And Jephthah vowed a vow to the Lord, and said, "If You will indeed give the children of Ammon into my hand,
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 (sacrifice)" (Judges 11:30 - 31, HBFV).
The first person through the door of Jephthah, after he returned from his victory over the Ammonites, was his only child. She was his daughter and was still a virgin (Judges 11:32 - 34). This event, and the belief by some that she was offered as a sacrifice to God, has been debated by both Biblical scholars and Bible students for years. Did Jephthah keep his vow or not? Did he give his only child as a burnt offering to the Lord?
A quick read of the above 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.
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 known that the Law that God forbid human sacrifices (Deuteronomy 12:31, see also Deuteronomy 18:10 and Leviticus 18:21, 20:2 - 5).
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 child to 'honor' the Lord!
Additionally, if Jephthah desired to offer his offspring 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 truth of the matter
Notice what the daughter requested after told by her father about the vow he made. She asked, "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" (Judges 11:38).
The request of the daughter 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?
Verse 39 of Judges 11 tells us what happened when the daughter came home. It states, ". . . her father (Jephthah), who did to her his vow which he had vowed. And she knew no man." The short phrase "And she knew no man" is meaningless if the child (likely a teenager) would soon be offered as a sacrifice to God.
The most reasonable conclusion is that Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter 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.