I saw a docudrama about Jephthah and it ended with him sacrificing his daughter. But in an article on your site you say she lived a reclusive life in the mountains until she died. Which version of events is correct?
In the name of artistic license, films, and even historical documentaries, are not always accurate. So let’s examine the story based on the words of our sages.
But first, in brief, the story is as follows: Jephthah was asked by the Israelite leaders to lead them in battle against the oppressing Ammonites. Before leaving his home, Jephthah vowed to G‑d, “If You will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it will be that whatever comes forth—that shall come forth from the doors of my house towards me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon—shall be to G‑d, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.”
When he triumphantly arrived home, the first one to greet him at his door was his daughter. “Alas, my daughter!” he cried out. “. . . I have opened my mouth to G‑d and I cannot go back . . . and he did to her his vow which he had vowed; and she had not known any man.”
Firstly it is important to emphasize that Judaism has always viewed human sacrifices as a reprehensible abomination. Regarding the Canaanites, Moses says: “For every abomination to G‑d which He hates, they did to their gods; for also their sons and their daughters they would sacrifice in fire to their gods.”
Based on this idea, many of the biblical commentators maintain that Jephthah did not offer his daughter as a sacrifice. In fact, his original vow, “whatever comes forth . . . shall be to G‑d, and I will offer it up for a burnt-offering,” had a dual intention: if it will be a person, then it “shall be [consecrated] to G‑d”; and if it should be an animal, then “I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (The Hebrew prefix ו which precedes the words “I will offer it” can be translated as “and” or “or.”)
According to this interpretation, Jephthah’s daughter was sent to the mountains to live in seclusion. She never married and dedicated her life to the service of G‑d.
Other biblical commentators disagree. Though Jephthah was one of the Israelite judges, he was chosen for the position because of his bravery and might, not because of his Torah scholarship—indeed, he was woefully ignorant. And though he was not bound whatsoever by the vow he made—as it clearly transgressed the rules of the Torah—he ignorantly went ahead and offered his daughter as a sacrifice.
Had he only consulted with Phinehas, the learned high priest of the time, he would have been informed of his error. But that didn’t happen. Jephthah was too arrogant to travel to Phinehas to receive guidance: “I am the general of the Israelite forces, and I should go to him?!” And Phinehas was too proud to unilaterally go to Jephthah to advise him: “He needs me; why should I make the trip?”
The hubris demonstrated by these two leaders cost an innocent girl her life. According to the Midrash both were punished. Phinehas lost the divine spirit that had hitherto rested upon him. Jephthah became ill, and he lost many of his limbs. Because his limbs were buried in many locations, the Bible says that Jephthah was “buried in the cities of Gilead.”
Rabbi Naftali Silberberg,
Chabad.org Editorial Team