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Book Preview: “Leading Ladies”

Over the next two issues, we will be previewing Bro. John Pople's new book, "Leading Ladies," which is being planned for publication in early 2023, Lord willing. We will begin by previewing the story of Jephthah's daughter.
Read Time: 15 minutes

(Part 1) 

As soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said
“Alas, my daughter!” (Judges 11:35).1

Is anything more terrifying than death by fire? Or more grotesque? Jephthah’s daughter’s tale forms one of the most tragic and controversial in the entire Bible, since it is commonly believed she was burned alive by her father. 

The story has a terrible reputation because some readers interpret the story to mean that God approves of, or at least tolerates, human sacrifice. He absolutely does not, as we shall see. The controversy hinges around a single clause spoken by Jephthah: “I will sacrifice him as a burnt offering.”

For centuries, scholars blindly insisted on a literal interpretation of Jephthah’s words, meaning his daughter would’ve been burned to death, which is not possible. But the enduring misunderstanding has long rendered this story a horrific and offensive tale of human immolation.

It didn’t happen but the story distracts from the real message, which goes unseen. This misperceived horror is exacerbated by the fact that ultimately Jephthah earns the respect of God enough to be mentioned in the iconic list of the faithful (Heb 11). 

The truth is far more beautiful. 

Birth of a Warrior 

The story begins with Jephthah (Judg 11), and every detail mentioned in the early verses is a relevant clue to unlocking the mystery of this tale. Jephthah is the son of the region’s founder–Gilead–but, because his mother is a prostitute, he’s an illegitimate half-brother to Gilead’s other children, a fact they’re swift to exploit.

When Gilead passes, his greedy brothers realize that if they disqualify Jephthah as a brother, they will each get more from the inheritance. They summarily reject him from the family and drive him from the home. Jephthah flees to the region of Tob, a bandit-ridden, kill-or-be-killed territory in which he flourishes and becomes a renowned warrior. Tob is northeast of Mizpah; some place it in Syria,2 others in Israel, southeast of the Sea of Galilee;3 in either case, about two or three-days’ journey away. 

Sometime later, the Ammonites threaten to invade Israel. The elders of Gilead, Jephthah’s brothers, have learned of Jephthah’s fearsome fighting reputation, and plead with him to command their forces defending Israel.

The text says, “sometime later” (Judg 11:4), and our best estimate is about twenty years, because Jephthah now has a daughter who appears to be teenaged. But Jephthah is bitter. He spits back in outrage at his brothers’ hubris; they rejected him when it was convenient for them, yet turn to him for help when they need it! It’s two decades later, but Jephthah’s ire has not faded. No single fact is more relevant to his daughter’s story than this. 

His brothers make him an offer: if he fights for Israel, he can be chief over them. Jephthah senses an opening. He holds the cards, so he accepts their deal. Or nearly so. Understandably, he doesn’t trust his brothers at all; they may offer him this power now but renege on it later. So, Jephthah takes them to Mizpah and makes them swear an oath (“speak before the LORD”) that he will have authority over them after the war.

Significantly, Mizpah is the ancient Hebrew site where contracts were forged between parties who didn’t trust each other. It was the pile of stones where the oath-swearer essentially said, “Please, God, I’m making a contract with this man, but keep your eye on him because he’s completely untrustworthy.” Its origin dates back to Jacob and Laban (Gen 31:45-53), who both had excellent reason to say that of each other.

I believe it’s no coincidence that Jephthah, who we see is very learned in Israel’s history, wants his brothers to swear the oath at Mizpah. He’s sending them a harshly pointed message, whether or not they ever hear it. 

His brothers publicly swear the oath Jephthah will be their chief if the Lord grants him victory over Ammon. But why? What is Jephthah planning? When men seek power, it’s often because they are proud and self-interested, but this is not who Jephthah is. He is a humble and godly man, which we learn from his comments to the king of Ammon. Jephthah says:

Israel did not defeat Sihon, king of Ammon, Israel’s God granted the victory (Judg 11:21). 
All that Israel possesses is granted by Israel’s God, not taken through their own power (Judg 11:24). 
If Jephthah is victorious, it is not because he won the war, it will be because Israel’s God grants the victory for Israel (Judg 11:9, 27). 

Jephthah has become nationally renowned as a mighty warrior, a scene that would inflate many men’s egos unmanageably, yet he remains humble. He knows his life is in the hands of the God he trusts. He wants power, but not for self-aggrandizement; he has a different plan in mind, centered on the disastrous vow he then makes. Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: 

If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering. (Judg 11:30-31, NIV). 

The vow is so central to the story it may determine the characters’ names. “Jephthah” derives from the Hebrew “yiptaħ,” which translates “I have opened” which he says in horror when the vow backfires.

I have opened my mouth before the Lord and I cannot take back my vow.4 (Judg 11:35). 

Thus, Jephthah is possibly named for the act of opening his mouth before the Lord (i.e., swearing a vow), which both defines him and the calamity he thereby caused. 

Jephthah remains humble

If this is true, it adds poignance to the story, placing the whole focus on the vow more than the man who spoke it. He’s essentially now named “The Vow.” This may give some comfort concerning his daughter’s name since her apparent lack of a name may seem demeaning. Some expositors arrogantly overwrite the biblical text to compensate for God’s alleged failure to name her.

As early as the first century, Pseudo-Philo named her “Seila,”5 meaning “Requested,” and centuries later, Mieke Bal decided to name her Bat6 (daughter), which Mary Beavis duplicates.7 

By listening to the text, instead of overwriting it, we learn her name is possibly constructed like her father’s: he is essentially “The Vow” and she is “The Daughter of the Vow.” The scriptural account keeps the focus wholly on the spiritual issue of the vow, and what it did to them, and they are both named for eternity thereby. 

But before we can advance, we must digress to see why this vow doesn’t have anything to do with setting anyone on fire. 

As a Burnt Offering 

Jephthah never meant to sacrifice anyone “as a burnt offering” literally, and this is provable. 

Whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering. (Judg 11:31). 

Whatever comes out of the “door of my house” doesn’t include livestock in the barns, outhouses or fields; in fact, the Vetus Latina and Vatican translations specify that a human is intended.8 Did Jephthah intend to sacrifice a human by fire? Or even risk that? Jephthah is a godly man; he knows the law, which is clear. 

You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (Deut 12:31, also Deut 18:10-12). 

Later Scriptures Jephthah never saw reinforce God’s firm prohibition of the heinous practice. 

Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king… he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. (2 Kgs 16:2-3 NIV, also 2 Kgs 17:16-17).
[The Israelites] have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind.” (Jer 19:5). 

Beyond question, human immolation is repugnant to God, although many academic analysts still fail to recognize that. Susan Niditch (1950-), professor of Religion at Amherst College in Massachusetts,  surmises that “on some level God accepts human sacrifice,”9 which is profoundly and utterly wrong, as the above quotes indicate.

Analysts from ancient times10,11,12 to the present day13,14 repeat the error that Jephthah committed in human sacrifice. Even the more dexterous analysis of Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006), Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School, mistakenly concludes: “the reader can justifiably conclude that Jephthah killed his daughter.”15 Not so.

Parents burning their children to death is “abominable,” it is “evil,” it is a practice “the Lord hates.” God says it’s something which didn’t “come into my mind,” which is powerful hyperbole. Nothing is outside the mind of God, but this is so repugnant to Him, it’s as if He could never even have thought of it. A minority of expositors are observant enough to have reasoned this through, dating back to 12th century Jewish scholars16  and later workers.17

In all five Bible passages referenced above the detestable practice of burning people is written with the same clause: “in the fire,” based on the Hebrew “’ēš.” But Jephthah says something different. He never uses the word “’ēš.” He says he will sacrifice the person “as a burnt offering,” which has a variety of potential meanings beyond the literal. To that, we can add an argument which proves Jephthah wasn’t intending human sacrifice by fire. 

When you offer your gifts—the sacrifice of your sons in the fire [‘ēš]—you continue to defile yourselves… Am I to let you inquire of me, O house of Israel? As surely as I live,” declares the Sovereign LORD, “I will not let you inquire of me. (Eze 20:31 NIV). 

To paraphrase, God says: “If you plan to sacrifice your children in the fire, I will not even listen to your prayers.” And God did listen to Jephthah’s prayers to deliver Israel from the king of Ammon.

In fact, God even sends His Spirit upon Jephthah to win the battle (Judg 11:29)! This constitutes actual proof that Jephthah never intended to burn anyone, and the confusion that reigns over this issue can be categorically laid to rest. 

Sadly, however, the misunderstanding persists. In most analyses, Jephthah is harshly condemned for being thought wicked enough to have burned his own daughter to death; some analysts devolve into near-hysteria, labeling Jephthah a “murderer.”18 Nothing could be further from the truth. 

But so far we have only determined what Jephthah doesn’t mean when he intends to sacrifice someone “as a burnt offering.” What does he mean? 

A relevant context is the law and the three particular characteristics of the burnt offering (Lev 1:3-17). 

It was generally a free-will offering, not a mandatory one. 

The animal sacrificed had to be a “male without defect.” 

The entire animal was utilized–this aspect is unique among all sacrifices.

This is what Jephthah means. He intends to make a free-will offering of a “male without defect” to the Lord “wholly”—i.e., forever. 

We have Scriptural precedent of this type of sacrifice in the case of Hannah. When Hannah struggled to conceive, she, too made, a vow. 

And she vowed a vow and said, 

O LORD of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life. (1 Sam 1:10-11). 

Hannah sacrificed her firstborn son Samuel “as a burnt offering”: 

It was a freewill offering 

Samuel was dedicated as a weaned child, which is as defect-free as any human can be 

Samuel was dedicated to the Lord “wholly”—his whole life was dedicated to Temple service.

Hannah’s sacrifice and Jephthah’s intentions are identical, except for the tiny detail that Hannah didn’t use the idiom “as a burnt offering,” and thus confuse thousands for centuries. 

We’ve solved Jephthah’s plan. He intends to send into Temple service whoever first comes out of the door of his house when he returns victorious from war, essentially terminating their lineage and career. For the sacrifice to qualify as a “burnt offering,” the person needs to be a “male without defect.” Given his twenty years of bitterness because he was rejected from his home for being a “male with defect,” i.e., born illegitimately, perhaps his target is obvious now. 


Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and 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.” (Judg 11:34-35). 

His outcry shows his vow has backfired in disaster and he never expected to see his daughter. But how can that be? She’s his only child, and it stands to reason she will be delighted to see her father return safely from the battle lines. So how can Jephthah possibly be surprised to see her?! Who did he expect to see?! 

The solution is staring us in the face from the text. 

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. (Judg 11:34). 

Jephthah and his daughter don’t live in Mizpah; they live in Tob, a few days’ journey away (a critical fact almost all Bible students miss, including the commentators19,20). Jephthah has come to his family home, the one from which he was ejected by his evil brothers some twenty years prior. He’s targeting his brothers; his daughter should never have been there. 

Some expositors openly confess they have no idea why the vow was ever sworn21 but, putting the facts together, it’s obvious. This is Jephthah’s perfect revenge. He was rejected from his family, his home and his inheritance by his evil brothers because he was “defective”—the illegitimate child of a prostitute—while they were “without defect” as legitimate children. He’s been angry for years.

Suddenly he saw his opening; the land was at risk of invasion, and his brothers were pleading with him to lead the military defense. So, he took great care to make his brothers swear an oath before God that he would have authority over them if God granted him victory. This was to ensure he could enforce his vow against them.

He intends to make a freewill sacrifice to God of a “male without defect”—a burnt offering, if you will. What delicious irony, for sadly, he doesn’t qualify as “without defect” because he’s the son of a prostitute. But his brothers all qualify. And his precious daughter is miles away, safe and sound in Tob. 

The perfect trap is set. 

What could possibly go wrong?

John Pople,
(San Francisco Peninsula Ecclesia, CA)


1 All Scriptural references are taken from the English Standard Version, unless otherwise noted.

2 Susan Niditch, The Old Testament Library: Judges, 2008, p. 132.

3 Claude R. Conder & Francis R. Conder, A Handbook to the Bible, by F.R. and C.R. Conder, 2010, p. 295

4 That said, while “yiptaħ” is the most common way to say “I have opened.” The quote uses the more poetic verb “paşîtî” instead: Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, 2002, p. 109. 

5 Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities, ~AD 100, 39-40. 

6 Mieke Bal, Between Altar and Wondering Rock: Towards a Feminist Philology, in Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible, Ed. Mieke Bal, 1989, p. 212. 

7 Mary A. Beavis, A Daughter in Israel: Celebrating Bat Jephthah (Judg 11.39d-40), Feminist Theology 2004, 13.1, p. 11.

8 Susan Niditch, Op. cit., p. 130.

9 Ibid., p. 133. 

10 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, AD 93, 5, 10. 

11 Epiphanius of Salamis, The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Book II, AD 377, Tr. Frank Williams, 1994, p. 736. 

12 Origen, in John L. Thompson, Writing the Wrongs: Women of the Old Testament among Biblical Commentators from Philo through the Reformation, 2001, p. 113-114, 124-125. 

13 Cheryl A. Brown, No Longer Be Silent: First Century Jewish Portrayals of Biblical Women, 1992, p. 109-115. 

14 Mary A. Beavis, A Daughter in Israel: Celebrating Bat Jephthah (Judg 11.39d-40),” Feminist Theology 2004, 13, 1, p. 12.

15 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible, 2002, p. 112. 

16 David Marcus, Jephthah and His Vow, 1986, p. 36. 

17 Paulus Cassel, The Book of Judges, Tr. Peter H. Steenstra, 1875, p. 176. 

18 Michael O’Connor, The Women in the Book of Judges, Hebrew Annual Review 1986, 10, p. 289.

19 Susan Niditch, Op. cit., p. 135. 

20 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Op. cit., . p107. 

21 Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Op. cit., p. 115.

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In the previous article, part 1 of Jephthah’s daughter’s story, we solved many mysteries
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