Jephthah’s Moral Dilemma and Deontology

by Max Andrews

In the book of Judges, Jephthah serves as the ninth judge, or deliverer, who makes a bold vow to God (See Judges 11.29-40).  Jephthah makes a conditional deal with God; if he gets something, then and only then will he do something for God in return.  Upon his decision to barter with God, his tragic vow turns into a moral dilemma where he must either sacrifice his daughter or break his vow.  Each option carries with it further consequences.  Given Jephthah’s moral dilemma, he must choose an available option with varying costs.  Once his choice to sacrifice his daughter has been completed, he still stands in a morally condemning state.  Upon examining the ethics of the situation via historical context, textual interpretation, and the theological significances, may one see the dilemma and all the possible consequences, how it could have been avoided, and how it applies to believers today.

The Ammonites oppressed the Israelite tribes east of the Jordan River for an eighteen-year period (Judg. 10.8).  This may help qualify the date for the events.  The conquest of the Transjordan occurred in 1406, forty years after the exodus, so Jephthah’s communication to the Ammonites must be dated close to 1106.  Since the oppression lasted for eighteen years, that puts the oppression beginning at 1124.[1]

The Israelites rallied at Mizpeh in Gilead, where Jacob and Laban made a covenant many years before (Gen. 31.49).[2]  In distress, they needed a leader to fight against the Ammonites.  They called on Jephthah, the son of a prostitute (Judg. 11.1).  At this time Jephthah was a leader in Israel, in the land of Tob, while the sons of Ammon fought against Israel (11.4-5).  Israel had not taken away the land of Moab or the land of Ammon, but came up from Israel and were thus wrongly attacked and oppressed by the Ammonites (11.15).  Jephthah led the Gileadites against Ammon and fought at Aroer, on the north bank of the Arnon, and drove them northward devastating their territory as far as Minnith.  This was possibly Khirbet Hamzeh, four miles northeast of Heshbon.[3]

The book of Judges has a constantly downward spiral theme of sin and moral choices made my Israel.  The five steps in this cycle in order are sin, servitude in form of divine judgment, supplication by Israel to Yahweh for help, physical salvation and deliverance, and lastly silence from Israel.  At the time, Jephthah is called to be a deliverer for these tribes of Israel; Israel has entered the supplication stage after being oppressed by the Ammonites.  God allows the oppression in the form of judgment against Israel for their sin; specifically, this would be for not acknowledging God and turning from pagan influences.  Israel’s oppression from the Ammonites was a consequence to their forsaking of the Lord, Israel’s moral decisions, as with for everyone, are held accountable as will be discussed later.  Judges 10.6 demonstrates Yahweh’s anger toward Israel.  Once again they did evil and served all the gods of the nations around them.  The lengthy list of gods in verse 6 seems to indicate the progression of idolatry, which includes many more gods than in the past (see 2.11; 3.7; 3.12; 4.1; 6.1).[4]  Israel, in supplication, cried out to the Lord saying that they have sinned against God and have turned to Baals, or false gods and idols (10.9).  God’s response is stern and rebukes Israel for the repetition of sins and forgetting what He has done for them in the past.  He asks them if they have forgotten that He had delivered them from the Egyptians, the Amorites, the sons of Ammon, the Philistines, the Sidonians, the Amalekites, and the Maonites (10.11-12).  At first God gives them over to their choices and tells Israel to cry out to the gods they have chosen (10.14), but then God has pity on them and chooses to deliver them from their distress and could not bear the misery of Israel any longer (10.15-16).

The sons of Ammon, or the Ammonites, crossed the Jordan to fight against the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Ephraim, and as a result, Israel became very distressed.  The sons of Ammon were summoned and camped in Gilead and the sons of Israel gathered together and camped in Mizpah (10.17).  Finally, once the Israelites have assembled at Mizpah, they began a frantic search for a leader capable of delivering them.  Jephthah, the son of Gilead, had been forced into exile in Tob (et-Teaiyibeh) deep in the Hauran wilderness, where he soon gathered about him a band of outlaws.[5]  Jephthah was chosen as their leader, and his first action was to attempt a diplomatic settlement with the Ammonites.   Their grievance was that the eastern tribes of Israel had been illegally occupying their land for three hundred years.  Jephthah sent a delegation to the Ammonite king reminding them that Israel had not taken any of their land in the conquest.  Whether Ammon had claim to the area before the Amorite occupation is not Jephthah’s goal in seeking an answer, Jephthah asks why Ammon was laying claim to these regions only now, three centuries after the conquest of Sihon (11.26).[6]

The Ammonite rejection of Jephthah’s diplomacy demonstrates Jephthah’s unsuccessful negotiations and leads to his poor choice of a vow to God.  After gathering his forces, he promised to Yahweh, “If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (11.30-31).  This vow was obviously very important to Jephthah, he had everything to lose if God should fail him; all that he had gained politically would slip from his fingers.[7]

Jephthah went to war and struck the Ammonites with a great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim (Na’ûr), a few miles northwest of Heshbon (11.33).[8]  When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter came out to meet him in a celebratory dance with tambourines.  When he saw her he tore his clothes and knew that he could not retract his vow to the Lord and would have to sacrifice her, for he promised to sacrifice whatever greeted him at his door (11.31, 34-35).  Jephthah’s daughter holds her father to his vow and asks for a two-month retreat to the mountains with her friends to weep over her virginity because she knows that she will be sacrificed because he cannot take back the vow (11:36-37).  He tells her to go to the mountains with her friends and upon her return, leaving as a virgin and returning as a virgin, she was sacrificed in a burnt offering (11:37-39).

A dilemma must come in the form of “A or not-A.”  In relation to Jephthah, his dilemma may be modeled as:

1 A or B
2 Not-A
3 Therefore, B[9]

This is a true dilemma because there is not a third option.  He placed himself in this situation where he has an “either-or” or “A or not-A” problem.  Each decision bears undesired consequences.  If Jephthah chose A, to not sacrifice his daughter, he would break his vow to God, and he surely believed that that could not happen.  Because his vow was conditional upon what Yahweh did for him first, he felt he had a moral obligation to fulfill it.  If Jephthah chose B, then he would be clearly violating many commandments to not murder and offer human sacrifice.  If Jephthah chose not-B he would render option of A, and if he chose not-A he would be render option B and breaking his vow, and thus resulting in a true dilemma.

In regards to deontological ethics, moral requirement, prohibition, and permission may be analyzed.  This may help in determining what Jephthah could have done, and what he should have done.

X is required of S if and only if a just and loving God commands S to do X.
X is forbidden to S if and only if a just and loving God commands S not to do X.
X is permitted for S if and only if a just and loving God does not command S not to do X.[10]

God’s commands are not arbitrary because they are necessary expressions of His just and loving nature.  God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial and so forth, and His commandments are reflections of His own character.  God’s character is definitive of moral goodness; it serves as the paradigm of moral goodness.  Thus, the morally good/bad is determined by reference to His will.  The divine will or commands come into play as a source of moral obligation, not moral value.[11]

Option A, to break his vow, rendered many underlying moral consequences for breaking his vow.  According to Numbers 30:1-2, one is morally obligated to fulfill a vow made to the Lord.

Then Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel, saying, “This is the word which the Lord has commanded.  If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.”[12]

Jephthah’s oath was binding and he knew it as well as his daughter (Judg. 11.35-36).  However, according to Numbers 30.1-2, it would then be Jephthah’s moral obligation to follow through on his vow because it was commanded.

Option B, to sacrifice his daughter, was purely pagan.  Scripture clearly commands Israel not to engage in human sacrifices (Lev. 18.21; Deut. 12.31).  Israel’s neighbors—ironically, the Ammonites—sacrificed their children and this custom might have influenced Jephthah.[13]  The fact that Jephthah chose to make a vow to sacrifice his daughter shows his lack of faith in Yahweh and proceeds with the sacrifice that would not even be accepted by Yahweh as a fulfillment of the vow!  To offer a burnt sacrifice in fulfillment of a vow, there are certain requirements for the animals, which clearly eliminate humans (Lev. 22.21-23; Num. 15.3-8; Deut. 12.17).

With the deontological scope to Jephthah, the dilemma forces him to make a sinful choice either way.  The best thing he should have done was to eliminate both A and B options.  He could have either made a different oath, or not made the oath at all.  If Jephthah had clarified a different condition in his vow, such as eliminating his qualifier for what his offering would be, he may have eliminated a dilemma.  If Jephthah had been a more righteous man, he could have purged himself, his family, and Israel of pagan influences, devoted complete faith to Yahweh, trust that His will be done, and then he would have been satisfied in His will.  Pragmatically speaking, option B, to sacrifice his daughter, was the worst choice to make!  The vow, to begin with, was wrongfully motivated out of a lack of faith.  As far as what he could have done in his situation, one may rationalize the consequences of breaking a vow less harsh than the brutality of murdering one’s own daughter.[14]

As discussed earlier, the theme of the book of Judges is the sin cycle and how it progressively worsens.  Jephthah is a complete failure in respects to being a righteous example.  Jephthah fails to successfully negotiate with the Ammonites.  He makes a vow, which was wrongly motivated by a lack of trusting faith and conditioned it on a pagan practice that could not appease Yahweh’s requirements for the vow to even be fulfilled.  One may even ask what Jephthah was expecting to come out of his house and greet him when he returned in peace other than a human.  The chiasm of Judges places Jephthah in contrast to Ehud in Jephthah’s message to a king just as Ehud had a message for the king.  Jephthah fights at the Jordan banks just as Ehud fought at the Jordan banks.  Jephthah, as a model of the spiritual state of Israel, clearly demonstrates the cyclical progression of sin.

An obvious question one may ask is why did God allow this to happen?  Why did God not intervene on behalf Jephthah’s daughter or allow something else to greet Jephthah at his door or even allow Israel to be defeated.  A clear answer to this would be that God gives permission for sin to exist and holds people morally accountable for their choices.  Though not obvious in immediate circumstances, His will has been, is, and will always be fulfilled.  Ken Keathley explains,

Permission is the decision by God to allow something other than Him to exist.  Mere existence seems to be what God gave to most creation, because most of this immense universe consists simply of physical materials that obey natural laws.  But He did give a level of freedom, within limits, to certain agents—namely angels and humans.  God did not grant us absolute independence nor complete autonomy.  Using the term “permission” highlights the point that our freedom is a derived freedom.  He gave us the ability to choose and with this ability came the moral responsibility for those choices.  So the concept of permission means that God controls all things, He does not cause all things.  How much freedom did He give us? —Enough freedom to rebel.[15]

Appropriately, in regards to Jephthah, his circumstances were a result of moral choices he made and God held him accountable for those decisions.  This is not to say that God could not have actualized situations differently, but the actual situation was conditioned by his moral choices.[16]  Because God is a holy and just God, Jephthah must be held morally accountable, thus him finding himself in such a dilemma.

Jephthah, the ninth judge, or deliverer, made a conditional vow to God in intercession for success in defeating the Ammonites.  Due to his victory over the Ammonites, he was forced to honor his vow.  His vow ended up having to be fulfilled in a sacrifice of his daughter as a burnt offering.  This placed Jephthah in a moral dilemma to either proceed with the sacrifice of his daughter or break his vow to God.  Given the context of the situation, both historical and moral, Jephthah’s circumstances were a result of his poor moral choices, which align and coincide with the theme of the book of Judges.


[1] Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests:  A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic 2008), 191.

[2] Charles F. Pfeiffer, “Palestine Under The Judges” Baker’s Bible Atlas, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 2003), 109.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Michael J. Smith, “The Failure of the Family in Judges, Part 1 Jephthah,” Bibliotheca Sacra 162 (July-September 2005):  290.

[5] Merrill, 190.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Smith, 292.

[8] Yohanan Ahorni, Land of the Bible, 429.

[9] “A” is Jephthah’s option to break his vow with Yahweh; “B” is to sacrifice his daughter.

[10] (X—any action, S—moral agent) William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith:  Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, IL:  Crossway Books, 2008), 182.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Also see Deuteronomy 23:21-23.  All Scripture references are in the New American Standard Bible translation unless otherwise noted.

[13] Smith, 292.

[14] It should be noted that any rationalization to justify any sin is wrong.  Because man is sinful, dilemmas may arise, such as Jephthah’s case where sin is the only option.  Either choice in the dilemma is a wrong choice and the only remedy is to remove one’s self from the situation by completely avoiding it to begin with.

[15] Ken Keathley, A Molinist View of Election, or How to Be a Consistent Infralapsarian, eds. E. Ray Clendenen, Brad J. Waggoner, Calvinism:  A Southern Baptist Dialogue (Nashville, TN:  B&H Publishing Group, 2008), 195-196.

[16] This point may seem to be self-contradicting, but for more information on what possible and feasible worlds God may actualize please refer to:  William Lane Craig, “Middle Knowledge, Truth-Makers, and the Grounding Objection.” Faith and Philosophy 18 (2001): 337-52.

One Comment to “Jephthah’s Moral Dilemma and Deontology”

  1. eeeh … choice C: become an atheist and denounce religion and superstition. Would have saved A LOT of people A LOT of trouble.

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