August 5, 2010

The Vow of Jephthah and Human Sacrifice

by Archbishop Lazar Puholo

QUESTION: There is an incident in the Old Testament that bothers me and I actually get upset whenever it comes to mind. In Judges, chapter 11, we read about Jephthah who vowed that if he won a certain battle, he would make a burnt offering to God of whatever he met first as he approached the door of his house. His only daughter came rushing out to meet him when he came home and, according to Scripture, he offered her as a sacrifice. How could that be? God did not allow human sacrifices. Surely, Jephthah would have been stoned by other Jews if he had tried to offer his daughter as a sacrifice. This seems so horrible, yet from the Scripture, it almost seems as if God accepted a human burnt offering. Please answer this, as it is causing me a great deal of confusion.

ANSWER: Perhaps the first thing to do in order to understand this story better is to read Romans 12:1: "...offer yourselves as living sacrifices, holy and well-pleasing, to God; this is your reasonable offering".

There are some very definite and clear statements in the narrative about Jephthah's daughter that let us know what actually happened. First of all, when the daughter heard of her father's vow, and realized that it was her who must be offered, she asked to be allowed to lament for two months because she would never be married: not because she would be killed, but that she would never marry. Secondly, in Judges 11:39, we read, "And he did to her as he had vowed. AND SHE REMAINED A VIRGIN". It is quite clear then, that she was not literally offered as a burnt sacrifice, but was offered to the temple as a consecrated virgin (what we now call "nuns") to serve in the House of God. We know from many references that virgins served in the temple. It is not at all possible that Jephthah offered his daughter as a slain sacrifice, because God had already absolutely forbidden such a thing and established the strictest punishment for anyone who should attempt to offer a human sacrifice (see, for example, Lev.18:21; 20:2-5; Deut.12:31; 18:10) - especially one of his sons or daughters (Deut.l8:10-12) - but to have offered her to the service of God in the temple was not an uncommon practice. However, in this case, since she was his only child, it was a great sacrifice, for it meant that his family line would die with him, since she would have to remain ever-virgin.