The orthodox Christian theology of Hadley Robinson

Jephthah – a Brave and Pious Hero

Not a worshipper of Molech

by Hadley Robinson

“[Jephthah] fulfilled his vow upon [his daughter] through the fact that she knew no man; i.e. he fulfilled the vow through the fact that she knew no man, but dedicated her life to the Lord, as a spiritual burnt-offering, in a lifelong chastity.” – Keil & Delitzsch1


The controversy surrounding the calling of Jephthah, his victory over the Ammonites, and his vow to the LORD in Judges 11 ultimately concerns the doctrinal integrity of Scripture – which is no small issue to the orthodox Christian.  If the Bible is God’s Word – perfect and eternal – then every detail must somehow make sense and, in particular, not contradict itself theologically.  For example, if the sin of adultery is condemned in the book of Genesis but excused in some other book of the Bible, Scripture would lack integrity.  We would not know what to believe nor how to obey.

For this reason, this passage has attracted much attention throughout history, including scrutiny by such defenders of the faith as St. Augustine.  If the Bible lacks integrity then matters of faith can quickly cascade into theological disaster.  Can we really be certain that there was a real Adam and Eve, our first and only parents?  Did a worldwide flood really occur?  Did Jesus really physically rise from the dead?  Or is it some spiritualized fiction as now taught in the vast majority of Protestant seminaries?  Are homosexual bishops nothing more than a hideous parody of depraved religion?   Is Genesis 1-2 mere quaint poetry with nothing to say about who the man and woman really are and how they are related?  It all becomes a house of cards if there is no doctrinal integrity present throughout Scripture.  St. Augustine and some others understood this.

We face the same conflict today.  Attacks on orthodoxy, especially in the United States, are without parallel in recent history.

The non-orthodox seminaries, including the one this writer attended, are all too content to make Scripture appear confusing, contradictory, and riddled with errors.  Judges 11 is just one of the passages they supposedly use to demonstrate this.  Genesis 1-2 is a mish-mash and hardly authoritative except for dangerous kooks.  But this was not always so.

The pinnacle of orthodox Protestant scholarship occurred during middle of the 19th century.  The work quoted above (Keil and Delitzsch) is an example of this period (This writer has generously and directly used their insights, quotes, and analyses throughout this essay.)  But shortly thereafter the German theological schools jettisoned historical Christian orthodoxy and the diabolical higher Biblical criticism became popular, i.e. the Bible is a mere collection of myths sprinkled with facts.  Thus began the Protestant stampede away from the connection of central statements in Scripture, such as Christ’s rising from the dead, with an actual historical fact.  It popularized what is known as neo-orthodoxy which is now taught in most Protestant and many Roman Catholic seminaries.  As a result orthodox Protestant theology is now largely in ruins, beholden to the popular and charismatic radio preachers that have a penchant for misusing Scripture for their own ends.

In the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Protestant scholarship reflected the  neo-orthodox view.  Such standard references as “A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament” illustrates this seismic shift away from orthodoxy.  The following quote from this work has to do with the meaning of עלה (whole burnt-offering) as used in Judges 11:31.

In early times whole burnt-offerings of children were sometimes made, e.g. Jephthah’s daughter[2]

To suggest this without comment or reference to the historical facts demonstrates the theological bias and hubris of this period up to this day.  Suffice it to say, the events of Judges took place in the late 2nd millennium BC (1,300 – 1,080 BC).  But evidence of the worship of Molech via human sacrifice is unknown until the 8th century BC.  But if the chronology of the Bible is assumed to be off by hundreds of years, as most non-orthodox scholars believe, then the note above might be worth something.  While this lexicon is without peer in the world of Old Testament Hebrew scholarship, comments like the above are unnecessary asides and are no help in translating the Hebrew.  They are just huge swipes at the inspiration and authority of the Bible.  Young seminary students might assume the worst….

This writer hopes that all who read this essay will be encouraged to defend God’s Word from attack from wherever it may come, including the impugning of Jephthah’s character.

1. The English Translations   The translation “whatever comes out of the door of my house … I will sacrifice as a burnt offering” (NIV) is incomplete, at best, or incorrect, at worst.  Here again, English translators of the Hebrew, for whatever purpose, failed to note that the construction “comes out” in Hebrew is:  a.) The masculine first person, i.e. “he comes out” and b.) Used exclusively throughout the OT of men coming out, not women or animals.  Therefore, it should be “whoever comes out.”  This is reflected by some translations, including the German translation made by Keil and Delitzsch.  It is noteworthy that the KJV, the Septuagint or LXX (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament made over 2,000 years ago), and their descendants (the NIV, included) translate it “whatever”.  But the KJV and the LXX also incorrectly translated the famous passage in 1 Chron. 4 known as the “prayer of Jabez” that allowed the rascal Bruce Wilkinson to make a fortune in book sales promoting the “God can be your genie” heresy.  In general, knowledge of Hebrew and the availability of tools in Hebrew were sparse until very recently (the last 150 years) and, as a consequence, scholars relied excessively on the Greek LXX for the meaning of the Hebrew text.  Therefore, word usage and translation tended to pass from the LXX to English directly rather than from the Hebrew to English, as it should.  If the latter had been practiced more, we would have had better translations to begin with.  The noted Matthew Henry, a prolific English Bible commentator who lived in the 18th century, knew little if any Hebrew.  His commentary – widely used in the English speaking world for centuries – stumbles at this point as he makes conjectures as to what happened in Judges 11.  If he had parsed the Hebrew correctly and had thought about the passage a bit more, some of the conclusions and questions he raised would have been irrelevant.  So before a reader studies the passage, he is looking at an incorrect translation.

2. The Nature of the Vow   Jephthah, in order to make his determined desire to have victory over the Ammonites known to God, intended to impose a difficult vow upon himself and that would not have been the case if he were thinking of an animal.  “Coming out of the door of my house” is an expression that does not apply to a herd or flock driven out of the stall just at the moment of return or to any animal that might possibly run out to meet him.  Jephthah clearly was thinking of a human being coming out.  In addition, if he had been thinking of an animal, it would have been many that would be offered up for sacrifice.  As one ancient quipped, what general or prince would say, “O God, if Thou wilt give me this victory, the first calf that meets me will be thine!”  Consider Solomon’s sacrifice of thousands of animals at the dedication of the Temple.  St. Augustine also noted that it was not customary for some sheep to come out of the house of a victorious general returning from war.  It is implausible.   It was likely that he thought of some member of his household other than his daughter whom he might have to free (a slave) or no longer have conjugal relations (his wife), for example.  It could have involved the payment of some great amount to ransom that person.  We do not know the particulars nor do we have to.  We do know that nothing could have been worse than an Israelite to be left without descendants (Deut. 25:510) so for his daughter to remain forever unmarried was the greatest possible sacrifice for Jephthah to make.

3. Historical View   The Jewish historian, Josephus, and some Church Fathers (not St. Augustine) entertained the view that Jephthah’s daughter was ritually killed on an altar.  This we would expect if we studied only the LXX which was the Old Testament used at the time because so few Christians knew any Hebrew.  During the Middle Ages certain rabbis established that it had to be a dedication, not a sacrifice.  Augustine defended the idea of a spiritual sacrifice.

4. The Law Forbids Human Sacrifice   Some have allowed that the Law permitted parents to put their children to death but, in the case here, the daughter was innocent of any crime and to put her to death would have been murder.  Jephthah may have contemplated the aspect of a human sacrifice in the second phrase of 11:31 but his primary thought was “he [not ‘it’] will be the Lord’s.”  Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31, 18:10 forbid human sacrifice.  The punishment for this is death.  Lev. mentions Molech by name.  Furthermore, human sacrifice was unknown among the Israelites of the early times, as noted above.  It was only transplanted to Jerusalem by the godless kings Ahaz and Manasseh hundreds of years later when Israel abandoned her faith in the God of the Bible in favor of the gods of the lands in which she lived.

If Jephthah had vowed he would offer a literal human sacrifice then he must have done so without any reflection or else he was thoroughly depraved in a moral and religious sense – assumptions without any warrant in this case.

In general, human sacrifice did not belong to heathenism generally but only to the very darkest night of heathenism and was a practice of only the most thoroughly depraved people.  Jephthah is a brave and pious hero who is mentioned here and in Hebrews 11 with only praise.  It is unthinkable, therefore, that the authors of Scripture would include someone in the ranks of the greatest saints who, essentially, was completely depraved – unless they made a mistake.  That Scripture is full of error of all kinds is the majority view of the Protestant Church.  That God is the author of Scripture and that He only speaks absolute truth through His prophets is a minority view but the view of the truly converted.  Another reason that demonstrates that no human sacrifice took place is the general horror that Israel had for it.  This was illustrated in 2 Kings 3:26, 27 where even the godless King Jehoram (son of Ahab and Jezebel) along with King Jehoshaphat withdrew in battle from the besieged King of Moab when he sacrificed his son upon the wall of the city.  Again, it is inconceivable that God would chose a worshipper of Molech or a man capable of human sacrifice to carry out His work of salvation for His people.  Like David, God often chose men who had faults and infirmities but they were not worshippers of Molech or Baal.  It is, therefore, irreconcilable to apply the literal “bleeding burnt-offering” to a person.  It is a spiritual offering to God, as we shall see.

5. Not a Rash Vow   Jephthah does not exhibit in his life the slightest trace of any impetuosity or rashness.  He does not take to battle at once with the king of Ammon but carefully and methodically lays out historical and logical reasons why the Ammonites have no claim to Israel’s land.  His letter to the king reveals an accurate and extensive knowledge of the law and history of Israel.  The Levites would have had such knowledge (if Jephthah did not) which would give even more weight to the evidence that human sacrifice was here out of the question.  The Levites would have revolted at such a ghastly notion.  This is not the same kind of man as the rash and evil son of King Solomon, Rehoboam.  Nor does Jephthah make his vow in the heat and confusion of battle so that we might think he made it without weighing his words carefully.  Like David, Jephthah was an exile for a significant period of his life and we cannot assume (as some do) that he lived a morally depraved life or engaged in religious barbarism.  How could Jephthah carefully recite the Law to the Ammonites in one breath and then consider actually killing, dismembering, and then burning an innocent human being in the next?  It is an impossible assertion and slander against the character of a pious man and great hero in Scripture.  Even when he was first approached to lead Israel, his thoughts were of the LORD and how He gives the victory in battle (Judges 11:9).  It is ironic that later in their history the Ammonites would fully embrace the worship of Molech and other forms of monstrous evil including the “ripping open of the pregnant women of Gilead” – Amos 1:13.

6. Mourning One’s Virginity    It does not mean that one mourns because one has to die a virgin but that one has to live as one.  That she would “mourn upon the mountains” makes no sense if she were soon to die and be separated from her father and family.  Instead, the human heart demands, as his beloved daughter, that, if she were to die, she would spend that time with her family, not with her girl friends.   If a young women mourns her virginity it is that she will remain a virgin, not die as one.  If death were in store, tears would have been appropriate for that, not for her remaining untouched by a man.  Again, the statement “she was a virgin” (Judges 11:39) is not in harmony with the assumption of a sacrificial death.  This clause, as Keil and Delitzsch note, adds nothing to the description of the event as it is already known that she is a virgin.  “The father fulfilled his vow upon her through the fact that she knew no man; i.e. he fulfilled the vow through the fact that she knew no man, but dedicated her life to the Lord, as a spiritual burnt-offering, in a lifelong chastity.”[3]

7. The Author of Judges   The author does not conceal the faults and sins of the heroes therein.  As we see with Gideon, he notes the sin of the ephod (Judges 8:27).  It would, therefore, be inconceivable for the same author to overlook one of the most heinous acts a man could commit – to slaughter an innocent woman and then burn her upon an altar.  Someone who knew the Law so well or who surrounded himself with those who did (the Levites) could not privately go out somewhere and sacrifice his daughter on an altar.  There would have to be a lawful tabernacle or ark and such a sacrifice would have to be done through the medium of the priests unless, as Kiel and Delitzsch note, there was some extraordinary manifestation of God (as with Abraham) but we cannot think of this being the case for a moment here.  If it were some priest who consented to do this human sacrifice, how could he considering that it was such an abomination of the heathen?

8. The Spiritual Understanding of “Burnt-offering”    The literal Hebrew is “a going up”.  It is true that nowhere else in the OT do we have a parallel of a spiritual burnt offering.  But we do have it in the NT in both Romans 12:1 and 2 Tim. 4:6.  Does anyone believe that as Christians we are to be actually sacrificed upon an altar?  Was Paul really going to be ritually slaughtered like a sheep?  Abraham’s offering of Isaac, including the passages in the NT, illustrates that what God demands is a spiritual sacrifice, not a corporeal one in regards to men.  The Law is not silent on this matter concerning the redemption of the firstborn (Ex. 13:1, 13; Num. 28:15, 16; Lev. 27:1 ff.).  These passages illustrate that those who belonged to the Lord could be dedicated to Him without a slaughter and burning.  Furthermore, the Hebrew word used here does not have the idea of burning as our word but means “going up” upon the altar or of complete surrender to the Lord.

9. The Doctrinal Integrity of Scripture   Dr. C. A. Auberlen (1824 – 1864), Professor of Theology at the University of Basle, made these exceptional remarks about this controversy.  (Note that he was only 40 years old at the time of his death.)

“The history of Jephthah’s daughter would hardly have been thought worth preserving in the Scriptures if the maiden had been really offered in sacrifice; for, in that case, the event would have been reduced, at the best, into a mere family history, without any theocratic significance, though in truth it would rather have been an anti-theocratic abomination, according to Deut. 12:31.  Jephthah’s action would in that case have stood upon the same platform as the incest of Lot, and would owe its adoption into the canon simply to genealogical considerations, or others of a similar kind.  But the very opposite is the case here; and if, from the conclusions of the whole narrative in chap. 11:39, 40, the object of it is supposed to be simply to explain the origin of the feast that was held in honor of Jephthah’s daughter, even this would tell against the ordinary view [i.e. that Jephthah killed and then sacrificed his daughter].  In the eye of the Law the whole thing would still remain an abomination, and the canonical Scriptures would not stoop to relate and beautify an institution so directly opposed to the Law”[4]

Because the spiritual sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter is without parallel elsewhere, we cannot assume something which is so contrary to the spirit and integrity of Holy Scripture among people highly used by God.  Even the adultery and murder by David during a lapsed period of his life had the most horrific results and these acts were extensively condemned by the Divine Author via His Prophets.  David was not serving and worshipping the Lord one moment and then committing adultery and murder the next.  Therefore, it is incorrect to draw parallels between David and Jephthah in this regard.


Defending the doctrinal integrity and the historical truth of Scripture must be a high priority for all true Christians – those who have been converted by the Holy Spirit, walk in holiness, and eagerly await the return of Christ.  Others have related to this writer the sorrow they experienced themselves and witnessed in the countenance of others when taught the common falsehood concerning the life of Jephthah that he was a murderer of his own daughter.  The indwelling Holy Spirit in us recoils at the slander of His saints.  To accuse Jephthah, the Spirit-anointed and victorious leader of Israel, of human sacrifice is a slander.  And for this reason the great St. Augustine of Hippo had to defend him and oppose the Jews and others of his time.

[1] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975) p. 393.
[2] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Claredon Press 1907) p. 750.
[3] Ibid., p. 393
[4] Ibid., p. 394.