samuel, for example, speaks of "the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting" (1 Sam. 2:22). Exodus 38:8 also speaks of them. Many scholars feel these women, since they were specially devoted to the Lord, remained unmarried and celibate for the remainder of their lives. If so, and if this is the actual significance of Jephthah's vow, then the reaction of both Jephthah and his daughter becomes far more understandable.

Dr. Herbert Lockyer observed, "It is therefore possible, as Fousset suggests, that Jephthah offered his beloved daughter as a spiritual burnt offering unto the Lord, in the sense that she was set apart for His service, forever as a virgin. God's approval, which Jephthah evidently received, could not have been given for any other kind of offering" of his beloved daughter (All the Prayers of the Bible, p. 56). Dr. Dave Miller, in an insightful article titled "Jephthah's Daughter," which appears on the web site of Apologetics Press, writes the following: "Jephthah's action may best be understood by recognizing that he was using olah (the normal Hebrew word used for a burnt offering or sacrifice) in a figurative sense. Jephthah was offering to sacrifice a member of his extended household to permanent, religious service associated with the Tabernacle. The Bible indicates that such non-priestly service was available, particularly to women who chose to so dedicate themselves. Even in the first century, Anna must have been one woman who had dedicated herself to the Lord's service, since she 'did not depart from the temple' (Luke 2:37)." We today are still urged to present our bodies as "a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable unto God" (Rom. 12:1).

One should probably not overlook the vow of Hannah at this point in our study! This godly woman, who was barren, prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly, "and she made a vow and said, 'O Lord of hosts, if Thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of Thy maidservant and remember me, and not forget Thy maidservant, but wilt give Thy maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head" (1 Sam. 1:11). In verse 28 we see her bringing the child, who was named Samuel, to Eli, saying, "I have dedicated him to the Lord; as long as he lives he is dedicated to the Lord." I personally have very little doubt that this was also the intention of Jephthah in his vow to the Lord. Jephthah's grief, however, was occasioned by the fact that he apparently did not expect the one to meet him to be his only, beloved daughter. Still, he kept his vow, and his daughter, as did Isaac years before, submitted to the will of her father, which speaks volumes about the character and faith of both of them.

It should be noted here, just in passing, that there were some special temptations associated with this service of these women at the Tabernacle. Celibacy, after all, is not for everyone, and some undoubtedly faltered in their resolve. An ugly case in point is found in 1 Sam. 2:22 where we discover that the sons of Eli "lay with the women who served at the doorway of the tent of meeting." Some scholars feel that Judges 11:40 may actually refer to the women of Israel going yearly to encourage Jephthah's daughter in her sacrificial resolve to serve the Lord faithfully and celibately at the tent of meeting. "The daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year." The word translated "commemorate" in this verse simply "means 'to praise,' or 'celebrate'" (The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 3, p. 126), rather than "to lament," as some translations render it. Adam Clarke writes, regarding the word "lament" here, "I am satisfied that this is not a correct translation of the original" (Clarke's Commentary, vol. 2, p. 153). He points out that certain Hebrew scholars render this text as follows: "But this custom prevailed in Israel, that the virgins of Israel went at different times, four days in the year, to the daughter of Jephthah, that they might comfort her" (ibid). Thus, it is his belief, as well as that of other scholars, that for as long as she lived, God provided her comfort and encouragement during her service at the tent of meeting, something that would certainly be in character with a loving God. Young's Literal Translation of the Bible renders verse 40 this way: "And it is a statute in Israel: from time to time the daughters of Israel go to talk to the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four days in a year." This probably was a local custom only, and most likely ended with the death of Jephthah's daughter, for there is no further reference to it in Scripture or Jewish history.

Concluding Thought

The account in the book of Judges of Jephthah's reckless and foolish vow (and this is what I believe it to have been, in large part) is admittedly a difficult one to comprehend and successfully interpret. Judges 11 has perplexed scholars down through the centuries, and there is no dearth of heated debate regarding the text. I certainly don't claim perfect, infallible insight regarding this account, and freely admit that my views may not even remotely reflect what actually transpired those many centuries ago in the land of Gilead. I feel confident in my views, as they are based on careful, prayerful research and reflection, but I would stop far short of being dogmatic about them. Frankly, I look forward to meeting Jephthah and his daughter one day and learning from them what really happened. Perhaps I shall find that I was completely correct in my interpretation; perhaps I will find I was not. Perhaps I shall find myself much too happy in my heavenly home to much care one way or the other!! I'm leaning toward the third possibility!

Down, But Not Out
A Study of Divorce and Remarriage
in Light of God's Healing Grace

by Al Maxey
ISBN: 1-4137-8993-5
Order Your Copy Today From
The Publisher:
(301) 695-1707
Also Available Thru:, Borders,
Barnes & Noble, Grace Centered Magazine

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Hawaii:

Al, I have finally read your two most recent articles on elders (Reaffirmation -- Issue #220 and Selection -- Issue #221), and I couldn't agree with you more! Politics has absolutely no place in the church! Which brings me to another related topic: selecting and reaffirming preachers. Perhaps you could do a Reflections article on this one day. You are aware of how this is done here in Hawaii -- the same as when you were here. Too often this process is also very political, and it should not be! The most difficult thing I see in all this is removing the politics from the minds of the people. How do you, as a preacher and elder, put up with it after so many years?!!

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Al, thanks for your review of Dr. May's article. Cecil has been a mentor of mine for many years. Though we have disagreed at various times in our discussions, he has never once treated me poorly or scoffed at me for my ignorance. While I was a young student at Magnolia Bible College, Dr. May was the President. I'm sure I presented much ignorance to him in my discussions. As you so beautifully pointed out, his love for God and the church moves him to treat all with the love of Christ. I truly wish all dialogues could be characterized by such a spirit.

From a Noted Psychologist in Florida:

Bro. Al, I have just read your response to Cecil May's writing. The kindness, gentleness and respect evident in your response is commendable. We never build ourselves up or help our cause by "tearing down" others because of what they perceive to be right. The focus of our discussions must always remain the "issues" and not the person setting forth or advocating the issues. It takes a very mature and spiritually-minded person to understand the importance of the separation. The fact that brother May is a "doctor" did not tempt you to "open both barrels" on him, as some might have done. You never taunted him regarding his education or the position he holds at the university. Thank you.

From a Reader in Indiana:

Joyce Meyer writes the following in her book "How to Hear from God" -- "I greatly appreciate people who use common sense. Sometimes I would rather be around a person who is known for good common sense than someone who is considered to be a spiritual giant." Thank you, Al, for being both that "spiritual giant" and having good common sense.

From a Minister in Oklahoma:

Dear Brother Al, I appreciated your insights into the matter of eating and drinking the Lord's body and blood (Issue #222). Thank you so much for caring enough to give us your insights. Please forgive me for being so long extending my thanks! Also, what a beautiful person Bro. Cecil May is. I too disagree with some of his conclusions, but this fades when I catch his beautiful spirit. It would be foolish of me to comment on his article in Magnolia Messenger, because you have already said what needs to be said. Heavenly Father, give us more brother Mays!!

From a Minister in Florida:

Bro. Al, Something that might also be helpful in dealing with the issue of "patterns" is if we could somehow compile the list of traditions that Church of Christers feel must be followed, then have them provide proof. Things like: (1) You must have a Sunday evening assembly so travelers can take their sacrament, (2) Congregational singing is commanded, with no quartets or choirs allowed, (3) Congregational responsive reading is prohibited, (4) Women cannot teach a boy who has been baptized. The list could go on and on. Thank you for your efforts. Also, thank you for including within your studies links referencing past Reflections articles (this is very handy).

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Al, I have just finished reading your review of brother Cecil May's response to your challenge. I have always considered him to be a fine Christian gentleman; not one of the "hotheads" in the brotherhood. He has always been fair and attempts to be honest with Scripture. I believe he has accepted the views he espoused in the Magnolia Messenger because that is simply what we all have been taught by others whom we loved and trusted. Because of that trust, many of us did not question these doctrines and practices. Also, to have questioned them would have put us out of fellowship with those who accepted those traditions. We all were taught that to question was to doubt God. I, like you, believe brother May has missed what 1 Cor. 11 is really referring to when Paul told these brethren to eat at home. He wasn't trying to take the meal out of the assembly, but rather to correct their divisions (chapters 1-4) which were affecting their fellowship and communion when they ate together. We have been so warped by the Non-Institutional brethren on that passage that we are blind to why Paul said what he did. I doubt if we will ever practice what the first century church did due to our twenty-first century traditions concerning the assembly. Traditions often become more binding than Scripture!

From a Minister in California:

Brother Al, I found your review of Bro. May's article quite interesting. I also found brother May's spirit to be quite Christ-like. Many of the things he wrote resound of God's love and grace, and his life certainly stands up to the test. He identified himself at the beginning of his article as a patternist, but not a "legalistic" patternist. I can understand where he's coming from, but I do not personally believe it is possible to be one without the other. While much of what Dr. Cecil May wrote is worthy of our deepest consideration, I also feel that there was a rather disturbing dissonance evident when he started talking about the patterns which he claimed were essential to the life of the Christian. Despite all of this, I too look forward to walking the street of gold with Bro. May. I also look forward to all of us sitting at the feet of our Lord Jesus as He sets us ALL straight! Praise be to God for His endless grace and mercy on us!

From a Minister in Florida:

Brother Al, In reading your latest article, Magnolia Messenger Musings, I was again challenged in my thinking. I appreciate your work in trying to show the error of those who are legalistic in their mindset. Years ago I ceased preaching and teaching the "five acts" of worship as patterns to follow. The collection for the saints, as you have pointed out, is one of the greatest examples of how we misapply Scripture. I understand these instructions to be for a special need, and that the first day of the week was specified, not as a LAW for all future generations to follow, but for the convenience of the messengers who would pick up the contributions. Some time ago, I preached a series of lessons on worship in which I emphasized that while some insist on following the "pattern" of New Testament worship, we really have no idea how they actually worshipped in the first century. We know that they did certain things (sing, pray, teach, eat the Lord's Supper), but we have no concept of how they did these things. Yet, some try to bind a certain way of worshipping in the assembly, and brethren continue to divide over these matters. I can only hope to "chip away," little by little, at the concrete mindset that has, in my humble opinion, been an obstacle to our growing and converting people to Christ. Keep on keeping on, brother.

From a Reader in Texas:

Al, I have just finished the Reflections article on Dr. May. Your comments, which are so true, are on the mark. I was thinking to myself, as I was reading, why do we try to make loving God and Jesus Christ so difficult?! Do we have to have a "pattern" to obtain salvation? --- I don't think so. Do we need a "pattern" in order to love God? --- I don't think so. To love each other, and to love Christ as our Lord, just does not require any legalistic or patternistic system that must be maintained. A saying going around today applies --- "Just do it." To the legalist and patternist I say, "Just do it. Get off your high horse, love God and Christ, and let go of your dogma. Stop being a stumbling block (and that is what they are) to all with whom you come into contact." This was just a remark I wanted to get off my chest!!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Bro. Al, Last evening I read Bro. May's article and your Reflections #223. I believe what you wrote was a reasonable rebuttal to Bro. May's article. A problem that I have seen a lot is the patternists' perspective of just what worship is and who it is for. The "five acts of worship" (for lack of a better term), i.e.: singing, praying, giving, getting preached at, eating the Lord's Supper, really are not for God --- they are for us. They enhance our faith and exhort us and our fellow assemblers to hold the course, press on and grow. All of them can be done at any time and any place! They certainly are not limited to Sunday in a church building. Nowhere does the NT associate the "five acts" with worship. My own study has led me to believe that "worship" is some form of obeisance to God. In my mind, that obeisance is one's dedication and commitment to God, and that worship is 24x7. A tangential thought is that we have become so oriented to attending a formal assembly in an edifice that many of us cannot embrace the abstraction of dedication of spirit as opposed to physical acts. Maybe, if you have not already done so, you could use one of your Reflections to explain what "worship" really is.

From a Minister in California:

Bro. Al, I read with special interest your reference to Cecil May, a classmate of mine at Harding and a fellow 1964 graduate (whom I had not seen for 40 years until our reunion last year). I also read his article in his paper. It seems to me that we are all patternists of sorts, and that the real distinction is between those who bind patterns based on examples only as opposed to those who support patterns based on specific instructions from the Lord. A couple of things I noted from Cecil's article was how he slipped in the statement that the Acts 20:7 meeting was based on apostolic instruction (a pure assumption), and he also concluded that Paul's chiding of the Corinthians was because they had a meal in connection with the Lord's Supper (not only an assumption, but a forced reading of the context). Keep up the good work.

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Brother Al, Great article!! It was nice to read Dr. May's response to your challenge. I was surprised that someone on the "conservative extreme" would acknowledge that the most important part of Christianity is what we do on a day-to-day basis, and not the "five acts of worship." Truthfully, I agreed with most of his statements. Although he did not give you a full listing of "the pattern," he did make some good points. Keep up the good work, brother!

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Brother Al, I also am a Vietnam veteran, having served with the 1st Marines as a corpsman in 1969. I salute your service to our country in your two tours in Vietnam. I have a question for you. What is your opinion of clapping during songs of praise in a class or worship service? In years past I have been very traditional in my approach to church services. In the last few years I have begun to question some of the limitations placed on us by our forefathers. The last couple of years my wife and I have attended the ZOE praise conference in Nashville, Tennessee. We come away very uplifted. At any rate, I have read some of your writings on the Internet and thought I would seek your counsel.

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Al, I always enjoy the Reflections. If you're ever fishing for topics, one I'd love to see you cover is the "Pauline Conspiracy" theories. Most of the proponents of these theories are either atheistic or pro-Judaism, and their basic position is that modern Christianity resulted from a general Judaic reform led by Christ being "hijacked" by Paul, who turned it into a Gentile religion several times removed from Judaism. Thanks!

From a Noted Christian Author:

Al, Tradition is very difficult to eradicate. Nevertheless, people are changing -- thanks to your efforts! God is using you in a powerful way to bring about understanding of His Word and unity among His people -- "God is working in you." Thank you again for your spirit, and for your love for God and His people. It is my prayer that God will continue to use you for His glory. By the way, I still believe you are one of the best writers in the Stone-Campbell Movement!

If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: