The tragic story of Jephthah’s daughter has troubled Christians and Jews alike for thousands of years. Countless commentaries have attempted to explain away the haunting specter of Jephthah killing his precious only child and offering her up as a burnt offering. They say it was a rash1 vow, which God would not expect Jephthah to literally fulfill. Surely God wouldn’t condone human sacrifice!
29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah… 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” 32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands… 34 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 his only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 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.”
36 “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.” 37 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.”
38 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. 39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. (Judges 11:29-39)
Consider how the story begins, “Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah… and Jephthah made a vow to the Lord.” How then could it have been a rash vow unless we are ready to accuse God Himself of being rash? But why would the Spirit of God inspire a man to make such a vow? And what kind of young woman was Jephthah’s daughter to willingly give herself to such a fate? These are very deep questions whose answers touch the very foundation of God’s eternal purpose for mankind.
While it is doubtful that Jephthah expected his daughter to be what would come first out of his house when he returned from battle, considering his reaction when he saw her, neither can it be assumed that he was confident it would be a sheep or a goat instead. God chose Jephthah because of his heart, knowing that he would withhold nothing from Him, not even his only child. And when His Spirit came upon Jephthah to deliver Israel from being snuffed out as a nation, Jephthah’s response confirmed why he was chosen.2 He would give anything to secure the victory, and God saw fit to test him. Does that remind you of someone else?
1 After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 2 He said, “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 on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” …
9 Then 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. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.
11 But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12 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 22:1,2,9-12)
There can be no doubt that Abraham was actually in motion to take his son’s life, being fully persuaded that his God was able to raise Isaac from the dead to fulfill His promise.3 But God did not require it of him, providing instead a ram for the burnt offering. It was a great test, and Abraham passed the test. So why did God not provide a substitute for Jephthah’s daughter? He wanted to teach us something very important about vows, about love, and about a willing sacrifice.
Jephthah had made a vow to his God, and a vow is not to be broken:
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. (Numbers 30:2)
There is an old and true expression that very few people in this day and age understand: A man is only as good as his word. Gone are the days when men could have confidence in an oral agreement sealed merely by a handshake. Today, words are cheap and carry little weight unless they are backed up by a written legal contract, and that with economic teeth behind it. But God does not change, nor will He forget a single word that we speak:
“I tell you, on the Day of Judgment men will give account for every careless [inactive, useless] word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)
The sobering truth is that a man’s worth is measured by his faithfulness to keep his word, for he is made in the image of the One whose word is true and unchangeable.4 A man who breaks his word misrepresents his Creator and undermines the very foundations of human civilization. This understanding escapes modern man, but it was not lost on Jephthah… or on his daughter.
For Jephthah to shrink back from fulfilling his vow would have broken something in the core of his being. It was not a matter of his own personal pride, but of the very fabric of his humanity, and not only his, but also the integrity of his people. Even his great love for his daughter could not nullify his vow to his God.
Jephthah’s daughter was a completely willing sacrifice. She did not whimper or bemoan the outcome of her father’s vow. Who is like unto her? The Bible does not record her name, and she would be content just to be identified by her father’s name. But we will call her Ishshah, a Hebrew word that means both woman and burnt offering.
Ishshah did not consider her own life to be worth more than her father’s integrity. She loved him more than her own life. To shrink back from giving up her life to enable him to fulfill his vow would break something in the core of her being. She would not be able to go on living. Even her request for two months’ time to “weep over her virginity” was not for her own personal loss, but for grief over the fact that she would not be able to give him grandchildren. It was there that she found her identity as a woman — to raise up godly offspring and pour her life into them — and once she had closed that door in her heart, she presented herself to her father to give her life as a burnt offering.
Jephthah proved to be a true son of Abraham who trained up his daughter in the way of the LORD, and Ishshah proved to be a daughter who had received her father’s heart. She would withhold nothing from him, just as he would withhold nothing from his God. What was the significance of her short life? Why is this short and seemingly tragic story preserved for us?
There is another Father who made a grave vow, which if He did not fulfill it, would result in the literal ripping apart of His very being. It was God Himself, and His vow was to Abraham:
7 And He said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.”
8 But he said, “O Lord GOD, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”
9 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” 10 And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other… 11 And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away. 12 As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him…
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” (Genesis 15:7-21)
What was the significance of this peculiar animal sacrifice? How did it answer Abram’s question, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?” The shocking solution to this puzzle is found in a passage far away in the prophecy of Jeremiah:
And the men who transgressed My covenant and did not keep the terms of the covenant that they made before Me, I will make them like the calf that they cut in two and passed between its parts… I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their lives. Their dead bodies shall be food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth. (Jeremiah 34:18,20)
This passage shows the terms of a very serious kind of covenant, something that was understood by the ancient Hebrews. The initiator of this kind of covenant would pass between the halves of an animal split in two, saying by that action, “May it happen to me just as to this animal if I do not keep my promise.”
In other words, God answered Abram’s question by saying, “If I do not give your descendants this land, may the fate of these animals come upon Me.” God Himself would be torn asunder! It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of the universe is at stake in what happens to this land.
So considering what is at stake, why hasn’t God already fulfilled His promise? Some might say, “What’s the big deal? The Jews are already back on their land!” Well, for one thing, take a closer look at the boundaries. The Jews are occupying only a small portion of that promised land, and it seems rather unlikely that they are going to gain the rest of it anytime soon, by force of arms or any other means. But even if they or their allies conquered the entire Arab world and seized their land, still it would not be the blessing of God, for God, who does not change, has made it very clear what is required of Abraham and his descendants in order for Him to give them the land:
For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has promised him. (Genesis 18:19)
The Bible records very clearly that Abraham’s descendants after Jacob did not do this. They rebelled and gave themselves to all manner of idolatry, injustice, and wickedness. Because of their disobedience, God could never deliver the entire land into their hands, and even had to drive them out of the portion they once possessed, swearing that He would not bring them back to the land until...5
“… you return to the LORD your God and obey His voice, according to all that I command you today, you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul…” (Deuteronomy 30:2)
No one who knows anything about how the Jews got back to Palestine, and what their moral and spiritual life is like there, can be under any illusion as to what force is sustaining them. It is certainly not God’s blessing on account of their national repentance and righteousness! No, it will take something of an entirely different nature to enable this heavenly Father to fulfill His vow. It will take a woman like Jephthah’s daughter. It will take an Ishshah — a willing burnt offering.
That is why Israel is so often called the “daughter of Zion” in the Scriptures,6 and the church, as the spiritual Israel, is characterized as a virgin betrothed to Messiah.7 There is a purity of devotion, a self-sacrificing quality, that is so pleasing in a woman who finds her identity in serving her father or husband. That is an unpopular point of view today, but, like it or not, it is clearly the viewpoint of the Bible. Our heavenly Father has always desired a people for His own possession who would be like a pure virgin daughter to Him, to be prepared as a bride for His Son, Yahshua8 the Messiah. And just as He willingly gave up His life as a sacrifice for her, she also must willingly give up her life for Him, to bring about His Father’s will on the earth.
This is not just the pretty symbolic language of the Scriptures, but must be the practical reality of every disciple’s life. The apostle Paul understood this and continually called the first-century believers to this standard:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)
They were each to daily9 present their individual bodies as one corporate sacrifice, as one Ishshah, to bring about the will of their Father. If anyone is not willing to present himself in total surrender, it shows that he is not ready to have communion with Him.
Paul made it clear in his defense before King Agrippa that their reasonable service had everything to do with bringing about God’s promise to Abraham:
And now it is for the hope of the promise made by God to our forefathers that I stand here on trial, which promise our twelve tribes, by devotedly serving Him day and night, hope to see fulfilled for them. It is for this hope, your Majesty, that I am accused by the Jews. (Acts 26:6-7)
By “our twelve tribes” Paul meant the church, the spiritual Israel that was being raised up largely from among the Gentiles, to be a light to all nations, showing them the fruit of being truly connected to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Paul knew all too well that Abraham’s physical descendents had not produced that fruit, and therefore what Yahshua had said to the religious leaders in Jerusalem had come upon them:
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.” (Matthew 21:43)
That nation to whom the kingdom would be given would be the fulfillment of this prophecy of Isaiah, which Paul applied to his life’s work:10
He says, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light to the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)
The “You” here is the Messiah, and His Body, the twelve-tribed spiritual Israel11 that He would raise up through His twelve apostles, to be a light to the nations so that His salvation would reach the ends of the earth. But if you look two verses later, you will see the purpose of the restoration of a twelve-tribed spiritual nation:
Thus says the LORD, “In a favorable time I have answered You, and in a day of salvation I have helped You; and I will keep You and give You for a covenant of the people, to restore the land, to make them inherit the desolate heritages.” (Isaiah 49:8)
This new spiritual Israel must bear the fruit that old Israel did not bear, fulfilling the Law and the Prophets12 for them (including Genesis 18:19, quoted above), so as to move Abraham’s physical offspring to jealousy,13 ultimately bringing a remnant of them to repentance.14 This will release their God to righteously give them their desolate heritage in the next age,15 the enemy-free land He promised to Abraham, so that God Himself is not cursed along with the land.16
Sadly, just as old Israel, the new spiritual Israel that came to birth in the first century, went astray17 and ceased to bear the fruit of the Kingdom. Though she began as a pure virgin, characterized by self-sacrificing love and devotion,18 she became a harlot, characterized by selfishness, strife, jealousy, immorality, and violence, using worldly power and influence to sustain herself.19 Rather than being a light to the nations, she has brought great darkness to the whole earth, though smugly, she calls it light.20 That is why, after almost 2000 years, Messiah has not returned, and the Father’s promise to Abraham has not been fulfilled.
So now the earth’s darkest hours are upon us. Fallen man and fallen religion are steering a steady course toward the utter destruction of the earth and its inhabitants and, unthinkably, of its Creator. Unless there is a rebirth of that spiritual Israel that will bear the fruit of the Kingdom, truly being a light to the nations so that His salvation can reach the ends of the earth, then there is no hope.
In the days of old Israel’s decline, the prophet Malachi had foretold:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6)
The first coming of “Elijah” was through the ministry of John the Baptist,21 who prepared the way for the Messiah’s first coming, piercing the hearts of sincere Israelites to see that they had drifted far from the heart of their God. But after John the Baptist had lived and died, Yahshua still said, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things.”22 What did He mean? What His disciples could not understand then is abundantly clear now: Through Yahshua, the Holy Spirit spoke of a time far in the future when the religious system again would be utterly fallen and “Elijah” would come again to prepare a people for Messiah’s second and final coming.
That prophetic voice is on the earth again today to “restore all things” before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. It is nothing less than the rebirth of the holy nation of twelve tribes — an entire people with the heart of Jephthah’s daughter, each one living a life of self-sacrifice by laying down his or her life daily to serve their Father by serving one another. The first thing to be restored was the true gospel, the Good News of the Kingdom, that gave us the faith to utterly and literally abandon our old lives in this world23 because it revealed to us the true Messiah and His kingdom, worth more than our own lives. Our death in baptism was as real as it could be, short of our physical death. When we truly died with Yahshua in baptism,24 we were truly forgiven, and only then could we present our bodies as an acceptable daily sacrifice.25
A burnt offering is an offering that is given without any reservations. The entire personality is consumed on the altar, as in the example of our Master Yahshua. He did not come just to help us out of trouble, but to take over our life. We are His purchased possession. He bought and paid for us by dying and receiving the wages of our sin in death, so the total surrender of our lives is the only reasonable response.
This true gospel restores the true church: the community that resulted when we all gave up everything26 — possessions, homes, jobs, unwilling relatives, etc. — and clung to one another in love and gratitude for our salvation. This common life together gives us the practical daily context for loving one another just as our Master loved us,27 for being purified and healed of all our selfish ways, 28 and for growing to full stature in every aspect of our personalities29 to be made ready as a bride for Him.30
But most importantly, the Spirit we have received is turning the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, to fulfill Genesis 18:19 so that our faith and vision does not die after one or two generations. We are raising sons and daughters to have the heart of Jephthah’s daughter, not living for themselves, but finding joy in laying down their lives day and night to bring about our Father’s will on the earth.
We know that our Master will not return until He has a people on the earth who have put all of His enemies underfoot31 — that is, the spiritual forces that work through our iniquities, fears, and selfish desires, seeking to divide and thus destroy us. And we know He will not return until He has a people who are keeping the righteous requirement of the Law by the Spirit He has given us.32 When the light of that spiritual life empowers the Gospel of the Kingdom to be preached throughout the whole earth as a witness to all nations, then the end of the age will come,33 and Yahshua the Messiah will return to restore the promised land, enemy-free, to Abraham’s natural offspring,34 fulfilling the promise of His Father.35
All this can only come about when our Father has a people with the heart of Jephthah’s daughter who no longer live for themselves, but for the One who died and rose again on their behalf.36 He will be pleased with the “burnt offering” of their lives, and will give them the grace to become that spotless bride for whom His Son will gladly return. If this prophetic vision stirs your heart, and you hate your life in this world, please come and help us bring this evil age to an end.
Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)