Last month The Gospel Coalition ran an article on Jephthah’s daughter. I’m not a regular TGC reader but a number of people sent me the article asking for my opinion on it since I’ve also published on that passage. Considering the interest, I thought I’d give my thoughts on it here too. The article by Miles Van Pelt has six points but I’ll only address the big picture.
I see the TGC article as one in a long list of articles that attempt to rehabilitate Jephthah’s image in various ways. In this case Van Pelt suggests that Jephthah didn’t actually kill his daughter, just committed her to lifelong celibate service of Yahweh. These attempts to rehabilitate Jephthah are often motivated by a desire to bring cohesion between the text of Judges and the list of ‘faithful ones’ from Hebrews. It’s the idea that because Jephthah is mentioned positively in Hebrews 11, we must read him positively in Judges 11:29-40. But consider the list. Was David not an adulterer and murderer? We don’t suggest that his sins were a metaphor. Was Samson not a philanderer? We don’t explain that away. Did Abraham not disbelieve God’s promise? What about Barak who was so cowardly he needed Deborah to lead his army? However you read Hebrews 11, it cannot be a wholesale endorsement of the people it mentions. Actually, I think that’s part of the point in Hebrews — these people didn’t have perfect faith. No! They’re just like you and me. Whitewashing the history of these guys makes them the heroes rather than God.
Secondly, these attempts often misunderstand the nature of Judges, as I think this article does too. Van Pelt sees Judges as a series of rises and falls with a Judge at each point being the highlight, but there’s a pretty broad consensus, not only among evangelical scholars, that Judges shows a progressive decline. One of the best evangelical scholars, Barry Webb, has written on the cycle of Judges: [Israel’s apostasy => oppression by others => rescue by a Judge => time of peace/prosperity]. He points out that even as God raises up a Judge to rescue Israel each time, each rise is never quite as high as the last one. All of this ultimately peaks in the rejection of the final Judge, Samuel; the people ask for a King so they can be ‘like the other nations’, rejecting God as King. That’s consistent with how they act in Judges — not as a set-apart holy people who are a light to the nations, but syncretistic and exactly like those who do not follow Yahweh. Van Pelt seems to think that the judges are immune from that, like some kind of super-leaders sent from on high. But just as even the good kings of 1 and 2 Kings never succeeded in complete faithfulness (Jehu is a classic example, destroying Baal worship but failing to take down the golden calves), the judges are products of their time and culture and you can’t divorce them from that downward spiral as if they magically fell from heaven. At every level Judges shows a decline, even within the cycle of God raising up a Judge to rescue Israel. In that literary context it’s unnatural to see Jephthah as a paragon of faithfulness. The context also accounts for his daughter’s acquiescence to his vow. It is likely she is also a victim of her culture and her father’s faulty theology.
Thirdly, we should not be quick to assume that the descent of the Spirit of the Lord means that Jephthah’s vow was an act of faithfulness. Just as Gideon’s vow under the Spirit was more about his cowardice than about his faithfulness (contrary to Van Pelt’s reading), Jephthah’s is not a sign of his trust either. The Spirit of the Lord in and of itself ought to be the only endorsement these men need. To ask for further confirmation is to mistrust the God who gave that Spirit. They had everything they needed and yet asked for more.
Fourth, the idea of the daughter becoming a celibate nun-like character requires some pretty creative reading of the way the story is told. Why do the women mourn on the mountains every year if the sacrifice wasn’t literal? Were they mourning a thanksgiving? Perhaps it was that she wasn’t going to have children, but then why were they mourning if everyone thought the ‘sacrifice’ was so positive? Meanwhile the focus on her virginity is more likely tied to the fact that she was Jephthah’s only child, that is, that she was his only progeny and she had no children. It’s an indication that Jephthah’s family line ends with his daughter’s sacrifice; the great blessing of the continuation of the family line has been lost because of his unfaithfulness.
I’ll limit myself to those four comments and this concluding thought. Some of us, in an attempt to protect the inspiration of the Bible, are inclined to rehabilitate the messy parts and people of scripture. We come with a priori assumptions about how we should read a text that can prevent us from treating it with the integrity or sophistication it deserves. In this case, my belief is that when we examine the literary techniques in the passage, we see a contrasting of Jephthah with Abraham that makes clear beyond a doubt the unfaithfulness of his vow. For me, seeing the literary connections actually helps me to see the Bible as one big unfolding story with one Author, God.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.