Daughter of Jephthah: Bible

by Karla Bohmbach

The story of this unnamed woman appears near the end of her father’s story (see Judg 11:1–12:7). Its position, as well as the events that it narrates, suggests that it functions primarily, though not necessarily solely, as a further explication of the character of her father. It is, further, one of the most enigmatic stories in the Hebrew Bible.

The woman’s father, Jephthah, has a rather unconventional background. His mother is a prostitute; his father is identified as Gilead. But since Gilead also names the region in Transjordan from which Jephthah comes, the text may be implying that any of the men of Gilead could be Jephthah’s father. This questionable parentage leads to Jephthah’s being driven away from his home by his kinsmen. He becomes an outlaw and presumably builds up a reputation as a fighter. When his people are threatened militarily by the Ammonites, they appeal to Jephthah to be their commander, Jephthah agrees, being enticed by the promise that he will become their overall leader if he is victorious. But before going into battle, he seeks a guarantee of success by vowing to YHWH that if victory is granted to him, he will sacrifice to YHWH “whoever [whatever] comes out” of his house first on his return from the fight 11:31). (The Hebrew allows either the personal or impersonal pronoun.)

The ensuing conflict proves victorious for Jephthah and his forces. The rejoicing is short-lived, however, for on the return to his house it is his daughter that he sees coming out to meet him. But while Jephthah bemoans the fate to which his vow has brought him, his daughter merely affirms that he must do what he has vowed to do. She asks only that she be allowed a two-month reprieve so as to spend time with her women friends on the mountains, mourning her virginity. This request is granted. When she comes back to her father, he does with her “according to the vow he had made” (Judg 11:39).

The episode involving Jephthah’s daughter, partly because of its very brevity, generates numerous questions. Readers want to know why Jephthah makes such a vow. The text does not offer any hints, such as doubts about his chances for military success. Does the spirit of YHWH actually move him to the pronouncement of the vow? And in making the vow, does he not know that it was customary in Israel for women to come out and greet with song and dance victorious male warriors upon their return from battle (compare Exod 15:19–21; 1 Sam 18:6–7) and that it is quite likely that his daughter will also follow this custom? Or does he think that an animal will be first out of his house? (Animals were often stabled in a small room inside, and quite near the entrance of, the typical Israelite house. And animals were a common object of sacrifice in ancient Israel.)

Another question concerns whether Jephthah’s daughter has prior knowledge of her father’s vow before she steps out of the house. The text suggests that Jephthah’s vow was made in their hometown of Mizpah; if pronounced publicly, presumably she would have heard it. Perhaps that was Jephthah’s intention—that she hear it and so take warning not to come out of the house first. But even if the vow was spoken in private, it is still conceivable that word could have gotten back to the daughter. And yet if the daughter did know, one wonders why she went out to greet him.

Just as troubling as the daughter’s apparent complicity is that of others. We wonder why no one—not even YHWH—intervenes. In the narrative of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac, YHWH sends an angel to prevent the killing. That sacrifice, however, was YHWH’s idea in the first place (Gen 22:1–14). And why do the people of the community not countermand the vow’s fulfillment? Why do the women friends of the daughter not convince her to run away and so escape her doom? And where is the daughter’s mother? Why is she not even mentioned in this story, much less presented as an advocate for her daughter?

Another ambiguity of the narrative concerns Judg 11:34–40 the daughter’s actual fate. The text does not explicitly state that Jephthah actually kills her. Perhaps he merely offers her up to the service of YHWH; presumably she would have then gone to work for a lifetime in a sanctuary dedicated to YHWH. In that case, the lamenting done by both father and daughter would have concerned the loss for the daughter of the normative Israelite roles of wife and mother (a tragedy for Jephthah, too, since she is his only child and, without her children, his patrimony will most likely be lost forever).

Finally, what is the function of this story in the biblical text? Some suggest that it is meant to point up the rash and foolish behavior of Jephthah. But his unconscionable behavior would also have been a sign of Israel’s depravity and thus an argument for instituting monarchical rule, presumably a more stable and upright form of government than what is currently in place. This message is here mediated primarily through the victimization of a woman. Women’s lives and reproductive potential were essential for community and family survival. The loss of the daughter perhaps represents, in dramatic form, the dangers (amid apparent success) of the leadership of the judges. As a potential mother, the daughter represents the future for family and community. Her father’s shortsightedness signifies the chaos of premonarchic life.

Despite the possibilities of comprehending the narrative as part of the propaganda of the Book of Judges, the story of Jephthah’s daughter remains enigmatic and disturbing to today’s readers. Indeed, this tale of a nameless young woman, with scarcely a voice of her own and with her violent fate precipitated and carried out by her own father, is surely one of the most horrifying tales in the whole Bible.


Baumgarten, Elisheva. “’Remember that Glorious Girl’: Jephthah's Daughter in Medieval Jewish Culture.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 97, no. 2 (2007): 180-209.

Day, Peggy L. “From the Child Is Born the Woman: The Story of Jephthah’s Daughter.” In Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, edited by Peggy L. Day, 58–74. Minneapolis: 1989.

Exum, J. Cheryl. “Murder They Wrote.” In Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)Versions of Biblical Narratives, 16–41. Pennsylvania: 1993.

Fewell, Danna Nolan. “Judges.” In Women’s Bible Commentary, edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, 73–83. Kentucky: 1992; expanded edition, 1998.

Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.

Russaw, Kimberly D. Daughters in the Hebrew Bible. Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2018

Trible, Phyllis. “The Daughter of Jephthah: An Inhuman Sacrifice.” In Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Pennsylvania: 1984.


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I wonder if there ever a sacrifice offerings of human being to God other than His son Jesus Christ.
He asked Abraham for Isaac but aborted.
This daughter of Jephtah makes me wonder if she was actually offered as burnt offerings.

Explanation was understandable to me at last

I'm writing a speech on her and why are some leaving the "o" out of GOD?

Jephthah was a good man and spent a lot of time teaching his daughter about Jehovah. He was also a strong man and a good leader. So the Israelites asked him to lead them in the fight against their enemies.

Jephthah prayed for God’s help to win. Jephthah promised that if he won, he would give to Jehovah the first person who came out of his house when he returned home. This person would live and work for the rest of his or her life at God’s tabernacle. The tabernacle was the place where people went to worship God back then. Well, Jephthah won the fight!

Jephthah’s daughter was the first to come out. She was his only child, and now Jephthah would have to send her away. This made him very sad. But remember, he had made a promise. Right away, his daughter said: ‘Father, you made a promise to Jehovah, so you have to keep it.’

So the point is, "Let your YES mean Yes". When you make a vow, keep it!! Especially a vow to God. The Israelite children always honored their parents wishes, and Jeptha's daughter was very loyal to the Creator, Jehovah God, and her father, Jeptha.

If you read the verses about Jephthah’s daughter carefully, there is lot of emphasis on her virginity, and not her death. That leads me to believe she was dedicated to G-d and not sacrificed. I don’t think G-d would be pleased with a human sacrifice in His name. Other commentaries support this view, also. 

How can you call a story in the Bible horrorifying unless you do not believe in keeping vows or worse do not believe G-d inspired the story? Does not Torah teach that forgoing self interest is high virtue? The daughter's honor and obedience to a vow seems exemplary and needed in today's Followers. Teshuvah.

In reply to by McCardle Davis

are you kidding me?? it wasn't the daughters vow to uphold and it is not exemplary in any way to vow to destroy another humans life for your own fucking glory. how is forgoing self interest in itself a virtue? context? yes being giving and generous is virtuous but that does not mean you must forgo your own interests in the process. is it not in the interest of those being helped that help is given? so they should reject any help offered, right?!?

In reply to by McCardle Davis

Is every act in the Torah meant to be a positive example? There are many negative examples of course - both positive and negative examples inspired of G-d to teach us how to act and how not to act. The vow made by Jephthah seems to me foolishly vague , with horrifying consequences - though I see your point that the honor and obedience to death displayed by father and daughter after is noble from the point of view of avoiding sin at any cost. The daughter's love for her father - wishing her father not to break his vow and sin before G-d - and also perhaps for her people - fearing that breaking the vow, which was made as a sort of pact with G-d to ensure victory, might bring a curse that would undo the victory - seems at the heart of her obedience. I take the lesson as to take the utmost care to think deeply before making any vow.

Jepthah's Daughter, James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Source: The Jewish Museum. 

How to cite this page

Bohmbach, Karla. "Daughter of Jephthah: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 6, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/daughter-of-jephthah-bible>.


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