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Jephthah's vow (HAW)

As [Jephthah] approached his home [following his great victory] the maidens of the town came forth, according to the custom of the time, to greet the mighty man of valour with songs and dances. In this way, Miriam and the women of Israel had celebrated the destruction of Pharaoh's host in the Red Sea (Exo 15:20); and later, David's victories over the Philistines were acclaimed in the same fashion (1Sa 18:6).

But now, to his consternation and grief, Jephthah beheld amongst them his own daughter, and he who should have been enjoying the victor's triumph rent his clothes: "Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back."

However Jephthah's vow be understood, that last phrase shows what a sterling character he was. "I cannot go back!" Come what may, his vow to God must be performed. Jephthah swore to his own hurt, and changed not. "He that doeth these things shall never be moved." For this Jephthah's name is inscribed in the Lord's "roll of honour" in Hebrews 11 amongst those who glorified God by their faith.

The question of the fate of Jephthah's daughter as a result of the vow he made unto the Lord is probably the most discussed problem in the Book of Judges. Traditionally the vow of Jephthah has been taken as meaning exactly what it says. Nevertheless there are those who believe that Jephthah's daughter was not slain and burnt on an altar, but that she was dedicated to life-long service of God in connection with the tabernacle. This latter conclusion has the weight of evidence behind it. It is those who believe that the maiden became a burnt offering who are faced with difficulties.

First, it is tolerably clear that Jephthah was expecting to have to give to God, in fulfilment of his vow, a PERSON and not an animal; or to be more precise, BOTH a person AND a burnt offering. His words were: "Whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me... shall surely be the Lord's." There is no point in stressing "whatsoever (as distinct from whomsoever) cometh forth": the word "whatsoever" is a Hebrew masculine, for in such a sentence the masculine would cover all genders.

But what animal might come to meet Jephthah? The only animals that might be offered as a burnt offering were sheep, goats, bullocks, and (for the very poorest of the people) pigeons. Would Jephthah be expecting to be met by any of these? The only animal that might conceivably go out to meet him would be a favourite hound, and that would certainly not make an acceptable offering to the Lord.

In any case, Jephthah's vow manifestly signified something of considerable value in his eyes -- a real sacrifice, in the modern sense of the world.

Since, from the very nature of the vow, it must refer to someone over whom Jephthah had full control, the possibilities are limited to two: a favourite slave, or servant, or his only daughter.

Consequently, the conclusion becomes inevitable that Jephthah was vowing unto God someone for whom he would have real affection, someone whose loss he would mourn bitterly. His vow was a vow worth making. It honoured God by an offering that was by no means inconsiderable.

Once this vow is thus seen in its true perspective, all other details begin to fall into place.

It has already been seen [from his astute handling of Scripture earlier in Jdg 11] that Jephthah was no uncouth desperado, but -- like the outlaw David -- a devout man well-schooled in the Scriptures. He would therefore be no stranger to such passages as the following: "Thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord" (Lev 18:21).

"Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise. Thou shalt not do so unto the Lord thy God: for every abomination to the Lord, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters have they burnt in the fire to their gods" (Deu 12:30,31).
"There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch" (Deu 18:10).
Then is it possible that such a man as Jephthah would even consider making a human sacrifice? Is it likely that having just returned from the slaughter of the Ammonites (whose god had been unable to deliver or prosper them), he would then proceed to imitate the rites of Molech, the god of Ammon, which were utterly forbidden to Israel?

Again, let it be supposed that Jephthah had sought to offer his daughter as a burnt-offering. This could be done only at the altar of the Lord, and through the ministration of a priest -- and what priest would condone or assist such a flagrant breach of Levitical precept?

And, if the maiden were to die as a sacrifice, would it not be an intensely unnatural thing for her to spend the last two months of her life away from her father who loved her so much?

It needs to be recognized also that the vowing of persons to God was a perfectly normal matter in the life of Israel; the Law made provision for such acts of exceptional piety: "Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When a man shall make a singular vow, the persons shall be for the Lord by thy estimation" (Lev 27:2). A commutation price, differing for males and females and according to the age of the person vowed unto the Lord, might be paid. In the case of a male between the ages of twenty and sixty, this payment was fifty shekels (for a working man, more than a year's wages?).

Evidently then, the vow took the form of consecrating, in effect, the labour value of the person vowed. The practical result, in most instances, would be for the commutation price to be paid and the life of the individual concerned would proceed normally.

But, it has been claimed, the same scripture REQUIRES the actual sacrifice of such as Jephthah's daughter: "Notwithstanding, no devoted thing that a man shall devote unto the Lord of all that he hath, both of man and beast, and of the field of his possession, shall be sold, or redeemed: every devoted thing is most holy unto the Lord. None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be redeemed; abut all shall surely be put to death" (Lev 27:18,19).

To apply these words to the question under discussion is to confuse two very different things, namely (1) that which is vowed; and (2) the devoted thing (Hebrew "cherem"; eg, Josh 6:17,18 same word).

Whereas there was always optional redemption of a vow by means of a money payment, the "cherem" -- nearly always associated with what was taken in war -- normally meant utter destruction (something akin to whole burnt offering). Jephthah's vow was the former of these. Lev 27:18,19 describes the latter.

There were instances, like Hannah's vowing of her son unto the Lord "all the days of his life", when advantage of the commutation arrangement was not taken. This is what Jephthah meant when he said: "I cannot go back." His daughter was to be given to the Lord all the days of her life. So completely did Jephthah feel his indebtedness to the Lord that there was to be no suggestion of taking an easy way out. He would pay his vow in the fullest sense, by giving his daughter from that time forward for permanent service in the precincts of the tabernacle. (WJR).

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