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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 (19)
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
September 17, 2012
It's Common Sense.
I would think that even the village idiot in ancient Israel would understand that human sacrifice is a very big no no in the eye of the Hashem. Wasn't human sacrifice one of the rituals that disgusted Hashem so much that He decided to drive away the inhabitants of Canaan? If indeed Yiftah did sacrificed his daughter as burnt offering, the blame would not fall on him alone, but the entire nation of Israel, for failing to warn him of this grave violation. As a nation of priest handpicked by Hashem to be a light unto the nations, do you think He would let the Israelites get away with this crime? Remember how the entire nation of Israel was punished when king David counted his soldiers.
ekal koswara
singapore
August 6, 2012
Jephthah's Daughter
Thank you for the discussion. We Baptists had this same discussion in our Sunday adult class. It has been a blessing to see your discussion as well. I believe what G-D says is what is. So it was hard to think other wise. However I am now convinced.
Anonymous
Lakeland, Fl
June 26, 2011
Anonymous in Fresh Meadows makes a good point
Because you can dedicate non-kosher or non-edible items (donkeys, horses, valuables, etc.) to HaShem. Usually, the animal/object cannot be used for secular purposes either while in this category (like the donkey can't be used for pulling a plow, for example)...I think sometimes such an item can be redeemed for its value, but what would be the value in the case of Yiftach's daughter? The Torah does assign values for a person in other contexts (criminal and civil law, or 30 day old infants, for example), but this is a very particular (and peculiar) case. Maybe she couldn't be redeemed because of the context, so she couldn't be "used" or "employ herself" for non-kodesh purposes at that point, hence the necessity of withdrawing from everyday life.

I'd like to thank all the participants in this give-and-take by the way. It's making a very lively Torah discussion!
R. K.
June 25, 2011
The Living Word
How exciting G-D's word is! here we are, thousands of years later, debating. Every day there is something new to learn from Scripture. Thank you for this balanced explanation.
Dee
George, South Africa
June 22, 2011
Is the peshat so simple?
If it is so clear that Yiftach offered his daughter as a korban, why does it say that the daughters of Israel mourned her virginity and not her life. If she were killed, you would think that the loss of life would be the primary concern. What is so important about the virginity. Was she the only Jewish girl who had died before marriage? On the other hand, learned Jews know that most vows at the time were made in the form of a konam vow: "I shall receive no benefit from Ploni as if he were to be made a korban." If it were a konam vow, he had no authority to marry her off unless the vow was anulled. Simple.
Anonymous
Fresh Meadows, NY
June 22, 2011
Yiftach
I have always been puzzled by this. Even if it were only his dog greeting him, let alone his daughter, which cohen would allow him to bring the "offering" - a child or a nonkosher animal and kill either of them and then burn it on a holy altar? A number of things distinguished Jewish altars of ancient times found in Israel - there are only kosher animal bones, no human bones or other animals. So how exactly could Yiftach fulfill his oath unless he himself did the killing and burning upon his own specially constructed altar? And no one objected?
Besides, even without Pinhas' help, he could renounce his vow with a Beis Din.
Rochelle
Yerushalayim, Israel
June 21, 2011
always wondered about this!
Thanks for the answers!
R. K.
L.A.
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