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Weeping with Jephthah’s Daughter

Today is the day between… The Sabbath between.

            Yesterday was Good Friday.

            Tomorrow will be Resurrection Day.

            Today is the day between…

What do we do, as people of faith, on the in-between day?


I met Melodye when she was 15 and I was 22. 

Having just completed college, I had become an associate pastor at her local Adventist church.

Since I was the only female pastor, and the staff member closest to her age, Melodye’s mom thought we might hit it off.  We did.

I’m glad her mom told me, before we met, that Melodye was undergoing treatment for leukemia, although I’d have quickly known that the first time I saw her.

As our friendship grew during her last seven months, Melodye trusted me with some of her questions and fears and hopes.

She’d never kissed a boy, and she wanted to know what that was like…

She worried about her mother, a single-parent, and her two little brothers.

She tried not to question God, but why weren’t the prayers of so many on her behalf being answered?

When Melodye died, her mom asked if I would join her as she went to make the funeral arrangements.

            I watched a heart in agony. 

She was a parent who had done all she could to save her daughter; now she would do anything to have her back.


Which is one of the reasons I have such a hard time with the story of Jephthah;

a strange, difficult story I’ve been thinking about a lot since my Sabbath School class discussed it two months ago.

If you’ve ever read the section of Judges 11 just prior to our scripture reading today, you know that Jephthah’s childhood was extremely painful.  I feel sorry for him, I really do.

The son of a prostitute, his half-brothers banished him from their homeland, not wanting to share their inheritance with him.

Without a family, Jephthah got into a rough crowd.  And became known as a “mighty warrior.”

When some of Israel’s enemies became aggressive, Jephthah’s brothers, now needing his skills as a warrior, went and begged him to return to fight their enemies, the Ammonites.

Jephthah agrees to return only if, upon his military success, he is granted leadership over them.

They eagerly meet his conditions, even making him their leader before the battle!

After a courageous but failed attempt to deal with the Ammonites using diplomatic skills, Jephthah is on his way to war. 

Even though the story makes it clear that God is already with him, Jephthah makes a vow to the Lord—If God will give him victory, he will sacrifice to God whoever first comes out of his house to meet him.

Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, and returns home triumphant.

But, his mood drastically changes when his daughter, his only child, runs out of their house to greet him.

Jephthah immediately blames her for coming out of the house, not himself for making the vow (Schneider, 179).

This story is one of the chapters Phyllis Trible considers in her book, Texts of Terrors

This story is a text of terror, as both Jephthah and his daughter agree to honor his vow. 

After two months of wandering on the mountains, weeping with her girlfriends at her death so early in life, Jephthah’s daughter returns to her father and he sacrifices her as a burnt offering.

The Lost Daughters of China

A recent work by Karin Evans, called The Lost Daughters of China, helps me have a bit more sympathy for Jephthah.

In 1980, China enacted the one-child policy.

In a culture where “son preference” is particularly important due to the security and social benefits a son gives his parents and extended family, imagine the ramifications when the first child, the only child allowed by the government, is a girl…

No one knows how many newborn girls have been killed during the last 30 years.

Those abandoned in marketplaces and along roads sometimes have heart wrenching notes attached:

“I am heartbroken to give her up.  But in China women have no power, and I have no choice.  I hope someone will care for her” (89-90).

“This baby girl is now 100 days old.  She is in good health and has never suffered any illness.  Due to the current political situation and heavy pressures that are difficult to explain, we, who were her parents for these first days, cannot continue taking care of her.  We can only hope that in this world there is a kindhearted person who will care for her.  Thank you.  In regret and shame, your father and mother” (90).

What does one do when your heart says to save your child, but your culture demands you sacrifice her?

I find myself arguing with him:  Repent, Jephthah!

Repent of your foolish vow. Ask God for forgiveness…

  • for your insecurities;
  • for your desire to succeed in war;
  • for your longing to look good in front of your half-brothers…

Don’t kill your daughter for your own insecurity issues.

But it’s probably not fair for me to psycho-analyze him as if he were living today.

Jephthah really believed that his word, having gone up to his god, must be fulfilled.

One can imagine his conviction, especially in his historical context.  We may even call it “honorable.”

What does one do when your heart says to save your child, but your culture demands you sacrifice her?

            It’s a dilemma I don’t pretend to understand.

Bad Theology

But I do fault Jephthah’s theology – his view of God.

His vow exposed his bad theology.

He promised to sacrifice to god, if god granted him victory in battle.

The spirit of the Lord had already been given but, as Phyllis Trible states:

“Jephthah desires to bind God rather than embrace the gift of the spirit.  What comes to him freely, he seeks to earn and manipulate.  The meaning of his words is doubt, not faith; it is control, not courage” (97).

And God doesn’t respond to the vow.

Although debated, Jephthah most likely thought the first one out of his house would be a person, perhaps a slave.

It was the custom for female members of the household to come out of their homes to meet the returning warriors.

An animal sacrifice wouldn’t have been unusual. 

As a leader, Jephthah was making a greater sacrifice, giving an even better one. 

States one commentator: “he takes the extreme step of vowing a human sacrifice” (New Oxford Annotated Bible 1962:310n, in Lillian R. Klein, The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges, 1989; footnote 13, pages 221).

But Yahweh never asked for human sacrifices.

Since staying the hand of Abraham coming down upon his son Isaac, Israel’s tradition was one where God received an animal substitute for one’s firstborn. 

Unlike the nations all around them, Israel’s God asked for sacrifices of animals as gratitude for victory.  Those participating in the sacrifice killed the animal, and then ate before God in gratitude for God’s goodness…God’s protection; God’s providence.

Jephthah’s vow to sacrifice was not about gratitude, but as part of a contract with God modeled more on the surrounding tribes, than on belief in Yahweh.

Jephthah was acting more like a Moabite king described in 2 Kings 3:26-27. 

            Who, when the battle was going against him, advanced 700 of his swordsmen,

            but when they are unable to make a difference in the battle,

He makes the agonizing decision to take his firstborn son, the one representing his own future, and offered his son as a burnt offering to his gods.

            Perhaps if you give the gods your best, your own child… the gods will listen.

Over and over again in Scripture, Yahweh values human life, and abhors human sacrifices…

Torah says (Lev 18:21; 20:2-5) – it is a violation of God’s will to sacrifice one’s children to foreign gods

In Israel it was to be different—God asked for the firstborns to be redeemed.

In Torah (Exodus 13:2, 13) – there is an emphasis that the firstborn, the one who “opened the womb” – was God’s. 

Firstborn animals were God’s to be given as sacrifices.

Firstborn people were God’s too.  But they were not to be killed, they were to be redeemed.

The name Jephthah means “he opens” – suggesting that Jephthah himself was a firstborn;

            he opened the womb; he himself, was redeemed, not sacrificed.

The same was true of daughters who opened the womb.

There’s every indication that Jephthah’s daughter was also a firstborn.

At her birth, she had been redeemed, not sacrificed. 

Didn’t Jephthah recall this?

Instead, he “opened his mouth” and made a vow – one that was unnecessary and reckless;

            – this language is never used for a vow in all the rest of Scripture.

When Jephthah and his daughter “opened the wombs” of their mothers, they were protected.

But Jephthah’s “opening his mouth” has led to his daughter’s death.

A Targum, a Jewish commentary, on this story, (called the Targum of Jonathan to the Prophets [a document written no later than the 3rd century]), states:

and it became a decree in Israel, so that no man should offer up his son or his daughter as a burnt offering, as Jephthah the Gileadite without consulting Phineas the priest; for if he had consulted Phineas the priest, he would have redeemed her for money” (Leivy Smolar & Moses Aberbach, Studies in Targum Jonathan to the Prophets, 1983:10; in Klein, page 93).

There are references in Deuteronomy (12:31; 18:10) and Jeremiah (7:21) and Ezekiel (16:20-21; 23:39)…

Human sacrifice is not the way of Yahweh.

Jephthah should have known his own tradition better.

Many have noted the downward spiral in the book of Judges…as goes the treatment of women, so goes the society of Israel.  This story, in the heart of Judges, is a key point in the book, when a judge of Israel sacrifices his own daughter. Only once in all of Scripture, is a child sacrificed to Yahweh: this young woman.

J Clinton McCann says this in his commentary:

Jephthah’s story in its present canonical context thus has the effect of portraying Jephthah as a faithful Ammonite rather than a faithful Israelite! (84)

It was the Ammonite god Molech who asked for human sacrifices (Lev 18:21; 20:2-5).

            The Ammonites were the ones being aggressive against Israel.

            The ones Jephthah was asked to fight!

            As Jephthah goes to war against them, he adopts their horrendous theology.

When she learned about his vow, Jephthah’s daughter asked for two months.

Jephthah had two months.

Two months to consider the awesome choice before him.

Two months to learn the ways of Yahweh.

Two months to remember the redemption of firstborns…

Two months to remember the story of Abraham, whose faithfulness and devotion pleased God; but when God speaks, it is to stop human sacrifice, and to provide an animal substitute.

Jephthah had two months…

But when his daughter returned from weeping in the mountains, he sacrificed her.

After this act, God doesn’t speak, doesn’t act again in Jephthah’s story.

God doesn’t speak during the grotesque sacrifice, nor is God recorded as speaking during the next six years while Jephthah is judge in Israel.

It is dangerous to be ignorant of our traditions; our heritage.

Bad theology can be deadly.

Even sincere bad theology can be deadly.

A Tradition of Tears

Notice the end of the story (vs. 39b-40):

So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

One possible translation of the Hebrew reads: “she became a tradition in Israel.”

States Trible: “Death and silence are not…the final words of the story….” (106).

            Even though childless, she is remembered.

            The women of Israel remembered her for four days each year.

While Samuel’s farewell speech (I Samuel 12), and the writer of Hebrews remember Jephthah,

            the women of Israel remember his daughter.

Old Testament professor Renita Weems reflects on this story in the context of the role of weeping among ancient women.

Some women would weep together, sharing “one another’s grief” (Weems, Just a Sister Away, 1988; 58).

This role in the community was called by some, “the ministry of weeping with God” (Weems, 61).

Weems says:

But more than a young woman’s virginity was lamented out there on those mountains.  The daughter of Jephthah and her girlfriends huddled in a circle and wept over more than children unborn and ecstasy unexperienced.  Each of her girlfriends knew that what was about to happen to Jephthah’s daughter could happen—without warning—to any one of them.


For every woman who lives in a society which values notions more than it does women, lives with the risk of annihilation.


So, the women cried inconsolable tears that day.  They wept for Jephthah’s daughter.  They wept for themselves.  And they wept for their daughters’ daughters.  They knew that the worst lie of all was that, in the end, this would not be the daughter’s story, but the father’s.  So, they wept for a name never known and a whole story that would never be told.  And the silent horror of it all would drive them back out to those mountains year after year to cry all over again (Weems, 61).

For four days each year, women in Israel got together to weep…and to wonder…

Why didn’t God stay the hand of Jephthah coming down upon his daughter as God had stayed Abraham’s?

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken her?” (Trible)

Where was God …when Jephthah’s daughter was crying in the hills…?

Where is God… when the unnamed women of all ages are sacrificed over foolish decisions;

               recipients of violence orchestrated by others…?

Where is God…

            …when children’s lives are cut short…having experienced the unspeakable…?

            …that must be spoken.

            …that must be wept over

In their yearly weeping, the women of Israel remembered Jephthah’s daughter…

For weeping is a way to resist bad theology and its deadly results…

Clinton McCann talks about Jephthah’s daughter as a type of Jesus –

            she did nothing wrong, yet, due to human misunderstanding and faithlessness to God,

                        she is killed, sacrificed.

And, she is remembered.  (Judges, Interpretation, 1989. Page 88)

Today is the day between… The Sabbath between.

            Yesterday was Good Friday.

            Tomorrow will be Resurrection Day.

            Today is the day between…

What do we do, as people of faith, on the in-between day?

Perhaps the most faithful way to interpret this story, this in-between story, is to weep…

As the preachers say: “Sunday’s a-comin’!”

But it’s not here yet.  And Friday is still on our minds…

            Jesus’ death

            and the death of Jephthah’s daughter…

            and Wally… and…

There is a time to mourn…

To weep for Jesus, dying on a cross…

To weep for fifteen-year-olds lost to leukemia…

To weep for the lost daughters of China…

To weep for Jephthah’s daughter…

            and all the daughters & sons who have died because of foolish vows and bad theology.

To weep for all the daughters & sons who have left the church because of foolish vows and bad theology.

During the in between day… we weep.

This, too, is part of our tradition;

            part of our sacred texts;

            part of being faithful to Yahweh.


Recently I’ve discovered the National Christian Choir’s performance of the song, “Was it a morning like this?” arranged by Keith Christopher.  I’ve played it dozens of times this week.

It’s imagining the first Resurrection morning, that early Sunday, after a weekend of weeping…

The song’s lyrics read:

Was it a morning like this when the Son still hid from Jerusalem?

And Mary rose from her bed to tend the Lord she thought was dead?

Was it a morning like this when Mary walked down from Jerusalem,

and two angels stood at the tomb, bearers of news she would hear soon?


Did the grass sing, did the earth rejoice to feel You again?

Over and over like a trumpet underground, did the earth seem to pound, “He is risen!”

Over and over in a never ending round, “He is risen, Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!”

In this arrangement, the choir then goes into the hymn: “Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Alleluia!

During the in between day…we weep.

But in the morning, there is joy.

In the morning, there is “Alleluia!”

In the morning,

            there is a new heaven and a new earth.

            “For the first heaven and the first earth will have passed away, and the sea will be no more.

In the morning,

            the New Jerusalem comes out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  

In the morning,

            a loud voice from the throne says:

                        See!  The home of God is among mortals.

                        He will dwell with them as their God;

                        they will be his people,

                        and God himself will be with them;

In the morning,

            God will wipe every tear from their eyes.

            Death with be no more.

            Weeping and crying and pain will be no more,

            for the first things have passed away.

In the morning,

            God says:

            Behold, I make all things new.”


—Kendra Haloviak Valentine, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of New Testament Studies at La Sierra University. She preached this sermon on April 23, 2011, at the Glendale City Seventh-day Adventist Church. 

Image: Cassie McDaniel, Jephthah’s Daughter.

Works Cited:

Evans, Karin.  The Lost Daughters of China.  Rev. ed. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008

Klein, Lillian R.  The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges.  Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 68.  Series editors, David J. A. Clines and Philip R. Davies.  Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989.

McCann, J. Clinton.  Judges.  Interpretation.  Series editor, James Luther Mays.  Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002.

Schneider, Tammi J.  Judges.  Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry.  Series editor, David W. Cotter.  Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000.

Trible, Phyllis.  Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.  Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984.

Weems, Renita.  Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible.  San Diego, CA: LuraMedia, 1988.

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