On a Strange and Horrible Biblical Story and the “Bad” Memory of God.

One of the most strange and horrifying stories of the Bible is the story of Jephthah  (Pronounced “Jeff-tha” and alternately spelled Jepthe) and his ritual murder of his daughter. It is a tale of faith and piety gone terribly wrong and a teaching of what happens when error and false religion are substituted for the true faith.  It is also a tale of how God can work even with the worst of us to accomplish his ends. Let’s look at this “fractured fable” of a story.

The story of Jephthah  is told in Judges 11. He is described as a mighty warrior and would one day be numbered among the Judges of Israel. As the chapter opens we are told:

Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute.  Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a group of adventurers gathered around him and followed him. (Jdg 11:1-3).

Jephthah the Ganger – Tob is a land to the extreme east of Jordan. Having been dispossessed of any personal resources Jephthah became ranked among the roving bands of dispossessed youth who had little to lose. While the text above says describes Jephthah as gathering “adventurers”  around him, many translators render the Hebrew as “worthless men” or “ruffians.” In effect Jephthah is a gang member, the head of a group of marauders who allied themselves with local inhabitants who felt over-taxed or had other grievances against local rulers. They sustained themselves by raiding caravans or towns and enemies of thier friends.

It is quite a remarkable thing that the likes of Jephthah would rise to Judge Israel for six years. Judges were those who, in the years prior to kingship in Israel, served as charismatic leaders. They usually rose to power in response to some crisis or need.

And, sure a enough, a crisis did arrive that would catapult Jephthah to power. The text says,

Some time later, when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob.  “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.”  Jephthah said to them, “Didn’t you hate me and drive me from my father’s house? Why do you come to me now, when you’re in trouble?”  The elders of Gilead said to him, “Nevertheless, we are turning to you now; come with us to fight the Ammonites, and you will be our head over all who live in Gilead.” Jephthah answered, “Suppose you take me back to fight the Ammonites and the LORD gives them to me—will I really be your head?”  The elders of Gilead replied, “The LORD is our witness; we will certainly do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and commander over them (Jdg 11:4-10).

The Israelites needed a warrior and Jephthah had gained the reputation of being a skilled and fearsome warrior. He would be their man and he came to Judge (rule) over Israel. He first, as a formality,  sent messengers to negotiate a settlement with the Ammonites. In a lengthy message he sets forth both an  historical and theological basis for Israel’s claim on the Transjordan area to which the Ammonites were now laying claim. Among other things the Israelites had lived in the land over 300 years. But the Ammonites rejected all negotiations. So Jephthah prepared for war. (cf Jdg 11:12-28)

Here is where things get strange. Prior to going to war Jephthah vows a vow. It is an immoral vow, on the face of it. It is a vow that would require something wicked of him. The text says:

Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord. (Jdg 11:29-31)

This is a wicked vow. It is wrong to vow to kill some as a sacrifice to God. It is forbidden explicitly by to offer any human being in sacrifice to any god let alone Him: You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deut 12:31; cf also Lev 18:21) It is murder that Jephthah vows. It is false religion that he embraces.

Some have tried to soften the vow by translating the vow as “whatever” comes out of the house, Jephthah would offer in sacrifice. Thus he could have meant an animal. But it is difficult for the Hebrew (צֵא הַ) to support this notion. The gender of the word would have to be in the feminine form to support this theory. But the form is masculine which everywhere else means “whoever” and it is coupled with the verbs  “to come out” and “to meet.” It does not usually pertain to things and animals to do this. Hence, it seems the plain meaning of this text is that Jephthah vowed to kill the first human who came forth to meet him upon his return. One may suppose he figured that a slave or servant would be the first to greet him?

What makes the vow even more troubling is that it was generally presumed that one who was called to be a judge had an anointing from God. Verse 30 does speak of the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Jephthah How could one anointed by God be guilty of such a gross violation of God’s law.We can only recall  that God’s approval of one area in a person’s life is not an approval of every area of their life. Most of Israel’s greatest leaders had serious flaws: Moses and David had murdered, Jacob was a usurper, Abraham “pimped” his wife and so forth. God can write straight with crooked lines. St. Paul reminds us that we carry the great treasure of God within “earthen vessels.” An old gospel hymn says, “If you can use anything Lord, you can use me.” God does not call the perfect, that much is clear.

The story of Jepthe then has it’s horrible twist and dreadful end:

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon. When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break.”  “My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”  “You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite (Jdg 11:33-40).

In the end, Jephthah is met by his only daughter and is “forced” to fulfill his vow to kill her as a sacrifice. But in fact he is not forced for no one is compelled to fulfill a wicked vow. Yet the plain meaning of the text indicates that did just that. There are attempts by some scholars to try and show that Jephthah really didn’t do it. But, their attempts are very contrived and, in the end, set aside the plain meaning of the text which quite clearly indicates Jephthah went through with his vow.

What happened to Jephthah? We can only speculate. But it would seem that he had come under the influence of the false religions of the pagans. In particular, he seems to have come under the influence of the Canaanite practices of human sacrifice. The Jewish people had often fallen prey to just such a syncretism. Their faith in the God of Israel was often selective and weak. Superstition often drew them to the Baals and other gods of the surrounding nations. Their straying often led them to great wickedness, sexual promiscuity, deviance and even human sacrifice. Jephthah seems to have been among their number. His rejection by his brothers in Israel and his wandering at the fringes of the land were surely factors in his religious confusion and the evil that flowed from it.

And what of us? We too do well to consider the rapid descent into evil of our culture as we have increasingly and collectively rejected the true faith. Things once thought shameful are now practiced proudly by many. Things once thought immodest are flaunted. A terrible toll of abortion also mounts as our children are sacrificed to the gods of promiscuity, contraception, illicit sexual union, career, and convenience. As God has been shown the door in our culture, and kicked to the curb, we have descended mightily in to confusion and corruption, to debauchery and decay. It begins with forsaking faith in the One, True God. This nation, though always pluralistic and non sectarian, did once have a clear place for God. Now He has been escorted to the margins. And we, like Jephthah, are increasingly able and willing to do the unthinkable.

On the Bad Memory of God – One final thought on the story of Jephthah. It occurs to me that God has a “bad memory.” I say this because God the Holy Spirit holds Jephthah up later in scripture for our admiration. It’s right there in Hebrews 11 where Jephthah is said to be among the cloud of witnesses:

And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies….. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Heb 11:32-34; 12:1-2)

It is a remarkable thing to see Jephthah listed among the great Old Testament saints. Perhaps we can say that Jephthah repented? We can surely hope. But it is also possible to celebrate the “bad memory” of God. I hope you will understand, I mean no irreverence here. Scripture says, For I [the Lord] will forgive [my people] their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jer 31:34). And also, “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more,” says the Lord (Heb 10:17) I don’t know about you, but I am depending and the “poor memory” of God. I am hoping for a poor recollection on the part of God of certain incidents and passages in my life  🙂  And if Jephthah can make the cut, perhaps there’s hope for me too!

There have been a number of musical oratorios based on the Story of Jephthah. One of my favorites is “Jepthe” by Carissimi. In this first video I have assembled some images to the story and set it to a Chorus from Jepthe by Carissimi. The song is led by the daughter and is one of the happy moments in the Oratorio. The text says, Cantemus Omnes Domino! Laudemus belli principem, qui dedit nobis gloriam et Israel victoriam (Let us all sing to the Lord! Let us praise the prince of war, who gave glory to us and Israel Victory).

The final chorus of Jepthe by Carissimi is a minor masterpiece and a deep lament for the only daugther of Jepthe. The text says: Plorate filii Israel, plorate omnes virgines, et filiam Jephte unigenitam in carmine doloris lamentamini (Weep O children of Israel, weep, all you virgins, and in sorrowful songs lament the only daughter of Jepthe). The final lamentamini repeats over and over as we are drawn into the deep sorrow of loss.

58 Replies to “On a Strange and Horrible Biblical Story and the “Bad” Memory of God.”

  1. Until now, the story of Jephthah never held much meaning or sense for me. It’ll take me awhile and a few re-reads to sort it all out, but this article is masterful.

  2. Not only am i depending on God to have a poor memory, i need to have a poor memory and learn to forgive myself for making vow when I was immature and not fully formed. I guess I will make vows in the future but being transformed is an eternal process. That is what I don’t want to forget. The process. Trust the process.

    1. Yes, I understand what you are saying. However, one distinction I would make is that transformation is really a temporal, not an eternal process. In other words, by heaven the process of our perfection will be complete.

  3. And what of Abraham and his intention to sacrifice his son, Isaac? Was Abraham tempted to do something wicked, i.e. commit murder, by God Himself? If it is a sin for one man to tempt another to commit a sin, then to tempt a man to take the life of an innocent child seems sinful. I do not see the distinction. I really would like someone to explain.

    1. Well, of course, the obvious distinction is that God commanded Abraham to do this and then intervened whereas Jepthe acted on his own accord. Further, God does not sin in taking life since, in a way that is his “job” IOW it pertains to God to give life and take it. That said, the Abraham Isaac incident remains a shocking story on its face as well. Why God would test Abraham in this way is difficult to explain. Further, If I thought I heard God telling me to take someone’s life, I would conclude that it was NOT the voice of God and ignore the instruction. So yes, I would agree there are troubling aspects to the story that make it “hard to explain.” However, to be fair, it is a summary story in that I don’t think we have all the details of what and how God spoke to Abraham etc.

      1. Thank you for responding to my question, Msgr. Pope. However if ,as you say, it is down to the fact that we don’t have all the details of what and how God spoke to Abraham those very details seem to be crucial to fully understanding the thrust of the lesson to be drawn. If God can command someone to take an innocent life then the permutations are troubling at best.

        1. I could understand if God told Abraham that He desired the life of Isaac and Abraham acquiesced by acknowledging God was the Author of life and if He desired the life of Isaac then He could have it should He Himself wish to take it away. That would demonstrate an admirable detachment from all creatures on Abraham’s part and that there is no one before God.

          I do not want to belabour this question and thus ‘hijack’ the thread of your Jephthah piece, but I have long pondered this Abraham/Isaac conundrum especially as the story of the sacrifice of Isaac is often juxtaposed with the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary (although Jesus was not put to death by the Father).

          1. I would be most grateful if you would take up the matter of Abraham’s sacrifice in a future blog post, Monsignor Pope. Please do. There is much to plumb and I for one would be eager to read your thoughts in full.

            Bosco – Bantry, County Cork, Eire

          2. Bosco,

            Jesus went willfully, just like Isaac. Isaac knew there was no sacrifice at hand. He carried the wood for his own sacrifice. However, both Abraham and Isaac knew that “God would provide” Himself a sacrifice. Some see this as God providing Himself, as Jesus, as the sacrifice and others see it as God providing Himself a sacrifice in the form of the ram that appeared. Either way, this sacrifice points to the real sacrifice on the same mountain. Jesus was foreshadowed here for us. The text tells us that Abraham had faith that both him and his son would return from the mountain top. Abraham knew that God would either intervene and save his son or raise his son from the dead after the sacrifice. It is not a hard story to grasp after studying the Jewish tradition behind it. There is a Jewish tradition that Isaac was a grown man, 33, at the time. He could have defended himself off from his crusty old father, Abraham in a second. It is clear that Isaac was willing to be the sacrifice if God commanded his life from him. This is a beautiful story that has been twisted by atheist to prove that if there is a god, he is a mean person, thus there is no god as far as they are concerned.


          3. Ok, MichaelP, if both Abraham and Isaac knew that God was simply joshing, then where was the praiseworthy faith and belief we all attribute to Abraham?
            If I understand you correctly, the starting point for your supposition is that Abraham did not take God seriously.
            I do not know who the atheist is that you suggest has twisted the story. I just know that I would very much enjoy some sound theological exposition on the topic.

          4. Bosco,

            I never said that Abraham thought God was “joshing” or that He was not serious. I said that Abraham had faith in God’s promise that he would be the father of many. He knew God would be faithful to the covenant. This would mean that Abraham had faith that whatever happened on that mountain, Isaac would live again so that the covenant would be fulfilled. Reginaldus makes very good points on this also when he/she refers to St. Paul’s thoughts.

            Sorry for the misunderstanding.

            I also look forward to Msgr. Pope’s article on this.

            Pax Christi,

          5. @MichaelP

            //Abraham knew that God would either intervene and save his son or raise his son from the dead after the sacrifice.//

            That is what I had deduced based on Romans 4.

            “He did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief; rather, he was empowered by faith and gave glory to God and was fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to do.” (Romans 4:20-21)

            Verses 17 through 25 mention rasing from the dead twice.

            God had promised to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the sands in the sea and then God demands his “Only” son’s life. Abraham must have concluded that God could/would raise the dead. The context makes sense since Paul mentions raising from the dead twice in verses 17 through 25.


          6. Tim,

            Thanks for the Scripture references. You put it better than I do, or should I say, St. Paul does?

            Pax Christi,

      2. Let me hastily refer you to “Abraham’s poet,” Soren Kierkegaard, who in beautifully lyrical and inexorably compelling prose explores how it was preciserly Abraham’s journey to Moriah that made him the Father of Faith. He examines the “movement of faith” in a way that prompted Karl Barth to comment from his lodging in Rome: “If I were to follow Kierkegaard, I might as well go over there,” as he pointed at the Vatican.

    2. We know Isaac was a willful participate. He was a grown man, around 33, sound familiar? It would not have been murder for Abraham since Isaac was willing to sacrifice himself. Also, the daughter seems to be a willful participant. I think this is what helps Jepthe. His punishment for the pagan offer cost him his daughter. The daughter gained life after death and he gained punishment for his sin. If the daughter resisted, then we would have a big problem. In the end, it seems they both win.


  4. Hadn’t God actually appeared to Abraham, Genesis 12:7? Did Abraham know about the devil?

  5. I would suggest that the story of Jephthah is a story about swearing rash oaths.

    People swear rash oaths all the time. “I swear to G– I’m gonna kill that Guy”, etc.

    We think warnings in the bible about swearing rash oaths are quaint or trite, something of a bygone era. Oaths used to be the basis for covenants and modern man for the most part has lost understanding of both covenants and oaths, how they are made, what they signify and the consequences for breaking a covenenant and the oath behind it.

    The covenant-family mentality has been replaced with a contract-transaction mentality where even marriage – the original sacramental sign of God’s first covenant with man (see JPII’s Theology of the Body) – is simply a contract one can get out of if one wants. We stand at the altar and with God as our witness we swear to forsake all others “Until death do us part” and then wonder why it hurts so much for the rest of our life after we sue for divorce.

    I understand that the story of Jephthah is not about marriage in particular. Marriage is however, an example of covenenant-oath which modern man can understand.

    Simply put, be careful what you promise God. He’s gonna call you to account for it one way or another as Jephthah found out.


  6. It was Ismail not issac who was to be sacrificed. Ibrahim saw it in a dream over several days, and prophet’s dream are true, and he was troubled. He told Ismail about the dream, and Ismail asked his father to fulfil the dream, as it is the will of Allah. Satan tried three times to convince them to stop, but they threw 7 stones at him.

    Before that, Ibrahim had to leave his son Ismail and wife Hagra in the desert at Mecca, and ZamZam well was created there for him to drink water.

    These events are true and they teach us one thing that we should love Allah more than our kids, parents, spouses, cars, clothes, and be ready to sacrifice if needed.

    I just came back from Hajj where we remember these events.

    May Allah give us 1% of faith Ibrahim had, and we will succeed.

      1. It teaches us we should love God above all, but it teaches us that we should not kill or destroy them. God reserves that right for His judgement alone. If we only had but 1% of Jesus faith and love of the Father.

  7. Msgr,

    The text does not say that Jephthah killed his daughter.

    Two important phrases are used:

    Of his vow it says this:

    Whosoever shall first come forth out of the doors of my house, and shall meet me when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, the same will I offer a holocaust to the Lord.

    And concerning how he fulfilled his vow, it says this:

    After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin.

    It does not say he killed her. She mourned her virginity, because his sacrifice was to consecrate that, make a holocaust of her virginity, not her life. That is at least one of the traditional interpretations of the text. It could be that he killed her, and that would make this an evil vow as you have said. But given that the text does not say he did so, (and Judges is not shy about explicitly stating such things. Consider the story about the Benjamites), it would seem that he did not kill her.

    1. Yes, I have read these theories but they do not respect the plain meaning of the text. A holocaust is a burnt offering. Hence his vow was to offer her in sacrifice in that manner. Further the yearly mourning for her in the aftermath indicates her death, not merely virginity. The reference to her virginity is that the tragedy of her death is multiplied by the fact that she is a virgin. Further if she was merely to be dedicated as a virgin to the temple service Jepthe could have paid a monetary substitute for this (cf Lev 27:1-8). Lev 27:28-29 would not apply since since she was not dedicated in the sense that verse demands. Hers would have been a voluntary dedication which does not come under the requirements of Lev 27:28 which refers only to dedications required by law as in the case of stolen things that must be returned etc. Finally, the Hebrew translated frequently as “and she was a virgin” is a pluperfect which is most literally translated as she “had never (or not) known a man.” In no grammatical sense does the verb imply an on-going action into the future.

      1. Ah yes, the word holocaust. I’m glad that is the word used here, and not ‘burnt offering’ as in the RSV, because the word does not mean burnt offering. Rather, it is the word used to describe a burnt offering. The word used is, “olah”, and it literally means ascent offering. What made this offering special was the fact that no part of it could be received by anyone but God. So in the case of Jephthah’s daughter, she was wholly consecrated to God, so that no man could touch her. Of course, being dead, that would mean no man could touch her. But, a vow could also accomplish this. Either way, the text is not clear. She could have been killed, and consecrated in that evil way. Or she could have vowed to remain a virgin, and be consecrated in that way.

      2. ***This would not conform with the commentaries I have read. In any case the plain meaning of the text is that she was killed. Lots of twists and gyrations, suppositions and questionable theories, very unusual grammer etc are all required to in effect force a different meaning other than the plain meaning.

  8. I think that the Sacrifice of Isaac incident is where God ends the pagan (pre-jewish) practice of infant sacrifice.
    After Abraham proves he is as dedicated to the Lord as the pagans are to their gods, God commands, Do not lay your hand on the boy…Do not do the least thing to him.” This lays the foundation of the later complete prohibition of human sacrifice.

    1. Might not God simply have said at the very outset (since He actually spoke to Abraham): “Do not offer your children to me as a holocaust as it is an abomination in My sight.” That might have been a tad more direct.

      1. Bosco —

        In fact, God did essentially say such things. And, like much of what God has said, a lot of people paid no attention to Him.

        And we might have paid no attention to this as well were it not for this incident. What might have been just a passing commandment, easily overlooked, now has grabbed our attention — it caused us to sit up and take notice. Had God not used this particular teaching method, we might have pretty much ignored His ultimate message.

        Even at the risk of being misunderstood (but only because we misunderstand much of revelation and the faith), this was a lot more effective than if God had been “a tad more direct” and simply said “don’t do this.”

  9. An excellent reflection and much food for thought as always. This story always made me sad because I wished that the Lord would have intervened as he did in the case of Isaac … I admired the daughter who went with her friends to prepare for her death. So brave. Just like Isaac. Except Isaac didn’t know he was going to be the offering until the last moment.

    Oh, the rash vows we make … I have made many promises in my day as well. Even now I bargain with God. How foolish. He knows everything about me and my future …

  10. @ response 2. I get what you’re saying. Thanks for making crooked lines straight. Especially at 4am.

  11. By Father Haydock,

    Some are of opinion, that the meaning of this vow of Jephte, was to consecrate to God whatsoever should first meet him, according to the condition of the thing; so as to offer it up as a holocaust, if it were such a thing as might be so offered by the law; or to devote it otherwise to God, if it were not such as the law allowed to be offered in sacrifice. And therefore they think the daughter of Jephte was not slain by her father, but only consecrated to perpetual virginity. But the common opinion followed by the generality of the holy fathers and divines is, that she was offered as a holocaust, in consequence of her father’s vow: and that Jephte did not sin, at least not mortally, neither in making nor in keeping his vow; since he is no ways blamed for it in scripture; and was even inspired by God himself to make the vow, (as appears from ver. 29, 30.) in consequence of which he obtained the victory; and therefore he reasonably concluded that God, who is the master of life and death, was pleased, on this occasion, to dispense with his own law; and that it was the divine will he should fulfil his vow. Ch. — S. Thomas (2. 2. q. 88. a. 2.) acknowledges that Jephte was inspired to make a vow, and his devotion herein is praised by the apostle. Heb. xi. 32. But he afterwards followed his own spirit, in delivering himself, without mature deliberation, and in executing what he had so ill engaged himself, to perform. This decision seems to be the most agreeable to the Scripture, and to the holy fathers. S. Jerom (in Jer. vii.) says, non sacrificium placet, sed animus offerentis. “If Jephte offered his virgin daughter, it was not the sacrifice, but the good will of the offerer which deserves applause.” Almost all the ancients seem to agree that the virgin was really burnt to death; and the versions have whosoever, which intimates that Jephte intended to offer a human victim; particularly as he could not expect a beast fit for such a purpose, would come out of the doors of his house to meet him. C. — Yet many of the moderns, considering how much such things are forbidden by God, cannot persuade themselves that Jephte should be so ignorant of the law, or that the priests and people of Israel should suffer him to transgress it. The original may be rendered as well, “whatsoever proceedeth…shall surely be the Lord’s, and (Prot.) or I will offer it up for a holocaust.” Pagnin. &c. — The version of Houbigant is very favourable to this opinion. See Hook’s Principia. — It is supposed that the sacrifice of Iphigenia, which took place about this time, (Aulis. v. 26,) was only in imitation of this of Jephte’s daughter. But the poets say, that Diana saved her life, and substituted a doe in her place; (Ovid Met. xii.) which, if true, would make the conformity more striking, if we admit that the sacrifice of Jephte’s daughter was not carried into effect. Iphigenia was made a priestess of Dians, to whom human victims were immolated. The daughter of Jephte, whom the false Philo calls Seila, was consecrated to the Lord, and shut up (H.) to lead a kind of monastic life; as the wives of David, (2 K. xx. 3. Grotius) after they had been dishonoured, were obliged to live in a state of continency. Although (H.) forced chastity be not a virtue, (C.) yet Jephte had no reason to believe that his daughter would not enter into the spirit of his vow, and embrace that state for God’s honour and service. We know that she gave her entire consent to whatever might be the nature of his vow; and surely she would be as ready to refrain from marriage, however desirable at that time, as to be burnt alive, which would effectually prevent her from becoming a mother, v. 37. To require this of her, was not, at least, more cruel in her father than to offer her in sacrifice. Then Chaldee paraphrast says, “Jephte did not consult Phinees, the priest, or he might have redeemed her;” and Kimchi gives us a very mean idea, both of Jephte and of the high priest, the great Phinees, whom the Rabbins foolishly suppose was still living, and of course above 300 years old, v. 26. — “Phinees said, He wants me, let him come to me. But Jephte, the head of the princes of Israel, shall I go to him? During this contest the girl perished.” To such straits are those reduced who wish to account for the neglect of Jephte in redeeming his daughter, as the Targum observes, was lawful for a sum of money. Lev. xxvii. 2. 3. 28. — But H. his vow was of the nature of the cherom, which allowed of no redemption, and required death. C. — On this point, however, interpreters are not agreed, and this manner of devoting to death, probably, regarded only the enemies of God, or such things as were under a person’s absolute dominion. H. — If a dog had first come out to meet Jephte, could he have offered it up for a holocaust? Certainly not, (Grot.) because it was prohibited, (Deut. xxiii. 18,) to offer even its price, (H.) and only oxen, sheep, goats, turtles and doves, were the proper victims. If, therefore, a person made a vow, of a man, he was to be consecrated to the Lord, (Grot.) like Samuel, and he might marry. But a woman could not, as she was already declared the servant of the Lord, and was not at liberty to follow her husband. Amama. — We need not herein labour to defend the conduct of Jephte. The Scripture does not canonize him on this account. If he did wrong, his repentance, and other heroic acts of virtue, might justly entitle him to be ranked among the saints of the old law. S. Aug. q. 49. — “Shew me the man who has not fallen into sin…Jephte returned victorious from the enemy, but in the midst of his triumph, he was overcome by his own vow, so that he thought it proper to requite the piety of his daughter, who came out to meet him, by parricide. In the first place, what need was there of making a vow so hastily, to promise things uncertain, the event of which he knew not, instead of what was certain? Then why did he perform so sorrowful a vow to the Lord God, by shedding blood?” S. Amb. Apol. Dav. i. 4. — This saint adopts the common opinion that Jephte really immolated his daughter. But he is far from thinking that he was influenced by the holy spirit to make the vow, otherwise he would never represent it in such odious colours. If God had required the life of Jephte’s daughter, as he did formerly command Abraham to sacrifice his son, the obedience and faith of the former would have been equally applauded, as the good will of the latter. But most of those who embrace the opinion that Jephte sacrificed his daughter, are forced to excuse or to condemn the action. They suppose that he was permitted to fulfil his vow, that others might be deterred from making similar promises, without the divine authority. S. Chrys. hom. xiv. ad pop. Ant. S. Jer. c. Jov. i. “I shall never, says S. Amb. (Off. iii. 12,) be induced to believe that Jephte, the prince, did not promise incautiously that he would immolate whatever should meet him “at the door of his own house;” whence he seems to take whosoever in the same latitude as we have given in the Hebrew. He concludes, “I cannot accuse the man who was obliged to fulfil his vow,” &c. We may imitate his moderation, (H.) rather than adopt the bold language of one who has written notes on the Prot. Bible, (1603) who says, without scruple, that by this rash vow and wicked performance, his victory was defaced; and again, that he was overcome with blind zeal, not considering whether the vow was lawful or not. W. — If Jephte was under the immediate influence of the Holy Ghost in what he did, as Salien believes, and the context by no means disproves, we ought to admire the faith of this victorious judge, though he gave way to the feelings of human nature, v. 35. We should praise his fidelity either in sacrificing or in consecrating his daughter to God’s service in perpetual virginity: but if he followed his own spirit, we cannot think that he was so ill-informed or so barbarous as to murder his daughter, nor that she would consent to an impiety which so often disgraced the pagan superstition, though she might very well agree to embrace that better part,
    which her father and God himself, by a glorious victory, seems to have marked out for her. Amid the variety of opinions which have divided the learned on this subject, infidels can derive no advantage or solid proof against the divine authority of the Scripture, and of our holy religion. The fact is simply recorded. People are at liberty to form what judgment of it they think most rational. If they decide that Jepthe was guilty of an oversight, or of a downright impiety, it will in the first place be difficult for them to prove it to the general satisfaction; and when they have done so, they will only evince that he was once a sinner, and under this idea the word of God gives him no praise. But if he did wrong in promising, as many of the Fathers believe, he might be justified in fulfilling his vow, as God might intimate to him both interiorly, and by granting him the victory, that he dispensed with his own law, and required this sort of victim in order to foreshew the bloody sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins, (Serarius and Salien, A. 2850) or the state of virginity which his blessed Mother and so many nuns and others in the Christian Church embrace with fervour. — Peace, with victory. — Same. Heb. “it shall be the Lord’s, and (or) I will make it ascend a whole burnt offering.” H. — The particle ve often signifies or as well as and, and it is explained in this sense here by the two Kimchis, by Junius, &c. See Ex. xxi. 17. Piscator says, the first part of the sentence determines that whatever the thing was it should be consecrated to the Lord, with the privilege of being redeemed, (Lev. xxvii. 11,) and the second shews that it should be immolated, if it were a suitable victim. Amama.

    1. Fr Haydock is surely most thorough in airing the many views. I must say I find his style very dense and difficult and suppose this was written likely at the beginning of the last century where such a style was common. But again it is most thorough and I am grateful for addition here, densely packed though it is!

  12. Thank you for your explanation of this section of the Bible. It is very uplifting to see how it is tied into Hebrews.

  13. Re: Abraham and Isaac

    Not to parse the language too much, but it should be pointed out that God did not ask Abraham to actually sacrifice his son — He asked him to make the offer to do so. God never intended for Abraham to actually do it — God did not change His mind and He did not make a mistake — He always intended to stop Abraham.

    In any event, in one of his books, Cardinal Ratzinger points out that regional religions of the time, including the ancestral religion of Abraham, included human sacrifice. As such, although not stated in the Bible, one could reasonably suppose that Abraham expected God to ask this of him at some point.

    At the same time, God is and always has been very adamently anti-human sacrifice, as pointed out above. So why would He ask Abraham to do something that He is Himself against?

    One large reason that is give was “to test” Abraham’s faith. But why would God need to test Abraham?? God is God — He knows everything. He already knew how strong Abraham’s faith was. So, clearly the “test” was not for God’s benefit, it was for Abraham’s benefit (and for ours). It was Abraham who needed to learn just exactly the degree of his faith, and perhaps God just played into Abraham’s underlying fears to show that to him.

    Similarly, it has been suggested that God took those fears and expectations of Abraham about human sacrifice and used them to demonstrate the exact opposite — to take Abraham right up to the brink, so as to get his attention, and only then tell Abraham “No, do NOT engage in human sacrifice.” God wanted to make His point very loudly, and it might not have made as much of an impression if God had simply said not to do it without first asking him to offer his son.

    And, of course, God wanted to use the occasion to foreshadow what would happen with Jesus — that if mankind was going to insist on such abhorent practices as human sacrifice, then God would supply the victim, His own Son, and He would use that horrible evil for the greatest good.

    1. I see that tommy b made pretty much that same point — that God actually wanted to abolish the practice of human sacrifice, and wanted to do it in a very big and graphic way.

      It would appear that sometimes God likes to teach us by showing us the opposite of what He really wants. For example — “It is not good for the man to be alone.”

      Now, either God made a mistake in the beginning, or He wanted to demonstrate His point in dramatic fashion — God first had the man exist in an original solitude, so that we could see how much we are in need of other persons. The man (Adam) needed to experience for himself what it was like to be without others in his life.

      So too did Abraham need to experience for himself not only the extent of his fidelity to God, but he needed to experience the pain and anguish of human sacrifice, but only so He could then stop Him. The point of the incident was not God asking him to offer Isaac in sacrifice — rather, the point of the incident was so that God could stop him from sacrificing him.

      1. “but only so He could then stop Him”

        correction —

        that should be “but only so He could then stop him . . .”

  14. Almost everyone here seems to have gotten the point anyway:

    Don`t sacrifice others so easily, and don`t play games with God.

  15. Bender – “Even at the risk of being misunderstood (but only because we misunderstand much of revelation and the faith), this was a lot more effective than if God had been “a tad more direct” and simply said “don’t do this.”

    Really? You mean the 10 Commandments were less effective?

  16. You mean the 10 Commandments were less effective?

    Of course they were and are less effective all by themselves.

    Not only was it necessary for the People of God to first endure 400 years of slavery and 10 plagues and 40 years in the desert before they would even begin to understand — God merely giving them a list of dos and don’ts (and the rest of the Law) without the background to them not being sufficiently effective — but even those things were not effective enough. The graphic horror of the Passion was necessary in order for God’s word to be completely effective.

    A bunch of words are never enough and have never been effective enough, even for God. Those words, either spoken or written, need to be accompanied by living action to be effective, they needed thousands of years of Salvation History to illustrate what God means and wants. A faith limited to “the book” is not enough (and we are not a religion of the book) — that faith needs to be lived to be effective.

    1. A father can say “don’t touch the stove” until he is blue in the face and it still will not get through for some. For his word to be effective, he then allows the kids to experience for themselves what he meant. Only when they go ahead and touch the stove and burn their hand do they understand.

      History shows that we are a rather slow and dim-witted people — God all too often needs to “draw us a picture” in order for His word to be effective, that is, for us to understand and willingly comply.

      1. Yes Bender but your earlier musings on the God-of-reverse-psychology would have God say to a child “Touch that hot stove. It is good for you.”, only because God really intended that the child learn not touch a hot stove.
        Your rationale (and I do not mean to be uncharitable) seems counterintuitive and wanting.

      2. Your rationale (and I do not mean to be uncharitable) seems counterintuitive and wanting

        The Cross is counterintutive. The Beatitudes are counterintuitive. The idea of a Virgin Mother is counterintuitive. Yes, the faith is full of paradoxes. And, yes, God wants us to learn and He knows that many of us will only learn by experience, so He lets us suffer the consequences of our actions, He shows us the effects of the wrong way to do things.

        Rather than simply tell us in words, “sin is a really bad thing and it makes people suffer,” He graphically shows us what sin looks like, He manifests the consequences of sin in His own scourged flesh hanging on the Cross.

  17. “And what of us? We too do well to consider the rapid descent into evil of our culture as we have increasingly and collectively rejected the true faith. Things once thought shameful are now practiced proudly by many. Things once thought immodest are flaunted. A terrible toll of abortion also mounts as our children are sacrificed to the gods of promiscuity, contraception, illicit sexual union, career, and convenience. As God has been shown the door in our culture, and kicked to the curb, we have descended mightily in to confusion and corruption, to debauchery and decay. It begins with forsaking faith in the One, True God. This nation, though always pluralistic and non sectarian, did once have a clear place for God. Now He has been escorted to the margins. And we, like Jephthah, are increasingly able and willing to do the unthinkable.”

    With all due respect to the interpretative exchanges…isn’t this the most important paragraph?

    I am 47, raised by serious Catholics who sent me to Catholic schools and taught me to obey. And so when our beautiful Gothic style church in the suburbs burned to the ground and replaced with a Town Hall, stripped of its communion rails, stained glass windows and statuary, I obeyed. When the priest turned his back God so that he might “experiment” with the forms of our sacred liturgy and share a meal with us, I obeyed. When the organ music and old hymns were replaced with guitars and folk songs, I obeyed. When priests began to tell jokes at the end of every sermon, I obeyed. I was taught after all that V2 was about changes to assist in the pastoral care of the faithful.

    And the minute I left home for college (a Catholic one) and found the same seemed to have happened everywhere…I stopped going rather than disobey.

    I took me 33 years to realize that a life without my faith was no life worth living. So I returned and I struggle through these wilderness days in the novus ordo.

    How in the world can we be spirtual warriors against the evil in this world if we are not armed with the one, true faith. And how can we ask our God to arm us if our priests turn their back on God and allow non-ordained hands to place the holy communion into the hands of people who are allowed to show the most incredible disrespect for the Real Presence imaginable. I am not a cynic by any means, but honestly how are we to win this fight unarmed?

    1. Have faith and hope, Bill. The victory already has been won by Jesus. He cannot be overcome nor anyone who, like you, thirsts for the Truth and Justice. Patience friend. God bless you. Persevere.

  18. -Bender- You said “It would appear that sometimes God likes to teach us by showing us the opposite of what He really wants.”

    So God is the father of reverse psychology? The Ten Commandments are the reverse of what God wants or are they what God wants?

    1. So God is the father of reverse psychology?

      God is the master teacher, and in His divine pedagogy, He utilizes a variety of teaching methods.

      But I am beginning to detect something here — are you really interested in understanding? It seems that you are getting awfully contentious and argumentative, disputing and quibbling over things that really should not be all that controversial.

      1. Bender – The difficulty is that when one does not know the person(s) with whom a lively discussion is taking place, i.e. anonymously on the internet, there seems to be a tendency to interpret pointed questions and comments (intended to eliminate dross and get to the nub of the matter) as cynical or sarcastic or disputative for their own sake. Not so on my part I assure you.
        Do you think for one moment that Chesterton or Belloc would have refrained from probing questions? How can one get to the heart of the matter (no Graham Green pun intended) if one cannot seek the truth with intellectual vigor?
        Whatever you believe you ‘detect’ vis-à-vis my sincerity, bender, you have mischaracterized me utterly.

      2. bender, my friend – May I direct you to Gal 2:11-14? “And when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong.” Disputation and opposition for the sake of getting at the Truth is not wrong. Ask St. Paul.
        I fear you are put out with me because I have not yielded to your opinion as the authoritative one on the matters under discussion.
        I have actually been following Monsignor Pope’s opinion. I hope you do not mind. He has promised to revisit these issues in a future blog. I eagerly await the Monsignor’s future blog on the sacrifice of Abraham.

      3. Bosco — my apologies. You are right, I jumped too quickly to suspicion, given the nature of some Internet discussions. But a sincere probing dialectic exchange, a true dialogue (exchange of logic/reason), is good. So, I apologize again.

        As for authoritativeness, any “authority” I have comes solely from the content of my submissions. If what I submit strikes one as reasonable and true and is helpful, great, and if not, well, maybe I’ll do a better job next time. I intend merely to offer and propose, and not to impose, in discussing the Faith.

  19. Tim H – You say ” Abraham must have concluded that God could/would raise the dead.” Can you know the mind of Abraham? I may be wrong but the concept of resurrection of the dead (at least in the sense that Jesus taught) was an understanding that came long long after Abraham.

  20. – Bender- No sweat and no apologies necessary, I assure you. Kindly forgive me if I pressed too hard or seemed overly ‘alpha’ on my part. This lively discussion of ours has caused me to revisit the entire account of Abraham (not just the sacrifice of Isaac) and I found myself both amused and amazed at the familiarity and audacity of Abraham’s interactions with God even before the proposed sacrifice of Isaac.
    Recall in Genesis how Abraham bargained with God in order to save Sodom and Gomorrah? I love Gen 18:23 – 24 “Abraham drew close to Him and asked, Wilt Thou, then, sweep away the innccent with the guilty?”
    Truly Abraham was a man of great faith and predisposed to believe in the Mercy of God.
    Peace to you bender and MichaelP!

  21. be the rejecter he was rejected by his own family and to win them back he made the vow and he had to give up the one of the only things that Hadent rejected him. The rejected soon became the rejector

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