A New Look at an Old Promise

A New Look at an Old Promise

Jephthah’s Vow: Dedication View or Sacrificial View

There is a troubling passage about a judge named Jephthah in
the book of Judges chapter 11. The reason the passage is so troubling is it
seems to suggest that Jephthah offers his daughter to God as a burnt offering.
This interpretation of the text is commonly called the “sacrificial view”. Another
seemingly less popular interpretation of the text is known as the “dedication
view”. This view advocates, rather than sacrifice his daughter, that Jephthah
dedicates her into the service of the Lord. I have always found the sacrificial
view difficult to hold because of the implications it places upon God and His
character. It would suggest that God, perfect in holiness and righteousness, accepted
an abhorrent offering of a child for the sake of an undeniably impulsive vow. However,
my preferences don’t dictate sound interpretation, rather sound exegesis and
hermeneutics does.

How can the possibility of these two interpretations exist? The two interpretations basically hang on the uncertain interpretation of a single word, which in Hebrew is represented as a single letter the vav [ ו ].  

The vav in Hebrew is used as a conjunction and most often
means “and”. But it can also be used for other conjunctions such as “but” and
“for” and “or”. This is where the vav in verse 31 of Judges 11 becomes significant
in its interpretation. The text could rightly be
interpreted in the following ways-

. . .then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me
when I return in peace from the Ammonites I
will give it to the Lord, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering


. . .then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me
when I return in peace from the Ammonites I
will give it to the Lord, or I will offer it up for a burnt offering

The first interpretation would support, even mandate, the
“sacrificial view.” “Whatever”  pretty
much includes anything that could walk or be carried out of the tent, in this
case it was Jephthah’s daughter. The “and” would require a two-part action be
applied to the “whatever”. Meaning Jephthah would first “give it to the Lord”
and secondly, sacrifice it “for a burnt offering.”

The second interpretation implies the two mentioned actions
would be accomplished based upon the “whatever”. If the “whatever” was
appropriate for “dedication to God” (daughter, servant, etc.) then that’s what
he would do. If the ‘whatever” was more appropriate for a burnt sacrifice
(sheep, goat, etc.) then the corresponding action would be performed.

God is very serious about keeping one’s vows. For example,
the Bible records God saying “I hate divorce”. (Malachi 2:16) Why is that?
Because every divorce represents broken vows made before God, this in turn
cheapens the significance places on marriage. However, this is a topic for
another post, let’s focus on the gravity of making and keeping vows.

The following texts give us some perspective on making vows or taking oaths.

Numbers 30:2 – A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do.

Deuteronomy 23:21-23 – When you make a vow to the Lord your God, be prompt in fulfilling whatever you promised him. For the Lord your God demands that you promptly fulfill all your vows, or you will be guilty of sin.22 However, it is not a sin to refrain from making a vow. 23 But once you have voluntarily made a vow, be careful to fulfill your promise to the Lord your God.

  Ecclesiastes 5:5 – It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it.

What if you impulsively or foolishly offer a vow that would
require such an abhorrent act as sacrificing your daughter? Would you be bound
by the law to commit something that is clearly against the law because of your
rash vow? God made provisions in the law for such a circumstances.

Leviticus 5:4-6Or suppose you make a foolish vow of any kind, whether its purpose is for good or for bad. When you realize its foolishness, you must admit your guilt. “When you become aware of your guilt in any of these ways, you must confess your sin. Then you must bring to the Lord as the penalty for your sin a female from the flock, either a sheep or a goat. This is a sin offering with which the priest will purify you from your sin, making you right with the Lord.

This provision in the law would certainly
have helped Jephthah to be released from such a rash vow. He could have easily
substituted an acceptable and less offensive sacrifice. Would Jephthah have
been mentioned in Hebrews chapter 11, the “hall of faith” chapter, if his legacy
was that he sacrificed his daughter because of a rash vow.

Another problem for the sacrificial view that makes the dedication
view quite compelling is the response of the daughter upon hearing her father’s
vow.  Basically, she says “Oh no father,
I am a virgin and now I will never marry.” 
This seems to be a very odd thing to lament in light of the fact that
your actual life is on the line.  How
about “Oh no father, you made a stupid vow, and I really prefer living to
dying.”  However, if you hold the
“dedication view” the response is considerably more reasonable.  As an offering dedicated to the Lord’s
service she would not be allowed to marry and would be expected to remain
chaste unto God. These circumstances would be quite distressful for the
daughter, who did not make this vow for herself and for Jephthah as the text
says “she was his one and only child.” It was admirable that Jephthah’s
daughter insisted that her father fulfill his vow in spite of what it meant for
her future plans. It reminds me of Mary’s response to Gabriel when she was
called to be the mother of the Messiah- And
Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to
your word.”

The text also implies that as a result of the fulfillment of the vow a
tradition was formed where once a year the women of Israel would go into the
hillsides for 4 days and mourn the event of Jephthah’s daughter.  This tradition seems to be for a limited
amount of years as it is not mentioned in any of scripture following Judges
11.  Could it be that these ladies
instead of mourning the death of Jephthah’s daughter were actually visiting her
at her location of dedication.  The
reason the practice was not perpetual among Jewish women is because eventually
Jephthah’s daughter dies and as the text says having never known a man.

In conclusion I find nothing compelling about the “sacrificial view”.
To hold the view would require God receiving an offering of child sacrifice for
a vow rashly offered. This is just not in keeping with His character. The
“dedication view” also offers answers to the questions raised regarding the
response of Jephthah’s daughter “I shall never marry!”  Both views speak toward or should I say
against making reckless and impulsive vows.

1 Comment
  1. Would a vow of celibacy fall under Lev 5? Please reply…

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