Jephtah - Bible study activities

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Bible text for this story

Tragedy mask

Jephtah's story

A tragic young woman

Jephtah's Daughter

Human sacrifice

Child Sacrifice

Goliath, Caravaggio, detail of painting

Ancient warfare

Drawing of a warrior

Bible Warriors: Jephtah






Activities for individuals or groups

Movies about a tragic hero

Stage 1:  Make up a listWarrior mask
List some films that deal with the fate of a tragic hero. You can choose recent films or classics. If this is a group activity, choose films most people know. 

Stage 2:  Glance over your list

1.  Have you chosen films that are realistic, or do you prefer films that are inspiring?
2.  Do your favorites have both these qualities?
3.  What does this say about you and what you need in a story?

Stage 3:  Choose your favorite 
4.  What are the central themes in this film? 
5.  Is the story dealt with in a realistic light? 
6.  Do any of the scenes remind you of your own life or experiences?
7.  Or does the film express what you would like to have?

Stage 4:  Think about your choices

Group activity: discuss these questions, making sure everyone in the group has a chance to talk about their ideas.
Single activity: sit down for a few minutes and focus your mind; make a quick list of your favorites; read through the Stage 3 questions, and think about them as you do other tasks in your day.

Movies with a tragic hero like Jephtah

Can you name 
the films?

Can you see a connection with Jephtah's story?

'Braveheart'The Searchers
The Natural'The Seven Samurai''Gladiator'

Answers HERE (see 'Jephtah')   Can you think of others?

Discussion question Ancient Canaanite swords

Is it ever permissible to kill? 

Consider these three situations:

  • Your country is at war, and you believe it is in the right, that this is a just war

  • A person has committed a hideous crime and been sentenced to death

  • You kill a person while defending yourself against them - you believed they meant to kill you

In any one of these situations, would you be justified in taking another person's life?


BullyingYounger boy being bullied by older boys

Bullying kills the spirit of the person being bullied, and in its own way is a kind of murder - see the fifth item at Top ten ways to heaven

  • Where have you encountered it? 

  • Within your family? In the playground? 

  • At your work-place?

  • Have you been guilty of it yourself?

  • What can you do about it? 

Discuss ways you can combat this ugly aspect of human nature.


And while we're on the subject..

In the period of the Judges, Israel was usually outnumbered by enemy forces, and only equipped with inferior weapons. Yet the warriors used their wits and the techniques of guerilla warfare to defeat superior armies. Read about the techniques used by ancient Hebrew warriors at BIBLE TOP TEN WARRIORS.

Think about the techniques of guerilla warfare: you use the advantages you have and do not try to fight an enemy on their terms. Read the story of David and the way he used lateral thinking when he faced Goliath - see BIBLE TOP TEN YOUNG PEOPLE: DAVID

Now, with all that on board, think about ways you can apply this to your own problems. How can the techniques of guerilla warfare work in an everyday situation?



Focus Questions

1. What are the most interesting moments in Jephtah's story? 
2. In the story, who speaks and who listens? Who acts? Who gets what they want? If you were in the story, which person would you want to be friends
with? Which person would you want to avoid?
3. What is God's interaction with the main characters? What does this tell you about the narrator's image of God? Do you agree with this image?
4. What is happening on either side of the story, in the chapters before and after it? Does this help you understand what is happening?
5. The narrator/editor has chosen to tell some things and leave other things out. What has been left out of the story that you would like to know?
6. Are the characteristics and actions of the people in the story still present in the world? How is the story relevant to modern life, especially your own? 


Famous Quotes

'Let the Lord, who is judge, decide....' (Judges 11:27)

'And she said to her father 'Let this thing be done....' (11.37)

  • Are you able to hand over your life to God, to accept what you are given? 

  • Or do you worry and fret, trying to control things? Is it possible to strike a balance in your life?

Put some time aside to read the Bible text of this story, then think about the questions above.

Extra Reading

Extract from 'Jephtah and His Vow' by David Marcus, Texas Tech. Pr., 1986, pages 44-53

'In every period of Israel's history, marriage, not celibacy, is considered the desirable state for women. The blessings of the married state are extolled, and it was held axiomatic that a woman achieved fulfillment only with husband and children. Indeed, it was considered a tragedy for a woman not to be married, and a terrible misfortune, even a punishment, if she did not have children. The institution of the levirate marriage is clear evidence of the importance for a wife to bear sons for her husband and was what Israelite society considered the norm: that a man's house and name should be continued in his children. In such a society, it is thought that it would be highly unlikely for a woman to take a vow to voluntarily refrain from marriage and from having children.

The non-sacrificialists do not disagree with this view of the primacy of marriage in Israelite society, but a few believe that it is possible to assume that some voluntary celibacy may have existed. This assumption is based on the fact that, according to Numbers 6:2, women as well as men could vow themselves to God as Nazarites. Although the rules of the Nazarites, which specifically included abstinence from alcohol, not cutting the hair, and avoidance of corpses, did not include celibacy (the two most well-known Nazarites, Samuel and Samson, were both married), it is held most likely that this applied only to male Nazarites: they were permitted to marry, but a female one was not. This is deduced from the fact that in ancient Israel a wife was considered the property of her husband. A woman consecrated to God would, therefore, regard God as her spiritual husband, and would become, so to speak, His property. Hence, it would not be considered proper for such a woman to be married. She would remain in lifelong chastity or, in the case of a widow, in lifelong widowhood.

Summary:  There is no real evidence in the Hebrew Bible of women's electing to remain celibate, and the likelihood of this as a regular feature in society is remote. Likewise, there is little evidence in ancient Israel of an institution of celibate women being attached to a sanctuary akin to the chaste priestess in Mesopotamia, or to the vestals in ancient Greece and Rome in the cults of Athene, Artemis and Vesta.


Most Bible scholars today believe that the story of Jephthah and his daughter represents an example of a human sacrifice offered up in emergency conditions to obtain the active cooperation of the deity. Another example of this type is the sacrifice by Mesha, king of Moab, of his first-born son. Mesha, being invaded by the combined armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom, and seeing that the tide of battle was going against him, took his first-born son, and offered him up on the city wall as a burnt offering.

So he took his first-born son who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up on the wall as a burnt offering. A great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and went back to [their own] land.

The efficacy of the offering was immediate. The deed caused tremendous consternation upon the allies, and especially upon the Israelites. Thus, as with Mesha, it is believed that Jephthah was responding to an extraordinary situation, a desperate war with the Ammonites. Even if one grants that the war with the Ammonites be considered "emergency conditions" or a "specially dangerous situation,this view has, of course, to contend with an obvious and well-known problem. Given that human sacrifice was abhorrent to Israel, a vow to make a human sacrifice would surely have been against the law. This being so, one would expect some condemnation of Jephthah in the text after he put his daughter to death.

Attempted solutions to this problem by sacrificialists have generally followed two lines: 

(1) it is held that a vow to offer human sacrifice was not in fact against the law in Jephthah's time, or 

(2) it is possible that Jephthah was unaware of the law.


In advocating that a vow to offer human sacrifice was not against the law in Jephthah's time, a number of scholars point to the fact that the narrative does not seem to hold that such a vow is contrary to the spirit of Israelite religion Thus it is believed likely that in Jephthah's time human sacrifice could have taken place. Religious beliefs of this age must not be judged, say the sacrificialists, according to later laws or ideas; even the later prophets were forced to wage war against child sacrifice. Soggin has recently pointed to the value of the Jephthah episode in enabling us to get a glimpse of early Israelite religion, telling us that it "had much more in common with that of Canaan and the other religions of the Ancient Near East than Israelites were able to record at a later stage or than the revisions of the text were disposed to admit".

But there is an element here of petitio principii. It has first to be established that human sacrifice existed in ancient Israel before one can assume that the Jephthah episode is an example of it, and hence that it represents an earlier stage of Israelite religion. The fact is that it has never been satisfactorily established whether or not human sacrifice existed in Israel. The most recent studies on this old and difficult problem are those of Moshe Weinfeld and Morton Smith, who have debated the traditional view whether the reference to the passing of a child through fire or to Moloch indicates not child sacrifice but religious initiation to a foreign cult. The present state of inquiry seems to be that the evidence is such that one cannot say for certain one way or another whether human sacrifice existed in ancient Israel.


The second attempted solution to explain Jephthah's action is that although a vow to offer human sacrifice was against the law, Jephthah was unaware of the law.

A reason often given, particularly by modern scholars, for Jephthah's ignorance of the law is the fact that he lived outside of Israel for some time. Jephthah may have been, just as we know Israel was, influenced by the religion of the neighboring people. The Book of Judges testifies to the fact that the Israelites worshipped the Ammonite god Milkom prior to their liberation by Jephthah; so it could well be that during Jephthah's stay in the land of Tob as a freebooter or mercenary chief, he too came under the influence of foreign religion. A basic element in this argument is the belief that the Ammonites, like others of Israel's neighbors, regularly practiced human sacrifice in their cult. Thus, it is thought, Jephthah believed that just as other gods required human sacrifice, so did Yahweh.

The non-sacrificialists are able to refute this point of view in two ways. First, as the parallel case of David shows, the fact that one lives the life of a freebooter or mercenary outside of Israel does not necessarily mean that, upon one's return, one cannot still live in accordance with the law of Israel. Having lived outside of Israel does not by itself point to ignorance of Israel's law. Second, as with the case of Israel itself, there is no convincing evidence that human sacrifice was practiced as a regular part of the cult of any of Israel's neighbors so that any alleged influence of this practice on Jephthah is most speculative.


The final question to be considered here, if in fact there is a case of human sacrifice, is why there is no word of disapproval or any moral evaluation in the text of Jephthah's act. Jephthah is depicted in the entire chapter as a true follower of Yahweh (verse 9); he wages war on behalf of Yahweh, and calls upon Yahweh to judge between Israel and Ammon (verse 27); the spirit of Yahweh 'comes upon him (verse 29), and he makes his vow to Yahweh (verse 30). He is extolled as one of Yahweh's saviors in the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 12:11), alongside Gideon, Bedan (possibly Barak or Samson), and Samuel himself.

Is it likely, then, say the non-sacrificialists, that Jephthah, a true Yahwist, would have presented an offering which was anathema to Yahweh, and that this fact would not be commented on by the narrator?

The usual answer to this question is that absence of condemnation has little significance. Firstly, it may point to the fact that human sacrifice was in fact current in Jephthah's day. Secondly, even if this is not the case, there are other heroes in the Bible whose errant behavior is not condemned. But if, as is generally agreed, the stories of Jephthah fit into the redactional framework of the Deuteronomist, then one would expect unlawful acts to be somehow condemned, either overtly or obliquely, in accord with the didactic outlook of the Deuteronomistic school. It will be recalled that the narrator castigated Gideon for a much lesser crime with the Ephod (Judges 8:27). Absence of condemnation is therefore significant in judging a character's action. Jephthah is not only not condemned but referred to by the same Deuteronomist as a "savior of Israel," which is hardly an appellation to be applied to one guilty of such a crime.


The proponents of the sacrificial point of view believe that Jephthah's act is to be considered an example, like that of Mesha and his son, of human sacrifice offered up in an emergency. To offset the objection that such a vow and execution would have been against the law, some proponents maintain that a vow to offer human sacrifice was not against the law, and if it was, Jephthah was unaware of it. A possible reason offered for Jephthah's ignorance of the law is that he had lived outside Israel and was subject to foreign influences. The absence of condemnation of Jephthah by the narrator is pointed to by non-sacrificialists as proof that the vow and its fulfillment were not contrary to the laws of Yahweh in Jephthah's time. The sacrificialists, on the other hand, point to the absence of condemnation as proof that human sacrifice was acceptable in Jephthah's time.


My conclusion is that while I personally favor a non-sacrificial fate for Jephthah's daughter, the evidence is so ambiguous that it must be admitted that both conclusions are possible. In positing that this situation was not accidental, it will be pointed out that the narrator is a brilliant stylist and craftsman who is most familiar with Hebrew rhetorical devices. Such a craftsman could be quite capable of devising a deliberately ambiguous ending. Perhaps the fate of Jephthah's daughter is not the chief element of the story at all, rather Jephthah's rash vow is. The story in effect is one which illustrates the consequences of a hasty vow; a fine irony for a man whose forte is seen to be eloquence of speech and mastery of words.


(1)   The text of the vow clearly states: "I will offer him up for an lh, 'burnt offering", and this was put into effect in the fulfillment.
(2)   The despair of the father, and the lamentation of the daughter, are inexplicable unless the daughter is going to die.
The fulfillment states: "he did unto her as he vowed" which was to offer her up as a burnt offering.
The annual commemoration of mourning the daughter would make little sense unless the daughter is actually put to death.
There are parallels in classical mythology to the various motifs in the Jephthah story which result in actual sacrifice of people.
Structural parallels with the Isaac story indicate a sacrificial conclusion for the Jephthah story.
There is no evidence in the Hebrew Bible that women could be vowed to celibacy, a concept alien in Israel.
A conclusion of celibacy cannot explain Jephthah's daughter's lamenting her virginity for two months. If she were indeed to remain celibate, she would have the rest of her life for such lamentation.


(1)   The phrase in the vow wehyh laYHWH can only mean consecration, not offering of a sacrifice.
The emphasis in the text is on the daughter's virginity.
The text states that the fulfillment of the vow was that "she did not know a man. "
It is the conclusion of voluntary celibacy, which was unique in Israel, that forms the basis for the annual celebration of the unmarried maidens. 
There is some evidence in the Hebrew Bible, and parallels in other ancient cultures, of women consecrating themselves or being consecrat
ed to sanctuary service, and having to live a life of chastity in this service. 
It is not stated in the text that Jephthah put his daughter to death. 
If the daughter were going to die, she would lament not only her virginity but also her life, and would want to spend her last days with her father, not away from him.
There is no condemnation of Jephthah anywhere in the Hebrew Bible which implies that his vow and subsequent fulfillment must have been consistent with the laws of Israel; hence, it was not human sacrifice. 
Structural parallels with the Isaac story indicate a non-sacrificial conclusion.
(10) Parallels with the Mesha story and classical mythology lead one to expect that had Jephthah put his daughter to death something untoward would have subsequently happened to him.


These problems may not have been entirely accidental, but could possibly represent ambiguities consciously devised by the narrator. He chose his words so that they would be open to a number of interpretations. As far as the fate of Jephthah's daughter is concerned, the fact remains that the text, as it stands now, admits the possibility of either conclusion. Was this deliberate? With the conclusion left up in the air, the suspense of the entire story is heightened. In many respects this is akin to classical folklore, inasmuch as there language is often intentionally ambiguous, and it has been observed above that some classical legends have different endings corresponding to different traditions. It remains to be demonstrated that our narrator was capable of such deliberate writing, and that such ambiguities are to be found elsewhere in the Bible.'



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