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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
2.

Ibid. vv. 35, 39.

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.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, 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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Glenn Bayside September 17, 2017

If only women were allowed to annul a man's vow there would not have been a possible death! A father can annul his daughters vow and a husband his wife's, but a woman cannot annul a man's ever? Well as we can see, a man may need the same treatment as a woman sometimes! We're all human! His daughter should have been able to annul that vow. Reply

Fatona Oladimeji November 19, 2016

I have a problem with the issue of pride. Jephtah tore his clothes. He didn't want to lose his daughter. If traveling down would have saved his daughter I believe he would have done so. Reply

Anonymous Texas August 30, 2016

missed what was said... I think many may have missed or mistaken was the Rabbi said about the Jephtah himself. Perhaps the Rabbi was being too nice about it.

Many of the Jews were in reality not keeping jewish law at all. There is a reason G-d had to keep telling them to quit worshiping Idols. Because many of them still were doing exactly that! G-d never had to tell people to stop doing what they were not doing ;-) Many of those of Jewish blood were in fact not really Jewish by religious practice. Jephthah, apparently, was one of these sort. They often mixed up the real G-d with idolatrous worship of false gods. Reply

Tia E. Houston, TX February 23, 2016

Either Way is Bad I just read this passage and came on here to get some more information. What is most troubling is that the story is written rather bluntly with no real clarity on if she was actually killed and sacrificed or just a virgin for the rest of her life. Looking at both options, he would have killed her in vain since humans are not acceptable burnt sacrifices, but it makes little sense to be so distraught over your daughter serving the G-d who just delivered your enemy into your hands. According to Numbers 18:16, first borns were redeemed with five shekels of silver because the couldn't be offered. Additionally, humans do not meet the physical requirements (EX: split hooves, etc if you use evolutionary language) to be sacrificed. Looking at the other option, her virginal sacrifice would have been pretty costly- monetarily and in general. This guy had no other kids, so his lineage would die with him/her. I can see how it could go either way. Sacrificing her virginity makes better sense to me. Reply

isaac gordon ny May 19, 2015

in response toYiitzhak's comment that the question was non-sequitur, I disagree. The question is pertinent and "does follow (the latin translation of non-sequitur). It follows because had his daughter spoken to G-d, then she died (if she was sacrificed) a feminine martyr, a kind of female tzaddik. Reply

Joseph Memphis TN 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. Reply

jcmorse563 marysville 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. Reply

Anonymous Fresh Meadows February 23, 2015

Yitzhak That question is a non-sequitur and a red herring rolled into one. Neither Yiftach nor his daughter were prophets. Reply

yitzhak ny February 23, 2015

and when did G-d speak to Jephtah's daughter? Reply

Anonymous Fresh Meadows 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. Reply

Dee south africa February 19, 2015

How interesting that an event, thousands of years ago, intriques us still. Thank you for this breaking of bread. Reply

isaac gordon 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? Reply

Heather Czerniak Haifa, Israel 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. Reply

Caleb 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). Reply

Anonymous Gatlinburg, TN 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. Reply

ekal koswara singapore 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. Reply

Anonymous Lakeland, Fl 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. Reply

R. K. 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! Reply

Dee George, South Africa 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. Reply

Anonymous Fresh Meadows, NY 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. Reply

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