Did God Command Jephthah to Burn His Daughter?

Did God Command Jephthah to Burn His Daughter? December 15, 2017
This is an exchange from the Coming Home Network forum, with a Catholic who was troubled by difficult Old Testament “genocide” and “commanded killing” passages. His words will be in blue.

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I am a Catholic who is coming back to his faith, that being said I am having some trouble with certain passages in the Bible where God commands Israel to wipe out all the people of Amalek (essentially Genocide) 1 Sam. 15:2-3.

Good question, and one many people struggle with. Here is my fairly “short answer” from a paper of mine:

Because God is Creator He also has the prerogative to judge. This is analogous to our experience. Society takes it upon itself to judge the criminal and punish him if he supersedes the “just” laws that govern the society, in order to prevent chaos and suffering. If that is true of human society (one man to another), it is all the more of God, because He is ontologically above us (Creator and created).

So it is perfectly sensible and moral to posit (apart from the data of revelation) a notion of God judging both individuals and nations. God’s omniscience is such that He can determine if an entire nation has gone bad (“beyond repair,” so to speak) and should be punished. And He did so. Now, even in a wicked nation there may be individuals who are exceptions to the rule. So some innocent people will be killed. But this is like our human experience as well. In wartime, we go to war against an entire nation. In so doing, even if it is unintentional, some innocent non-combatants will be killed.

But it’s also different in God’s case because He judged nations in part in order to prevent their idolatry and other sins to infiltrate Jewish (i.e., true) religion. He also judged Israel at various times (lest He be accused of being unfair). In any event, it is not true that nations or individuals were punished because of what their ancestors did. There is a sense of corporate punishment, just described, and it is also true that the entire human race is a fallen race. We all deserve punishment for that fact alone, and God would be perfectly just to wipe us all out the next second. No one could hold it against Him.

He decides to be merciful and grant us grace to do better, but He is under no obligation to do so, anymore than the governor is obliged to pardon convicted criminals. Again, the societal analogy is perfectly apt. If someone rebels at every turn against every societal norm and law and appropriate behavior and so forth, is society to be blamed? Say someone grows up thinking that serial rape is fine and dandy and shouldn’t be prevented at all. So he goes and does this. Eventually, the legal system catches up with him and he gets his punishment. He rebelled against what most people think is wrong, and more than deserved his punishment.

We don’t say that there should be no punishment. We don’t blame society for his suffering in prison. We don’t deny that society has a right to judge such persons. So if mere human beings can judge each other, why cannot God judge His creation, and (particularly) those of His creation that have rebelled against Him at every turn? What is so incomprehensible about that? One may not believe it, but there is no radical incoherence or inconsistency or monstrous injustice or immorality in this Christian (and Jewish) viewpoint (which is what is always claimed by the critics).

Here are three more related papers of mine, that may be of some benefit:

Did Moses (and God) Sin In Judging the Midianites (Numbers 31)?

Judgment of Nations: A Collection of Biblical Passages

Judgment of Nations: Biblical Commentary and Reflections

Also there was a man named Jephthah who sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord — Judges 11:39,

The first thing to notice here is that there is no hint of the approval of God in this passage. Just because a man does something, it’s not a given that God wanted him to do it. According to orthodox Jewish religion, under the Mosaic Law, human sacrifice was strictly forbidden:

Deuteronomy 12:31 (RSV) You shall not do so to the LORD your God; for every abominable thing which the LORD hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

Leviticus 18:21 You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 20:2-3 Say to the people of Israel, Any man of the people of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, who gives any of his children to Molech shall be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. I myself will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, defiling my sanctuary and profaning my holy name.

There are many other similar passages showing that this was not God’s will, and was an evil thing:

2 Kings 16:2-3 Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.

2 Kings 17:17-18 And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings, and used divination and sorcery, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah only.

2 Kings 23:10 And he defiled To’pheth, which is in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech.

2 Chronicles 28:3 and he burned incense in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.

2 Chronicles 33:6 And he burned his sons as an offering in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and practiced soothsaying and augury and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with wizards. He did much evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger.

Psalm 106:36-39 They served their idols, which became a snare to them. They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with blood. Thus they became unclean by their acts, and played the harlot in their doings.

Jeremiah 7:31-32 And they have built the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of Slaughter: for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere.

Jeremiah 19:5 and have built the high places of Ba’al to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Ba’al, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind;

Jeremiah 32:35 They built the high places of Ba’al in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.

Ezekiel 16:20-21 And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your harlotries so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?

Ezekiel 20:31 When you offer your gifts and sacrifice your sons by fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. . . .

Ezekiel 23:37-39 For they have committed adultery, and blood is upon their hands; with their idols they have committed adultery; and they have even offered up to them for food the sons whom they had borne to me. Moreover this they have done to me: they have defiled my sanctuary on the same day and profaned my sabbaths. For when they had slaughtered their children in sacrifice to their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it. And lo, this is what they did in my house.

Quite obviously, then, this was not God’s will, which is why God didn’t condone the action. That really resolves all difficulty, because it’s simply a matter of a man sinning and not knowing what was right and wrong in this instance.

Jephthah was half-Canaanite (Jud 11:1), and so he was influenced by some tenets of the false Canaanite religion (cf. Ps 106:36-39 above), as was often the case among the Jews (and one reason why God judged the heathen nations so harshly). He had been living among the heathen, who regularly offered human sacrifice (cf. 2 Kings 3:27), and the law of Moses was fairly unknown and not much practiced. He wrongly assumed that God would be propitiated in the same way as was believed about the Canaanite false gods.

The non-approval of the author of Judges shows that he may have regarded this as an instance of what he expressed later in the book:

Judges 17:6 In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (cf. 21:25: identical language)

Protestant apologist Glenn Miller, who specializes in “problem passages” in the Bible, offers a completely different (and interesting, thoughtful) take: that actual sacrifice did not occur (though this is considered an implausible interpretation by most of the commentators I have seen):

      Most commentators believe that Jephthah literally killed and burned his daughter on an altar somewhere, and that this human sacrifice was condoned by God (since it was a vow thing). It seems to me that this is probably NOT the case–there are just two many incongruities in the text/context for that. Consider:
      1. Literal “burnt offerings” HAD TO BE male (Lev 22.18-19). Jephthah’s daughter obviously wasn’t.
      2. What did Jeff THINK would come out of a house? Not animals! He must have known that only a human would have come out.
      3. Human sacrifice was STRICTLY forbidden (Dt 12.31) and we have NO record of it being practiced (even in horrible Judges-period Israel) by mainstream Israel during this period.
      4. The lament for the daughter is about ‘not marrying’ NOT about ‘not living’–it makes me wonder if some kind of religious celibacy is not in view. (Maybe the women at the Entrance to the Tent were celibate–Ex 38.8–living as widows in Israel later did on Temple payrolls.)
      5. Verse 39 calls his action a ‘vow’. Lev 27.28 (coupled with 27.21) allowed people to be given over the Lord, who became servants of the Priests. As devoted to the Lord’s service, some of them probably did NOT marry (cf. the Nazarite vow, in its restriction on becoming ‘unclean’ for family members (Num 6.7) omits the words ‘husband’ or ‘wife’…perhaps it was sometimes involving celibacy. The only Nazies we know, though, were married–Samuel and Samson)
      6. As the only child, and if given to the priest in this fashion, Jephthah’s entire estate would go to someone else.
      7. We have the VERY parallel case of Hannah and Samuel. She takes a vow, and offers her son to the Lord for all his life. (I Sam 1-2), and such vows did NOT allow the person to be redeemed with money (Lev 27.28-29).
      8. Burnt offerings were ALWAYS associated with condemnation/evil–not thanksgiving and vows. Even the one non-literal use of it in Dt 13.16 (in which a town is offered as a burnt offering) involves abject judgment/condemnation–NOT at all in view in the Jephthah passage.
      9. He would have had to offer her at some cultic site, which would have had a priest. I cannot imagine a priest (even those as lax as elsewhere in the book of Judges) that would have agreed to perform a human sacrifice!
      What I have to conclude from this passage is that Jephthah is using ‘burnt offering’ in a general ‘offering’ sense, and that he is meaning an ‘irredeemable vow’ as a thank-offering, along the line of Hannah/Samuel. This is the only way to make sense of all the particulars. (Interestingly, Jephthah is surprisingly literate—his knowledge of biblical history,evidenced in the letter to his adversary, shows that he knows the mosaic history—he WOULD have known how bad a literal human sacrifice would have been.)

Another Protestant apologist, J.P. Holding, takes the same position. See his article: Jephthah’s Daughter: Answers to Objections.

Glenn Miller has also written a more general article: “Was Jesus’ death a violation of the commandment against human sacrifice?”

See also: Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Rational Christianity website)

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Joshua 6:21, Joshua 10:40-41 tells us that Joshua took possession of the Land of the Philistines and Canaanites and killed everything that “breathed” as it says.

This is an instance of God’s righteous judgment. Glenn Miller deals with it in extreme depth, in his article, How could a God of Love order the massacre/annihilation of the Canaanites?

There are other passages that I have trouble with too, but I will stick with these specific ones.

I’d be happy to discuss anything further, but you need to read some of these treatments to get a sense of how Christians understand these things.

Not only am I interested to hear the explanation of these but just the idea of Genocide in the bible in general. Its not that I am trying to show God out to be a monster but I have heard both fundamentalists try and justify these passages (one even told me if God told him to murder me he would) and that “God murders people every day.”

Judgment is not murder (they are making a fundamental [no pun intended] category mistake there): rather, it’s like a death sentence given to a guilty man.

Also The atheists love to point out these passages to make God out to be a tyrant.


Exactly. Well, they are unlikely to understand the notion of God as judge and giver of life, since they reject God in the first place. The best we can do with them is show that the Bible is not an ethically dubious document.

I would love to be able to understand because like I said it is really bothersome to my faith.

I don’t think it has to be. Do some serious reading, following the sources I have provided, and I think your difficulties will be resolved. And we can talk more about it if you like. My goal as an apologist is precisely to help people get over honest difficulties they are having, so they can have a more robust, confident faith.

My good friend had two things to say. “Studying theology will challenge you and will sometimes have your worst fears be confronted.” Also he says that the Bible is the Word of God as understood as the literature of the faith community, so the faith community sometimes justifies stuff that may or may not be what God’s nature actually is. Just trying to understand, because I believe God to be Just and Good and Loving, not some bloodthirsty, vengeful, monster who is ticked off at every turn!
That’s what I believe. When all is said and done, no one can deny that God judges people and nations. That’s not “murder” or “genocide”; it is the just judgment against those who have deliberately chosen evil and rebellion, over against God. No one is forced to be evil or to reject God. That’s their choice. God warns us all, and if we don’t heed His merciful, loving warnings, eventually there are eternally negative consequences.




Photo credit: Jephthah’s Daughter, by James Tissot (1836–1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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