As was said, Jephthah’s right to wage war with the Ammonites was implicit in his calling. He had to wait with drawing the sword until the Lord by His Spirit should raise him up. And Jephthah did wait. But in the meantime he could request the Ammonite king to justify, if he were able, his invasion of God’s country. He did so. The question he put to the king was pertinent. “What hast thou to do with me, that thou art come against me to fight in my land?” It was a most embarrassing question. For it was a question of right before God, and for such a question the Ammonite king was ill prepared. But the king had an answer. He said to the messengers sent by Joshua: “Because Israel took away my land, when they came up out of Egypt.” Jephthah made plain to the king that his claim to the contested: territory did not even wear the appearance of truth, that, in his warlike expedition against the people of Israel, he was pitted against the only true God and that therefore his sin was great. But the king refused to be dissuaded. “Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.” As the location of Mizpeh is a matter of plain conjecture, Jephthah’s course, though plain to the contemporaries of the sacred writer, cannot be made out by us. This matters little, for it is not important. Either just before he set out or while on the march, “Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, if thou shalt without fail deliver. the children of Israel into my hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”

Let us now attend to this vow. The matter of Jephthah’s sacrifice has always divided opinions in ancient as well as in modern times. First there is the question: What did Jephthah actually vow or promise? There is the view that the vow could comprehend only human beings and not animals. This view reposes on the following considerations. 1. In order to be affected by the vow, the creature had to go forth to meet Jephthah. A dog will go forth to meet and greet his master, but such behavior is not very characteristic of cattle, that is, of animals that could be offered up for a burnt offering. 2. To qualify for the vow, the creature had to come forth out of the very doors of Jephthah’s house. The vow therefore could include only human beings, unless Jephthah was living in the same house and under the same roof, was thus domiciling, with his cattle. But this was not likely. 3. It is inconceivable that Jephthah thought it probable that cattle would come forth to meet him on his return and not the members of his own family—his wife (were she still living) or daughter, or his servants. 4. To qualify for the vow, the creature, according to the text in the original, had to be capable of rational action. The vow was that “Whatsoever cometh forth out of the doors of my house to meet me. . . .” Now the Hebrew verb rendered to meet also has the meaning to call, to praise, magnify, laud, celebrate. This Hebrew verb is kara. Doubtless, the text should have been rendered, “Whatsoever cometh forth to celebrate my victory,” and thus not, “Whatsoever cometh forth to meet me. . . .” And this for the following reasons, a) Kara to meet is to encounter, to meet in a hostile sense. Jephthah, certainly, was not looking forward to a meeting of this character from whatsoever should come forth out of the doors of his own house. What he could reasonably expect and what he doubtless was also looking forward to is that some member or members of his own household would come forth to cry out in his hearing their great joy with which the tidings of the victory filled them. If this was his expectation, and doubtless it was, the vow takes on meaning. Jephthah knows that victory will awaken great rejoicings among his people and among the members of his own household. They will meet him with acclamations and gladness. They will receive him with timbrels and dances. He will be celebrated and praised. But he also knows that victory belongs only to God. And so, in the fullness of his love, which would give to God that which belongs to Him, as the author of the victory, he makes his vow. He promises that if God will grant him victory, then that which goeth forth from the doors of his house, to meet him with acclamations of gladness, shall be Jehovah’s.

The above arguments have weight. Certainly the view that, according to the intentions and expectation of Jephthah, the vow included, besides human beings, also animals is too improbable. This view may therefore be dismissed. Yet there are interpreters, who, in their effort to lay a firm foundation for the view that Jephthah did not slay his only daughter, try to make plain from the text that the vow did include animals as well as human beings. It is maintained that the expression “shall he the Lord’s” is used in the Scriptures of persons only and that the word: “burnt offering” in the statement of Jephthah, “and I will offer it up for a burnt offering” is used only of animal sacrifices, that thus when Jephthah said, “Whatsoever cometh forth to meet me. . . . shall surely be the Lord’s he had reference to persons and that when he said, “I will offer it up for a burnt offering” he had reference to cattle. The view then is this: Jephthah foresaw that cattle so well as human being and human beings so well as cattle might come forth out of the doors of his house to meet him. Foreseeing this, he made in his vow provision for both. Thus, what Jephthah, according to this view, said as to his intentions is this, “Whatsoever cometh forth out of the doors of my house to meet me. . . . shall surely be the Lord’s if it be a human being, or if it be an animal suitable for the altar, I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” As it turned out, it was a human,—it was his daughter and only child that went forth to meet him and not one of his cattle. The first clause therefore went into effect. Thus, he did not slay her, he shed no blood, as he would have been obliged to do, had it been one of his cattle that had gone forth out of the doors of his house to meet him. But he did with her according to the first clause of his vow, “It shall surely be the Lord’s.” He set her apart for God, so that, all her life she remained unmarried. In this way these interpreters think they succeed in establishing that Jephthah was not obliged to slay his daughter, namely, in the way of showing that the vow covered animals so well as human beings and that it prescribed for each a distinctive treatment. Now it is certain, as we shall see, that Jephthah did not slay his only child and daughter. However, it cannot be proven in this way. It is not true that the formula “it shall surely be the Lord’s” was used only for persons and not also for animals. There is the passage in Ex. 18:12, 13. There it is commanded that, when Israel shall come into Canaan, every firstborn shall be set apart unto Jehovah, both the firstlings of every beast “which thou hast”, and the firstborn of man. The firstlings of such animals as were suitable for the altar had to be offered in the sense of slain. The firstborn man, however, must not be slain but redeemed with money.

Thus, what these interpreters want to pass off on us as exegesis is simply an expedient for the extinction of a difficulty. It thus remains certain that Jephthah’s vow, according to his own intentions, foresight, and choice of words, covered only human beings and not also animals. We have fortified this view with cogent reasons, to which another can be added. Let us notice once more the language of the vow. “Whatsoever cometh forth from the doors of my house to meet me. . . . shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering”. The impression that this language makes upon the unbiased reader is that Jephthah resolved and was prepared to make some extraordinary sacrifice, thus a sacrifice that precluded cattle. What was to be consecrated had to come forth out of the very doors of his own house, thus had to come forth not merely from his fields or estate. Whatever came forth to meet him would surely be the Lord’s. This language, certainly, is too emphatic if the vow had reference also to animal sacrifices. As a God-fearing Israelite, Jephthah, it must be supposed, regularly offered up burnt offerings. There would therefore have been little meaning in his binding himself by a sacred vow unto the offering of animal sacrifices. Israel’s law prescribed and required them. The more certain it is therefore that the vow covered only human beings. We even go a step further. The text suggests that in vowing that vow Jephthah had reference in particular to his daughter and only child. For he promised to set apart for the Lord whatever would come forth out of the doors of his house. That might have reference to his daughter alone, if his wife no longer lived. For it was a promise to consecrate unto God one taken from his very hearth, thus a confident and daily companion. The language of the vow therefore might even exclude servants. Whatsoever would meet him, would surely be the Lord’s. Also this language may indicate that he binds himself to consecrate to God someone very close and dear to him, in all likelihood his only child.

“It shall surely be the Lord’s. . . . I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” There is next this question. Just how was Jephthah’s daughter to be the Lord’s, through his actually slaying her and thereupon placing her dead body upon the altar of burnt offering that stool in the outer court of the sanctuary in Shiloh or was she to be the Lord’s in some other way? The former view has been defended with vigor but with lack of insight into the Scriptures and in ignorance of the character of Jephthah by literalists of ancient times and by interpreters of this day mostly of the liberal school. “The implicit designation to God of whatever came forth out of the doors of his house points unmistakably,” it is said, “to a human life as the devoted thing. Too ready from his acquaintance with heathen sacrifices and ideas to believe that the God of Israel will be pleased with the kind of offerings by which the gods of Sidon and Aram were honored, feeling himself as the chief of the Hebrews, bound to make some great and unusual sacrifice, he does not promise that the captives taken in war shall be devoted to Jehovah, but some one of his own people is to be the victim. The dedication shall be all the more impressive that the life given up is one of which he himself shall feel the loss. . . .” The writer whose words we now quote goes on to say, “The insufficient religious intelligence of the man, whose life has been far removed from elevating influence, this once perceived—and we cannot escape from the facts of the case—the vow is parallel to others of which ancient history tells. . . . We see in his vow a fatalistic strain; he leaves it to chance or fate to determine who shall meet him. There is the assumption of the right to take into his hands the disposal of human life; and this, though most confidently claimed, was entirely a fictitious right.”

Such is the appraisal of liberal commentators of the man Jephthah and his vow. And all that they say of the man is true, if he actually slew his daughter and offered up her body for a burnt offering.

The question is then whether he was guilty of this? Statements occur in the narrative that unmistakably indicate that he was not. The daughter asked that she be left alone “two months that I may go up and down the mountain, and bewail my virginity/’ Thus, she is to live—a virgin life. If not, it would have been unnatural to ask for a space of two months to weep over her virginity instead of over her life’. If she was to die, she would have remained at home with her father instead of departing with her companions. But she departed to lament not that she must die as a virgin but to bewail her virginity. At the end of two months she returned to her father, “who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man.” So reads the text. Had she been put to death, the narrator would have said, “And he presented her as a sacrifice on the altar, and she died having known no man.” Or, what is more likely, he would have refrained from making any mention of her virginity and simply narrated her death, if, according to the vow, she had to be the Lord’s through death, if her death alone could satisfy the requirements of the vow. Thus, as here death is not indicated, she did not die, was not slain by her father, unless the narrator is to be charged with the failure to speak of the transaction in such terms as rightly describe it. But we deal here not with man’s word but with the word of God. Of the two clauses: “And he did with her according to his vow,” and, “And she knew no man”, the second is explanatory of the first, is thus explanatory of the vow, of the language of the vow, “It shall be the Lord’s and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” Thus the sentence, “And she knew no man,” tells us how Jephthah offered up his daughter, to wit, not by slaying her but by bringing her under the necessity of living a virgin life. The view that Jephthah actually put his daughter to death results from the unwillingness to explain the language of the vow, “And I will offer it up for a burnt offering,” in the light of the explanatory sentence, “And she knew no man.” The latter sentence is changed into, “And she had known no man,” (pluperfect) and is thus made to indicate not that Jephthah’s daughter lived a virgin life in answer to the requirements of the vow but that, when her father slew her, she had known no man. But if this were the meaning of the notice, it could just as well have been omitted. For if she was slain, her being a virgin at the time of her death, had no significance whatever. It is hard to understand why interpreters insist that the maiden was slain, despite the fact that the narrative plainly indicates the contrary, unless it be that they want to make out those Old Testament worthies for heathen. If Jephthah slew his daughter he was verily a heathen and an Israelite only in name. If he were a true Israelite, he could not vow to bring a sacrifice by blood with a human being as the victim. Such a doing was an abomination to God. It was forbidden and denounced by Israel’s law.

In the 27th chapter of Leviticus, Israel’s law legitimatized such dedications of persons to God. The whole chapter is taken up with the subject of the setting apart for God human beings. But the law there also prescribes that such persons could or should be redeemed, that is, freed from the obligations of the vow by a price paid to the priest. Why did Jephthah not follow this prescription? The only possible answer is that it did not cover his vow. He had vowed that his daughter should live a virgin life for the rest of her days. The uniqueness of the vow is indicated by its language. “I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” The burnt offering symbolized the worshipper’s complete dedication to God through the consumption by fire of the dead body of the animal that had been slain.

Jephthah’s doing—his vowing a vow—was in harmony with the fact that in the period of the judges Nazaritism flourished and was widely defused. The Nazarites were persons, who through the vow that they took upon them, presented: to the people the image or symbol of its sacred and priestly calling. The Nazarites were raised up by the Lord for this purpose, especially in times of apostasy. Says Amos to backsliding Israel, “And I have raised up your sons for prophets and your young men for Nazarites. Is it not even thus, O ye children of Israel, saith the Lord” (Amos 11:2). Jephthah’s vow was not the Nazarite vow. But it had this in common with that vow that it placed his daughter under the necessity of presenting herself to her people as an image of whole-hearted consecration to God. In her case this had to be accomplished—so it appears from the sacred narrative—through celibacy (the state of being unmarried).

There is also this question. Should Jephthah have taken it upon himself to obligate his daughter to perpetual virginity without her knowledge and consent? The answer that the thought was furthest from his mind that at would or might be his only child who would come forth to meet him, will not do. If this were true, Jephthah was a rash, stupid and thoughtless man. But this he was not. The words that the maiden and Jephthah exchange after the latter’s return, suggest that he knew that the vow was expressive of her aspirations and would therefore meet with her approval, that thus he was not putting her under obligation from which she would shrink. “And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, 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. And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the Lord, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; for as much as the Lord hath taken vengeance for thee of thy enemies, even of the children of Ammon. And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone for two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said Go.” Let us observe that, though Jephthah told his daughter that he had opened his mouth and could not go back, thus disclosed to her that he had vowed a vow and must perform it, and indicated by his profession of grief that the vow concerned her, he did not tell her just what the obligation was under which she had been brought by his vow. Yet her instant reply seems plainly to indicate that she knew,—knew that she had been placed under the necessity of living a virgin life. “Let me alone”, such was her response, “that I may bewail my virginity.” Also to be observed is her apparent willingness, nay, eagerness, that her father do with her according to his vow. Not one word of protest fell from her lips, not one word of regret. Her father was in tears, but she, at the moment, was far from tears. She behaved as a daughter who had gotten her way with a reluctant parent. That she bewailed her virginity was but natural and must not be construed as indicative of a rebellious spirit and of a maiden bowed down with grief caused by the consideration of what the vow implied for her.

May we not then imagine the situation to have been this? God had given it in the heart of this maiden to be to her people, in those troublesome times, an image of its calling. She had revealed her desire to Jephthah. But he was reluctant to give her up; for she was his only child. Should she live out her life as a virgin, he would be without offspring to perpetuate his name and place among God’s people. Then the Lord called him to lead Israel in the war of liberation against the Ammonites. The Lord would grant him the victory he knows. And he is deeply grateful, for he loves God, His cause, and His people. So he has need of giving some extraordinary expression to his gratitude. He is mindful of the aspirations of his daughter and only child. So with her before his mind, and as aware of her wish, he vows his vow. If the Lord without fail will deliver the enemy into his hands, then whatsoever cometh out of the doors of his very house to meet him, shall surely be the Lord’s. He made no mention of her in his vow. But the omission was deliberate. He purposely gave his vow the generality that it must have in order to include all the members of his family. For he knew not the Lord’s will. But the Lord then spoke. His only child went forth to greet him on his return. That was to him the finger of God. Indeed, he had opened his mouth and could not go back. He told her so. He divulged to her the sorrow of his heart. She understood. He need say no more. Without a moment’s hesitation, she assumed full responsibility for his vow. For she had prepared herself for that moment. He was sorrowful. But his grief did not bespeak a soul vexed with God’s way with him. His sorrow was but natural.

There is nothing strange in this imagining. It is suggested by the words of Jephthah’s daughter and not rendered unlikely by the reactions of Jephthah, consisting in his rending his clothes at the sight of her approach. If this reaction be taken as an expression of surprise, we are .shut up to the view that, despite the definiteness of the vow, it had not occurred to him that his daughter was also included. Now this, of course, for some reason not revealed to us was possible. Fundamentally it makes little difference, as long as it be maintained that the vow was not rash and indicative of stupidity and unpardonable thoughtlessness. Certain it is that, were we in the possession of the knowledge of all the attending circumstances, it would appear that this vow was anything but rash. This much is plainly revealed: Jephthah actually did not slay his daughter; he set her apart for a virgin life in obedience to his vow and thus did not go back when he saw the finger of God pointing to her, his only child. This is all we need to know definitely. This is fundamental. For herein lies the chief significance of this Old Testament worthy. Jephthah is the judge of the vow, who consecrated his only child to a virgin life, and thereby provided the Israel of his evil day with a most remarkable image or symbol of Israel’s calling. His doing also made a profound impression on his people, as is evident from the notice that “it was a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went yearly to praise or celebrate (not “lament”. The original has “praise the daughter of Jephthah four days in the year.”