The Woman Who Was Sacrificed for an Oath
After he was expelled from Gilead’s home, Jephthah, who made a name for himself as a fearless, brave and successful chief of robbers, was recalled by the elders of Gilead to lead them in war against the Ammonites who had made war with Israel. Jephthah offered to fight on condition that if victorious over Ammon, he should be recognized as their head. In spite of his half-heathen origin, Jephthah seemed to have had a Godward inclination, for we are told that he “uttered all his words before the Lord.” “The Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah,” “He vowed a vow unto the Lord,” “I have opened my mouth unto the Lord,” and his name is enrolled among those who were conspicuous for their faith (Hebrews 11:32), displayed at memorable crises in national history.
While we have no mention whatever of Jephthah’s wife &--;she may have died in childbirth—he is memorable because of his affection for his daughter, and of the vow he made concerning her. The full pathos of the story is the peculiarly tender language used. The nameless girl was “his only child,” and, “beside her he had neither son nor daughter.” His precious child was ever beside him. He made a rash vow that if God delivered Ammon into his hands he would sacrifice unto Him whatever came out of the door of his house to meet him on his victorious return. Leaving God to choose the victim, Jephthah likely thought one of the slaves would come out to greet him and be the burnt offering. God took Jephthah at his word, but he was stunned when he saw his precious daughter crossing the threshold to greet him. God answered his prayer and punished him through its answer. Shakespeare, when he selected an example of paternal tenderness, seized upon Jephthah in the scene between Hamlet and Polonius—
Hamlet: O Jephthah, judge of Israel what a treasure hadst thou!
Polonius: What a treasure had he, my Lord?
Hamlet: One fair daughter and no more, The which he loved passing well.
But when Jephthah felt the loving arms of his fair daughter thrown around him, he cried, “Alas, my daughter! crushing, thou hast crushed me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord and I cannot go back.” What was her reaction as she saw the agony in her dear father’s eyes, and heard his much-loved voice pronounce her doom? What did she think of her father’s anguish and of the sudden realization of her own fate?
Her answer was most heroic. There were no resentful or rebellious tones in it. She shed no tears, nor shook with despair after her father with a crushed heart spoke of his vow. There was the quiet acceptance of the tragic fact that she was to be the burnt offering her father had promised. Only known by the simple title of “Jephthah’s daughter,” this most commendable maiden may not have had the gifts and talents of some other women of the Bible, but she will ever remain as the incarnation of willing sacrifice. “My father, if thou hast made this promise to the Lord, do to me according to the promise.” If there is a quality for which a woman is supreme, it is sacrifice, and in this virtue the obedient daughter of Jephthah gave what was nobler than gifts—she offered herself. Her father said, “I cannot go back,” and she did not go back. She did not run away from her father, but with true devotion accepted his will and acquiesced in his grim behest. She felt that her blood would be a good price to pay for divine vengeance over the enemies of Israel. Known only as the daughter of a famous father, this lovely girl by her noble consent revealed a nobility of character which quickens our imagination and stirs our sympathy.
Ellicott comments, “We may well rejoice in the gleam of sunlight which is flung upon the sacred page by his [Jephthah’s] faithfulness in not going back from his vow, though it were to his own hurt (Psalm 15:4), and in the beautiful devotion of his daughter, cheerfully acquiescing in her own sacrifice for the good of her country.” History records similar sacrifices as when Marius offered his daughter for victory over the Cimbri. Tennyson caught the willing spirit of the daughter’s submission to her father’s vow when he wrote—
When the next moon was rolled into the sky,
Strength came to me that equall'd my desire.
How beautiful a thing it was to die
For God and for my sire!
To a Hebrew maiden the bitterest pang was to die unwedded and childless, and so Jephthah’s daughter asks for a delay of two months that she might bewail her virginity. “Let me alone,” indicated a postponement of the vow for a definite purpose (see Deuteronomy 9:14; 1 Samuel 11:3). To the desolate mountains she went to bewail the destruction of her hopes as a Hebrew maid of ever fulfilling the dream of motherhood. The heartbroken father willingly granted his noble daughter’s request, doubtless with the secret hope that somehow she might never return, and he be spared the terrible sight of seeing his daughter, his only daughter, sacrificed upon the altar. How apropos are the lines of Tennyson as we think of the crushing of all aspiration of bearing a child that might be in the Messianic line!—
My God, my land, my father—these did move
Me from my bliss of life, that nature gave,
Lowered softly with a threefold cord of love
Down to a silent grave.
And I went mourning, “No fair Hebrew boy
Shall smile away my maiden blame among
The Hebrew mothers”—emptied of all joy,
Leaving the dance and song,
Leaving the olive gardens far below,
Leaving the promise of my bridal bower
The valleys of grape-loaded vines that glow
Beneath the battled tower.
True to her promise, the sorrowing maiden returned from her weeping place upon the mountains. She was a woman of her word, and came back for the execution of her father’s vow, “who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed.” Doubtless among the mountains her heart gathered strength and courage for her sacrifice in the valleys. Says Ruskin, “All great inspiration comes from the hills” (Psalms 121:1, 2; 123:1).
Up to the hills
Where the torrent fills
With storms of the Winter’s brewing,
Close in the clasp,
Of Nature’s grasp,
There tell thy heart’s undoing.
The great question is, What did Jephthah actually do to his daughter on her return? The fulfillment of his vow could only mean one thing, namely, the offering up of his precious child as a burnt offering (Judges 11:31). But Bible scholars disagree over what is precisely meant by this “burnt offering.” According to one interpretation the vow of Jephthah consisted of two parts—
1. What person soever met him should be the Lord’s, or dedicated to His service forever.
2. What beast soever met him should be offered as a burnt offering, like the Tabernacle lambs, upon an altar.
Based upon this view, it is affirmed that Jephthah kept his daughter in sacred celibacy for the rest of her life; that what she and her female companions bewailed was not the prospect of coming sacrifice but her virginity. “She knew no man.” So the phrase “he did with her according to his vow” is made to signify the exclusion of his daughter as a kind of Old Testament nun, surrendered to live a secluded life in the service of the Tabernacle &--;a vestal virgin. Thus the shuddering thought of a terrible human sacrifice is softened down in this way—
It was not a human sacrifice in the gross sense of the word, not a slaughter of an unwilling victim, but the offering of a devoted heart, to free, as she supposed, her father and her country from a terrible obligation.... The heroism of the father and daughter are to be admired and loved in the midst of the fierce superstition round which it plays like a sunbeam on a stormy sea.
That Jephthah could not have sacrificed his daughter as an actual burnt offering is argued against in this way—
1. The sacrifice of children to Moloch was an abomination prohibited by an express law, and not an instance occurred of a human sacrifice to God.
2. The case of Abraham offering Isaac is not in point, as Isaac was not sacrificed. The command was given only to try Abraham’s faith.
3. No father could put even a criminal child to death without the consent of the magistrates.
4. The traditional laws of the Jews say: “If a Jew should devote his son or his daughter, his man servant or maid servant who are Hebrews, the devotement should be void.”
But in spite of the reasons advanced against a human sacrifice, the Scripture is heavily on the side of Jephthah’s vow being fulfilled as it was made. Martin Luther wrote, “Some affirm that he did not sacrifice her; but the text is clear enough.” The ancient Jews who had an intimate knowledge of the customs of their race and a unique meaning of their own language, have always understood that the daughter of Jephthah was a literal burnt offering. The Targum of Jonathan has the explanation—
It was a custom in Israel in order that no one should make his son or his daughter a burnt-offering, as Jephthah did, and did not consult Phinehas the priest. Had he done so, he would have redeemed her with money.
While the Levitical law forbade human sacrifices, the time of the Judges was a period when “every man did that which was right in the sight of his own eyes,” and consequently it was a period of ignorance and barbarity when the sacrifice of human life was common. They were the times of appalling ignorance which “God winked at.” Certainly we deplore Jephthah’s rash vow and terrible mistake in making such a useless sacrifice, but he fulfilled his vow; he did not set aside his daughter to perpetual virginity such as a girl does when she enters a convent to become “a bride of Christ.” He did not dedicate her thus, and then offer a burnt offering of an animal to seal his pledge. The heroic virgin became the burnt offering, and the giving of her life transfigured the wicked vow of her father. Her sacrificial love turned the blackest deed in Israel’s early history into a theme for “the songs of the daughters of Israel.”
Ancient writers wove into history, drama and poetry the tragic theme of such propitiatory sacrifice. Virginian submitted to be stabbed to the heart by her father, Virginius, rather than fall into the hands of the enemies of her country. The Spartan mothers told their sons to come back victors or be borne back dead on their shields. The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter was a perfect one because it was actuated by a twofold love—love for her father and love for her country. Mackintosh Mackay reminds us that this is the view Tennyson takes of her in his beautiful picture of her in the Dream of Fair Women—
In this splendid pageant of the illustrious women of history, the most lovely picture of all is this humble Jewish girl. Upon her breast the poet still sees the mark of the spear-wound; upon her face the gaze of tragic sorrow. Yet, when he would commiserate her, she refuses the proffered pity:
“Heaven heads the count of crimes
With that wild oath.”
She neither wished or needs pity. What matter her poor life be sacrificed if her country be free.
Then Tennyson goes on to give us this beautiful picture of one infusing her sacrifice with the spirit of perfect love, which makes all things beautiful—
It comforts me in this one thought to dwell,
That I subdued me to my father’s will;
Because the kiss he gave me, ere I fell,
Sweetens the spirit still.
Moreover it is written that my race
Hew'd Ammon, hip and thigh, from Aroer
On Arnon unto Mianeth. Here her face
Glow'd, as I look'd at her.
She lock'd her lips: she left me where I stood;
“Glory to God,” she sang, and past afar,
Thridding the sombre boskage of the wood,
Toward the morning-star.
Is it any wonder that the daughters of Israel remembered and honored the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter with a four days' festival during each year? Although this was probably a local custom only, it was a gracious gesture not to “lament” her, but “to praise” or “celebrate,” as the word can imply. The feelings of those Jewish maidens toward their departed companion were akin to those of the Romans toward Claelia, the virgin martyr of a.d. 280, and of other national heroines whose self-sacrifice helped their nations to victory. Byron expressed this sentiment in his lines—
Though the virgins of Salem lament,
Be the judge and the hero unbent;
I have won the great battle for thee,
And my father and country are free.