In Judges 11:29-30, Jephthah vowed to sacrifice the first living creature that came out of his house when he returned home if God would give him victory over the Ammonites. At the time, he probably was thinking that an animal would be the first creature to come out. In an Iron Age house, some livestock often lived inside the home. Unfortunately, the first creature to greet him on his return was his daughter (Judg. 11:34). This posed a serious problem for Jephthah since God had forbidden sacrificing children (Deut. 18:10) and He also had forbidden breaking a vow (Num. 30:2). So what did he do? Judges 11:39 tell us that he "did with her according to his vow that he had made" (ESV).
Some have tried to interpret this passage as referring to something other than human sacrifice. For example, one scholar makes a case that Jephthah’s daughter was “devoted to the service of Jehovah at the door of the tabernacle the rest of her life.”* However, this same scholar also notes on the same page that “The term for ‘burnt offering’ is ‘ôlâ, which everywhere else signifies a blood sacrifice wholly consumed by fire upon the altar.” So although he tries to deny it, a blood sacrifice burned on an altar seems to be the most natural reading of the text.
So what happened to Jephthah's daughter? The most likely answer is that she was offered as a human sacrifice by her father.
But the next question is ... What should Jephthah have done in that situation?
Given the choice between obeying Deuteronomy 18:10 (“There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering,” ESV) or obeying Numbers 30:2 (“If a man vows a vow to the Lord ... he shall not break his word,” ESV) which one would you choose?
I think most of us would agree that the better choice would be to obey Deuteronomy 18:10 and ask for God’s forgiveness for breaking your vow. God is gracious and will forgive. So in the end, I believe that Jephthah chose poorly. He should have entrusted himself to the grace of God, offered an animal as a sacrifice instead of his daughter, and asked for God to forgive him for not following through on his foolish vow.
Although this may seem obvious to us in the 21st century (who have the whole canon of scripture at our fingertips) it is helpful to remember that the period of the Judges was a time of serious moral confusion where “every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Perhaps Jephthah was not even aware of the prohibition in Deut. 18:10. So the lesson for us today is to guard our lips from making foolish promises, and to carefully study all of the scriptures so that we are not guilty of following our own ways (doing what seems right in our own eyes) instead of God’s ways and cause serious harm to those around us.
*Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. and expanded (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 306.