On Human Sacrifice in the Book of Judges

Recently, I’ve been working my way through Scripture, and one thing it’s reminded me of is how wild the Old Testament gets, particularly in the Book of Judges. It makes one fully appreciate why the sacred author says twice, including the very conclusion of the book, that “In those days there was no king in Israel: but every one did that which seemed right to himself.” The only times that Israel wasn’t a near anarchic, heathen-ridden mess was under the guidance of the judges.

Perhaps the most difficult incident, though, is Jephte’s sacrifice of his daughter, in the eleventh chapter. Now, whenever I come across a passage in Scripture that I don’t understand, I typically turn to commentaries. My edition of the Douay-Rheims Bible includes Bishop Richard Challoner’s notes, and I also use the iOS app Catena, which offers commentary by a number of saints and theologians. There’s something on almost every verse, and on important passages a few Church Fathers or other luminaries will weigh in, and you might end up with a few paragraphs worth of notes. This incident, though, prompted a free-for-all among the commentators. They do divide into a few camps, but it seems like every scholar to have ever picked up a Bible has felt the need to offer a word or two or two hundred on this.

Now, typically, I’d just share this sort of thing on Twitter. In this case, though, there’s just too much – I took a dozen screencaps on my phone and still couldn’t fit everything, and I didn’t want to leave anything out. It’s so interesting, though, and likely helpful for anyone troubled by the passage, that I couldn’t bear to just set it aside. So, I’m going to do something a bit different for this blog and offer it all here.

First, the passage itself, from Judges 11:29-40. Jephte (called “Jephtah” in the King James Version) is preparing to lead Israel in battle against the Ammonites:

Therefore the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephte, and going round Galaad, and Manasses, and Maspha of Galaad, and passing over from thence to the children of Ammon, he made a vow to the Lord, saying: If thou wilt deliver the children of Ammon into my hands, whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord. And Jephte passed over to the children of Ammon to fight against them: and the Lord delivered them into his hands. And he smote them from Aroer till you come to Mennith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel, which is set with vineyards, with a very great slaughter: and the children of Ammon were humbled by the children of Israel.

And when Jephte returned into Maspha, to his house, his only daughter met him with timbrels and with dances: for he had no other children. And when he saw her, he rent his garments, and said: Alas! my daughter, thou hast deceived me, and thou thyself art deceived: for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I can do no other thing. And she answered him: My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth to the Lord, do unto me whatsoever thou hast promised, since the victory hath been granted to thee, and revenge of thy enemies. And she said to her father: Grant me only this, which I desire: Let me go, that I may go about the mountains for two months, and may bewail my virginity with my companions.  And he answered her: Go. And he sent her away for two months. And when she was gone with her comrades and companions, she mourned her virginity in the mountains. And the two months being expired, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed, and she knew no man. From thence came a fashion in Israel, and a custom has been kept: That, from year to year, the daughters of Israel assemble together, and lament the daughter of Jephte the Galaadite, for four days.

I’ll start by sharing Bishop Challoner’s two comments, first on verse 31, which summarises the rest of the comments that will follow:

Whosoever, etc… Some are of opinion, that the meaning of this vow of Jephte, was to consecrate to God whatsoever should first meet him, according to the condition of the thing; so as to offer it up as a holocaust, if it were such a thing as might be offered by the law; or to devote it otherwise to God, if it were not such as the law allowed to be offered in sacrifice. And therefore they think the daughter of Jephte was not slain by her father, but only consecrated to perpetual virginity. But the common opinion followed by the generality of the holy fathers and divines is, that she was offered as a holocaust, in consequence of her father’s vow: and that Jephte did not sin, at least not mortally, neither in making, nor in keeping, his vow: since he is no ways blamed for it in scripture; and was even inspired by God himself to make the vow (as appears from ver.  29, 30) in consequence of which he obtained the victory; and therefore he reasonably concluded that God, who is the master of life and death, was pleased on this occasion to dispense with his own law; and that it was the divine will he should fulfil his vow.

Also, for the sake of completeness, on verse 37:

Bewail my virginity… The bearing of children was much coveted under the Old Testament, when women might hope that from some child of theirs, the Saviour of the world might one day spring.  But under the New Testament virginity is preferred. 1 Cor. 7.35.

Next, Fr. George Leo Haydock’s comments. Note that Fr. Haydock draws from a number of saints and Fathers of the Church, noted in parenthesis, so only part of this is his own; unfortunately it’s tough to follow in places exactly who is being quoted, but I’ll just quote this as I have it. I’ll break this up into a few paragraphs to make the massive wall of text easier to read:

Whosoever, &c. St. Thomas [Aquinas] (2. 2. q. 88. a. 2.) acknowledges that Jephte was inspired to make a vow, and his devotion herein is praised by the apostle, Hebrews xi. 32. But he afterwards followed his own spirit, in delivering himself, without mature deliberation, and in executing what he had so ill engaged himself to perform. This decision seems to be the most agreeable to the Scripture, and to the holy fathers. St. Jerome (in Jer. vii.) says, non sacrificium placet, sed animus offerentis. “If Jephte offered his virgin daughter, it was not the sacrifice, but the good will of the offerer which deserves applause.” Almost all the ancients seem to agree that the virgin was really burnt to death; and the versions have whosoever, which intimates that Jephte intended to offer a human victim; particularly as he could not expect a beast fit for such a purpose, would come out of the doors of his house to meet him. (Calmet)

Yet many of the moderns, considering how much such things are forbidden by God, cannot persuade themselves that Jephte should be so ignorant of the law, or that the priests and people of Israel should suffer him to transgress it. The original may be rendered as well, “whatsoever proceedeth….shall surely be the Lord’s, and (Protestants) or I will offer it up for a holocaust.” (Pagnin. &c.) — The version of Houbigant is very favourable to this opinion. See Hook’s Principia.

It is supposed that the sacrifice of Iphigenia, which took place about this time, (Aulis. v. 26,) was only in imitation of this of Jephte’s daughter. But the poets say, that Diana saved her life, and substituted a doe in her place; (Ovid, Met. xii.) which, if true, would make the conformity more striking, if we admit that the sacrifice of Jephte’s daughter was not carried into effect. Iphigenia was made a priestess of Diana, to whom human victims were immolated. The daughter of Jephte, whom the false Philo calls Seila, was consecrated to the Lord, and shut up (Haydock) to lead a kind of monastic life; as the wives of David, (2 Kings xx. 3.; Grotius) after they had been dishonoured, were obliged to live in a state of continency. Although (Haydock) forced chastity be not a virtue, (Calmet) yet Jephte had no reason to believe that his daughter would not enter into the spirit of his vow, and embrace that state for God’s honour and service. We know that she gave her entire consent to whatever might be the nature of his vow; and surely she would be as ready to refrain from marriage, however desirable at that time, as to be burnt alive, which would effectually prevent her from becoming a mother, ver. 37. To require this of her, was not, at least, more cruel in her father than to offer her in sacrifice. The Chaldean paraphrast says, “Jephte did not consult Phinees, the priest, or he might have redeemed her;” and Kimchi gives us a very mean idea, both of Jephte and of the high priest, the great Phinees, whom the Rabbins foolishly suppose was still living, and of course above 300 years old, ver. 26.

“Phinees said, He wants me, let him come to me. But Jephte, the head of the princes of Israel, shall I go to him? During this contest the girl perished.” To such straits are those reduced who wish to account for the neglect of Jephte in redeeming his daughter, as the Targum observes, was lawful for a sum of money, Leviticus xxvii. 2, 3, 28. — But (Haydock) his vow was of the nature of the cherom, which allowed of no redemption, and required death. (Calmet) — On this point, however, interpreters are not agreed, and this manner of devoting to death, probably, regarded only the enemies of God, or such things as were under a person’s absolute dominion. (Haydock) — If a dog had first come out to meet Jephte, could he have offered it up for a holocaust? Certainly not, (Grotius) because it was prohibited, (Deuteronomy xxiii. 18,) to offer even its price, (Haydock) and only oxen, sheep, goats, turtles and doves, were the proper victims. If, therefore, a person made a vow, of a man, he was to be consecrated to the Lord, (Grotius) like Samuel, and he might marry. But a woman could not, as she was already declared the servant of the Lord, and was not at liberty to follow her husband. (Amama)

We need not herein labour to defend the conduct of Jephte. The Scripture does not canonize him on this account. If he did wrong, his repentance, and other heroic acts of virtue, might justly entitle him to be ranked among the saints of the old law. (St. Augustine, q. 49) — “Shew me the man who has not fallen into sin….Jephte returned victorious from the enemy, but in the midst of his triumph, he was overcome by his own vow, so that he thought it proper to requite the piety of his daughter, who came out to meet him, by parricide. In the first place, what need was there of making a vow so hastily, to promise things uncertain, the event of which he knew not, instead of what was certain? Then why did he perform so sorrowful a vow to the Lord God, by shedding blood?” (St. Ambrose, Apol. Dav. i. 4.) — This saint adopts the common opinion that Jephte really immolated his daughter. But he is far from thinking that he was influenced by the holy spirit to make the vow, otherwise he would never represent it in such odious colours. If God had required the life of Jephte’s daughter, as he did formerly command Abraham to sacrifice his son, the obedience and faith of the former would have been equally applauded, as the good will of the latter. But most of those who embrace the opinion that Jephte sacrificed his daughter, are forced to excuse or to condemn the action. They suppose that he was permitted to fulfil his vow, that others might be deterred from making similar promises, without the divine authority. (St. Chrysostom, hom. xiv. ad pop. Ant.; St. Jerome, contra Jov. i.) “I shall never, says St. Ambrose (Off. iii. 12,) be induced to believe that Jephte, the prince, did not promise incautiously that he would immolate whatever should meet him,…since he repented of his vow,” &c.  We may observe that this great Doctor supposes, that Jepthe promised to sacrifice the first thing that should meet him “at the door of his own house;” whence he seems to take whosoever in the same latitude as we have given in the Hebrew. He concludes, “I cannot accuse the man who was obliged to fulfil his vow,” &c. We may imitate his moderation, (Haydock) rather than adopt the bold language of one who has written notes on the Protestant Bible, (1603) who says, without scruple, that by this rash vow and wicked performance, his victory was defaced; and again, that he was overcome with blind zeal, not considering whether the vow was lawful or not. (Worthington).

If Jephte was under the immediate influence of the Holy Ghost in what he did, as Salien believes, and the context by no means disproves, we ought to admire the faith of this victorious judge, though he gave way to the feelings of human nature, ver. 35. We should praise his fidelity either in sacrificing or in consecrating his daughter to God’s service in perpetual virginity: but if he followed his own spirit, we cannot think that he was so ill-informed or so barbarous as to murder his daughter, nor that she would consent to an impiety which so often disgraced the pagan superstition, though she might very well agree to embrace that better part, which her father and God himself, by a glorious victory, seemed to have marked out for her. Amid the variety of opinions which have divided the learned on this subject, infidels can derive no advantage or solid proof against the divine authority of the Scripture, and of our holy religion. The fact is simply recorded. People are at liberty to form what judgment of it they think most rational. If they decide that Jepthe was guilty of an oversight, or of a downright impiety, it will in the first place be difficult for them to prove it to the general satisfaction; and when they have done so, they will only evince that he was once a sinner, and under this idea the word of God gives him no praise. But if he did wrong in promising, as many of the Fathers believe, he might be justified in fulfilling his vow, as God might intimate to him both interiorly, and by granting him the victory, that he dispensed with his own law, and required this sort of victim in order to foreshew the bloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins, (Serarius and Salien, in the year of the world 2850) or the state of virginity which his blessed Mother and so many nuns and others in the Christian Church embrace with fervour.

Peace, with victory.

SameHebrew, “it shall be the Lord’s, and (or) I will make it ascend a whole burnt-offering.” (Haydock) — The particle ve often signifies or as well as and, and it is explained in this sense here by the two Kimchis, by Junius, &c. See Exodus xxi. 17. Piscator says, the first part of the sentence determines that whatever the thing was it should be consecrated to the Lord, with the privilege of being redeemed, (Leviticus xxvii. 11,) and the second shews that it should be immolated, if it were a suitable victim. (Amama)

St. Augustine offers an interpretation in Questions on Judges as follows:

With these words [of his vow] at any rate Jephthah did not vow some kind of animal that he could offer as a whole burnt offering according to the law; it is neither customary now nor was it in the past that cattle would run to meet generals returning victoriously from war. As far as mute animals are concerned, dogs often run to meet their masters and sport with them in fawning servitude. But Jephthah could not have been thinking about dogs in his vow, because it would seem that he would have vowed not only something unlawful but also something contemptible and unclean according to the law. It would have been an insult to God. Nor does he say, “I will offer as a whole burnt offering whatever will come out of the doors of my house to meet me.” He says, “I will sacrifice whoever comes out of my house.” Thus, there can be no doubt that he was thinking of nothing else than a human being—not his only daughter, however. Yet who would have been able to surpass her in her father’s eyes except perhaps his wife?

Finally, St. Jerome:

And whereas he [Jovinianus] prefers the fidelity of the father Jephthah to the tears of the virgin daughter, that corroborates our point. For we are not commending virgins of the world so much as those who are virgins for Christ’s sake. Most Hebrews blame the father for the rash vow he made, “If you will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatsoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be for the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” Supposing (the Hebrews say) a dog or an ass had met him, what would he have done? Their meaning is that God so ordered events that he who had improvidently made a vow should learn his error by the death of his daughter.

Instinctively, I favour St. Jerome’s position, but there are a few aspects of this that seem scarcely reconcilable to me. A human sacrifice shouldn’t be acceptable, and neither, as a few commentators point out, would any animal that was likely to meet him be acceptable. So, surely he can’t have gone through with it, right? Having her take a vow of perpetual virginity sounds like a good way out, but Scripture doesn’t say that. The plain reading of the text certainly implies that she was sacrificed.

However, was Jephte inspired by God to make this vow? Verse 29 begins, “Therefore the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephte,” but I read this as inspiring him to lead the fight against Israel’s enemies. So, this could still be a rash vow. There is the seeming injustice to his daughter, but this would have a similar explanation to why the Israelites were justified in destroying entire towns of the heathens: since God is the author of life and can choose the time and manner of our death, it is no more unjust for Him to have one die in war than for any other cause.


  1. quaslacrimas

    The spirit of the lord also hardened the heart of the pharaoh, etc. Pace the Vatican, some really are delivered unto evil. (In this case Jephtah’s misfortune may have prevented the infection of ancient Israel with abominable Punic rituals.)

    • Richard Carroll

      Thanks for your comment, but God does not, and indeed cannot, lead people to commit sin. If that’s what you mean, go back to square one. God does at times withdraw His grace to help people avoid sin, and permits them to do evil things, and this is what’s typically meant by “hardening [e.g. Pharoah’s] heart.”

  2. John Q Public

    I think the solution is the same here as for Iphigenia in the Trojan Wars. Neither the Greeks nor Jews believed in or accepted human sacrifice. Therefore, the women are being offered by entering into some sort of consecrated virginity where they will serve the deity in his house and never marry.


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