Bible People - Jephtah
tragic warrior, one of the most famous Bible soldiers
Sacrifice: the worst perversion in the Bible
of a Foolish Vow
individuals or groups
Films about a Tragic Hero
some films that deal with the fate of a tragic hero. You can choose
recent films or classics. If this is a group activity, choose films most
Is it ever permissible to kill?
Consider these three situations:
In any one of these situations, would you be justified in taking another person's life?
Bullying kills the spirit of the person being bullied, and in its own way is a kind of murder - see the fifth item at BIBLE TOP TEN WAYS TO HEAVEN.
Discuss ways you can combat this ugly aspect of
while we're on the subject..
In the period of the Judges, Israel was usually outnumbered by enemy
forces, and only equipped with inferior weapons. Yet the warriors used
their wits and the techniques of guerilla warfare to defeat superior
armies. Read about the techniques used by ancient Hebrew warriors at BIBLE
TOP TEN WARRIORS.
What are the most interesting moments in Jephtah's story?
Put some time aside to read the Bible text of this story, then think about the questions above.
Extra Websites in the left column have background information and ideas.
Extract from 'Jephtah and His Vow' by David Marcus, Texas Tech. Pr., 1986, pages 44-53
'In every period of Israel's history, marriage, not
is considered the desirable state for women. The blessings of the married
state are extolled, and it was held axiomatic that a woman achieved fulfillment
only with husband and children. Indeed, it was considered a tragedy
for a woman not to be married, and a terrible misfortune, even a punishment,
if she did not have children. The institution of the levirate marriage
is clear evidence of the importance for a wife to bear sons for her husband
and was what Israelite society considered the norm: that a man's house
and name should be continued in his children. In such a society, it is
thought that it would be highly unlikely for a woman to take a vow to voluntarily
refrain from marriage and from having children.
The non-sacrificialists do not disagree with this view of the primacy of marriage in Israelite society, but a few believe that it is possible to assume that some voluntary celibacy may have existed. This assumption is based on the fact that, according to Numbers 6:2, women as well as men could vow themselves to God as Nazarites. Although the rules of the Nazarites, which specifically included abstinence from alcohol, not cutting the hair, and avoidance of corpses, did not include celibacy (the two most well-known Nazarites, Samuel and Samson, were both married), it is held most likely that this applied only to male Nazarites: they were permitted to marry, but a female one was not. This is deduced from the fact that in ancient Israel a wife was considered the property of her husband. A woman consecrated to God would, therefore, regard God as her spiritual husband, and would become, so to speak, His property. Hence, it would not be considered proper for such a woman to be married. She would remain in lifelong chastity or, in the case of a widow, in lifelong widowhood.
Summary: There is no real evidence in the Hebrew Bible of women's electing to remain celibate, and the likelihood of this as a regular feature in society is remote. Likewise, there is little evidence in ancient Israel of an institution of celibate women being attached to a sanctuary akin to the chaste priestess in Mesopotamia, or to the vestals in ancient Greece and Rome in the cults of Athene, Artemis and Vesta.
RARE EXAMPLE OF HUMAN SACRIFICE IN ISRAEL
Bible scholars today believe that the story of Jephthah and his daughter
represents an example of a human sacrifice offered up in emergency conditions
to obtain the active cooperation of the deity. Another example
of this type is the sacrifice by Mesha, king of Moab, of his first-born son. Mesha, being invaded by the combined armies of Israel,
Judah, and Edom, and seeing that
the tide of battle was going against him, took his first-born son,
and offered him up on the city wall as a burnt offering.
So he took his first-born son who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up on the wall as a burnt offering. A great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and went back to [their own] land.
The efficacy of the offering was immediate. The deed caused tremendous consternation upon the allies, and especially upon the Israelites. Thus, as with Mesha, it is believed that Jephthah was responding to an extraordinary situation, a desperate war with the Ammonites. Even if one grants that the war with the Ammonites be considered "emergency conditions" or a "specially dangerous situation," this view has, of course, to contend with an obvious and well-known problem. Given that human sacrifice was abhorrent to Israel, a vow to make a human sacrifice would surely have been against the law. This being so, one would expect some condemnation of Jephthah in the text after he put his daughter to death.
Attempted solutions to this problem by sacrificialists have generally followed two lines:
(1) it is held that a vow to offer human sacrifice was not in fact against the law in Jephthah's time, or
it is possible that Jephthah was unaware of the law.
SACRIFICE NOT AGAINST THE LAW IN JEPHTAH'S TIME
advocating that a vow to offer human sacrifice was not against the law in
Jephthah's time, a number of scholars point to the fact that the narrative
does not seem to hold that such
a vow is contrary to the spirit of Israelite religion
Thus it is believed likely that in Jephthah's time human sacrifice could
have taken place. Religious beliefs of this age must not be judged, say the
sacrificialists, according to later laws or ideas; even the later prophets
were forced to wage war against
child sacrifice. Soggin has recently pointed to the value
of the Jephthah episode in enabling us to get a glimpse of early Israelite
religion, telling us that it
"had much more in common with that of Canaan and
the other religions of the Ancient Near East than Israelites were able to record
at a later stage or than the revisions of the text were disposed to admit".
But there is an element here of petitio principii. It has first to be established that human sacrifice existed in ancient Israel before one can assume that the Jephthah episode is an example of it, and hence that it represents an earlier stage of Israelite religion. The fact is that it has never been satisfactorily established whether or not human sacrifice existed in Israel. The most recent studies on this old and difficult problem are those of Moshe Weinfeld and Morton Smith, who have debated the traditional view whether the reference to the passing of a child through fire or to Moloch indicates not child sacrifice but religious initiation to a foreign cult. The present state of inquiry seems to be that the evidence is such that one cannot say for certain one way or another whether human sacrifice existed in ancient Israel.
UNAWARE OF THE LAW
second attempted solution to explain Jephthah's action is that although a
vow to offer human
sacrifice was against the law, Jephthah was unaware of the
reason often given, particularly by modern scholars, for Jephthah's ignorance
of the law is the fact that he lived outside of Israel for some time. Jephthah
may have been, just as we know Israel was, influenced by the religion
of the neighboring people. The Book of Judges testifies to the fact that the
Israelites worshipped the Ammonite god Milkom prior to their liberation by
Jephthah; so it could well be that during Jephthah's stay in the land of
Tob as a freebooter or mercenary chief, he too came under the influence of
foreign religion. A basic element
in this argument is the belief that the Ammonites,
like others of Israel's neighbors, regularly practiced human sacrifice
in their cult. Thus, it is thought, Jephthah believed that just as other gods
required human sacrifice, so did Yahweh.
The non-sacrificialists are able to refute this point of view in two ways. First, as the parallel case of David shows, the fact that one lives the life of a freebooter or mercenary outside of Israel does not necessarily mean that, upon one's return, one cannot still live in accordance with the law of Israel. Having lived outside of Israel does not by itself point to ignorance of Israel's law. Second, as with the case of Israel itself, there is no convincing evidence that human sacrifice was practiced as a regular part of the cult of any of Israel's neighbors so that any alleged influence of this practice on Jephthah is most speculative.
CONDEMNATION OF JEPHTAH IN THE TEXT
The final question to be considered here, if in fact there is a case of human sacrifice, is why there is no word of disapproval or any moral evaluation in the text of Jephthah's act. Jephthah is depicted in the entire chapter as a true follower of Yahweh (verse 9); he wages war on behalf of Yahweh, and calls upon Yahweh to judge between Israel and Ammon (verse 27); the spirit of Yahweh 'comes upon him (verse 29), and he makes his vow to Yahweh (verse 30). He is extolled as one of Yahweh's saviors in the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 12:11), alongside Gideon, Bedan (possibly Barak or Samson), and Samuel himself.
it likely, then, say the non-sacrificialists, that Jephthah, a true
have presented an offering which was anathema to Yahweh, and that this
fact would not be commented on by the narrator?
The usual answer to this question is that absence of condemnation has little significance. Firstly, it may point to the fact that human sacrifice was in fact current in Jephthah's day. Secondly, even if this is not the case, there are other heroes in the Bible whose errant behavior is not condemned. But if, as is generally agreed, the stories of Jephthah fit into the redactional framework of the Deuteronomist, then one would expect unlawful acts to be somehow condemned, either overtly or obliquely, in accord with the didactic outlook of the Deuteronomistic school. It will be recalled that the narrator castigated Gideon for a much lesser crime with the Ephod (Judges 8:27). Absence of condemnation is therefore significant in judging a character's action. Jephthah is not only not condemned but referred to by the same Deuteronomist as a "savior of Israel," which is hardly an appellation to be applied to one guilty of such a crime.
The proponents of the sacrificial point of view believe that Jephthah's act is to be considered an example, like that of Mesha and his son, of human sacrifice offered up in an emergency. To offset the objection that such a vow and execution would have been against the law, some proponents maintain that a vow to offer human sacrifice was not against the law, and if it was, Jephthah was unaware of it. A possible reason offered for Jephthah's ignorance of the law is that he had lived outside Israel and was subject to foreign influences. The absence of condemnation of Jephthah by the narrator is pointed to by non-sacrificialists as proof that the vow and its fulfillment were not contrary to the laws of Yahweh in Jephthah's time. The sacrificialists, on the other hand, point to the absence of condemnation as proof that human sacrifice was acceptable in Jephthah's time.
My conclusion is that while I personally favor a non-sacrificial fate for Jephthah's daughter, the evidence is so ambiguous that it must be admitted that both conclusions are possible. In positing that this situation was not accidental, it will be pointed out that the narrator is a brilliant stylist and craftsman who is most familiar with Hebrew rhetorical devices. Such a craftsman could be quite capable of devising a deliberately ambiguous ending. Perhaps the fate of Jephthah's daughter is not the chief element of the story at all, rather Jephthah's rash vow is. The story in effect is one which illustrates the consequences of a hasty vow; a fine irony for a man whose forte is seen to be eloquence of speech and mastery of words.
OF ARGUMENTS FOR A SACRIFICIAL CONCLUSION
The text of the vow clearly states: "I will offer him up for an
offering", and this was put into effect in the fulfillment.
SUMMARY OF ARGUMENTS FOR CELIBACY AND CONSECRATION
phrase in the vow wehãyãh
laYHWH can only mean consecration, not offering of a sacrifice.
These problems may not have been entirely accidental, but could possibly represent ambiguities consciously devised by the narrator. He chose his words so that they would be open to a number of interpretations. As far as the fate of Jephthah's daughter is concerned, the fact remains that the text, as it stands now, admits the possibility of either conclusion. Was this deliberate? With the conclusion left up in the air, the suspense of the entire story is heightened. In many respects this is akin to classical folklore, inasmuch as there language is often intentionally ambiguous, and it has been observed above that some classical legends have different endings corresponding to different traditions. It remains to be demonstrated that our narrator was capable of such deliberate writing, and that such ambiguities are to be found elsewhere in the Bible.'