In the Bible the book of Judges chapter 11 tells us about Jephthah:
Jephthah was of the Gileadites; a familial group of citizens who branched off from the Israelite tribe of Manasseh (Numbers26:29). Jephthah was the “black sheep” of his family because he was the son of a prostitute; his half siblings drove him away from the family. As a result he came to live in the land of Tob were he became the leader of a band of outlaws. Some time later the Ammonites began warring against the Israelites and so the Gileadites sought Jephthah to be their war hero. Jephthah agreed under the condition that if he won the battle then he would become the leader of the Gileadites. They agreed to this condition.
As part of his war strategy Jephthah made a solemn oath to God Almighty: If God would give Jephthah the victory, then Jephthah would offer the LORD a burnt sacrifice of whatever was the first thing to come out of his house when he returned from battle. God gave Jephthah a huge victory, after which Jephthah returned home.
...and the first thing to come out of Jephthah's house was not one of his animals. It was his daughter; his only child.
According to Scripture, the accounts ends this way (Judges 11:34-40) :
Many people take this passage to mean that Jephthah went through with his promise and offered up his daughter as a burnt offering to God. Did she really come to this gruesome end, or is there something else to this story?
To begin with, if Jephthah had actually offered up his daughter as a burned sacrifice to God then he would have committed a serious offense according to the Law Covenant that was given to the Israelites by God Himself, as God made it absolutely clear that He regarded acts of human sacrifice as repulsive (Deuteronomy12:31, Deuteronomy18:10). In fact, human sacrifice was one of the primary reasons that God drove out the pagans that lived in the region of the Israelites (Deuteronomy18:12). Although Jephthah made a certain promise to God, the Almighty is a merciful God (Psalms86:15, Psalms100:5) and the personification of Love (1John4:8); there is no way that He would require Jephthah to hold to the promise if the first living thing out the door was a human, such as his own daughter.
Another important thing to note is that, after the daughter was told of her father's promise to God, the Scripture does not state that she went away to grieve her impending death. No, instead it states that she went to bewail her virginity and that she knew no man (vs.39). Evidently she was aware that her “sacrifice” would involve perpetual celibacy, not a death sentence. Not only is this a personal sacrifice on her part, but it's also a family sacrifice considering that Scripture states she was the only child -- thus her perpetual celibacy meant no family heirs to carry on the family inheritance. Ultimately, this meant the extinction of her father's family line, and the extinction of one's family line was considered to be a most terrible tragedy in the Israelite culture. Yes, her sacrifice was a very heavy toll indeed.
It is also important to know that in her time women could choose to dedicate themselves to serve at the Tabernacle (Exodus38:8, NIV, NASB, HCSB, etc., some versions use “assemble” instead of “serve”). Such women who chose this way of life were to remain celibate during their entire service at the Tabernacle. The fact that she bewailed her virginity indicates that she knew she'd be bound to celibacy, and thus chose to serve at the Tabernacle for the remainder of her life.
People sometimes question my line of reasoning on this, especially since the passage also states that the women of Israel would “lament” her for four days each year (vs. 40). Since lamenting is usually associated with grieving and mourning, such ones take this to mean that she had actually died, and therefore became a human sacrifice to God. It is important to note, though, that the use of the word “lament” in this passage is misleading. Let me explain:
According to the Hebrew Interlinear text the original Hebrew word used for “lament” in verse 40 was the Hebrew word “tanah”. According to Strong's Hebrew Lexicon, “tanah” is defined as follows:
Note that this entry also refers to word #8566, which is defined as follows:
And yes, I agree that you can't help but notice that this secondary word definition can be connected with “a harlot” along with the other parts of the definition, however we know that this daughter did not become a harlot because the passage clearly states that she "bewailed her virginity" and that “she knew no man”, therefore the "harlot" part of the definition does not apply.
So what is there to make of these twin definitions? This is how I see it: Putting the two definitions together gives the idea of being hired in an honourable position that was to be celebrated or commemorated, and lifetime service at the Tabernacle would certainly be seen in that light. Since part of the definition includes being “hired”, this may also suggest that perhaps Jephthah was given monetary compensation for the loss of his only child and his future family line.
As you can see by this definition, the translating of “tanah” into the English word “lament” is terribly misleading as these women weren't grieving over Jephthah's daughter each year, these women were actually going up to the Tabernacle to honour or celebrate her each year. This is better translated in other Bible versions as follows:
Clearly, this daughter was not offered as a burnt sacrifice, but instead was offered as a living sacrifice to God in much the same way that we Christians are admonished to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1). By offering her as a living sacrifice Jephthah was able to fulfill his promise to God without breaking God's law against burnt human sacrifice.
Yahweh is a very loving God who has never required us to offer burnt human sacrifices to Him; if He were, then He'd be no different from the false gods that the ancient pagans worshiped. Unfortunately, the faulty translation of a single word in Scripture gives that impression in some Bible versions, causing a potentially serious stumbling block for those who are discovering the Bible.
Please be sure to share this information with such ones in order to restore their faith in God's Holy Word.