30. And Jephthah vowed a vow to the LORD, and said, "If You will indeed give the children of Ammon into my hand, 31. Then it shall be that whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, surely it shall belong to the LORD, or I will offer it up instead of a burnt offering." (Judges 11:30 - 31, HBFV)
(Jephthah said) Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me . . . shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering (Judges 11:31, KJV)
After returning home from his victory over the Ammonites, the first person through Jephthah's door was his only child, a daughter who was virgin (verses 32 - 34). This event has generated fascinating questions that have puzzled both Biblical scholars and Bible students for years.
Did he keep his vow or not? Did he give his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord? Are there other possibilities of what might have happened? A quick read of the passage, especially in the King James Bible, would lead one to conclude that a human sacrifice to God was carried out since a vow must be kept (Numbers 30:2). An in-depth study regarding this vow, however, points to a different outcome.
Does God want human sacrifice?
Jephthah was not an ignorant man. He knew the law well enough to accurately recount for the king of Ammon how the Israelites, THREE HUNDRED YEARS previous, came to possess territory that the Ammonites controlled (Judges 11:12 - 22). He would have no doubt known through the Law that God did not accept human sacrifices. In fact, the Eternal made it clear to ancient Israel that they were NOT to worship him through sacrificing humans as was done by the neighboring peoples.
31. You shall not do so to the Lord your God, for every abomination to the Lord, which He HATES, they have done to their (pagan) gods; even their sons and their daughters they have burned in the fire to their gods (Deuteronomy 12:31, see also Deuteronomy 18:10 and Leviticus 18:21, 20:2 - 5)
Such practices were so EVIL that anyone caught sacrificing their children to the pagan deity Molech (or any pagan deity) was to be STONED TO DEATH (Leviticus 20:2). Would such a sin be any less heinous if it were done to appease the God of Israel, in whose mind it NEVER occurred to ask for such a thing (Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35)? Did Jephthah really commit the grievous sin of human sacrifice?
Here is something to consider. The 11th chapter of the book of Hebrews contains the names of sixteen Old Testament men and women whose faith in God was especially noteworthy. In verse 32 of Hebrews 11, listed among faithful men such as Gideon, Samson, King David and Samuel is Jephthah! It is hard to imagine that he would be held up as an example of great faith to New Testament Christians had he killed then burned his daughter to 'honor' the Lord! Also, note that even IF he desired to offer his daughter to God, finding a priest at the tabernacle in Shiloh who would kill, skin, cut into pieces then burn his child before the Lord (required for burnt offerings - Leviticus 1) would have been almost impossible.
The rest of the story
Notice what the daughter of Jephthah requested after told by her father about the vow he made.
37. And she said to her father, "Let this thing be done for me. Let me alone two months, so that I may go up and down upon the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions." 38. And he (her father) said, "Go." (Judges 11:37 - 38)
Her request is not only odd but makes no sense IF we assume she understood the vow as costing her life. Why would she ask to mourn her VIRGINITY with her friends instead of desiring to spend the remaining time she had with her mourning father? If her death were fast approaching, one would expect she would bemoan her short life rather than missing the opportunity for sex. Verse 39 of the same chapter tells us what happened when she came home.
39. And it came to pass at the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her his vow which he had vowed. And she knew no man.
Notice the last part of verse 39 where it states 'And she knew no man.' This short phrase is meaningless if the daughter would soon be a sacrificial offering to God.
The most reasonable conclusion given all the facts and what the BIBLE says is that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter, his only child, as a burnt offering. Instead, he consecrated her as a perpetual virgin in the service of the Lord. This is why she mourned not the ending of her life, but the loss of being able to marry. What ultimately happened fulfilled the vow that whoever came out of the house would 'belong to' or be dedicated to serving God.