Jephthah's Daughter, the Levites, and Symbolic Sacrifices
Most Bible students recall the brief story of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges 11:29-40. Upon becoming Judge of Israel, “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” and “he advanced toward the people of Ammon” (11:29). “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (11:30-31). According to Holy Writ, Jephthah defeated Ammon, and his daughter was the first to meet him when he returned home (11:32-34), which meant she was to “be the Lord’s,” offered as “a burnt offering.” Judges 11:39 states: Jephthah “carried out his vow with her which he had vowed.”
Is it possible that Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter as a “burnt offering” (Judges 11:29-40)? Yes, it’s possible. (Sadly, many children in ancient history were sacrificed at the hands of powerful leaders, including some evil kings of Judah; 2 Chronicles 28:1-3; 33:6-9). But if Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter, he committed a grave sin, since literal human burnt offerings were condemned by God (Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10). Furthermore, if Jephthah actually burned his daughter in sacrifice to the Lord, he did so without God ever approving his actions (and such silence on God’s part cannot reasonably be interpreted as approval).1
A much better explanation to the Jephthah question centers around the fact that sometimes a “sacrifice” is offered in a figurative sense. In addition to modern man often speaking metaphorically of “sacrificing” money, sleep, time, energy, etc. for good causes, consider that such figurative sacrificing also took place in ancient Israel. In fact, hundreds of years before Jephthah’s day, ever since the Israelites escaped Egyptian bondage following the tenth plague (the death of the firstborn of Egypt), the people of Israel “offered” both man and beast to God. Jehovah “consecrated…all the firstborn, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast; it is Mine,” says the Lord (Exodus 13:2).
There is a sense in which “all males that open the womb” were “sacrificed to the Lord” (Exodus 13:15). But exactly how were all the firstborn males offered in a special way to God? Were they all literally sacrificed as a burnt offering? All the firstborn males among clean animals/livestock were literally burned, but not among the unclean. Unclean animals, such as the donkey, were “redeemed” with a lamb (Exodus 13:13; Numbers 18:15). That is, the donkey was to be delivered or rescued from a sacrificial death with a replacement.2 Similarly, “all the firstborn of man” among the Israelites were redeemed.
Rather than literally sacrifice the firstborn male children of the Israelites (as they did their livestock—Exodus 13:2,12-16; 22:29-30), God set apart the Levites for Himself for religious service (“that they may perform the work of the Lord,” Numbers 8:11).
God said: “I Myself have taken the Levites from among the children of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the children of Israel. Therefore the Levites shall be mine, because all the firstborn are Mine. On the day that I struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, both man and beast. They shall be Mine: I am the Lord” (Numbers 3:12-13).
How were the clean animals given to the Lord? In literal sacrifices. How were the firstborn male humans given to the Lord? Not in literal burnt offerings, but in sacrificial service to God (cf. Romans 12:1).
Interestingly, Numbers 8 indicates that the consecration of the Levites was a type of offering—a symbolic wave offering. After God instructed the Israelites to “lay their hands on the Levites” (as they were “offering” them as a sacrifice to the Lord; cf. Leviticus 4:13-15), He said:
Aaron shall offer the Levites before the Lord as a wave offering from the people of Israel, that they may do the service of the Lord. Then the Levites shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls, and you shall offer the one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering to the Lord to make atonement for the Levites. And you shall set the Levites before Aaron and his sons, and shall offer them as a wave offering to the Lord.
Thus you shall separate the Levites from among the people of Israel, and the Levites shall be mine. And after that the Levites shall go in to serve at the tent meeting, when you have cleansed them and offered them as a wave offering. For they are wholly given to me from among the people of Israel. Instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn of all the people of Israel, I have taken them for myself. For all the firstborn among the people of Israel are mine, both of man and of beast. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I consecrated them for myself, and I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn among the people of Israel (Number 8:10-18).3
Like the Levites, who were symbolically offered before the Lord, it is very likely that Jephthah similarly “sacrificed” his daughter. She could have been “sacrificed” as a “burnt offering” at the tabernacle in the sense that she became one of the “serving women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle” (Exodus 38:8; cf. 1 Samuel 2:22). Perhaps like Anna centuries later, Jephthah’s daughter was “offered” to serve God “with fastings and prayers night and day,” never again to leave the area of the tabernacle (cf. Luke 2:36-38). Such a figurative offering makes perfect sense in light of the fact that Jephthah’s daughter and her friends never lamented her death. They mourned—just not her death. What was their sorrow? They “bewailed her virginity” (Judges 11:38). In fact, three times her virginity is mentioned (11:37-39), the last of which is noted immediately following the revelation that Jephthah “carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man” (11:39).
If Jephthah sinfully killed his daughter as a literal burnt offering, the repeated bewailing of her virginity makes no sense.4 As Dave Miller concluded, such statements are “completely superfluous and callous…if she had been put to death.”5 On the other hand, if Jephthah’s daughter was about to be “offered” to God to serve perpetually at His tabernacle, and to live the rest of her life as a single, childless servant of the Lord, it makes perfect sense that she and her friends would lament her lasting virginity. When we allow the Bible to explain the Bible, the symbolic offering of Jephthah’s daughter makes perfect sense.
1 Admittedly, Judges 11:29 indicates that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” prior to his journey through Gilead, Manasseh, and Mizpah. Having “the Spirit of the Lord,” however, does not mean a person could never sin and do foolish things (e.g., Samson). This phrase is found seven times in Judges. It can indicate God’s consecration of a judge, such as in Othniel’s case, when “the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel” (Judges 3:10). At other times, it refers more to the courage and superhuman strength that the Lord provided them, such as in Samson’s case (Judges 14:6; 14:19; 15:14). Jephthah was a courageous leader, but he was not without sin (Judges 11:3; Romans 3:23).
2 If the owner of the donkey did not want to redeem the donkey, he then had to “break its neck” (Exodus 13:15). However, he could not sacrifice it. In short, the donkey had to be redeemed or killed.
3 ESV, emp. added.
4 If someone was about to kill your unmarried daughter, would you feel the need to mourn her virginity or her imminent death?
5 Dave Miller (2013), “Jephthah’s Daughter,” Reason & Revelation, 33:95, August, http://apologeticspress.org/apPubPage.aspx?pub=1&issue=1131&article=2179.