Reading this story, it is hard not to wonder about the apparent stupidity of Jephthah’s vow. Why would anyone play “Russian roulette” with their family’s lives in that way? What were the chances that it would not be one of his family members who would walk out of their home?
Actually, there is a fairly simple reason why the man’s vow was perhaps more understandable. Today, many homes in the Middle East are no different from those in the rest of the world, but even now many traditional homes of poorer people living on the land have not changed in thousands of years and are essentially the same as those of the Old Testament period.
In the simple homes of the ancient Near East, the family lived in a large “living room” which was the main, and often only, room of the house. That room frequently had a sunken area at one end that functioned as a stall where the family’s livestock were brought at night to protect them. With this living arrangement, each morning someone in the house would open the door at the animals’ end of the house – from within, of course – and drive the animals out to freshen the air in the home while the women prepared the first meal of the day.
There is no reason to doubt that Jephthah’s home was any different from this basic house plan. Jephthah was not rich. As the son of a prostitute he was scorned by his half-brothers and driven from the family home, so his own dwelling was more than likely of the poorer type.
Now, if Jephthah knew he would travel in the cool night hours (as much travel was conducted in that time), he might well have known that he would return home in the early morning about the time the animals would be driven out of the house. Such a situation would mean, of course, that Jephthah would expect it to be one of his animals that would be the first thing to meet him, in which case his vow was perhaps not as foolish – at least in its intent – as it might seem at first.
Although the conclusion of the story may indicate Jephthah’s unfortunate daughter was sacrificed (Judges 11:38), the matter may have had a better outcome. If we look closely at Jephthah’s vow, we find that what he said was: “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” (Judges 11:31, emphasis added). Notice the word “and” emphasized in this passage. The Hebrew connective particle “v” that is translated as “and” can also mean “or.” We see this, for example, in 1 Kings 18:27: “… Perhaps he is deep in thought, OR busy, OR traveling,” where the word translated “or” is the Hebrew “v.”
This means that Jephthah’s vow should perhaps be better translated: “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, OR I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” Thus, many scholars believe that Jephthah’s daughter was “dedicated” to God in that she was made to live a life of virginity. This would agree with the end of the story which tells us that the young woman requested: “… Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry” (Judges 11:37), and that: “After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin” (Judges 11:38).
But whether his daughter was dedicated or sacrificed, the fact that she was the first out of the house was clearly not a possibility Jephthah expected – as we see in the fact that on seeing her, he tore his clothes and cried out in anguish (Judges 11:35). So Jephthah’s vow was perhaps not as blatantly foolish as it might seem at first and the result obviously unintentional, but the vow was unwise, nevertheless, and the story can remind us all of the extreme care we should utilize in making promises so that they do not end up hurting us or others.