When Jephthah makes an impulsive and rash vow to God, his daughter responds with both courage and lament. The story of Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11 urges us to consider the kinds of vows we make before God and the impact those vows have upon those around us.
O God, you who call us to live lives of mercy, draw near to us as we study the story of a daughter who did not receive mercy. Through her courage and lament, teach us that you welcome our whole selves, our strength and our sorrow. May your Spirit inspire our study and come close to us as we grapple with this difficult story. In Jesus’s name, amen.
“She said to him, ‘My father, if you have opened your mouth to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites’” (Judges 11:36).
Introduction to Jephthah’s Daughter
Jephthah’s daughter lived in the times of the judges when the Israelite people “did what seemed right in their own eyes.” Her father, Jephthah, was a mighty warrior with a conflicted past, cast out by his brothers and then drawn back in when the army needed a commander. Perhaps to prove his worth as a warrior, Jephthah bargains with God: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering” (Judges 11:30-31).
After Jephthah returned home from victory on the battlefield, his only child—a daughter—came out to greet him. Her act of celebration and joy confronts Jephthah with the rashness of his vow to God. Jephthah is heartbroken. But Jephthah’s daughter does not resist. Instead, she asks for space to grieve. The story of Jephthah’s daughter is a tragic one, one of a father who vows to give God something God never asked for or desired because it seemed “right in his own eyes.” Jephthah’s daughter’s life would be cut short, along with the family bloodline forever—a huge cost to be paid for a vow.
Digging Deeper: What Happened to Jephthah’s Daughter
After Jephthah’s vow and a successful battle against the Ammonites, he returns to his home in Mizpah when, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was his only child. “When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow’” (v. 35).
Jephthah’s daughter, who has no name in the text beyond her association with her father, speaks only once in response to her father’s news: “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the LORD has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites. … Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I” (vv. 36-37).
Jephthah’s daughter goes off into the wilderness with her friends to grieve the life she would never get to live because of her father’s foolish vow to God. We have no record of what those two months were like for her, but we can imagine the depth of grief she felt and the sorrow her father felt on account of his careless vow.
Because of a father’s negligent vow to God, this young daughter of God would never get to live the flourishing life God created and intended for her to live. She would never get to fulfill her responsibility as the only child to carry forward the story and lineage of her father’s house. Future generations would die in the womb of this maiden who was never given the opportunity to bear children. What’s worse is she mourned and died with a distorted view of God. Through her father, she was introduced to a God who accepts unacceptable sacrifices because of human pseudo-piety. Sadly, Jephthah’s daughter lives and dies without truly knowing the loving, compassionate, and forgiving God.
Jephthah’s daughter watched her father keep his vow to the Lord. Perhaps she looked up to him with pride as she laid her young body upon the altar as a sacrifice. Perhaps she despised him for not repenting and asking God to forgive him just this once for making such a vow in the first place. Perhaps she made her peace with God believing that God would keep God’s promise made to her and her ancestors. That God would embrace her with loving kindness and bring her into the ultimate promised land where she would be in God’s presence forever. This kind of hope comes not from making rash or thoughtless vows, but from vows that please God.
She Is Called and We Are Called
Have ever made a vow to the Lord? Have you begged: “If you let my grandmother get out of the hospital, I will go to church every Sunday.”
“If you keep me from going to jail, I will never break the law again.”
“If you help me with this one thing, I will never ask for anything else in the world.”
At some point, I’m sure we all have made some sort of vow to the Lord.
And there’s nothing wrong with making vows to God. In fact, we do so in the life of the church all the time. Deacons and elders make vows. Spouses make vows to each other and to God on wedding days. The congregation makes vows at the baptism of children. There is nothing wrong with making vows. But, the kind of vows we make matters. Are we making vows to God that God would never want us to make? Or, are we making vows that honor the Lord?
Jephthah made a vow to God that God would have detested, but Jephthah’s daughter promised her father she would submit to him and honor him if he granted her space to grieve. Time and again throughout Scripture, God expresses horror at child sacrifice. In fact, the only time God asked for a child sacrifice was in Genesis 22 when Abraham was instructed to take his son, Isaac, on top of the mountain to be sacrificed. There on the mountain, the LORD provided a ram, a clean, unblemished, appropriate animal for the sacrifice, which spared the innocent child.
The church has long connected Isaac’s experience with Jesus’s sacrifice, but what about Jephthah’s daughter as a Christ-figure? Certainly her story does not offer a picture of God as Father, but her willingness to submit herself to her father’s violence, and her lament and courage in the face of it, can help us see Jesus’s sacrifice with greater empathy and complexity. Perhaps her story ought to be remembered in our Communion liturgy and Good Friday services.
Jephthah’s daughter responds to her father’s careless vow with courage and lament. She sees the despicable thing he has done, and she faces it head on. She asks for time to grieve and lament what is being taken from her. In many ways, it seems she has considered the impact of her father’s vow far more than he did when he made it.
In the courage and grief of Jephthah’s daughter, we are urged to think deeply about the impact of our vows and our choices. We are also encouraged to express the grief that we feel and to make space for lament. Our sorrows are not too much for God to handle. Perhaps, if Jephthah had approached God with grief over his misguided vow, he would have discovered God’s grace and mercy encouraging him to walk away from foolishness and violence. Instead, he followed through with something God never wanted, and Jephthah’s daughter offered lament and courage that showed far more spiritual maturity than that of her father.
As we build God’s church together as siblings in Christ, let us make vows that reject enmity and separation in the Body. Let us also make vows that are more inclusive than exclusive, and let us expect the unexpected in our lives together. These are the sacrifices God desires, born out of a broken heart and contrite spirit that centers God, who by the Spirit helps us keep our vows.
Encourage elders and deacons to keep their vows to the church. Allow the church and parents to keep their baptismal vows to their children. Remember Jephthah’s daughter’s sacrifice when we gather at the Lord’s Table. May her life and her death (and ours, too) find redemption and purpose in Christ as we keep the vows we make to each other and to the Lord.
- Consider the promises and vows you have made to God recently. Ask yourself these questions: Am I vowing to do something that pleases God? Are my vows consistent with God’s character? Does God desire or require the offering I am making with my vow?
- Have you ever found yourself in Jephthah’s or his daughter’s shoes? Have you ever sacrificed your loved ones’ well-being for your own rash decision? Or have you been sacrificed by one you love for what seemed to you a foolish reason? What can we learn from this story on how to process these experiences?
- Where do you find hope in this story?
- What surprised you in this Bible study session?
- What do you hear the Spirit saying to you/your family/your church/your community?
Rev. Dr. Denise Kingdom Grier is the pastor of mobilization and renewal at Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. She is also RCA Global Mission’s coordinator for Setshabelo Family and Child Services in the Free State Province in South Africa. Rev. Dr. Grier graduated from Western Theological Seminary with both the master of divinity and doctorate of ministry degrees. She is a longtime student of the Word who brings dynamic and prophetic insights to her preaching, teaching, and pastoral life. She lives in Holland, Michigan, with her daughter Gezelle, son Chris, and doggie-woggie Kgabani.
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