When atheists want to discredit God and the Bible, one of their whipping boys is Jephthah in the Old Testament. They see Jephthah in Judges 11 offering his only daughter to God as a sacrifice, and they object that his action is not condemned as evil in God’s Word.
But if we look at the Bible as a whole, we recognize that it condemns child sacrifice, consistently, well before Jephthah comes on the scene. Deuteronomy says, for example, “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering” (18:10, cf. 12:31). Leviticus says, “Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death” (20:2, cf. 18:21). So why not condemn Jephthah? God oftentimes states when somebody does evil before him in Scripture, so why not here? Does God accept Jephthah’s daughter as a sacrifice?
Now let’s take a look at Judges 11.
The passage starts off with the Israelite judge, Jephthah, going to war against the pagan nation of Ammon. As he is about to fight, he makes a vow that he will offer to God whatever exits his house upon his successful return. The first floor of ancient homes back then contained the family’s animals, so Jephthah likely assumed that he would sacrifice a goat or something. Yet when Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, he returns home and finds his daughter exiting the house to meet him. This is a horrifying shock, yet Jephthah keeps his vow (Judg. 11:39) and sacrifices his daughter. Scripture does not comment on the morality of this, but moves on to the next scene.
If we were to take Judges 11 in isolation from the rest of Scripture, then we might have a real question here. But remember that God makes it clear in the Mosaic Law that child sacrifice is evil. And even if we did not have the condemnations mentioned above, the Jephthah story would still not condone the practice. The intention of the book of Judges is to emphasize the moral bankruptcy of the people before they received kings. It was written to show that the people of Israel had sunk deep into the mud of sin. Because Israel did not have a king, Judges concludes, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25, cf. 17:6). So we should not expect Judges to condemn every evil action listed.
Indeed, Judges lists many sins of the people without commenting on the horror of those sins, or of sin in general. Consider Samson, who broke the Mosaic Law numerous times without explicit condemnation. He touched unclean honey from a lion’s carcass (Judg. 14:8-9)—condemned in Leviticus 11:27—and, to add insult to injury, gave the unclean honey to his unsuspecting parents!
Any Hebrew who read these things about Samson would have been horrified, especially since Samson had taken a Nazarite vow. By no means would a Hebrew reader believe that Scripture condones these actions.
Let’s look at some more child sacrifice problems in the Old Testament and see how to resolve them. First, if God supposedly hates child sacrifice, then why did he command the elimination of all the people in the Promised Land—including children—in Deuteronomy 20:16-18? We need to understand that there is a difference between slaughter in war and child sacrifice. God commanded Israel to destroy the various nations because he had judged them for their sins, such as their sacrificing their own offspring to their false deities. Israel was to be the executor of God’s divine judgment. (For more on this and other similarly difficult passages in the Old Testament, see here.)
Second, why did God command Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22 if God hates child sacrifice? Well, Abraham sometimes believed God, but sometimes he doubted what God told him (see Gen. 16:1-4, 17:15-17, etc.), and God wanted to settle the matter. So God sent him a test. But he did not actually want Abraham to go through with it, as evident by the fact that God sent an angel to stop him (vv. 11-12).
So we have a mandate from God to wage war—admittedly difficult for modern ears to hear, but not a call for child sacrifice—and a story wherein God ends by forbidding the child sacrifice. It turns out that we haven’t made much headway in establishing that God accepts this abominable act.
Let’s return to Jephthah. If Judges 11 is not about God signing off on child sacrifice, then what should we take from it instead? Well, look at what Jephthah did: he made a stupid vow to God that ended up contradicting God’s law delivered to Moses. He was so sure about what would come out of his house—sure in the way that only God can ever be sure—that he thought he could impose a deal on God, notwithstanding the risk of transgressing God’s own laws in doing so. And then, even worse, when Jephthah saw the folly of his bargain, not only did he not repent of making such a foolish vow and beg for God’s forgiveness, but he doubled down and did the thing God had unequivocally condemned!
So what did Jephthah do? In short, he set himself up as God. We should work hard not to fall into the same trap, and take care to speak with God on his terms, not our own. After all, no matter how pious we think we’re being, if we promise God something we cannot deliver, or must not deliver, then we’re not being pious. We’re being prideful. And when God shows us our weakness, we need to humble ourselves, rather than doubling down and piling sin on top of sin.