Jephthah and Sinful Vows

Should Jephthah have broken his vow to the Lord?

Is it possible that Jephthah didn't really offer his daughter as a burnt offering, and he merely devoted her to service of the Lord, such that she would never marry and have children? The text doesn't explicitly state that she was killed or burnt. She was indeed offered as a sacrifice (his only daughter), but not burnt. A sinful vow cannot bind him to sinful killing, can it? What if we vow never to read the Bible or listen to God's word? We can't keep that vow as Christians, can we? Keeping such a vow would be sinful.

And what about Joshua's vow in Joshua 9? When Joshua made a vow with the people, he was disobeying a command that God had given them to do - kill the people of that town - but he did not make a vow to disobey God's law continually. It was a specific act God had told them to do not an ongoing law of behavior. Even with Joshua there were consequences to the people who deceived them. They weren't killed but they were made servants or slaves the rest of their days. They did not have freedom, even if they did get to live. Did he find a legitimate way to keep the vow, or did he sin?
Some commentators believe that Jephthah would not have sacrificed his daughter. They believe this on the basis that such human sacrifice would be abhorrent to God, suggesting instead that she was dedicated in some other way (e.g., perpetual virginity). The text does not explicitly say that he killed her, but it comes about as close as can be without actually using those words.

Most scholars agree that the text strongly implies that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter, even if it does not say it explicitly. The details implying that he killed her are numerous, including:

Vs. 35 -- Jephthah is deeply troubled because he has vowed to offer the first thing out of his door as a burnt offering (v. 31), and his daughter is the first thing out of the door. He states that he cannot take back his vow. This indicates that Jephthah believes he has to kill her.

Vs. 36 -- Jephthah's daughter agrees that Jephthah should keep his vow to offer her as a burnt offering.

Vs. 39 -- The writer states that Jephthah did to his daughter what he had vowed to do. The vow, of course, was that she would be a burnt offering (v. 31). This is very close to an explicit statement that he killed her, although no word like "sacrifice" or "offer" appears in this particular verse. The text contains no information indicating that Jephthah rethought his vow, or considered alternate ways to fulfill it. If he did not kill her, the text is quite misleading at this point.

Vs. 40 -- An annual commemoration of his daughter becomes customary in Israel, which seems to imply that an exceptional event took place. Consigning his daughter to be a Nazirite, or perpetual virgin, or any other such thing, would not seem to be significant enough to warrant a 4-day national observance every year. The nature of the commemoration implies a more extreme outcome for her, such as being offered as a burnt offering.

So, in short, I believe the Bible teaches that he killed her and offered her to God as a burnt offering. I might also add that the vow was probably intended to refer to a human being even when it was made. After all, people are the most likely ones to go out to greet the head of household when he returns. Animals were not typically kept in the house, nor would they have been likely to see him coming from afar and go out to meet him. Probably, Jephthah anticipated a servant or other non-blood relation.

The question of whether or not Jephthah sinned by fulfilling his vow, assuming he killed her, is a difficult one. In looking for an answer, I think the first point to make is that human sacrifice is not evil in and of itself. As I wrote in one of the posts in the Jephthah thread:

"I do not think that all human sacrifice is abominable, but that the Bible condemns: (1) unnecessary human sacrifice; and (2) pagan human sacrifice.

"The Bible's prohibitions against human sacrifice pertain to pagan rituals, usually explicitly. Exodus 13 demands the human sacrifice of all firstborn in principle, then demands that the principle of redemption work cooperatively with it. Jesus' sacrifice, however, was clearly a human sacrifice, and it is the ultimate sacrifice in all Christian theology. It is the perfect sacrifice to which all others pointed. Even in the redemption of Exodus 13 it was understood that the animal was not sufficient to substitute for a human being, but was a typological symbol anticipating a greater redemption. We also have other forms of human sacrifice in holy war, where entire cities are put to the torch as a burnt offering to God, in combination with the slaughter of all the inhabitants (e.g., Dt. 13; cf. Josh. 6)."

I think the example of Jesus alone is sufficient to establish the case that human sacrifice is not only good, but absolutely required by God. The repetition embodied in the Mosaic system was intended to demonstrate, among other things, that animals are not sufficient substitutes for human beings (Heb. 10:10-14).

Now, whether or not the sacrifice of Jephthah's daughter was sinful may still be open to debate. But I don't think it can rightly be condemned simply on the basis that it constituted human sacrifice. The text of Judges 11 does not state explicitly that Jephthah did good or evil. Neither does it praise or condemn him. In some ways, it sets us up to affirm Jephthah, and in other ways it sets us up to condemn him.

As far as affirming Jephthah goes, we have many passages in the Law that tell us the importance of keeping vows. We also have the fact that God held up his end of the bargain with Jephthah by giving him victory in battle. And significantly, we have the facts that his daughter agreed that he should keep his vow, and that the nation commemorated her as a hero thereafter. Evidently, at least her part in this was honorable. Perhaps she can be compared to Christ, who did not sin when he subjected himself to death at the hands of "godless men" (Acts 2:23), which comparison would condemn Jephthah. Or, perhaps she should be accepted as a reliable commentator on Jephthah's true obligations. Jesus, after all, never affirmed the actions of those who killed him, but Jephthah's daughter affirmed her father's actions.

With regard to condemning Jephthah, we are supposed to be horrified at the vow itself, and at the way it plays out. This is not supposed to be a story that makes us feel good about the way things were going in Israel at this point. It is supposed to demonstrate the horror of life in Israel in the absence of a good king. Jephthah clearly made a vow he shouldn't have made.

As we seek to reconcile these ideas, an important ethical question arises: Are we ever stuck in situations in which there is no righteous course of action? After all, Paul wrote that God will always give us a way to avoid sin (1 Cor. 10:13). Granted, he was talking specifically about idolatry, but many scholars believe the principle has universal application. But even if we accept that universal application, does this mean that there must be a way out at every step? Perhaps the way out for Jephthah was to avoid making the vow in the first place. Maybe he had already missed his chance to avoid sin before he came home from battle.

I think a similar set of circumstances exists in Joshua 9. It was sinful for Joshua and the elders to make the covenant, and the covenant obligated them to sin. They were stuck: both breaking and keeping the vow entailed sin. The way out, in this case, was bypassed when the vow was made. In fact, the text tells us what the way out would have been: "So the men of Israel took some of their provisions, and did not ask for the counsel of the LORD" (Josh. 9:14). In the end, they had to determine not which was the righteous course of action, but obligation was greater, the obligation to keep the vow or the obligation to kill the people. Their solution was not without sin, but it was evidently better than breaking the vow.

In my estimation, the same is true in the case of Jephthah. The vow to make an unnecessary human sacrifice was sinful, and it obligated him to commit further sin. But Jephthah's daughter did not sin. She rightly determined that the greater obligation was to keep the vow. Had Jephthah not kept the vow, he would have risked God's wrath, and Israel might have fallen to enemies in the next battle. I think that part of the point of the story is that without a good king in Israel, the people made foolish decisions and got themselves into bad situations from which they could not escape.

With direct regard to the situation in Joshua 9, I would say that Joshua did make a vow to disobey God perpetually. The instruction to kill pagans in the Promised Land was intended to create a nation in which there was no paganism. This was a perpetual obligation, which also included instructions on killing new pagans that arose after the first had been killed. Joshua's solution was not righteous, but it was the best Joshua could do under the circumstances. By enslaving the people, he mitigated the damage done by his foolish vow, but he did not eradicate the damage. It was still a sin to let the people live, and it continued to be sinful to let them live so long as they remained pagan. In this example, the vow to sin was binding. Because it would have been a greater sin to break the vow, Joshua was forced to commit the lesser sin of letting the people live.

In any event, I am not certain how to support the distinction between a one-time sin and a perpetual sin when it comes to vows. Are we to say that a vow to sin against God once is binding, whereas a vow to sin against him many times is not? It's an interesting suggestion, but how could we support such an idea scripturally? From what examples might we draw this inference? I would love to see an argument supporting it. But my initial response is that I could not create such a defense myself.

Back to addressing sinful vows in general, perhaps there are situations in which the greater sin is to keep the vow. Each case must be evaluated on its own merits. The point I would make is that we have no biblical examples of cases in which breaking the vow was the lesser of two evils. In the cases of Jephthah, Joshua, and Jacob's marriage to Leah, the vows/covenants prevailed. The same is true in the Law regarding rash vows in Numbers 30. There we are told that it is a sin to make a rash vow (Num. 30:8; only sin requires forgiveness) as well as to break a rash vow (Num. 30:15). We are also told that a rash vow will "stand against" the one who makes it (Num. 30:9). This language is reminiscent of an enemy in battle, or perhaps of a witness in court, implying that the vow will be the adversary of the one who makes it. That is, the vow will be binding, and the result will not be good.

Intuitively and emotionally, I would like to be able to say that sinful vows need not be kept. But I know of no way to support that idea scripturally, except to say that it may well be that in some cases the lesser evil is to break the vow. I would love to be wrong, and to learn that no vow to sin is binding. But at the moment I am persuaded that the Bible teaches that vows are very important, and that they are binding even when we have vowed to do that which is sinful. The question in my mind is: What is the least sinful course of action when we are bound by a sinful vow? And as I said, I think each case must be evaluated on its own merits.

Follow Up:

Thanks for your response. In my original reading, I took it to mean that he offered her as a burnt sacrifice as well. I plan to look at your response in more detail with Bible in hand later on. But what would you say to someone who willfully vowed to lets say murder Christians. Then they become a Christian. How can their vow still stand. I realize these are hypothetical, but I don't know that they are all that different than the homosexual marriage vows.

I did have another thought, I don't know if it really applies, but what about the marriage vow "to love, honor, & obey" Now I realize that is not in most modern vows anymore to obey, and that even if it is, it's usually broken on a regular basis. Anyway let's say the wife vows to "obey" her husband and then he asks her to steal or kill. I've always heard we should obey God rather than man, and to obey our husbands as long as they don't ask us to willfully sin. Now the apostles obviously obeyed God rather than man, but they didn't vow to obey the rulers of their day. They were under their authority, but not by a vow. So if a wife is asked to sin by her husband should she do it? The only example that comes to the top of my head is Abraham and Sarah. She did obey Abraham and it was he who was blamed for sinning. Yet it doesn't really comment as to whether Sarah should have obeyed or not. There are lots of accounts in scripture that just state what they did, without immediately casting judgment - like David's multiple wives etc. Anyway just some thought.

Follow-up Answer:

Well, a vow made before you became a Christian may be a bit more complicated. Most theologians agree, for instance, that a divorce prior to conversion doesn't count against you if you want to marry as a Christian. One reason for this is that in 1 Corinthians 7 Paul teaches that if an unbeliever leaves a believer, the believer is not bound. Evidently, marriage vows bind believers more strongly than they bind unbelievers. And this may have implications for other vows as well, especially for vows made before conversion.

Regarding the example of a husband's authority over his wife, that would seem to fall under the "obey God rather than man" category, as you have suggested. The marriage vow complicates the matter, but in reality we all have unavoidable vows to obey God as well because we are in covenant with him, and the covenant requires our obedience. In the worst case, if our marriage vows are made to each other and to God, we have conflicting vows to God. In such a case, it is hard to win, unless we say that the lesser of the evils is good in this case. In the best case, our marriage vows are made to our spouses and not to God (I suppose it would depend upon the specific wording of the vow). Most of the time, God is simply called as a witness, meaning that he holds us accountable to keep our vows to our spouses, or he is not mentioned. In such cases, he is not the one to whom the vow is made (our spouse is). The conflict then is to figure out which vow has priority, the vow to man or the vow to God. Generally, I would think that God ought to win, both by way of his authority and by biblical example.

One difficulty with the case of Jephthah is that both his covenant and his rash vow were made with God. So, Jephthah had to figure out which was worse, breaking the general covenant vow, or breaking the specific vow regarding human sacrifice in response to military victory.

The case with Joshua is more difficult, in some ways. The leaders of Israel swore their oath by the Lord. It is unclear to me whether this means simply that God was a witness, or that it means that God was in some sense an element in the covenant. My inclination is to think that it means that the oath called down a curse from God on the one who broke it. So, if Joshua and the leaders broke their vow, they would call upon themselves a curse from God. Obviously, that was something they wanted to avoid. Perhaps they determined that a greater curse would fall upon them if they broke that vow than if they disobeyed God's instruction on purging the land of pagans.

And this might be a helpful way to determine what the right thing to do was. In the Bible, God's blessings and curses are proportionate to our merit and sin. We can determine what is good by seeing what God blesses, and we can determine what is evil by seeing what he curses. The greater the curse is, the greater is the sin that brought the curse.

Unfortunately, the Bible doesn't have many examples of vows to commit sin, so we have only a little information from which to draw a general principle. I would think that if a believer made a vow to God that stated that the believer would disobey God, and be cursed if he did not disobey, God would refuse to validate the oath. After all, we can't force God to enter a covenant with us. He has to be willing. By this reasoning, such an oath would not really be an oath at all. The problem is that, while I am persuaded that this reasoning is sound, the examples of Jephthah and Joshua are puzzling. They are not what I would intuit to be correct, if my thinking here were sound.

But maybe it just takes a little fiddling. Although I would not expect God to validate Jephthah's vow, Jephthah's military victory seems to indicate that God did validate it. Therefore, Jephthah had to keep up his end too.

By this same reasoning, Joshua's vow was binding because it was validated by the ones with whom it was made, namely the pagan Gibeonites. But it had less authority than the covenant with God. Why then keep the vow with man and break the covenant with God? Probably because of the degree of sin involved. Evidently, the elders and Joshua determined that it was more sinful to break the vow with man than to break the covenant with God. And again, perhaps they came to this conclusion by looking at the respective curses attached to each action. Transgressing a greater authority makes a sin greater, but it is not the only factor in determining how bad sin is. When Joshua did the math (and he knew all the details we don't know), he determined that the best course of action was to let the Gibeonites live. At this point, this is the best explanation I can conceive, though it certainly is not without its warts.

And yes, the Bible often reports facts without much explicit judgment. But in many cases, we can tell from the literary context, or the actions of honorable or wise characters, or subsequent events in history, that a certain action was good or bad. Sometimes we can't figure it out, but it doesn't hurt to do the best we can. In the cases of Jephthah and Joshua, I admit that the texts are not extremely clear in this regard. But I am persuaded based on details in the accounts themselves that both Jephthah and Joshua were right to fulfill their rash vows, and I am persuaded that the law in Numbers 30 is consistent with this conclusion.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.