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What happened to Jephthah’s daughter?

What happened to Jephthah’s daughter?

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Question:

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?

Answer:

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.”1

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.”2

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.”3

Based on this idea, many of the biblical commentators4 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 commentators5 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.6 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 Midrash7 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.”8

Best wishes,

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg,
Chabad.org Editorial Team

FOOTNOTES
1.

Judges 11:30–31.

2.

Ibid. vv. 35, 39.

3.

Deuteronomy 12:31.

4.

Ralbag, Radak and Ibn Ezra (cited in Nachmanides on Leviticus 27:29).

5.

Nachmanides ibid., Rashi and the Midrash.

6.

He was an exception to the rule. The other judges were exceptional scholars and righteous individuals.

7.

Bereishit Rabbah 60:3.

8.

Judges 12:7.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor, and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife Chaya Mushka and their three children.
All names of persons and locations or other identifying features referenced in these questions have been omitted or changed to preserve the anonymity of the questioners.
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Discussion (26)
May 11, 2015
Jephtah was not a child nor a married woman but a judge and a captain of the Lord of Hosts. So there was nothing Phinehas could do to undo the vow Jephtah made... Sorry but that assertion was off base.

Numbers:30 [a]Moses said to the heads of the tribes of Israel: “This is what the Lord commands: 2 When a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.

3 “When a young woman still living in her father’s household makes a vow to the Lord or obligates herself by a pledge 4 and her father hears about her vow or pledge but says nothing to her, then all her vows and every pledge by which she obligated herself will stand. 5 But if her father forbids her when he hears about it, none of her vows or the pledges by which she obligated herself will stand; the Lord will release her because her father has forbidden her.
Joseph
Memphis TN
May 1, 2015
Yes. as a man named jeff, I do appreciate the input here, my soul being vexed at the thought of his daughter being a burned sacrifice, I could tell that there seems to be some easily made misunderstandings when we who are not really familiar with Jewish customs and laws are needed for correct interpretation. The Midresh lists a consequence to both(priest and champion) for this action? Are we sure about that or, was it for the pride of just not consulting each other. I agree that the verbage seems to center on the fact that she would never know a man, but again that could be interpreted that she would never know a man before she died, or in her entire life, which would be the case whether she served in the tabernacle the rest of her life or was burned.. However, knowing the spirit of the Lord, I know that the burned sacrifice of His daughter would have been unacceptable, however the consecration of her would be.
jcmorse563
marysville
February 23, 2015
Yitzhak
That question is a non-sequitur and a red herring rolled into one. Neither Yiftach nor his daughter were prophets.
Anonymous
Fresh Meadows
February 23, 2015
and when did G-d speak to Jephtah's daughter?
yitzhak
ny
February 23, 2015
Isaac Gordon
The text repeats that it was the virginity of Yiftach's daughter that was bewailed, not that Yiftach's daughter's death was bewailed. That language is very unusual. The Hebrew Scriptures are not shy about talking about death or even human sacrifice (as part of idol worship). Clearly, there is evidence in the text that she was not slaughtered; but, restricted from ordinary, profane activities. Furthermore, unlike Abraham, God never spoke to Yiftach. He was not a prophet.
Anonymous
Fresh Meadows
February 19, 2015
How interesting that an event, thousands of years ago, intriques us still. Thank you for this breaking of bread.
Dee
south africa
February 16, 2015
what i find difficult to reconcile is that isaac, a male, was spared, while jephthah's daughter was not. if G-d was willing to test Abraham insofar as his faith was concerned, why wasn't Jephthah afforded the same treatment?
isaac gordon
September 19, 2014
No learned Jew would knowingly offer his/her child as a sacrifice to The Lord in violation of Jewish Law. This story clearly teaches what is right and what is wrong, how even the most faithful can have their minds twisted.
Heather Czerniak
Haifa, Israel
March 20, 2013
I am actually suprised that this is a debate
I was actually trying to find out if there was a mention of the daughter's name in the Bible, when I saw this and thought I would give my two cents. In the laws every first born had to be offered to God, in the case of the clean animals that mean they would get sacrificed, in the case of the unclean animals that meant that another animal would be sacrificed in its place or it would have its neck broke, but in the place of people they always always had a sacrifice take their place (I believe turtle doves were one of the things that could take the place for a human baby). I would imagine no matter how illiterate Jephthah was (and it would be debatable if he was illiterate) he would have already known all about these laws on the sacrifice of the first born, so it would have been rather easy for him to know what got sacrificed in place of his daughter while she was sent off to serve the Lord in the tabernacle (I would imagine).
Caleb
October 7, 2012
Jephthah
In writing on this victory by God for the Israelites, Jephthah speaks before thinking. I love the fact that more often than not God doesn't take literally are the words I speak, in marriage vows and other times I made a spoken mistake. Perhaps he was a great man of Faith as Hebrews states, but God is greater and he admired his faith in the victory of God, using man to overcome the enemy.
God does not lie and we know from His Word that human sacrifice is banned. I believe she willing sacrificed, in obedience to her father and his vow, by not marrying which was a huge gift to God. Having no husband or children to care for her when she married and in her old age was a big sacrifice.
Anonymous
Gatlinburg, TN
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