Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


The story of Jephthah’s daughter has elements of drama, family relations, violence, heroism and the ambiguities and hermeneutics of a biblical text.  Jephthah vows to God that in exchange for Israel’s victory over the Ammonites he will sacrifice whosoever walks from the door of his house. Jephthah is victorious. His unnamed daughter, his sole child, comes out dancing with a timbrel to celebrate her father’s victory.


Who is the tragic figure in the story; Jephthah or his unnamed daughter?

The unnamed daughter has an unnamed mother as well as grandmother; the latter being a prostitute (Jephthah’s mother) and consequently her father despite being the chief of the Gileadites is illegitimate. Before his fame as a warrior his own half-brothers had expelled him from the family home likely with their mother’s approval. Gilead, Jephthah’s father had brought him into the family home as his child. Was Gilead still alive when his son was expelled, did he approve? One may draw a parallel: When Sarah expelled Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, the concubine, from their home, Abraham ‘was greatly distressed’ (Gen. 21:11). Given that Gilead invited his ‘prostitute’s’ son into his home was she perhaps a concubine more like Hagar?

Despite this loss of place and status, Jephthah by his own strength and prowess became a chieftain in his father's clan of Gileadites and eventually a judge in Israel.

Several commentators have suggested that the text reads as if Jephthah is the tragic figure (Robinson, Booke, Fuchs). An ancient Christian writer, Ephraem states the Jephthah was ‘a righteous priest offering a sacrifice’ of his daughter; Aphraates another ancient Christian commentator suggests Jephthah was persecuted as was Jesus, for a sacrifice to his ‘Father’ (Robinson: 345-346).

Of the three persons fated to be sacrificed in the Bible; Isaac, Jonathan and Jephthah’s daughter, the first is rescued by God (Gen. 22:11-12), the second is rescued with the help of the ‘people’(I Sam. 14:46), the sole child to be apparently sacrificed is the sole female, Jephthah’s daughter. (There is another example of a son sacrificed to appease the gods but he is a pagan, in fact a Moabite (II Ki. 3:27).

Jephthah’s daughter was surrounded by female friends – yet they did not protest the incumbent sacrifice. This greatly contrasts with the reaction of the people of Israel when King Saul opts to execute his son who had unwittingly consumed honey on a day that he, the King had declared a fast day. The newly appointed King and father of Jonathan is prepared to execute Jonathan for this infraction. However the people rebel and refuse to allow the execution (I Sam. 14:43-45). Why did Jephthah’s daughter’s friends not react as the people did with Jonathan and attempt to dissuade him from sacrificing his daughter? Might this be because she was a woman and Jonathan a man? In those days women were more expendable than men.

Two feminists writers (Bal:10, Fuchs:125) suggest that having an only child who was female was in ancient days already considered a tragedy. Had Jephthah’s daughter lived and married his line was already doomed; his name would not survive him. 

Fuchs has noted the extraordinary request of Jephthah’s daughter, to freely wander the hills with no male supervisors.  Women were not independent in those days but the distinct property of their father and later of their husband. Perhaps Jephthah granted his daughter this freedom was not unconnected to his guilt at intending to sacrifice her.

Jephthah’s daughter may well have not been cognizant of her father’s vow (as was the case with Jonathan). Women were in the main ensconced at home and often not informed of public proclamations. However a military victory would become common knowledge even among womenfolk. Fuchs asks why did the daughter not quote Hebrew morality against human sacrifice? Why did she respond with ‘You have made open your mouth to the Lord, treat me as you have promised’ (Jud. 11:36)?  Was she volunteering for martyrdom and if so why? According to a Midrash she considered herself like Isaac consenting to be sacrificed. As an alternative the Midrash suggested that unlike Isaac her sacrifice was happening by chance; she simply walked out the door.  (Ginzburg:44-47). As a result of the first statement Jewish midrashim named her Sheilah from the root Hebrew ‘sha’ol’ meaning to ask or demand.

Iphigenia the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra was condemned by her father 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? Thomas C. Romer suggests (with no obvious evidence) that the author of the Jephthah story was aware of the Iphigenia story and specifically of the Euripides version (Romer:34-35).


Would a vow to commit a grave sin – sacrifice of one’s child – be valid? Must a vow be fulfilled regardless of the consequences?

In the story we are told that ‘the spirit of God was on Jephthah’ (11:29). This suggests that God had already predetermined Israel’s victory over the Ammonites. Jephthah then says ‘If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then whatever comes out of my door . . . shall be offered by me as a consecrated offering’ (11:30-31).

 Why does Jephthah not simply embrace God’s spirit in lieu of adding a rash vow? Did he not have sufficient faith in God – why the need for an additional guarantee? Who did he expect would come out of the door of his house other than his unnamed wife or only child? The ‘door’ suggests a person rather than an animal.

Jephthah’s response to the appearance of his daughter exiting the door to celebrate her father’s victory is ‘Oh my daughter, what misery you have brought me! You have joined those who brought misery into my life!’ (11:35). Those who have previously brought him misery were presumably his half brothers, his step-mother, the elders of Gideon’s tribe, the Ammonites and perhaps his father whose position about his exile we do not know. Is the daughter in fact responsible for his making a rash vow? Jephthah then tears his clothing as a sign of mourning for his only child’s imminent death.

Human sacrifice is clearly forbidden by the Torah: Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31, 18:10. However violence is one of the central themes of the book of Judges. The book as a whole seems to suggest that the Hebrews instead of rejecting the idolatry and pagan morality of the newly conquered population adopted them. Note the last sections of the Book of Judges; the chopping up of a woman into twelve pieces (19:29-30), the raping of women of Shiloh (21:22-23) and the final verse ‘everyone did as he saw fit (21:25). One commentator suggests that Jephthah sacrificing his daughter is a quintessential symbol of this moral degeneration (Janzen:35-36).

The sacrifice of Isaac, often compared to the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter took place before the laws given at Mt. Sinai 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 approximately 1500 years after the period of Jephthah states that vows to commit an act in direct violation of a halakha (Jewish law) is an invalid vow (Mishna Nedarim 2:1). The Talmud agrees 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 (Levenson:16) perhaps especially in the time of the Book of Judges.

Despite no explicit punishment mentioned in the Biblical text the midrash 

in fact suggests that Jephthah was indeed punished. In the Talmudic days the High Priest possessed the power to absolve vows. Thus the High Priest Phineas who served at the time of Jephthah could in fact have saved the daughter by revoking the vow. Phineas however resisted doing so since Jephthah did not come to me him to request a revocation ‘I am a High Priest, the son of a High Priest, shall I go an ignoramus’? This being an insult to Jephthah he in turn responded by saying ‘I am the chief of Israel, shall I go to Phineas’ (Gen. Rabbah 60:3) Thus the daughter’s life was tragically lost through a male honor’s game. Both Phineas and Jephthah were condemned and punished.


According to the Biblical text Jephthah dies and ‘he was buried in the cities (plural) of Gilead’ (12:7). That is because according to the midrash his limbs fell off as punishment from God in different cities and were buried in each respective city 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 (Ecclesiastes Rabba, 12:15). Augustine assumed the death of Jephthah’s daughter was indeed his punishment (Thompson:126).


When Jephthah’s daughter returned after her two months of freedom: Jephthah ‘treated her as he vowed and she did not know a man (Jud. 11:39)’.

The text does not state that Jephthah explicitly sacrificed his daughter but rather stresses that he did as he had vowed and she remained a virgin throughout her life. This ambiguity allowed a fascinating debate to arise; does the word ‘olah’ in Hebrew mean dedicated to God as a ‘burnt offering’ or a ‘consecrated’ offering in some other sense. The Torah notes the vow of a ‘nazir’ referred to as a form of ‘holiness’ or ‘consecration’. A nazir requires one not to cut ones hair nor drink wine and like a priest is forbidden to come in touch with a dead body (Num. 6:1-21). Jewish commentators usually (although not always – see Rashi below re Abraham and Isaac) assumed ‘olah’ meant a burnt offering. Jerome in his authoritative vulgate translates ‘olah’ as ‘burnt sacrifice to the Lord’ (11:31).

Despite Jewish and Christian commentators at times not defining a text literally, for the first millennium of the current era both interpreted this text literally; i.e. Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to death. 



For the first millennium of this era Jewish commentators unanimously (insofar as is known to us) interpreted the text literarily that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to death. This includes non-Rabbinic sources such as Josephus and Pseudo-Philo. The latter draws a comparison between  Jephthah’s daughter and the near death of Isaac (Thompson:110). The comparison lies in both experiences bearing an atoning value. The Hebrew Bible includes animal sacrifice as potentially having atoning value - the ‘para adumah’ the red heifer’s (Num. 19:2) and the goat Azazel (Lev. 16:8-10) – but not human sacrifice. A midrash states that God appears and tells the Jephthah’s daughter that her death would have no atoning value (Ginzberg:43-47). The author was probably aware of the Christian concept regarding Jephthah’s daughter as not only having atoning value but additionally  foreshadowing Jesus’ crucifixion.

In the Middle Ages many highly respected Jewish commentators were unwilling to tolerate the concept of completing 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 sacrificed her to death. This was considered a preferable alternative despite the fact that the 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. According to Ibn Ezra the central words are ‘if appropriate’. This approach increases the options for the exegete’s interpretation. However these words do not appear in the text. We shall see in a moment how an additional exegete found a textual justification for a non-sacrificial mode. Ibn Ezra proceeds to suggest that since Jephthah did not sacrifice his daughter he built her a house outside the city for seclusion and provided her sustenance all the days of her life (Mehlman:21-23).

David Kimche (known as the ‘Radak’, 1160-1235), states in the name of his father Joseph that the ‘ve’ in the ‘ve’ha’ali’tahu olah’ (in Hebrew) grammatically implies the conditional; interpreting the letter (‘vuv’) to mean ‘if’. He stressing the ‘if’; if it is an appropriate sacrifice then it will be a burnt offering, however ‘if’ not it would be consecrated to God. Defining the ‘vuv’ as ‘if’ (as opposed to ‘and’ – the conjunctive) is not a usual translation for the letter in that context. Kimche then states that ‘she secluded herself as do ascetics who are enclosed in their cells’ (Berman:230).

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 period of greatest growth of women’s monastic seclusion in Spain, England, France and Italy (Berman:239). According to a study noted by Berman there were in fact more female recluses than males ones in the period being discussed (Berman:241-242).

Gersonides (1288-1344) and Abarbanel (1437-1508) adopted the consecration ideal as against the sacrificialists.  The former suggested that if the first to appear were a male he would be dedicated to the tabernacle not unlike a Levite or Priest. This despite that only a member of the hereditary tribe of Levi would be permitted such dedication. In the case of a woman she would be required to be celibate. (Levites and Priests were usually expected to marry.)

Abarbanel states that the Church ‘derived the practice of establishing houses of seclusion for women from the daughter of Jephthah (Berman:230). He stated that the daughter could not even see her female friends who come the four days of the year to visit (Jud. 11:39-40) but only hear their voices. That may have come from the ‘Ancrene Riwle’ (13th century manual for anchoresses) well known at the time and which prohibited anchoresses from viewing other persons even in Confession (Berman:248). Abarbanel was well versed in Latin and had read many ancient classics as well as medieval Latin texts. He was a true renaissance thinker who comfortably quoting both Aristotle and even Bishops who had converted from Judaism. In his commentaries; one can find complimentary references even to these persons in his writings. He was quoted by Christian exegetes of his time and later. 

According to these commentators Jephthah’s daughter became an anchorite as her form of consecration.  Ibn Ezra, Kimche and Gersonides state that Jephthah built the cell for his daughter. Abarbanel believed she chose the place of cell in her two month trip in the mountains. The non-sacrificial mode among Jewish commentators is now normative.

The extolling of a celibate woman appears nowhere in the Hebrew Bible, although Jeremiah in told by God to be a celibate prophet and priest (Jer. 16:1). Given that these Jewish commentators lived in areas were women’s monasteries were established it is difficult to believe that these Jewish exegetes were not influenced by Christian women’s monastic ideals. After Jewish commentators adopted the ideal of female asceticism from Christianity Abarbanel reversed the logic and claimed that Christians took the idea of ascetic nuns from Judaism. This cultural adoption of a Christian idea by these Jewish commentators writing at the beginning of the second millennium of the current era is remarkable. 

Of course some well know Jewish commentators rejected this concept. The statement of Ibn Ezra is noted by Nachmonides (1195-1270) in his commentary on Lev. 27:29 who claims that Ibn Ezra’s words are ‘empty’ as such a vow was in any event invalid. Nachmonides understood that Ibn Ezra was taking a Christian concept of holy virginity and becoming a recluse and totally rejected that ideal.


All Christian commentators as far as can be deduced from both ancient and medieval sources condemned Jephthah’s vow but still assumed that he actually sacrificed his daughter to death, similar to the Talmudic sages. There is one noted exception whose source is from a Hebrew commentator– see below). Among the Christian commentators were Origen, Ambrose, Jerome, Chrysostom, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Calvin. Chrysostom refers to Jephthah as ‘a malignant demon’ compares the vow to King Saul fasting vow which resulting in the condemnation of his son Jonathan. He then draws a parallel to Herod’s offer to his daughter that resulted in the beheading of John the Baptist (Thompson:117) Despite that Chrysostom stated that the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter was a ‘striking example of providence and clemency’ preventing other sacrifices (Marcus:8)

Inasmuch as Jesus’ crucifixion is basic to the Christian belief sacrifice Jephthah’s daughter’s would be more readily acceptable as a form of martyrdom. The death of Jephthah’s daughter was considered a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus. This explains the absence of Christian commentators needing to consider the non-sacrificial mode. Peter Abelard however called Jephthah a ‘demented father’ while extolling the daughter as superior to St. Peter in that she would have stood firm in not denying Christ (Thompson:146-147). 

According to the early commentators Jephthah’s daughter was the forerunner of consecrated holy virginity. She later came to be known as a paradigm of Christian virtue for her virginity and for her martyrdom is compared to Christian martyrs. Thus Ephraem states that ‘her pearl, delivered from all dangers remained with her and consoled her’ (Gunn:138).

However Jephthah’s daughter being a Hebrew pre-Christian, bewails the loss of her future motherhood and is not consoled by her virginity; ‘Let me bewail my virginity with my friends for two months’ (11:37). She will never be a mother and bear and bred her own children.

Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1340) a Norman Franciscan was the sole Christian exegete who (prior to the 16th century) radically departed from the traditional Christian interpretation of the text. He proposed that Jephthah’s daughter was consecrated to a life of seclusion and isolation and not sacrificed to death.  ‘Thus Jephthah’s daughter was sacrificed to the Lord through the observation of virginity, to spend her life in prayer and fasting and pious works’. He attributed this interpretation to ‘the Hebrews’ (Thompson:151). Lyra was a renown Hebraists competent in ancient and medieval Hebrew who was able to detect for himself the ambiguities of the original text. He referred extensively to Rashi (1040-1105) the renown medieval Jewish commentator and as well as to additional Jewish exegetes in his commentary of the Hebrew Bible. It appears plausible that he was familiar with the work of Kimche. Thus we may have Kimche borrowing from Christianity and Lyra bringing it back to the Christians.

Lyra used a Christian ideal that she ‘was sacrificed to the Lord’ and did not die. Being monastic is considered being sacrificed to the Lord. Lyre is noted by Abarbanel as the greatest of Christian commentators; this is almost certainly the result of his interpretation vis a vis Jephthah’s daughter.

When in 1534 Sebastian Munster published the anchorite interpretation additional Christian commentators adopted this position. However Luther who was aware of this rejected it as did Calvin (Thompson:155-161).


In a seventh century panel found in St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai  Jephthah is portrayed as a Saint and is shown with Abraham (Robinson:345).

‘[W]hatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me  . . .  shall belong to God and shall be offered to me as a consecration’. (11:30). The latter Hebrew verse is ‘ve’ha’ali’tahu olah’. The words are almost identical to what God commanded Abraham ‘ve’ha’ali’hu le’olah’ (Gen. 22:2) regarding the sacrifice of Isaac.

Rashi wrote in reference to Abraham and the sacrifice that the word ‘le’oleh’ although usually translated ‘for a burnt offering’ comes from the root word meaning going up and may have meant to ‘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’ (Reiss:56-59). Rashi’s interpretation of the sacrifice of Isaac is distinctly non-normative. (Rashi assumed that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter.)

In many ways the Abraham and Jephthah’s story are the mirror opposites of each other.

1. Abraham comes from a respectable family while Jephthah is illegitimate.

2. Abraham’s child is named Isaac, Jephthah’s daughter is unnamed; perhaps related to her father’s illegitimate status.

3. God is testing Abraham’s faith, Jephthah vow can be seen as originated from his lack of faith.

4. Abraham consoles his son ‘God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering’ (Gen. 22:8); Jephthah not does not console his daughter but blames her and bemoans his own fate.

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

6. Abraham description has all the requisite facts to understand the  story and its implications; Jephthah’s story is full of ambiguities.

7. Jephthah daughter was his only child; his vow results in the end of his family line. In the case of Abraham the result is the opposite; his agreement to sacrifice his son Isaac results in countless progeny.

8. Abraham’s child is male- Jephthah’s child is female.

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


The three Abrahamic monotheistic religions have incorporated motifs, concepts symbols even iconography from the others. Christianity is a daughter religion of Judaism and Islam is daughter to both religions. Greek influence is visible in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, possibly (as noted above) in the story of Jephthah and his daughter. The Messianic concepts adopted by both Christianity and Islam originated in Judaism. Specific rituals such as baptism in Christianity and some dietary laws in Islam originated in Judaism. These developments occurred during the early days of Christianity and Islam. What is however more surprising is that Judaism adopted the concepts of asceticism and extolling female virginity from Christianity in the early second millennium of the current era more than two thousand years after the construction of the Hebrew Bible and in fact one thousand years after the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism.

Works cited:

Bal, Mieke, 1988, Death and Dissymmetry, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Berman, Joshua, Spring 2005, Medieval Monasticism, Jewish Quarterly  Review, Vol. 95.

Booke, Deborah, 2006, Sex and Death or The Death of Sex, in Biblical Tradition, eds. Hemple, C. and Liew, J.M., Brill, Leiden.

Fuchs. Ester, 1993, Marginalization, Ambiguity and Silencing, A Feminist Companion To Judges, ed. Brenner, Athalya, JSOT, Sheffield University Press, Sheffield.

Gunn, David, 2005, Judges, Blackwell, Malden, Mass.

Ginzburg, Louis, 1967, Legends of the Jews, JPS, Philadelphia. Vol. IV.

Janzen, David, March 2005,  ‘Why the Deuteronomist Told about the Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter’, The Journal of the Study of the Old Testament, Vol. 29.

Levenson, Jon, D., 1993, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, Yale University Press, New Haven.

Marcus, David, 1986, Jephthah And His Vow, Texas Tech Press, Lubbock, Texas.

Mehlman, Israel, 1962, Jephthah and Jephthah’s Daughter, World Jewish Bible Society, Jerusalem.

Reiss, Moshe, Jan. 2007, Jewish Bible Quarterly ‘Abraham’s Moment of Decision’ Vol. XXXV:1 (137).

Robinson, B.P., 2004, The Story of Jephthah’s Daughter, in Biblica, Vol. 85,3.

Romer, Thomas, C. 1998,  In ‘Why Would the Deuteronomist tell About the Sacrifice of Jephthah’s Daughter’, The Journal of the Study of the Old Testament, Issue 77.

Thompson, John, L., 2001, ‘Writing the Wrongs’,  Oxford University Press, Oxford.