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My Bible class is studying the Book of Judges and we recently covered the story of Jephthah (Judges 11). Jephthah promises to God that if the Amonites would be delivered into his hands, then on his return home he would offer the first thing which emerges from his house as a burnt offering to God. In the end, his only daughter is the first one to come out and greet him. The Torah seems to say that after a 2-month respite, Jephthah fulfills his promise – although some in the class claimed it’s not to be taken literally. What is the meaning of the story?
You are right that the story is at first glance shocking. The Torah clearly detests human sacrifice – or murder in virtually any form. Idolatrous practices which involve child sacrifice are especially abominable to God (see e.g. Leviticus 20:1-5 and Jeremiah 19:5). Likewise, one of the most difficult aspects of the binding of Isaac was that Abraham was forced to (almost) act in a way completely antithetical to the ethics and morality he had until then been preaching to the world.
In truth, the commentators to the Book of Judges unanimously explain that Jephthah (or Yiftach) did not literally sacrifice his daughter (Rashi, Radak, Ralbag, Metzudat David, Malbim). In fact, if one promises to transgress any law of the Torah, his promise is not binding (Rashi to Numbers 30:2 quoting Sifri).
(The Talmud (Ta’anit 4a) does quote an opinion that Jephthah did in fact slaughter his daughter. See also Nachmanides to Leviticus 27:29 who, following the Talmud, explains Jephthah’s (erroneous) rationale, feeling that it was within the power a ruler to put to death any subject at will.)
Rather, as the commentators explain, the promise was fulfilled in a different manner. Jephthah promised to offer up whatever emerged from his house to God. For an animal it would have meant sacrifice. For his daughter it meant devoting her life utterly to God. Jephthah’s daughter was thus not allowed to marry, raise a family, and interact normally with others. She had to live a life of isolation, fully devoted to Divine service. This is why the Torah concludes that as a result of his promise she never “knew a man.” The Torah does not state that she was put to death, but that she remained a virgin.
Even so, God was very critical of Jephthah. If a person makes an oath and afterwards finds it is impractical to fulfill due to unforeseen circumstances and the like, he can typically go to a great rabbi or a court and have it annulled. Jephthah’s promise was clearly one he regretted for good reason. Yet he and his daughter went ahead with it anyway.
God through the prophet Jeremiah later railed against Jephthah for not remedying the situation but allowing his daughter to remain single. “Is there no balm in Gilead, is there no doctor there? For why was not the healing of the daughter of My nation forthcoming?” (8:22). Gilead was Jephthah’s region. As the Sages interpret, he was punished for not seeking out “balm” for his oath and bringing about his daughter’s healing. Likewise Phinehas, then the High Priest, was punished for not coming himself to absolve Jephthah of his oath (see Talmud Ta’anit 4a, Bereishit Rabbah 60:3).