Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


The story of Jephthah and his daughter has elements of drama, beginning with the difficult conditions of his early life.   His history begins with eviction from his home and family, a son of a prostitute/concubine driven out by his half-brothers. Yet after this loss of place and status, by his own strength and prowess he became a chieftain in his father's clan of Gileadites and eventually a judge in Israel.

     Jephthah was appointed to command the fighting men of Gilead against the Ammonites, who were attacking them. Before engaging the enemy in battle and after we are told that ‘the spirit of God was on Jephthah’ (11:29)

he promises the pay a price for victory: And Jephthah made the following vow to the Lord. "If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's, and shall be offered by me as a ‘olah’" (Judges 11:31-32).  Did Jephthah not know what we knew that god had already promised him victory? Or did he need further guarantees?

What living creature could he have expected to come first out of his house?  Animals were not kept inside houses, so should he not have expected it to be a human being – his wife, his daughter, a servant or slave?  (Augustine in The City of God suggests that he intended to kill his wife.1)  As it happens, that is his daughter, his only child, come to meet him with  dancing and playing upon a timbrel – the customary way for women to greet the return of a victorious hero. (Miriam dances after the victory over the Red Sea (Ex. 15:20) as did David when bringing the Ark to Jerusalem (IISam. 6:14).

Jephthah at once shifts the responsibility from his own folly onto her:  "Alas, daughter! You have brought me low; you have become one of those who trouble me! For I have uttered a vow to the Lord and I cannot retract" (v. 11:35).   The end of the story is stated almost evasively  . . .  he did to her as he had vowed (v. 39).

      Jephthah made a rash and thoughtless vow or promise, as others had done but without the calamitous consequences.  Caleb had declared made a vow "I will give my daughter Acsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher" (Josh. 15:16).  By good chance, that man was an eligible and suitable husband for Acsah.  Another rash vow   was made by King Saul before entering into battle against the Philistines: "Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!"  (I Sam. 14:24).  When he learned that his son Jonathan, who had not heard this decree, had eaten some honey he threatened to put him to death, but was prevented by his own men. The rash vow closest to that of Jephthah is found not in the Bible but in Greek mythology: Idomoneus, King of Crete, caught in a storm at sea vowed to the god Poseidon that if he reached shore safely he would sacrifice the first creature he saw – who turned out to be his young son. He however, refused to carry out his vow, a plague ensued and he was exiled.

     In the Bible the major tale involving sacrifice of a child by a father is the Akedah of Isaac. However the Lord's command to Abraham is rescinded and the son saved (Gen. 22:1-18). (2) Another Greek parallel to child sacrifice is Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to be sacrificed to appease the goddess Artemis. The purpose of this sacrifice was for the Greeks to begin a war over their enemies, the Trojans.  According to Aeschylus tale (in ‘Agamemnon’) she begged her father for her life. In Euripides version (‘Iphigenia in Tauris’) she accepts her fate and in fact beseeches her father to accomplish the act. Iphigenia’s mother Clytemnestra totally rejected her husband’s action and conspired to murder him in revenge. How did Jephthah’s wife react to her husband’s vow and her daughter’s reaction?

      In the case of Saul and Jonathan, the King's own men prevented the execution. It seems that there was no attempt to stop Jephthah, not even by the daughter's own friends and kin.  Why did not anyone of his associates remind him that human sacrifice was forbidden to the Israelites  (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31, 18:10) ? Ester Fuchs asks why the daughter did not appeal to Israelite morality, rather than respond by quoting his "‘I have opened my mouth to the Lord’ (Jud. 11:35-36) and thus my death is ordained? Was she volunteering for martyrdom and if so why (3)?


Would a vow to commit a grave sin – sacrifice of one’s child – be valid? Must a vow be fulfilled regardless of the consequences?  The sacrifice of Isaac, often compared to the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter took place before the laws given at the hand of Moses and in any event is introduced as a test of Abraham’s faith (Gen. 22:1). The Mishna (the first code of Jewish law) which was composed 1500 years after the period of Jephthah states that a vow to commit an act in direct violation of a halakha (Jewish law) is an invalid vow (Mishna Nedarim 2:1). The Talmud states that Jephthah’s vow was invalid (JT Pesah, 9:6) but assumed that nonetheless Jephthah sacrificed his daughter. Why does the text not condemn this vow? Jon Levenson suggests that despite the Torah condemning human sacrifice the redemption of the first born (Ex. 13:2) was sometimes seen via an appropriate sacrifice (4)

The theme of violence is the central core of the book of Judges. The book as a whole seems to suggest that the Israelites, instead of rejecting the idolatry and pagan morality of the neighborhood they conquered, adopted them. One commentator suggests that Jephthah sacrificing his daughter is the quintessential symbol of that adoption (5)


   The text does not state explicitly that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter, but only that ‘ he did to her as he had vowed’ (v. 39). This ambiguity allows a fascinating debate to arise. He had vowed to offer her as an olah.’ Does that Hebrew word mean only a "burnt offering," or a "consecrated offering" of some other kind.

For the first millennium of the Common Era,  Jewish commentators unanimously (insofar as is known to us) interpreted the text literarily:  that Jephthah put his daughter to death.  This includes non-rabbinic sources such as Josephus and Pseudo-Philo, the latter of whom draws a comparison of the fate of Jephthah’s daughter to the near death of Isaac.


   The comparison lies in both experiences bearing a value of atonement.  But a midrash states that God tells Jephthah's daughter that her death would have no value of atonement (6). These authors would almost certainly be aware of the Christian concept regarding Jephthah’s daughter as not only having value of atonement but foreshadowing the crucifixion of Jesus.  

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.

     The first Jewish commentator to suggest the alternative of a different mode of consecration was Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1184).  According to Ibn Ezra, the vow implied that the first thing to appear if appropriate would be sacrificed, if not it would be consecrated for holiness, with the key words being "if appropriate."  This approach increases the options for the exegete’s interpretation, but of course those words do not appear in the text. We shall see below how another exegete found a textual justification for a non-sacrificial mode.    Ibn Ezra then continues that Jephthah built daughter a house outside the city for seclusion and provided her sustenance all the days of her life (7).

     David Kimche (Radak - 1160-1235) states in the name of his father Joseph that the ‘ve’ in ‘ve’ha’ali’tahu olah’ makes it conditional, interpreting the letter ‘vuv’ to mean ‘if.’  He stresses that ‘if’ it is an appropriate sacrifice then it will be a burnt offering,  and ‘if’ not it would be consecrated to God. Defining the ‘vuv’ as ‘if’ – rather than the conjunctive ‘and’ – is not a usual interpretation of that letter in that context. Kimche despite living in Provencal was influenced by the grammatical work of the Andalusion Ibn Ezra. Kimche stated that "she secluded herself as do ascetics who are enclosed in their cells" (8)

     One must understand the historical atmosphere reigning in this era in order to grasp the context of this interpretation. The period 1080-1170 was the time of greatest growth of monastic life for women in Spain, England, France and Italy. According to a study noted by Berman there were in fact more female recluses than males ones in the period being discussed (9)


Gersonides (1288-1344) and Abarbanel (1437-1508) adopted the consecration ideal as against the sacrificial one (10). The former suggests that a male would be dedicated to the Tabernacle, not unlike a Levite or Priest, despite the rule that only a member of the hereditary line of Levi could be so dedicated. In the case of a woman, she would be required to be celibate, and that Jephthah built a cell for his daughter. Abarbanel states that the Church "derived the practice of establishing houses of seclusion for women from the daughter of Jephthah” (11)   He states also that the daughter could not even see her female friends who come the four days of the year to visit her, but only hear their voices. That may have come from the Ancrene Riwle well known at the time, that prohibited Christian anchoresses from viewing other persons even in confession (12), and believes she chose the site for her cell during the two months she wandered on the mountains.  

     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, although Jeremiah in noted as a celibate prophet and priest (Jer. 16:2). Given that these Jewish commentators lived in areas where women's  convents were established, it is difficult to believe, as noted by Berman, that they were not influenced by Christian women’s monastic ideals (13).  


    ‘Whatever will emerge from the door of my house to meet me  . . .  shall belong to God and I shall offer to consecrate’ (Jud. 11:30)  The Hebrew words are ve’ha’ali’tahu olah, almost identical God's command to Abraham,‘ve’ha’ali’hu le’olah’ on the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:2).  Rashi wrote in reference to Abraham and the sacrifice that the word ‘le’oleh.’ although usually translated ‘for a burnt offering,’ comes from a root meaning "going up" and may have meant "take him up." Thus, he proposes that God may have requested Abraham simply to take Isaac ‘up’ to Mount Moriah, perhaps for a direct  blessing and now ‘take him down (14).

      In many ways the stories of Abraham and Jephthah are mirror opposites of each other.

    * Abraham is the eldest son of a respectable family, while Jephthah is illegitimate.

    * Abraham’s child is named Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter is unnamed.

    * God is testing Abraham’s faith, Jephthah vow originated from perhaps his lack of faith that he could be assured of victory without it.

    * Abraham consoles his son ‘God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering’ (Gen. 22:8).  Jephthah not does not console his daughter, he bemoans his own fate and puts the  blame on her.

    * An Angel appears to save Isaac, girls appear to lament Jephthah’s daughter.

    * Abraham's story is told clearly. Jephthah’s story is full of ambiguities.

*  Jephthah had no other child, and his vow left him childless and without progeny. Abraham, after the Akedah, leaves many progeny.

*  Abraham’s child is male, Jephthah’s is female.

   Despite one dying and one saved both are seen by Christian commentators as having atoning value and as a foreshadowing Jesus’ crucifixion.


There is no punishment of Jephthah in the biblical text, but the midrash suggests he was punished.  Phineas, the local priest, could have  saved the daughter by annulling the vow, as in talmudic times a High Priest could annul a vow.  But instead, he said, ‘I am a High Priest,   the son of a High Priest, shall I go an ignoramus?’ He was insulting Jephthah who in turn responded by saying ‘I am the chief of Israel,   shall I go to Phineas’ (Gen. Rabbah 60:3)  Thus the daughter lost her life. Both Phineas and Jephthah were condemned and punished.

    According to the biblical text, when Jephthah dies  ‘he was buried in the cities [plural] of Gilead’ (12:7) According to the Midrash, that is because his parts disintegrated and were in the cities where they fell (Gen. Rabba 60:3,   Lev. Rabba 37:4). The former midrash tells us Phineas lost his Divine inspiration as a result of not acting to save Jephthah’s daughter.


(1)  Quoted in Thompson, John, L., ‘Writing the Wrongs’ (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001) pg 126.

(2) In another such deed King Mesha of Moab, who to save himself from defeat by his foes sacrificed his son the crown prince; but he was a pagan  (II Kings 3:27).   

(3) Ester Fuchs in ‘Marginalization, Ambiguity and Silencing’, in Brenner, Athalya, ed. ‘A Feminist Companion To Judges’, JSOT, Sheffield University Press, Sheffield, 1993) pg. 125.

(4) Levenson, Jon, D., The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1993) pg. 16.

(5) David Janzen, ‘Why the Deuteronomist Told about the Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter’, The Journal of the Study of the Old Testament, Vol. 29, March, 2005, pg. 35-36.

(6) Ginzberg, Louis,  Legends of the Jews, JPS, Philadelphia, 1967) Vol. IV, pg. 43-47, VI pg. 203.

(7) Joshua Berman, ‘Medieval Monasticism’, Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 95, Spring 2005, pg. 227.

(8) From Uriel Simon, ‘Tehillah La Moshe, (Hebrew) translated by Joshua Berman, and quoted in ‘Medieval Monasticism’, pg. 230. Also see Mehlman, Israel, Jephthah and Jephthah’s Daughter, (World Jewish Bible Society, Jerusalem, 1962) pg.  21-23.

(9) Berman, pg. 253.

(10) Berman, pg 230 and Marcus, David, Jephthah and his Vow, (Texas Tech Press, Lubbock, Texas, 1986) pgs. 8-9.

(11) Berman, pg. 230.

(12) The ‘Ancrene Riwle’ of which many texts still survive was a well known thirteen century manual for anchoresses.

(13) This is well documented by the Berman article noted above. It is interesting that Jephthah’s virginity appears as a key ideal of holiness while her grandmother, Jephthah’s mother is noted as the mirror image, a prostitute.  A prostitute is in some occasions in the Hebrew Bible called ‘Hakodasha’ the holy one as when Tamar acted as a prostitute to seduce Judah (Gen. 38:21). It refers to be consecrated to a Temple as a holy prostitute.

(14) See the article by the author in the Jewish Bible Quarterly ‘Abraham’s Moment of Decision’ Vol. XXXV:1 (137), pg. 56-59.  I should note that Rashi assumed that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter.