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Jephthah's daughter, fate of

For more than one hundred years this question has been before the Brotherhood: Did Jephthah actually sacrifice his only daughter, or did here merely dedicate her to a celibate service, perhaps at the Tabernacle? The earliest discussion of the subject of which I am aware occurs in the 1875 Christadelphian, in a brief article by JJ Andrew (Vol 12, May, pp 236,237). It is a measure of the "popularity" of this debate that there are no less than 32 separate articles -- and these in the Christadelphian and Testimony magazines along -- over the intervening 105 years. A fuller index of other periodicals would surely increase this number considerably. (One is tempted to inquire if a like number of words have been written on many other subjects of far more importance).

There has never been a Christadelphian "party line" on the question. In such respects as this our community compares very favorably with others, such as "Jehovah's Witnesses" -- who make a great show of devotion to individual Bible study, but who scarcely, if ever, deviate from the official interpretation of "headquarters" on any subject? A review of our writings on Jephthah's vow, just as one minor example, reveals a great stress on private, personal, independent thinking along Scriptural lines. Surely it is a small price to pay for our community's freedom from "learning by rote" that, once in a while, a question of secondary importance is allowed to overlap the bounds of "cut-and-dried", canned (or "potted" -- for the English) reasoning.

Robert Roberts is first on one side, then the other, of this subject. [His last thought on the subject favors the death of Jephthah's daughter (Law of Moses, 1984 edition, pp 290,291) -- but his argument is very brief and far from air-tight.] And CC Walker follows him in the same course -- first favoring a dedication and then vacillating between the two and finally expressing "no doubt that Jephthah's daughter was really slain in sacrifice" [Xd 64 (Jan 1927), p 28]. But his defense of that view seems curiously flippant, as, for example, his question: "What is a daughter more or less?" (Ibid, Feb, p 77) -- certainly not designed to win the sisters over to his view, to say the least! Then, "making all due allowances", as he expresses it, he reproduces a portion of a Tennyson poem which catches the "spirit of the maiden" -- in which the poet sees her coming in a vision and then returning "toward the morning star"! (Ibid, p 86). Not much "proof" in that, certainly!

The next editor of the magazine, John Carter, weighs in on the other side of the issue, with an article by G. Buckler to the effect that the girl's life was not taken -- to which he appends his own note of approval [Xd, Vol 78 (June 1941), pp 260,261].

The Testimony Magazine also presents, at different times, both views. PH Adams, for years the editor of "First Stages" and then the "Problems" sections, has a real "problem" with this question! Issue after issue, he advances and repeats arguments for sacrifice instead of devotion -- but his readers (if one may judge by the printed response) are overwhelmingly of the other school of thought. So, patiently and with good humor, he answers as best he can their objections. Reading these exchanges (In Volumes 11, 12, 13, 22, 23, and 27) is certainly a good lesson in the fine art of "disagreeing without being disagreeable", something most of us could do with more of!

One of the most curious contributions on the subject is a "Trial in the Court of Historical Research" -- before "Lord Penetrating Impartiality" (in the style of Robert Roberts' "The Trial: Did Christ Rise from the Dead?"). Both sides of the question are argued out at length by counsels with such names as "Noble Acceptor-of-all-Truth", after which the reader is left to decide for himself (Testimony, Vol 28 (April, 1958), pp 121-127).

What are the arguments, pro and con? The following is a summary of the more cogent points in favor of each side, for the benefit of those who do not have access to back numbers of our periodicals:

First, in favor of the theory that Jephthah did indeed offer his daughter as a burnt offering:

  1. We cannot say that anything God does or allows is inconsistent with His declared character. It is not for us to sit in judgment of Him.
  2. This view was never called in question by Jew or Christian until about 1200 AD. The Septuagint and Vulgate -- and Josephus -- have always conveyed the idea of a literal sacrifice.
  3. Just because Jephthah is elsewhere described as a righteous man does not mean everything he did was righteous! To believe that he offered up his daughter does not require believing that he was right in doing so!
  4. The AV text (if not the margin), RV, RSV, and most other versions favor the "and" in v 31 -- giving strong support to the idea that the vow called for the burnt offering of whatever or whoever came out first, since (no matter how we understand its terms) it is beyond any doubt that Jephthah did perform his vow (v 39).
  5. Would Jephthah's sorrow have been so overwhelming, and would an annual memorial have been called for, if the only "fate" his daughter suffered was perpetual virginity and service at the Tabernacle?
And, secondly, for the alternate theory:

  1. Human sacrifice was expressly forbidden by God (Deu 12:30,31; Psalm 106:37,38; Isa 66:3; Jer 32:34,35).
  2. Jephthah, being one who "wrought righteousness" and "obtained a good report through faith" (Heb 11:32,33-39), can hardly be expected to have been so seriously ignorant of what was and was not acceptable to God in this matter. It is very improbable that a man like that would make a vow that would likely call for him to do something which the Law expressly forbade.
  3. The "vow" Jephthah made (Jdg 11:30) was a "nadar" -- for which the Law allowed the possibility of redemption upon payment of money. (Lev 27:1,8). Considering this, it is almost unthinkable that the distraught father would not have availed himself of this "escape" if the vow had meant death for his daughter. (The Hebrew for "devoted" things, which could not be redeemed, was "cherem", as in Lev 27:29, but that word does not appear in this narrative.
  4. "Whatsoever" of v 31 can be translated "whosoever", as applying to persons. This is a reference, probably, to the custom of women coming out to meet victorious warriors, with timbrels and dancing (v 34). The women who met David returning from battle (1Sa 18:6) and Miriam also (Exo 15:20) were following this custom. It seems very unlikely that Jephthah would have been vowing to put to death "whomsoever" of the young men or women came out first, as he would surely have realized beforehand how likely it would have been for a human rather than an animal to come out first!
  5. "I will offer it up" (v 31) can be translated "I will offer Him (ie, God) a burnt offering" -- making the pronoun masculine, with God the One to whom the offering was to be made.
  6. "And I will offer it up": The AV margin suggests "or" (though the preponderance of translations favors "and"), so that Jephthah may be expressing an alternative; ie, If a person comes out first, he or she shall be dedicated to God, or if an animal comes out first (and if it possesses the suitable qualities) it will be sacrificed as a burnt offering.
  7. If there had been any illegality in the vow, that is, if in fact the outcome had been a human sacrifice, then someone like Jephthah -- who feared God -- would have had good reason to forbid the breaking of His law.
  8. The burnt offering of the damsel, if such it was, would have to be carried out be a priest at the Tabernacle -- who would then be knowingly participating in an improper offering and a criminal act!
  9. Furthermore, the specific rules of the burnt offering (Lev 1:1-17,7:8) provided that a male be offered, the skin to belong to the priests, and the blood to be sprinkled round the altar!
  10. In lamenting her misfortune, Jephthah's daughter did not bewail the loss of life; she simply bewailed her "virginity". This deprivation of the opportunity to bear children was considered a great calamity among Jews, and would be especially hard to bear for Jephthah also -- since he was an important man in Israel and she was an only child. The word "lament" (Hebrew "lethanoth") in v 40 is not the common word for such, which would have been most appropriate if the grief of death were intended. Instead, it is a word which can have the meaning "to rehearse" or "to talk with" -- as the margin shows. It is used only here and in Judges 5:11, where the daughters of Israel retell and celebrate the righteous acts of God. The young women evidently went up to the Tabernacle to talk with Jephthah's daughter year by year.
  11. "She knew no man" (v 39) seems foolishly redundant if she were put to death. It rather seems to express her entering upon a state of complete dedication to Yahweh -- in some special service. (Compare Hannah offering Samuel during the same period). Though similar to Roman Catholic nuns and "holy orders", such a dedication should not be objected to on that score alone, since this would be a dedication in truth, not error. Paul says that the unmarried may more easily care for the things of God (1Co 7:34). Such an order of virgins devoted to Tabernacle and Temple service is at least implied in such passages as Lam 1:4 and Exo 38:8.
  12. It is not explicitly stated that she was actually offered -- which is rather remarkable in so singular a case. This seems so unusual an omission that even the commentators who favor the idea of sacrifice are compelled to admit that a "veil" is drawn over the actual bloodshedding. But is it not more reasonable to assume that there was nothing in the narrative so embarrassing to Jephthah's character that a veil was even needed?

A quick reading of the points compiled above might seem to favor one opinion over the other by sheer weight of numbers. But no doubt much could be said in rebuttal of various points on either side. It is possible that this writer's leanings are by now obvious, but he has made a conscious effort to state fairly the arguments for both sides. This is of course not a matter of "first principle" consequence, so perhaps the best conclusion is this:

"Prove all things; hold fast that which is good".
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