Bible study 221 – Judges 11: “Jephthah 2 – Human sacrifice”

Jephthah is the bastard son of a prostitute who is driven away from his legitimate half-brothers. But he is also a great warrior, so his half-brothers ask him to come back to fight against the Ammonites; in return, he will become the leader of Gilead (a large area shared by the tribes of Gad and Manasseh).

In negotiations with the enemy, the king of Ammon claims that israel stole his lands east of the Jordan. Jephthah points out, quite correctly, that it was not the lands of Ammon that Israel stole, but the lands of the Amorites and Bashan. (He also claims that Israel didn’t even enter Moab’s territory, which I think contradicts Numbers 21, Numbers 35, and a few other places. But his wrongful claim is irrelevant to the present situation.)

Negotiations break down, and Jephthah prepares for military action. To assure his success, he promises God to give a burnt offering of the first person who comes out of his house to meet him after the battle. Jephthah then crushes the Ammonites in battle, and goes home to find his daughter and only child waiting for him outside his house. She accepts her fate, asking only for “two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity”, after which Jephthah dutifully burns her to death in God’s name.

It should be mentioned here that the entire narrative in the Book of Judges is probably written with the aim of legitimizing a centralized Israelite monarchy. Israel starts out with 12 individual tribes with independent political systems and no centralized authority. With no clear leader to show them the way, they keep falling into apostasy and heresy. Time and time again God saves them by sending down a leader (a judge), but each time they fall back into sin. Additionally, each cycle the length of oppression is longer, and the personalities and actions of the judges they get are more and more questionable, eventually leading to the inevitable invention of centralized monarchy.

Since we are halfway through Judges now, the quality of the appointed judges is starting to degenerate rapidly. This is strikingly apparent in Abimalech from chapter 9, but it also means that the human sacrifice in this chapter probably is meant to be interpreted negatively, reflecting Jephthah’s bad qualities as a judge. It probably isn’t a coincidence that he is the daughter of a prostitute, either.

Judges 11:24
“(…) should we not be the ones to possess everything that the Lord our God has conquered for our benefit? (…)”

Full text.


Bon Boullogne’s Jephtha’s Daughter from the second half of the 17th century. Source.


A slightly more graphic depiction of her sacrifice, from the French 13th century Maciejowski Bible. Source.

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