Posted by: mattcolvin | August 18, 2014

On Jephthah’s Daughter


Above: Pietro Vecchia, Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter (c. 1650-1660)

Some friends of mine have been discussing Jephthah’s daughter. I regret that I have loaned out my copy of Jon Levenson’s masterful Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity. I will consult it next month when I get it back next month. In the meantime, here are some thoughts:

Judges 11:31 says that Jephthah promised to “cause to ascend” (העליתהו) as “an ascension”  (עולה) “the comer-forth that came forth from the doors of his house.” Some people, hoping to avoid finding a human sacrifice in the passage, say that this means only that she “went up” to the tabernacle to be a perpetual servant of YHWH there. But this is fanciful. We may ask, is the installation of any other perpetual tabernacle-servants of YHWH described in such words? The Gibeonites in Joshua 10, perhaps? Samuel in 1 Samuel 1? The answer is, no, they are not. Hannah merely “brings” or “causes Samuel to go” (והבאתיו). While it is true that we have a hiphil ותעלהו in 1:24, it is not accompanied by the cognate noun עולה, and thus it is unlikely to differ from the use of the same verb when it is used (in the qal) of the entire family of Elkanah, including, of course, those who do not remain perpetually at the tabernacle. It thus denotes only the pilgramage for the purpose of worship; after the young Samuel has made this journey, his mother still has to “bring him” into the tabernacle and “loan him” to YHWH in fulfillment of her vow.

The Gibeonites likewise are not spoken of in terms appropriate for a sacrifice. Joshua 9:27 says that Joshua “gave” or “appointed” them (ויתנם) as woodcutters and water-drawers for the tabernacle. Thus, we have some Hebrew idioms for expressing the act of conveying someone into perpetual service to YHWH, and these idioms are not at work in Judges 11, which instead uses the apparently sacrificial העליתהו with the cognate direct object עולה.

Is there any parallel to this construction? Why, yes there is. It is Genesis 22:2: “Take now your only son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and cause him to ascend (והעלהו) there as an ascension (לעלה).” Exactly the same construction. Shall we now be told that there was an otherwise unknown shrine to YHWH where Isaac was to be enrolled? Or is the mention of the knife and the command of the angel sufficient to compel us to the conclusion that this is the language of actual sacrifice?

But was Jephthah a righteous man or not? Surely he knew the commandment of God against human sacrifice, didn’t he? How then could he be so wicked? Once again, theology without philology drives exegetes to wrong conclusions: in this case, the assumption that such a sacrifice would certainly have violated the Law. Here’s a helpful comment from Lauren Monroe:

“The term עולה never occurs in biblical prohibitions against child sacrifice (e.g. Lev. 18:21, Lev. 20:2-5, Deut. 12:31; 18:17; 2 Kgs 23:10), setting the practice represented in the narrative texts of Genesis 22; Judges 11; and 2 Kings 3 apart from the legal prohibitions. Many interpreters take the tension between Jephthah’s actions and the legal prohibitions as evidence that he acts in violation of biblical law, but this assumes that the type of sacrifice Jephthah makes is the same as that prohibited in the legal texts. Given YHWH’s willingness to accept Jephthah’s offering, and that the offering of an heir as an עולה specifically is attested elsewhere in the Bible, I would suggest that although certain types of child sacrifice were widely rejected by the biblical authors, namely, MLK offerings and other sacrifices made at the Tophet in the Hinnom Valley, under the right circumstances a human עולה constituted a viable sacrifice…

“Many have noted parallels between this text [sc. Judges 11] and the story of the binding of Isaac… Among these are the identification of Jephthah’s daughter as his only child (יהידה היא) [This is a powerful, perhaps even conclusive point, when seen in the light of the evidence which Levenson adduces in the case of other child sacrifices in Scripture and elsewhere. – MC], her reference to her father as אבי, “my father,” and her resignation to her fate. By modeling her on Isaac, who is remembered in postbiblical Judaism as the quintessential martyr, the biblical authors redeem Bat-Jephthah’s death.” (- Lauren A.S. Monroe, “Disembodied Women: Sacrificial Language and the Deaths of Bat-Jephthah, Cozbi, and the Bethlehemite Concubine”)

A desperate alternative has been urged by some: it is alleged that Jephthah’s daughter was devoted to a life of perpetual virginity. Rabbi Moshe Reiss has some choice words for this idea:

“In the Middle Ages, many highly respected Jewish commentators were unwilling to tolerate the concept of a human sacrifice in the holy Scripture and they struggled to find an acceptable alternative. Many accepted a refashioning and re-sculpting of the text to conclude that Jephthah in fact consecrated his daughter as a perpetual virgin and anchorite rather than take her life as a sacrifice. This was considered a preferable alternative, despite the fact that this ideal of perpetual virginity and asceticism had never previously appeared in Jewish texts and in fact lay outside the Jewish belief system and cultural milieu.”

R. Reiss goes on to note that the “vow of perpetual virginity” interpretation was put forward by Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1184), David Kimche (1160-1235), and Gersonides (1288-1344). He notes that “the period 1080-1170 was the time of greatest growth of monastic life for women in Spain, England, France and Italy” and suggests that “The cultural adoption of a Christian idea by these Medieval-Renaissance Jewish commentators is remarkable. All were and remain leading exegetes.  To extol a celibate woman appears nowhere in the Tanakh… Given that these Jewish commentators lived in areas where women’s  convents were established, it is difficult to believe that they were not influenced by Christian women’s monastic ideals.


  1. I suppose one point in favor of temple service, conceived of as a form of burnt offering is that just as Abraham’s firstborn was sacrificed, so too all Israel’s were to be, but were substituted with the Levitical *priesthood*.

    • …but not with a college of virgins. And we might expect that if YHWH is going to accept some such substitution, He will have commanded it somewhere.

      • My guess would be that if he did accept such a substitution it was something he commanded *there*, like with Isaac, though, without the institution of a nation sacrificed in the sacrifice of Isaac.

  2. Thanks, Matt.This is a difficult text.Could you clarify how you think the daughter works as an ascension offering and why, if this is the case, there aren’t more examples of human ascensions? And what does this do to the typology of Isaac as Ascension (rejected for a substitute) if Jephthah’s daughter is then accepted as an Ascension? I haven’t studied this matter at all and ask as a confused layman. I’m willing to allow for all that you say but I still don’t understand it.

    • I haven’t worked it all out. One of the remaining questions is whether Jephthah was imitating pagan custom, or following something known in Israel. Here’s Schlissel on the topic:

  3. I solidly embrace the perpetual virginity take. The difference between Abraham and Jepthah is that Abraham answered a divine summons to uncover the deep condition of his heart. Jepthah made a vow of his own choosing without any thought that a person, much less his daughter, would be the answer to it. Human sacrifice was forbidden because the deformity of iniquity marks every seed of Adam and makes him ‘blemished’ or ‘with defect’. The shed blood of a blemished near-bringing was distinctly forbidden.

    • I find it odd that Jephthah would imagine something non-human “coming out of the door of his house”. Did he keep livestock inside? A dog? (But a dog is not lawful sacrifice…)

    • Also, the objection seems to prove to much, since it would also tell against sacrificing Isaac. And YHWH’s last-minute substitution is not done ex professo on the grounds of any inadequacy of Isaac as a sacrificial victim; indeed, the great value of Isaac is extolled as a reason why Abraham’s willingness to offer him was esteemed by YHWH: “By Myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son — (‭Genesis‬ ‭22‬:‭16‬ NKJV) — but who is praised for “not withholding” an unacceptable sacrifice?

  4. Weren’t ascension offerings male (Leviticus 1), that is, ‘head’ offerings? If so, then Isaac is a good candidate for an ascension offering (a son), but not the daughter of Jephthah (a daughter). The only sense in which a woman is ‘lifted up’ in an ascension is in a metaphorical one, that she is lifted up with the male representative. This points more in the direction of the temple service view proposed by Jordan and many others. The woman is exalted as the glory (rather than the image) of the man.

    Certainly there is a parallel between Isaac and Jephthah’s daughter, but parallels can work in metaphorical ways. What if, just as Genesis is a ‘head’ book, a book which lifts up the head/husband (the patriarchs), Judges is a ‘body’ book, a book which lifts up the body/bride (Israel). The psalms, after all, are full of examples of David ‘going up’ to the house of the Lord with praise. if David, then why not Jephthah’s daughter?

    Chris W

  5. Here’s Levenson arguing that sacrifice isn’t, in the first instance, about killing, but about presenting the object as a gift. While he doesn’t address Jephthah’s daughter, if he’s right, it would give some credence to the idea that though this is in fact a sacrifice, it may not be a blood sacrifice.

  6. Reblogged this on My so-called false memory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s