The Old Testament is brutal at times. It records instances of violence, cannibalism, treason, betrayal, and murder....just to name a few. So is God ok with all of this? For example, does the Bible implicitly approve of human sacrifice because of the story of Jephthah?
It's important to note: The Bible does not condone everything it records.
Repeat that. Memorize it. Tattoo it on your face if you have to, but never forget that some books of the Bible are historical in nature—and they don't make moral commentary on every historical event they report about. This will solve at least half of the problems you may encounter with the more "troubling" stories in the Old Testament. (Let's not forget that the Old Testament is largely about a very rebellious people who disobeyed God at every turn. There is bound to be some unpleasantness.)
This will also help us a bit with the story of Jephthah—but admittedly, it's not quite that simple in this case. You see, after sacrificing his only virgin daughter to God, Jephthah is honored in what is often referred to as the "Hebrews hall of faith," in Hebrews 11:32. He is mentioned among greats like Samson, David, and Samuel. (Except.....were they really that great? More on that later.)
What gives? Is Jephthah's inclusion in the hall of faith evidence that God was pleased with his sacrifice? Well-known atheist and Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins certainly seems to think so.
In his famous treatise against religion, The God Delusion, he refers to the story of Jephthah with these words: "God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering."(1) Let's face it. Richard Dawkins is respected as a scientist....but he's not the greatest theologian.
Let's dig in.
What does the story actually say?
When the Ammonites declared war on Israel, the elders begged Jephthah to fight for them, and be their leader. Before going out to battle, the text says, "The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Mizpah of Gilead" (Judges 11:29). From there, he traveled out to the "Sons of Ammon," and made this vow to God:
The Bible goes on to record that the Lord gave the Ammonites into Jephthah's hand, and Israel was victorious. When Jephthah got home, his only child—a virgin daughter, came out to meet him. He tore his clothes in anguish and said that he couldn't take back his vow. She went into the mountains to "mourn her virginity" and after two months, she returned and Jephthah "did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man."
Some scholars believe that Jephthah did not kill his daughter at all.... that he "sacrificed" her into permanent service to the Lord associated with the Tabernacle. Her service would mean she could never marry, and would remain a virgin for the rest of her life.
There are some contextual elements that seem to justify this interpretation. For example, she agreed that he should keep his vow and went into the mountains to weep for her "virginity"....not for her life. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe wrote:
At the end of verse 30, after Jephthah "completes the vow," it says, "and she had no relations with a man." That would be a strange thing to say if the text was communicating that he had just offered her up as a burnt offering .
The Hebrew word used for "burnt offering" is 'olah, which can also mean to "ascend" or "go up." (The same word is used this way in Ezekiel 40:26.) Most Hebrew words have various usages, and the context is what determines the meaning....this is why a growing number of scholars believe that in the context of virginity, Jephthah must have meant that he was dedicating his daughter to the Lords service as a living sacrifice, not a burnt one.
The more common and popular interpretation is that Jephthah did, in fact, sacrifice his daughter on the altar as a burnt offering after his military victory. Human sacrifice was certainly prevalent in the surrounding cultures of the ancient world, and Israel's leaders were known to continually dabble in paganism and the worship of false gods. (This is why God was so frequently upset with them and exacting judgement on them throughout the Old Testament narrative.)
Some thoughts to consider
Regardless of which interpretation is correct, Jephthah would not have been justified in killing his daughter because human sacrifice was strictly forbidden by Mosaic Law, and punishable by death. (2) In fact, the very nation that Jephthah conquered was known for child sacrifice in honor of their god, Molech, who was called an "abomination" by God in 1 Kings 11:7. Child sacrifice was so morally reprehensible to God, that He described certain kings as "evil" based on their practice or approval of it. (3) We can't forget that Israel's participation in child sacrifice is what caused God to allow the Babylonians to take them into captivity in the first place. (4) There is no ambiguity here--God absolutely detests child sacrifice.
Dealing with difficulty
If the first interpretation is correct, there is no difficulty with the Jephthah story, but let's assume that the second one is correct. There are two main difficulties to wrestle with. Why does the text say that "The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah" and why is he in the Hebrews "hall of faith?"
There are several examples in Scripture in which the Spirit of the Lord came upon people for a specific task, who ended up doing ungodly things. (5) For example, the Bible describes Samson as having the Spirit of the Lord upon him when he killed a lion with his bear hands and when he killed a thousand wicked Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. Samson also slept with a prostitute, and committed adultery with Delilah. And yet he was listed in company with Jephthah as a great man of faith. In the Old Testament, when the Spirit of the Lord came upon a person, the Spirit didn't override their free will, but empowered them to accomplish His will in certain situations.
And about that "hall of faith"—many of the "greats" mentioned alongside Jephthah were seriously flawed. David slept with Bathsheba and then had her husband murdered. Noah got drunk. Abraham lied on more than one occasion. Gideon made an ephod that was turned into an idol. One of the few women mentioned was Rahab....a prostitute.
Either way the Jephthah story is interpreted, there is NO interpretation that would allow for the idea that God approved of human sacrifice. Personally, I am thankful that the Spirit of the Lord can come upon imperfect people, and accomplish great things. And despite their personal failures, they can still be honored as great men and women of faith!
If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to have my weekly blog posts delivered directly to your inbox.
(1)Dawkins, Richard (2008-01-16). The God Delusion (p. 276). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
(2) Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10
(3) 1 Kings 11:4-11; 2 Kings 21:16; 2 Chronicles 28:1-4; Jeremiah 32:35
(4) Jeremiah 32:35
(5) Numbers 24:2; Judges 6:34; Judges 14:6,15:4; 1 Samuel 16:13