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Judges 11:39: Jephthah Fulfills His Vow

Verse 39:[1] And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who (Judg. 11:31; 1 Sam. 1:23, 24; 2:18) did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom (or, ordinance[2]) in Israel…

[He did to her just as he had vowed] He did not redeem her, as he was able to do by law for thirty shekels, Leviticus 27:4; but he left her consecrated to the Lord. Therefore, he did not allow her to marry, lest she should appear to belong to any other than Jehovah: which proceeded from ignorance of the law (as those were corrupt times); for he says in verse 35 that he was not able to go back; and the girl, having confidence in her father, bewails her virginity (Malvenda out of Junius).

According to his vow: Question: What was it which Jephthah vowed and performed concerning his daughter? Answer: Many, especially of modern writers, conceive that Jephthah’s daughter was not sacrificed, but only devoted to perpetual virginity, which then was esteemed a great curse and reproach. This they gather, 1. From Judges 11:37, 38, where we read that she bewailed not her death, which had been the chief cause of lamentation, if that had been vowed, but her virginity. 2. From verse 39, where, after he had said that he did with her according to his vow, he adds, by way of declaration of the matter of that vow, and she knew no man. But for the first, there may be a fair reason given, That she could not with honour bewail her death, which she had so generously and cheerfully accepted of, because it was attended with and occasioned by the public good, and her father’s honour and happiness, verse 36, and was a kind of martyrdom; and moreover, an act of religion, the payment of a vow, which ought to be done cheerfully; but only bewailed the circumstance of her death, that it was in some sort accursed and opprobrious; she having had no husband to take away her reproach, as they speak, Isaiah 4:1, and leaving no posterity to her father’s comfort, and the increase of God’s people. And for the second, that clause, and she knew no man, is plainly distinguished from the execution of his vow, which is here mentioned before; and this is added, not as an explication of the vow, but as an aggravating circumstance, that this was executed when she had not yet known any man. Besides, this opinion seems liable to weighty objections: 1. There is no example in all the Scripture of any woman that was obliged to perpetual virginity by any vow of her own, much less by the vow of her parents; nor have parents any such power over their children, either by the law of nature, or by the Holy Scripture. 2. The express words of the vow, verse 31, mention nothing of her virginity, but only that she should surely be the Lord’s, that is, devoted to the service of the Lord, which might be without any obligation to perpetual virginity; for even Samuel, who was as fully devoted to the Lord by his parents as she could be, 1 Samuel 1:11; and Samson, who was devoted not only by his parents, but by God himself, and that in the highest degree, even to be a perpetual Nazarite, Judges 13:5, 7; yet were not prohibited marriage; nor were any of the most sacred persons, Levites, or priests, or high priests, though they were the Lord’s in a singular manner, obliged to perpetual virginity: and therefore if she was not offered up for a burnt-offering, as the authors of this opinion say, but only was consecrated to God, there was no occasion to bewail her virginity, which, for any thing that appears, she was not tied to. 3. If this were all, here was no sufficient cause why so wise and valiant a man as Jephthah should so bitterly and passionately lament over himself or his daughter. And therefore it may seem most probable that Jephthah did indeed sacrifice his daughter, as he had vowed to do; which was the opinion of Josephus the Jew, and of the Chaldee Paraphrast, and of divers of the Jewish doctors, and almost all the ancient fathers, and many eminent writers; and this best agrees with the words of the vow, delivered Judges 11:31, Whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me—shall surely be the Lord’s, and I will offer it for a burnt-offering. Nor is there one word in all the following verses which denies that she was thus offered; only the execution of the vow is delivered in more ambiguous and general terms, verse 39, which in all reason, and by the laws of good interpretation, ought to be limited and explained by the more plain and particular description of it. It is true, those words may seem capable of another interpretation; the conjunctive particle and may be here put for the disjunctive or, as it often is, as Exodus 21:16, 17; Leviticus 6:3, 5; 2 Samuel 2:19, etc.; and so the meaning is, That what I first meet shall surely be the Lord’s, or, I will offer it up for a burnt-offering, to wit if it be a creature fit to be offered; otherwise, say they, if a dog or an ass should have met him first, he should have been obliged to offer them, which was against the law. But it is sufficiently evident that he speaks of a human person, from the very phrase of coming forth to meet him at his return; which plainly argues a design to meet him, purposely to congratulate his return; this phrase of going to meet a person coming being very oft used in Scripture, and constantly of one person meeting another, as Genesis 14:17; 18:2; 24:17, etc., and never of any brute creature. And although and is sometimes put for or, yet it is not to be so used without necessity, which seems not to be in this place; nor is it very proper to distinguish two sentences in this manner, where the one is more general, and the other being more special, is comprehended within it, which is the case here; for it shall surely be the Lord’s, is the general; and its being offered up for a burnt-offering is the particular way or manner how it was to be the Lord’s; as it were very improper to say, this is either a man, or it is my servant John; because the latter branch is contained in the former; and therefore in all the alleged instances where and is put for or, they are two distinct persons or things, and not one comprehended within another, as Exodus 21:17, father or mother; 2 Samuel 2:19, right hand or left. But the great objection against this opinion is this, that it seems a most horrid act, directly contrary to the law of nature, and to plain Scripture, thus to sacrifice his own daughter; and that it seems altogether incredible, either that such a man as Jephthah, so eminent for piety, and wisdom, and zeal, and faith, should either make so barbarous a vow, or pursue it for above two months’ space; and that none of the priests of that time should inform him of the unlawfulness of executing so wicked a vow, and of the liberty he had to redeem such a vow, by virtue of Leviticus 27:2, 3, etc.; or that Jephthah would not willingly receive information, especially where it was so agreeable to his own interest and natural affection; or that the priests and people would suffer him to execute his own daughter, and not rather hinder him by force, as they afterwards did Saul which he had sworn the death of Jonathan. These and other such difficulties I confess there are in the case; but something may be truly and fairly said to allay the seeming monstrousness of this act. 1. These were times of great and general ignorance and corruption of religion, wherein the Israelites had apostatized from God, and learnt and followed the practices and worships of the heathen nations, Judges 10:6, whereof this was one, to offer up human sacrifices to Moloch; and although they seem now to have repented and forsaken their idols, Judges 10:16, yet they seem still to have retained part of the old leaven, and this among the rest, that they might offer human sacrifices, not to Moloch, as they had done, but unto the Lord. And whereas some of the Jewish writers pretend that Phinehas was alive at this time; and tell a fine story concerning him and Jephthah, that both stood upon their terms, and neither would go to the other to advise about the matter; yet it is more than probable that Phinehas was dead long before this time, and whosoever was the high priest then, he seems to be guilty either of gross ignorance or negligence; so that a late learned writer conceives that this was the reason why the priesthood was taken from him, and from that line, and translated to the line of Ithamar, which was done in the time of the judges, as may be gathered from 1 Samuel 2:35, 36. Moreover Jephthah, though now a good man, may seem to have had but a rude and barbarous education; having been banished from his father’s house, and forced to wander and dispose himself in the utmost borders of the land of Gilead, beyond Jordan, at a great distance from the place of worship and instruction: nor is it strange that the priests and people did not resist Jephthah in this enterprise; partly because many of them might be under the same ignorance and mistake that Jephthah did; and partly because they knew Jephthah to be a stout, and resolute, and boisterous man, and were afraid to oppose him in a matter wherein he seemed to be so peremptory, and their persons and families were not much concerned. 2. This mistake of Jephthah’s, and of the rest of that age, was not without some plausible appearance of warrant from the holy text, even from Leviticus 27:28, 29, wherein it is expressly provided, that no devoted thing, whether man or beast, should be redeemed, but should surely be put to death; a place which it is not strange that a soldier in so ignorant an age should mistake, seeing even some learned divines, in this knowing age, and Capellus, amongst the rest, have fallen into the same error, and justified Jephthah’s action from that place; and though I doubt not they run into the other extreme, as men commonly do, those words being to be otherwise understood than they take them, (of which see my notes on that place,) yet it must be granted that place gave Jephthah a very colourable pretext for the action; and being pushed on by zeal for God, and the conscience of his vow, he might easily be induced to it; and though this was a sin in him, yet it was but a sin of ignorance; which therefore was overlooked by a gracious God, and not reproved by any holy men of God. It is probably conceived, that the Greeks, who used to steal sacred histories, and turn them into fables, had from this history their relation of Iphigenia, (which may be put for Jephtigenia,) sacrificed by her father Agamemnon, which is described by many of the same circumstances wherewith this is accompanied. She knew no man, to wit, carnally; she, died a virgin.

[1] Hebrew: וַיְהִ֞י מִקֵּ֣ץ׀ שְׁנַ֣יִם חֳדָשִׁ֗ים וַ֙תָּשָׁב֙ אֶל־אָבִ֔יהָ וַיַּ֣עַשׂ לָ֔הּ אֶת־נִדְר֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָדָ֑ר וְהִיא֙ לֹא־יָדְעָ֣ה אִ֔ישׁ וַתְּהִי־חֹ֖ק בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

[2] Hebrew: חֹק.

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Dr. Dilday
Dr. Dilday
Oct 18, 2018

Matthew Henry: 'Yet there are some difficult questions that do arise upon this story which have very much employed the pens of learned men. I will say but little respecting them, because Mr. Poole has discussed them very fully in his English annotations.

(1.) It is hard to say what Jephthah did to his daughter in performance of his vow. [1.] Some think he only shut her up for a nun, and that it being unlawful, according to one part of his vow (for they make it disjunctive), to offer her up for a burnt-offering, he thus, according to the other part, engaged her to be the Lord's, that is, totally to sequester herself from all the affairs of this…

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