Now the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Gilead and Manasseh; then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon. Jephthah made a vow to the LORD and said,
“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.”
So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand. He struck them with a very great slaughter from Aroer to the entrance of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the sons of Ammon were subdued before the sons of Israel.
When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter.
When he saw her, he tore his clothes and said,
“Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me; for I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot take it back.”
So she said to him,
“My father, you have given your word to the LORD; do to me as you have said, since the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.”
She said to her father,
“Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.”
Then he said,
So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity. At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.
This is a story that can be read two entirely different ways, with different outcomes. The most common interpretation is that the story ends with Jephthah sacrificing the life of his daughter:
“it shall be the LORD’S, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering”
However, Young’s Literal Translation translates verse 31 differently. It has the vow as
“it hath been to Jehovah, or I have offered up for it”
“Or” is an acceptable translation. Jepththah would give in service if it were a person, or sacrifice if it were an animal. The idea of committed people to serve God is not new. In fact, all firstborn are supposed to serve God. If you didn’t want your firstborn to serve God, you had to redeem them. (See Exodus 13).
This reading erases every question about every character’s role. Did God fulfill the vow so the daughter would die? No, God received a dedicated servant. Did Jephthah complete a rash vow to a God he did not know and sacrifice his daughter? No, he lost the hope for heirs. That’s why the mention of the daughter being his only child, the daughter weeping over virginity, and again mentioning she had no relations with a man.
Having considered it some more, there is one thing that wasn’t brought up that convinces me that she was to be given to God and not sacrificed: the daughter too tells Jephthah to go ahead with it– “My father, you have given your word to the LORD; do to me as you have said, since the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.”. If it were sacrifice, this makes her just as misguided and complacent in the sin as Jephthah. Then the whole story becomes about an evil, sinful family doing evil, sinful things. But the narrative isn’t really presented like that. Why would the daughters of Israel go recount this incident? Why is this story important? Why is Jephthah praised in Hebrews 11 as having great faith?
I think we can all agree that the vow is the central aspect of the story. It is brought up and referenced over and over and over. Second, the idea of virginity/children. This could be relevant if she were sacrificed, but virginity/children by itself is stated explicitly several times without any reference to or indication of death. It ends with Jephthah doing his vow, and the result is the daughter having no relations with men. That is the resolution of the vow.
So from a literary point of view (i.e. what is the point of the story?), it makes more sense to me that she was consecrated and not killed. The role of God, Jephthah, and his daughter are all more clearly defined, and their relationship with each other. The Bible is usually pretty straightforward with the moral, even if it is hard to put into practice.
From a linguistic point of view, it only requires translating the letter “vau” as “or” as it is in a few other places in the Bible (although less often than where it is translated as “and”). With this one alternate yet acceptable translation, the story makes sense, the moral becomes clear, the decisions of God and the others becomes understandable, Hebrews 11 is less questionable, and Jephthah’s mistake is narrowed down: an all-encompassing vow to dedicate to God.