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The Jephthah Tragedy

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Jephthah Sacrifices His Daughter

By James Donahue

Among the many Old Testament horror stories is that of Jephthah, the leader of the Israeli army, who led his forces in a great battle against the Ammonites.

Jephthah must have been unsure of his ability to succeed in such a battle because he did something really strange. In Judges 11:30 we read: "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 . . . shall surely be the Lord’s and I will offer it up for a burnt offering."

Now Jephthah must have been really scared to have made such a vow. It stands to reason that if he returned home from such a battle, the first person out of that door was going to be a member of his family, anxious to welcome him home. Whatever possessed him to make such a pact with God? If his troops won the war he created a personal disaster that was just waiting to happen.

And of course, the Israelites defeated the Ammorites. Judges 11:32-33 reads: "And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter."

So Jephthah returns home in Mizpeh victorious and "behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances." What should have been a joyful greeting became a disaster for Jephthah because of his pact with God. He cries out: "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."

The daughter, who remains unnamed in the story, is obviously saddened by her father’s story. She pleads with him for a reprieve of "two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry."

Jephthah agrees to give her the two months. Then in verse 39 we read: "After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed."

In other words, he killed her and burned her body as a sacrificial offering unto God. Notice that throughout all of this, God remains quiet. He neither accepts Jephthah’s vow before the battle, nor does anything to stop Jephthah from sacrificing his daughter. Is God to blame, or is Jephthah a fool for thinking he was obligated to burn his daughter because he thought his prayer had been answered?

Religious belief can be a dangerous thing when we get too caught up in it.