Updated: Sep 4, 2019
Question or Topic
What really happened to Jephthah's daughter?
Scripture Judges 11:31,32,34,39
Answer This question is generated by these passages from Judges 11: And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.(Verses 31-32)
"And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter." (Verse 34)
"And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man." (Verse 39)
Who was this Jephthah?
It might be well to start our study by seeing just who Jephthah was, and why he is mentioned in the Scriptures. There is really not much given us concerning him. We are told that he was born to an Israelite by the name of Gilead, his mother was a harlot. (Judges 11)
In Adam Clarke's commentary he thinks the harlot was more likely an innkeeper or tavern keeper; this was a common practice of women of the time and she was not necessarily a prostitute, as we would think today. He felt that the reference to her as a "strange woman" indicated that she was a Caananitish woman and not Jewish. We can understand why his brothers, apparently sons of Jewish wives, would force him to leave the family without any inheritance.
Some authorities think that Jephthah, being a displaced man with no property inheritance, became a raider and the leader of a band of men, who for one reason or another, were of similar circumstances. He did not seem to raid against the Israelites, but probably the nations who were Israel's enemies, and had gained a reputation of being a skilled warrior and leader of men in war. This reputation attracted the men of Gilead to seek his help when the Ammonites threatened to make war against them. He agreed to lead them if they made him head over Gilead and they promised that they would do so.
After trying to reason with the Ammonites to no avail, the men of Israel prepared for war and when they were ready, Jephthah prayed to God for His help and guidance; he made the vow that was to be his greatest trial.
Jephthah, who was acquainted with the Law of Moses and what would please God, was well aware that human burnt offerings were forbidden and were not acceptable to God. Adam Clarke, in his commentary, describes what he considered a better translation of the vow, according to the most accurate Hebrew scholars. "I will consecrate it to the Lord, or will offer it for a burnt-offering; that is, If it be a thing fit for a burnt-offering, it shall be made one; if fit for the service of God, it shall be consecrated to him."
The Companion Bible agrees with this; in their marginal note; they state that the vow was in two parts: (1.) he would dedicate it to Jehovah or (2.) he would offer it as a burnt offering if it were unsuitable for dedication.
The Tragic events
Having laid this background, we will now look at the tragic events that follow in the record of Scripture. The Israelites were successful in the war, completely defeating the Ammonites and they returned in triumph to their homes. Jephthah was undoubtedly very happy with the success but was devastated when, upon approaching his home, he saw his only child. His virgin daughter was the first to meet him, singing and dancing in celebration.
His immediate thought was horror, he had promised to offer her to God in his vow; going back on his promise was not an option. This shows the character and faith of both the man and his daughter, who never asked to be spared. This may explain why Jephthah's name is among the faithful of Heb.11. Although in terrible agony, he followed through with the fulfillment of his vow, but not in the way that many think.
This situation should remind us of Samuel's mother, who begged God for a son. (1 Sam. 1) She promised that if He would do so she would give him unto the Lord all the days of his life. When God blessed her with Samuel, after he was weaned, she presented him to God. He was a servant to the priests until he became a prophet, in which position he continued to serve God until his death. Can you imagine the agony of his mother having to hand over her son in this way? She remained faithful to her vow without any argument.
Dedicated to God
So it was with Jephthah, he willingly gave up his daughter but not as a burnt offering. Notice the words in Judges 11:39, where we are told that she knew no man. In the verses previous to this, when she realized that she was to be given as the fulfillment of her father's vow, she asked to have 2 months to bewail her virginity. She realized that she was to become a lifetime virgin, never being able to bear children, which was looked upon as almost a curse for a young woman of her day. This also would have been a blow to Jephthah; it meant the end of his family, for he had no others to carry on his name. We do not know what a servant of God would be expected to do, but she would be expected to retain her virginity and purity and to do certain domestic chores in taking care of the Tabernacle's needs.
Many have believed and taught that she was offered as a burnt offering. I was under this impression for many years until I took the time to make a more thorough study on the matter. As sad as the story is, it became an inspiration to me when I realized the faith of both the father and the daughter, both being willing to be faithful to the vow. Their faith was a parallel to that of Abraham and Isaac, when God ordered Abraham to offer to offer his only son as an offering.
Another agonizing thing about a daughter of Israel having no children is related to the seed of the woman, as promised in Eden. It was promised to Abraham that the seed would be from his line, so every Jewish woman, including Jephthah's daughter, would have the hope of bearing that child.
In conclusion, to offer additional support for the actual fate of Jephthah's daughter, I would like to quote two other translations of Judges 11:40. The first being that of Adam Clarke:
"But this custom prevailed in Israel that the virgins of Israel went at different times, four days in the year, to the daughter of Jephthah, that they might comfort her."
The second is from Young's literal translation: "From time to time the daughters of Israel go to talk to the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four days in a year."
From these translations we can plainly see that Jephthah's daughter did not die, but was alive and able to visit with her friends who kindly came to commiserate with her over her virginity. Beyond this we are not told anything about her later years, but we know she was not offered as a burnt offering.
Instead of being a story of bitterness and death, we can think of this as a beautiful story of a man's undeniable faith in God. His daughter's example adds further inspiration and encouragement. She never asked for the situation to be altered for her sake. She was perfectly willing to fulfill her father's vow and was a perfect demonstration of a strong faith in one so young.