(Judg. 11:29ff) Does the Bible condone human sacrifice?

CLAIM: The Bible denounces human sacrifice (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10). However, Jephthah kills his daughter on a burnt offering, and the NT praises him for it (Heb. 11:32)! Regarding this passage, atheist Richard Dawkins writes, “God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering, and in the circumstances the daughter very decently agreed to be sacrificed.”[1] How can this be the case?

RESPONSE: There are two ways to understand this story:

OPTION #1: Jephthah did not actually sacrifice his daughter

Some commentators argue that Jephthah had to give his daughter over to tabernacle service (Ex. 38:8; 1 Sam. 2:22). They point out that the text never describes the fact that Jephthah killed his daughter, which is strange, because the book of Judges never withholds gory details. When the text says that Jephthah fulfilled the vow, it specifies he “did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man” (v. 39). This is an odd way to describe killing his daughter! Also, Jephthah’s daughter told him that she wept “because of [her] virginity” (v.37), rather than her death. Again, this is an odd thing to weep about, when you will soon be burned alive! Since she was an only child (v.34), Jephthah’s line would end with her. In Semitic cultures, your line was incredibly important.

However, this interpretation has its problems. As Paul Copan writes, “Some Old Testament scholars argue that Jephthah didn’t literally sacrifice his daughter. Most, however, are convinced that the text asserts this.”[2] Why do most interpreters disagree with this first option? They do so for a number of reasons:

(1) If Jephthah gave her over into the tabernacle service, then why didn’t he just pay the fee to get her out (Lev. 27:4)?

(2) Jephthah’s original language speaks of a personal sacrifice—not an animal sacrifcie. Kaiser writes, “Some have tried to soften the vow by translating what was vowed as whatever comes out. However, if the Hebrew text intended this neuter idea… it should have used another gender… it must refer (as it does in every other context) only to persons and not to animals or anything else.”[3] Archer concurs that this expression is never used of an animal.[4] Others argue that he never intended this to be a human sacrifice; otherwise, he never would have made such a personal vow.

(3) Jephthah’s original language does not refer to tabernacle service; it refers to being a “burnt offering” (v.31). Others retort that this is metaphorical language for being a living and holy sacrifice (Rom. 12:1).

OPTION #2: Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter

Herbert Wolf,[5] Arthur Cundall,[6] and Barry Webb[7] along with most other commentators hold to this second option. How do they justify this moral atrocity? Put simply, they don’t. They rightly argue that this text only demonstrates the major theme of Judges: everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judg. 17:6; 21:25). While Jephthah is commended by the author of Hebrews (Heb. 11:32), he is not commended for this action.[8] When it says that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah,” this refers to his battling with the Ammonites (v.29)—not the vow he made (v.30). Not everything that OT saints did was perfect. If God was waiting to use perfect people, he would have waited forever. While the Bible teaches that we should keep our word (Num. 36:2-13; Ps. 15:4; 66:14; 76:11; Acts 5:1-4), it never teaches that we are bound to keep immoral vows like this (Prov. 26:2). Instead, it gives examples where vows should be broken (1 Sam. 14:28, 43-45; Mk. 6:23-27).

[1] Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 276.

[2] Copan, Paul. Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 201(1) 97.

[3] Kaiser, Walter C. Hard Sayings of the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988. 103.

[4] Archer, Gleason L., and Kenneth S. Kantzer. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982. 164.

[5] Wolf, H. (1992). Judges. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel (Vol. 3, p. 456). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[6] Cundall, A. E., & Morris, L. (1968). Judges and Ruth: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 7, p. 144). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[7] Webb, B. G. (2012). The Book of Judges. (R. K. Harrison & R. L. Hubbard Jr., Eds.) (p. 336). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

[8] Archer argues that Jephthah would not be honored as a hero of faith, if he committed this action. Archer, Gleason L., and Kenneth S. Kantzer. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1982. 165.