This is one of the more difficult passages in scripture to interpret. Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter on an altar to God? And if he did, did God approve of this action?
We’ve already addressed the second question in an earlier blog which you can see here. If Jephthah really did sacrifice his daughter, I think it’s pretty clear that God didn’t approve. Why? Because of God’s commands to the people through Moses. God told the people
10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter inthe fire… 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord, and because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. (Deuteronomy 18:10,12)
So if Jephthah did sacrifice his daughter, and there are a number of Bible scholars who believe he did, then God clearly didn’t approve of his action.
But is there another possible way to interpret this passage? Many Bible scholars think so. Young’s Literal Translation uses old English, so I’ll slightly paraphrase it here:
`If you give the Bene-Ammon into my hand then that which comes out from the doors of my house to meet me in my peaceful return from the Bene-Ammon — it will be given to Jehovah, or I will offer up for it — a burnt-offering. (11:30-31)
In other words, if the first thing Jephthah saw was an animal, he’d sacrifice it, and if it was a human, that person would be offered to God for his service. Leviticus 27 is a clear example of this. In verse 2, it talks about what must be done in order to redeem (or buy back) someone who was dedicated to the Lord. but in verse 28, it says
But nothing that a man owns and devotes to the LORD—whether man or animal or family land—may be sold or redeemed; everything so devoted is most holy to the LORD.
The word “devotes” had the idea of an irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, much as Samuel was dedicated to God by his mother.
This makes a lot of sense in that it matches up with what the rest of scripture teaches. It also matches up with the response of his daughter. Instead of weeping that she would die, she wept that she would remain a virgin until she died. Instead of running for her life, she was willing to do as her father vowed.
That said, scholars are divided on this issue.
Whatever your interpretation, we should always try to take from the scripture we read what God is trying to tell us.
If we interpret Jephthah’s action as sin, then I think we learn from this that if we don’t know God’s word, we can do things that we think are pleasing to him, and yet are not. How well do you know his Word? Are you truly doing things that are pleasing to him? Or are you unknowingly doing things God detests because you are ignorant of God’s Word?
If we interpret Jephthah’s action as making a vow that he later regretted, I think we learn that we need to be very careful of the vows that we make to God. If we make them, God requires that we keep them. Jesus actually taught that it’s better not to make vows at all. Rather, let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” (Matthew 5:33-37) In other words, be a person that always does what he or she says. That’s the kind of people God desires us to be.