Human sacrifice

Moses warned the people of Israel against idolatry before they entered the Promised Land. Moses said, “When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:29-31). “The religion of the Canaanites was extremely corrupt. It was characterized by the practices of human sacrifice, ritual prostitution and homosexuality, and self-mutilation. These religions taught that these practices were prevalent among their gods, so it is not surprising that the people became equally debased” (note on Judges 2:13). Israel’s disobedience and unfaithfulness to God began around the time of Joshua’s death. It says in Judges 2:7-13:

And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years. And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.

Israel’s abandonment of God meant that they were making sacrifices to other gods. The Hebrew word that is translated abandoned in Judges 2:13, ʿazab (aw-zabˊ) “carries a technical sense of ‘completely and permanently abandoned’ or ‘divorced’” (H5800). It says in Judges 8:33, “As soon as Gideon died, the people of Israel turned again and whored after the Baals and made Baal-berith their god.”

Israel’s further disobedience and oppression led to an acknowledgment of their sin (Judges 10:10) and a temporary reprieve from the misery of their circumstances. It says in Judges 10:15-16, “And the people of Israel said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.’ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.” In the King James Version of the Bible, the phrase his soul was grieved is used instead of the words became impatient. The Hebrew words nephesh (nehˊ-fesh) qatsar (kaw-tsarˊ) have to do with the condition of one’s soul and suggest that God’s vitality was diminished because of the trouble his people were getting into. God was becoming impatient in the sense that he wanted to change the Israelites’ situation because of the effect it was having on him. It was literally breaking his heart (H5315/H7114).

God’s decision to use Jephthah to deliver the people of Israel from the Ammonites may have been a result of his lack of better choices. It says in Judges 11:1, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute.” One thing that is clear about Jephthah’s character is that he wanted to be admired by others. Judges 11:1-11 states:

Gilead was the father of Jephthah. And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons. And when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, “You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” Then Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob, and worthless fellows collected around Jephthah and went out with him. After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob. And they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight against the Ammonites.” But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned to you now, that you may go with us and fight against the Ammonites and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight against the Ammonites, and the Lord gives them over to me, I will be your head.” And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The Lord will be witness between us, if we do not do as you say.” So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them. And Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah.

The terms of Jephthah and the Gileadites agreement were spoken before the LORD at Mizpah. Mizpah is the location where Jacob and his uncle Laban made a covenant with each other and said that God would be a witness between them when they were out of each other’s sight (Genesis 31:49). The Hebrew word from which Mizpah originated, tsaphah (tsaw-fawˊ) “occurs for the first time in the Old Testament in the so-called Mizpah Benediction: ‘The Lord watch between me and thee…’ (Genesis 31:49). The meaning in this context is ’to watch’ with a purpose, that of seeing that the covenant between Laban and Jacob was kept. Thus, the statement by Laban is more of a threat than a benediction. Similarly, when God’s ‘eyes behold the nations’ (Psalm 66:7), it is much more than a casual look. Perhaps in most uses, the connotation of ‘to spy’ would be the most accurate” (H6822). The lack of trust between Jephthah and the elders of Gilead was probably rooted in the harsh treatment that Jephthah received from his brothers (Judges 11:2) and the fact that he had been living in Tob with what is described as “worthless fellows” (Judges 11:3), for likely many years.

We know that Jephthah was a man of faith because he is mentioned in Hebrews 11:32-34, which states, “And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” It says that Jephthah was made strong out of weakness and became mighty in war. The Greek words that are translated were made strong and became mighty indicate that Jephthah was transformed from a weak and ineffective leader to a strong and mighty warrior. Jephthah initially sent messengers to the king of the Ammonites trying to avoid a war, but the king of the Ammonites didn’t listen to Jephthah (Judges 11:28) and it says in Judges 11:29, “then the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jephthah.” The Spirit of the LORD made it possible for Jephthah to do what he needed to. The Greek word that is translated were made strong in Hebrews 11:34, endunamoō (en-doo-nam-oˊ-o) means “to empower” (G1743) and is derived from the words en (en) “denoting (fixed) position (in place, time, or state)” (G1722) and dunamoo (doo-nam-oˊ-o) which means “to enable” (G1412). Dunamoo is derived from the word dunamis (dooˊ-nam-is) which means “force (literal or figurative); specifically miraculous power (usually by implication a miracle itself)…Dunamis almost always points to new and higher forces that have entered and are working in this lower world of ours” (G1411).

Jephthah may or may not have been aware that the Spirit of the LORD had come upon him. As Jephthah crossed over into the territory of the Ammonites, it says in Judges 11:30-31, “And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” After Jephthah subdued the Ammonites, Judges 11:34-40 tells us:

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

“Jephthah’s vow has caused much concern for Bible scholars. He may have understood the possibility of human sacrifice when he originally made the vow and may have performed such an act. A vow was not to be broken (Judges 11:35, cf. Numbers 30:2), and Jephthah kept his (Judges 11:39). The precise nature of the vow, however is debated. Jephthah certainly must have been familiar with God’s prohibitions regarding human sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10), and it seems inconceivable that one who was empowered by the Spirit of the Lord in a unique way (Judges 11:29) would make such a diabolical vow that directly contradicted God’s explicit command, especially in the context of seeking God’s help (Judges 11:30). It was customary for women to greet returning warriors (Exodus 15:20; 1 Samuel 18:6), and therefore it is suggested that if Jephthah had originally intended a human sacrifice, he would not have been surprised and distraught when his only child (Judges 11:34) came out to meet him and became the object of his vow (Judges 11:35). Jephthah may have intended something other than a literal burnt sacrifice, or his apprehension concerning the battle with the Ammonites may have caused him to word his vow hastily. Even if the vow had included the possibility of human sacrifice, Jephthah may have dedicated his daughter to the service of the Lord instead, equating that with fulfilling his vow. Literal burnt offerings symbolized complete dedication to the Lord in that the sacrifice was entirely consumed (Leviticus 1:9, 13; 6:22, 23). It seems unlikely that Jephthah would have been commended for his faith (see Hebrews 11:32) if he had taken his daughter’s life and broken God’s law in such a serious matter. The statement that ‘she had never known a man’ follows Jephthah’s fulfilling the vow (Judges 11:39) and would be meaningless if he had taken her life. It may refer instead to the fact that, as one who was wholly given to the service of the Lord, she would have to continue in her virginity. That would explain why she spent two months bemoaning her virginity (Judges 11:37) rather than her abruptly shortened life” (note on Judges 11:29-40).

Jephthah tore his clothes, a sign of mourning, and told his daughter, “You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me” (Judges 11:35) when she came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. The Hebrew word that is translated trouble, akar (aw-karˊ) means figuratively “to disturb or afflict” (H5916). Jacob used the word akar after his two sons killed all the males in the city of Shechem because of the rape of their sister Dinah. Genesis 34:30 states, “Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, ‘You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” Like Jacob, Jephthah blamed his daughter for the outcome of his mistake. Jephthah didn’t seem to regret that he had promised God that he would offer up for a burnt offering “whatever comes out from the doors of my house” (Judges 11:31), but rather that his daughter happened to be the one that came through the doors to greet him and to celebrate his victory.

The commendable thing to note about Jephthah’s agonizing situation was that he kept his vow (Judges 11:39). It says in Numbers 30:1-2, “Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, ‘This is what the LORD has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath, to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” A vow was “an oral, voluntary promise to give or do something as an expression of consecration or devotion to the service of God” (H5087). According to the Mosaic Law, once a man’s vow was made, it could not be revoked under any circumstances. When Abraham’s faith was tested, God told him, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2). Genesis 22:9-10 tells us, “When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.” Abraham intended to go through with sacrificing his son. “But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me’” (Genesis 22:11-12). God spared Isaac’s life because Abraham demonstrated his willingness to do whatever God told him to. The common theme between Abraham and Jephthah’s situations was obedience to the word of God.

After the angel of the LORD stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac, Genesis 22:13-14 tells us, “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, ‘The LORD will provide’; and it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the LORD it will be provided.’” The intended substitutionary nature of sacrifices was made evident in the Mosaic Law through the Day of Atonement. A bull for a sin offering, a ram for a burnt offering, and two make goats were required to make atonement for the priest and the people of Israel. Leviticus 16:6-10 states:

“Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting. And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord and use it as a sin offering, but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.”

The name Azazel means “the scapegoat” (H5799). After the sin offerings had been made, Aaron was instructed to lay both of his hands on the head of the scapegoat, “and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself in a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness” (Leviticus 16:21-22).

The Day of Atonement was the only time the priest could enter the Holy Place and come before the mercy seat where God would appear to him (Leviticus 16:2). The book of Hebrews explains that Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter could have been avoided if he had understood what Abraham did, that Jesus would established a better covenant through his substitutionary death on the cross that would be able to “purify the conscience from dead works” (Hebrews 9:14). One of the flaws of the Mosaic Law was that it offered the people of Israel a temporary solution to the problem of sin. It says in Hebrews 9:9-10 that “according to this arrangement, gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper, but deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation.” Reformation is a reference to the dispensation of Christianity. The Greek word diorthosis (dee-orˊ-tho-sis) means “to straighten thoroughly, rectification” (G1357). The correction that Jesus made was to eliminate the need for perpetual sacrifices. Hebrews 10:10-14 tells us that we have been sanctified, made holy, “through the offering of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he had perfected for all time those who are being sanctified”