Unlike Abraham and Isaac, this one does not have a happy ending—at least in the conventional sense.
From the time of Abraham, fast forward about 900 years and six books and you will arrive at Judges 11, which recounts another story of a father and his beloved child: the Israelite warrior chief, Jephthah, and his daughter, who is not named.
At this point in the Old Testament we are in the Promised Land but before the era of the kings. Judges recounts a period of instability in ancient Israel—marked by repeated sin and disobedience against God, followed by repentance and redemption. It contains famous characters like Gideon and Samson, plus a ton of others little known today.
In Judges 11 we meet one of them: Jephthah, who, from the get-go, is cast in a negative light. He is described as the “son of a prostitute” who was kicked out of his father’s house in Gilead by his legitimate siblings. Jephthah fled to the land of Tob, another area of ancient Israel that was located east of the Jordan. There he formed a company of raiders with “worthless men.”
But when war breaks out between the Ammonites and Israelite, the Gileadites turn to Jephthah, begging him to lead them into battle. He does—on the promise that he would be made their leader. Jephthah begins behaving more like a respectable military commander, rather than the bandit he seems to have been. He even sends a diplomatic envoy to ask the Ammonites to relent, before going to war with them.
As he enters battle, Jephthah makes a vow to God: “If you deliver the Ammonites into my power, whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return from the Ammonites in peace shall belong to the Lord. I shall offer him up as a burnt offering” (Judges 11:30-31).
The Ammonites are decisively defeated. Then Jephthah returns to his home:
When Jephthah returned to his house in Mizpah, it was his daughter who came out to meet him, with tambourine-playing and dancing. She was his only child: he had neither son nor daughter besides her (Judges 11:34).
Jephthah is aghast. Realizing what he has done, he rends his clothes and bemoans the calamity that he has fallen upon his household. His daughter, upon being informed of the apparently ill-conceived vow, mounts no protest. Instead, she asks just one thing—that she and her friends spend two months sojourning in the mountains to mourn her virginity. Permission is granted.
Here one might think Jephthah’s daughter takes this opportunity to flee her fate. She doesn’t. Instead, Judges simply reports that, “At the end of the two months she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed” (Judges 11:39).
And there the story ends—no drama of the raised knife, no sacrificial ram serendipitously caught in the thicket, no angelus ex machina telling Jephthah to stop.
This story, needless to say, is both troubling and puzzling.
What is its meaning?
One interpretation—which leans heavily on the broader context of countless instances of disobedience and unfaithfulness in ancient Israel—argues that Jephthah’s vow was a reckless and impious one that ignored the Torah’s ban on child sacrifice.
Given that Jephthah is introduced to us as a disreputable character this fits. True, he seems to have turned a corner and the “spirit of the Lord” had descended upon Jephthah as he headed into battle (Judges 11:29)—but his subsequent vow could be viewed as a lack of trust in that power. The death of his daughter then would be his punishment—a view taken by St. Augustine.
Another way of reading the text is that Jephthah’s daughter was ‘sacrificed’ not in a literal sense but a figurative one: she was consecrated as virgin to God. This interpretation also makes sense of key details of the account: she spent two months ‘mourning’ her virginity and the text reminds us that “she had not had relations with any man” immediately after reporting that Jephthah had made good on his vow.
But there is a third way of understanding this story comes from a fifth century Syriac Christian theologian, Jacob of Sarug. In his view, Jephthah’s daughter was a Christ figure, necessary to foreshadow God’s sacrifice of his only begotten because the sacrifice of other animals insufficiently pointed forward to Christ. Jacob noted other parallels as well: Jephthah, for example, willingly offered herself up and was a virgin, where Christ was the son of the Virgin Mary.
Jacob commented on the passage in a homily that was styled as a poem. He retells her meeting with her father in a poignant and profound account that should reawaken our awareness of Christ’s own sacrifice for us in this Lenten season:
Lovely it was that the offering should speak
in response to the priest who would offer it, lest he shrink back.
Beautiful it was for the sacrifice to speak in reply to the priest,
to show him that without sorrow he should offer it.
Beloved was the argument the mistress of sufferings sang to her father,
while not fearing the knife to which she was betrothed.