07 Jephthah’s daughter


Frymer-Kensky, Tikva   Reading the Women of the Bible: A new Interpretation of their Stories.  (Shocken Books, New York, 2002).


Setting the Scene  Judges 10:17-18 – 11:1-3

17 The Ammonites were called out for war and encamped in Gilead, while the Israelites assembled and encamped at Mizpah. 18 The captains of the army of Gilead said to one another, “The one who begins the war against the Ammonites shall be leader of all the inhabitants of Gilead.”

1 Jephthaha the Gileadite was a warrior. He was the son of a prostitute, fathered by Gilead.    2 Gilead’s wife had also borne him sons. When they grew up the sons of the wife had driven Jephthah away, saying to him, “You shall inherit nothing in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” 3  So Jephthah had fled from his brothers and taken up residence in the land of Tob.  Worthless men had joined company with him, and went out with him on raids.

Poor Boy Makes Good    Judges 11:4-11

4 Some time later, the Ammonites went to war with Israel.  5 As soon as the Ammonites were at war with Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob.  6 “Come,” they said to Jephthah, “be our commander so that we can fight the Ammonites.” 7 “Are you not the ones who hated me and drove me from my father’s house?”  Jephthah replied to the elders of Gilead, “Why do you come to me now, when you are in distress?”  8 The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “This is the reason we have come back to you now: if you go with us to fight against the Ammonites, you shall be the leader of all of the inhabitants of Gilead.”  9 Jephthah answered the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me back to fight against the Ammonites and the LORD delivers them up to me, I will be your leader.”  10 The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The LORD is witness between us that we will do as you say.”  11 So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the army made him their leader and commander.  Jephthah gave all his orders in the presence of the LORD in Mizpah.


Prelude to a Battle   Judges 11:12-28

12 Then he sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites to say, “What do you have against me that you come to fight with me in my land?” 13 The king of the Ammonites answered the messengers of Jephthah, “Israel took away my land from the Arnon to the Jabbok and the Jordan when they came up from Egypt.  Now restore it peaceably.”


14 Again Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites, 15 saying to him, “This is what Jephthah says: ‘Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites.   


For when they came up from Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh.  17 Israel then sent messengers to the king of Edom saying, “Let me pass through your land.” But the king of Edom did not give consent.  They also sent to the king of Moab, but he too was unwilling. So Israel remained in Kadesh.  18 Then they went through the wilderness, and bypassing the land of Edom and the land of Moab, they arrived east of the land of Moab and encamped across the Arnon.  Thus they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon is the boundary of Moab.  19  Then Israel sent messengers to the Amorite king Sihon, who was king of Heshbon.  Israel said to him, “Let me pass through your land to my own place.” 20 But Sihon refused to let Israel pass through his territory. He gathered all his soldiers, and they encamped at Jahaz and fought Israel.  21 But the LORD, the God of Israel, delivered Sihon and his entire army into the power of Israel, who defeated them and occupied all the land of the Amorites who lived in that region. 22 They occupied all of the Amorite territory from the Arnon to the Jabbok and the wilderness to the Jordan.  23 Now, then, it was the LORD, the God of Israel, who dispossessed the Amorites for his people, Israel. And you are going to dispossess them? 24 Should you not take possession of that which your god Chemosh gave you to possess, and should we not take possession of all that the LORD, our God, has dispossessed for us? 25 Now, then, are you any better than Balak, son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or make war against them?  26 Israel has dwelt in Heshbon and its villages, Aroer and its villages, and all the cities on the banks of the Arnon for three hundred years.  Why did you not recover them during that time? 27 As for me, I have not sinned against you, but you wrong me by making war against me. Let the LORD, who is judge, decide this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites!’” 28 But the king of the Ammonites paid no heed to the message Jephthah sent him.


Jephthah’s Vow.   Judges 11:29-31

29 The spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah.  He passed through Gilead and Manasseh, and through Mizpah of Gilead as well, and from Mizpah of Gilead he crossed over against the Ammonites. 30 Jephthah made a vow to the LORD.  “If you deliver the Ammonites into my power,” he said, 31 “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return from the Ammonites in peace shall belong to the LORD.  I shall offer him up as a burnt offering.”







Trapped    Judges 11: 32-34

32 Jephthah then crossed over against the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD delivered them into his power. 33 He inflicted a very severe defeat on them from Aroer to the approach of Minnith—twenty cities in all—and as far as Abel-keramin. So the Ammonites were brought into subjection by the Israelites. 

34 When Jephthah returned to his house in Mizpah, it was his daughter who came out to meet him, with tambourine-playing and dancing.  She was his only child: he had neither son nor daughter besides her.


The Heroic Daughter     Judges 11:35-38

35 When he saw her, he tore his garments and said, “Ah, my daughter! You have struck me down and brought calamity upon me. For I have made a vow to the LORD and I cannot take it back.”  36 “Father,” she replied, “you have made a vow to the LORD. Do with me as you have vowed, because the LORD has taken vengeance for you against your enemies the Ammonites.”  37 Then she said to her father, “Let me have this favor. Do nothing for two months, that I and my companions may go wander in the mountains to weep for my virginity.”  “Go,” he replied, and sent her away for two months.


Retreat and Return   Judges 11:38-39

So she departed with her companions and wept for her virginity in the mountains.    39 At the end of the two months she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed.  She had not had relations with any man.


Epilogue    Judges 11: 39-40

It became a custom in Israel 40 for Israelite women to go yearly to mourn the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite for four days of the year.


NOTES  ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….


Setting the Scene  Judges 10:17-18 – 11:1-3

F-K p. 103: “In the ancient Near East, prostitutes could be hired as surrogate wombs as well as sexual objects.  Laws and contracts regulated the relationship between the child of such a prostitute and children of the first wife.  A man could bring the child to live in his house and had to give its mother the same economic support that he would provide for a wife- though he could not bring the prostitute to live in his house as long as his wife was alive – and the child was his legitimate heir.  A man could acquire a child in many ways – with his wife, by using a slave as surrogate womb, by marrying a secondary wife, by going to a prostitute, by adopting a foundling.  However he acquired a child, once he brought him into his house, he acknowledged him as his son.”

F-K p. 103: “The biblical audience, knowing that his brothers’ action was improper, will be sympathetic to Jephthah.  They are ready to root for his success.”


Poor Boy Makes Good    Judges 11:4-11

F-K p. 104: “The language of their negotiation is replete with the technical terms found for rejection, ejection, and restoration.  When Jephthah says: “if you bring me  back,” the meaning is clear to all concerned: they are to restore him to his rightful inheritance as well as to their company.  He also makes the implications of their remarks explicit: “If … the LORD gives them before me, I will become your chief” – even after the victory.  Military crises have often caused democracies and oligarchies to turn to one strong leader; the ancient Near Eastern gods acquired their kings in this same way.”


Prelude to a Battle   Judges 11:12-28

F-K p. 106: “Jephthah has a multifold argument: first, Israel never tried to capture this territory and came to occupy it only after Sihon attacked them.  Second, the territory had been Amorite, not Ammonite; third, the Amorites should have been like Balak, who didn’t attack and whose territory Israel did not take.  And finally, the land has not been contested for three hundred years and it is too late now to argue about whether Israel had the right to conquer it back then.”


Jephthah’s Vow.   Judges 11:29-31

F-K p. 106: “Before the battle, he makes a battle-vow.  Both vows and battle-oaths are venerable traditions in Israel.  Making a battle-oath is not a sign of disbelief; on the contrary, it demonstrates faith that God can grant victory, and offers, in advance, an expression of gratitude.  Such an oath seems entirely in character for Jephthah, who lives with a great awareness of God.”


F-K p. 107: “Did he expect an animal to be the first one out, as a dog runs to meet its master?  The Latin Vulgate translates quicumque, “whoever,” but maybe Jephthah intended an animal.  Or perhaps he intended all along to offer a human sacrifice but expected a servant to come out.  Or did he know that it might be his daughter?”

F-K p. 107: “Strangely enough, Jephthah was not the only hero in the ancient Mediterranean to make this same foolish vow about “the first.”  King Idomeneus of Crete (Idomeneo in Mozart’s opera) was another: encountering a storm on his return from the Trojan wars, he vowed that if he got home safely, he would sacrifice to Poseidon the first one who came out to meet him.”  (his son)


These stories told as a warning reminder about vague oaths?   Jesus’ command to take NO oaths?


Trapped    Judges 11: 32-34

F-K p. 108: “Much earlier, after the defeat of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, Miriam led the women of Israel “with timbrels and dances” (Exod. 15:20).  And later, the women of each city would come out to greet the victorious David and Saul as they came from defeating the Philistines, “with timbrels and joy” (1 Sam. 18:6-7)  …  Jephthah’s wife is conspicuously absent from this story, and the young girl may be trying to do the woman’s job.  And that, Jephthah couldn’t expect.”

F-K p. 108:  “If he sacrifices her, he will have no descendants, and his name will die.  Biblical Israel considered the extirpation of a lineage, which it called karet, the worst fate that could befall anyone.  The biblical investment in the survival of lineage is so intense that, as we have seen, the Daughters of Zelophehad relied on it as their trump card when they petitioned to inherit their father’s estate.”

The Heroic Daughter     Judges 11:35-38

  • Tore his garments  –   mourning
  • “struck me down”  –  as if he fell in battle to the enemy
  • “brought calamity upon me”  –  thinking of himself and his sorrow and not at all of his daughter

Our translation says in v. 35 “I have made a vow to the LORD”.  The Hebrew is “I opened my mouth to the LORD”.    Jephthah in Hebrew means “he has opened”.

F-K p. 110: “Jephthah, says his daughter, must pay his vow, even though he will pay it with her body.  She shares piety as well as tragedy with her father.  She is a heroine, worthy of respect and admiration.  The audience cannot be indifferent to her fate.”

F-K p. 111: “Israel knew about Canaanite child sacrifice.  Deuteronomy and Leviticus list burning children to the gods and the Molech offering (a technical term for child sacrifice) among the abominations that the Canaanites performed.  And Israel had direct experience of the local custom.  When Mesha, the king of Moab, rebelled against Israelite rule, and the Israelite army attacked his city, Mesha went up on the walls of his city and sacrificed his son, his designated heir.”

King Ahaz also did so:  2 Kings 16:3  “He walked in the way of the kings of Israel; he even immolated his child by fire, in accordance with the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD had dispossessed before the Israelites.”

F-K p. 111: “The essential idea is that she must go away, away from her father’s house, and away from the rule of society.  She is leaving her father’s house: when she returns, she will belong to another world.”




Retreat and Return   Judges 11:38-39

F-K p. 112: “The term ‘olah that Jephthah uses for “offering” is also the term for the holocaust offering in the temple, the sacrifice that was totally burnt.  The reader can justifiably conclude that Jephthah killed his daughter, but we do not see it happen.  Throughout the millennia, readers have suggested that Jephthah never killed her at all, that he made her a servant of God’s sanctuary for the rest of her life.”

Many stories similar to this in ancient times – as with Isaac and Abraham.   God (the gods) prefer animal sacrifices to human ones.

Epilogue    Judges 11: 39-40

A puberty ritual?   F-K p. 113: “Puberty marks the onset of a major transformation for all girls, a transition from being “daughter of” their birth family to member (wife, daughter-in-law) of their marital household.  The “daughter of the father” will disappear as the father first promises and then gives his daughter to her husband/father-in-law.  All girls undergo this death-and-transformation when they die as girl children and emerge as marriage-able young women.”

F-K p. 114: the advent of puberty meant dramatic change in a girl’s life, not always in a positive way: “Even in peacetime, every girl at puberty knew that she would be given away to a man of their father’s choice, who might abuse and exploit her.  Under the best circumstances, her husband would be good to her; still, half of all women would die in childbirth.”

Child sacrifice might well have been done with the best intentions of a desperate person / people.  Nonetheless:   F-K p. 115: “The prophets are vociferously in opposition.  The priests in the Pentateuch consider child sacrifice a great abomination, and provide for the “redemption” of human children by payment of silver and then by dedication of the Levites to God in place of ordinary Israelites.”

F-K p. 116: “The social system of judges had no way to prevent the tragedy.  The sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter is a sign that something was not right in Israel.  Something was rotten in the state of the judges and things were unraveling.  They unravel even further as a civil war breaks out against Jephthah after the daughter’s sacrifice.  Throughout the Bible, violence against women is a symptom of a basic social flaw and a harbinger of social disintegration, and the very weakness in the social fabric that resulted in violence against Jephthah’s daughter also caused the more widespread violence of civil war.”

It was a time when “every man did what he thought was best”  vs a time of order imposed by a king.  Lack of control over clan leaders is a crucial flaw, things will go downhill from here until the people demand a king.

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