The story of Jephthah has been one of the most notorious and difficult passages to address in all of Scripture. The story appears to say that Jephthah killed his daughter and offered her as a burnt sacrifice. But did he? Did Jephthah kill his daughter? Absolutely not.
The story in question is found in Judges 10:1-12:15, let us quote a portion here:
Judges 11:30-40 Then Jephthah vowed a vow to Yehovah and said, “If You will indeed give the children of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from the children of Ammon, it will be Yehovah's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering." ... "My father, you have opened your mouth to Yehovah," she said to him. "Do to me what proceeded from your mouth-since Yehovah brought vengeance on your enemies, the children of Ammon." 37 She said further to her father, "Let this thing be done for me. Let me be alone two months, so that I may go on the mountains and mourn my virginity, I and my companions." 38 "Go!" he said. So he sent her away for two months. So she left, she and her companions, and mourned on the mountains because of her virginity. 39 Then at the end of two months she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow he had made-so she was never intimate with a man. So it became a custom in Israel, 40 that the daughters of Israel would go annually to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.
The specific phrases in dispute are: I will offer it up as a burnt offering ... who did with her according to his vow he had made. It would seem from this surface reading that Jephthah offered his daughter as a burnt sacrifice to fulfill his vow.
The phrase translated as "it will be Yehovah's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering" comes from the Hebrew words "yehovah 'alah 'olah." The word olah means "rising, ascending, lifting up on." If the context warrants, it can be translated as a "burnt offering," as the smoke rises and ascends. However, the context must warrant such a translation since the word does not mean "burnt". Herein lies the problem; almost all translations translate olah as burnt offering in this passage which is normally how it is translated. But, in this passage there is no contextual reason to do so. With no contextual reason, we must simply translate it according to its root definition of "rising, ascending, lifting up on..."
With this in mind, let's re-translate this: I will offer it up as an ascending-sacrifice [offering [ascension] ... who did with her according to his vow he had made. Some have translated it as "ascension, ascending-offering, & ascending-sacrifice." It is this idea of captivity, lifting a yoke on the shoulders of, offering up, that which goes up, to the highest, or surrendering to the Lord that Jephthah does with his daughter (Lev 27:2). We find other women who dedicated their lives to tabernacle service (Ex 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22...).
As we can see elsewhere in Scripture, there is a 'second witness' for not translating this as "burnt offering."
1 Kings 10:4-5 And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, and the house that he had built,and the food of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of Yehovah; there was no more spirit in her.
Ezekiel 40:26 And there were seven steps to go up to it, and the arches thereof were before them; and it had palm-trees, one on this side, and another on that side, upon the posts thereof.
As we see here in Ezekiel, ascending is clearly the idea relative to going up seven steps. Of the 35 translations checked, not one has translated this reference as "burnt offering," the context simply doesn't allow it. The same is true in Judges 11, there is no contextual justification for Jephthah killing, bleeding, and then burning his daughter. So, let's re-translate this:
Judges 11:30-31 Then Jephthah vowed a vow to Yehovah and said, “If You will indeed give the children of Ammon into my hand, 31 then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from the children of Ammon, it will be Yehovah's, and I will offer it up as a [dedicatory] offering."
Let us start off by saying - As much as we are told in the Older Testament, it is by no means conclusive of every detail in every story, as well as every custom of every people in every time. With this said, there is sufficient evidence within this passage to tell us the story. Let us also consider the following:
- The passage does not say that Jephthah killed, bled, then burned his daughter
- If celibacy was not the long-term consequence of the vow, why does the recording spend so much time on it, and conclude with "so she was never intimate with a man"?
- Mourning one's virginity, does not mean to mourn that one dies a virgin, but that one must remain one.
- If you are about to die, why would you "go into the mountains" in a place of solitude? Would it not be more logical that she would want to 'live her life' before dying?
- Her friends went with her to mourn her virginity, not to mourn her upcoming death.
- Jephthah only had one child, so he and his daughter were sorrowful - not because he was going to kill her, but - because his family line would not continue (Judges 11:34).
- If Jephthah did indeed offer his daughter to be killed, bled, and then burnt, what Levite would have performed this abominable act?
- God forbade human burnt offering - Deut 18:10; Jer 32:35.
- Child sacrifice is usually made to Molech - the god of the Ammonites - who Jephthah just defeated. It's illogical to perform the same child sacrifice ritual that God despised!
- The sacrificial animals were required to be bulls, rams, goats, and lambs.
- The sacrificial animals were to be male (Lev 1:3). Jephthah's daughter is obviously female.
- While it has been shown that olah can only refer to a burnt offering if the context so demands, let us put this on hold momentarily and look at another word - "and". The vav is usually translated as "and", but it can also be translated as "or" if the context warrants, which would render the infamous verse as follows: "it will be Yehovah's, or I will offer it up as a [burnt] offering."
Once again, context determines how words are to be translated. If we have a choice between translating a word one of two ways, the immediate context must be the judge. If the immediate context is inconclusive, then the larger context of Scripture must serve as judge.
Considering all of the above, it would seem most illogical, un-scriptural, and simply dishonest to insist on Jephthah doing the unthinkable and killing his own daughter. Jephthah's daughter was offered up to Yehovah, dedicated to His service - somewhat kin to nun's in the Catholic persuasion today.