The account of Jephthah’s vow to the Lord before his battle with the Ammonites and the subsequent events that occur when Jephthah returns home as the victorious warrior are both heartbreaking and the typical absurdity in a culture deprived of the Truth of God’s Word. As we read this account of Jephthah from the time period of the Judges we need to keep in mind that although these are the people of God and the Spirit of God is anointing “judges” to deliver Israel, these Israelites are more influenced by the pagan worship practices and Canaanite theology than they are by the Law of the Covenant and the teaching of the priesthood of Israel.
With this understanding of the background of a biblically illiterate Israeli culture we can make sense of the stupidity that piles up in this story. Yet, we are still disturbed, disgusted and disappointed with this biblical account. We can try to explain away the obvious human sacrifice made in this story, but we do not need to do this in order to justify Jephthah’s actions because he is not one of the “Bible heroes.” Though he be a biblical personality (and, is mentioned in Hebrews 11:32 along with Samson and Barak, but not in detail), he is far from a hero. Neither is he an example the Lord would ask us to follow. Instead, Jephthah, and his Israeli culture from around 1250 BC, is an example and a warning to us concerning the dangers of not knowing the Lord and not understanding his revealed Word.
(1 Corinthians 10:6-12) In the end, Jephtah has no excuse for his ignorant behavior, but we still feel sorry for him.
Jephthah’s vow expresses the willingness to sacrifice a family member. We have to assume that he was aware of the high probability that he would be making a human sacrifice of a family member if he returned home victorious. Indeed, domestic houses of this time were the typical four-room structure that included a room (or, rooms) for animals. But, was Jephthah really anticipating a goat or a sheep would run out of the house to meet him? (Dogs were not kept as pets or as domestic animals at this time.)
In Judges 10:6 we are told:
“The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the Lord and did not serve him.”
The god of the Moabites was Chemosh who is well known to accept child sacrifices. 2 Kings 3:27 even records the king of the Moabites sacrificing his son, the prince of Moab, to Chemosh in order to secure a victory against Israel. Likewise, the god of the Ammonites, Milkom, was also honored with human sacrifice. Monuments in Carthage in north Africa that were built by the Canaanites coming out of Phoenicia have funeral inscriptions on monuments that attest to the sacrifice of a son in fulfillment of a vow made to a Baal: “To Baal Hammon that which was vowed by PN son of PN, son of PN because god heard his voice and blessed him.” (Text here. Details here. Photos here and here.)
The Bible even records the sins of the Israelites during this time period in Psalm 106:34-39:
“They did not destroy the peoples, as the Lord commanded them, but they mixed with the nations and learned to do as they did. 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.”
Proverbs 20:25, “It is a snare to say rashly, ‘It is holy,’ and to reflect only after making vows.”
But, also, it would have been advantageous for Jephtah, or his daughter, to know the Levitical provision stated in Leviticus 27:1-8 that could have redeemed the girl from any vow made concerning a person:
“Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘If anyone makes a special vow to the Lord involving the valuation of persons, then the valuation of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. If the person is a female, the valuation shall be thirty shekels. If the person is from five years old up to twenty years old, the valuation shall be for a male twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels. If the person is from a month old up to five years old, the valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver, and for a female the valuation shall be three shekels of silver. And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the valuation for a male shall be fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels. And if someone is too poor to pay the valuation, then he shall be made to stand before the priest, and the priest shall value him; the priest shall value him according to what the vower can afford.’ ” - Leviticus 27:1-8