The most disturbing story in the Old Testament

Probably everyone who’s ever been to Sunday School is familiar with the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son, Isaac.
Matchbook-cover version: To test Abraham’s faith, God ordered Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his long-promised son, born to him and his wife Sarah when they were aged 100 and 90, respectively. He was their only son. Abraham loaded them up, and as he prepared to slay his son on the altar, an angel came to him and stopped him.

Did you know there’s another case of human sacrifice to God in the Old Testament, and the Bible is a whole lot less forthcoming on whether the burnt offering actually happened?

I ran across this while reading the book of Judges (specifically, in chapter 11:29-40) a few weeks ago. Jephthah, a little-known judge (at least in most of the circles I run around in–the Bible is full of people whose mention was very brief; I’ll bet two years ago you had no idea at all who Jabez was either) vowed to God that if He granted him victory over the Ammonites, he’d sacrifice the first thing that met him upon his homecoming as a burnt offering.

Well, the first, um, thing to meet him just happened to be his daughter and only child, which raises a lot of really disturbing questions, especially because this time around there’s no record of an angel coming down to stop him.

It’s hard to fault the logic in this analysis, which I will simply link to, rather than regurgitating.

People tend to zero in on the horrific prospect of a man sacrificing his daughter. I’d like to go a little deeper than that. As the piece I just linked to stated, J.’s education was hardly exemplary. Burnt offerings weren’t used for thanksgiving. Sacrifice was for the benefit of the person doing the sacrificing; it’s hard to see how God derived any pleasure from it. What sacrifice was, literally, was a pointer back to Genesis 15, where God made His covenant with Abraham (then Abram). The Genesis account doesn’t go into the sociological details of this, but Abram taking a bunch of animals and lining them up next to a ditch was essentially a contract. Abram was overcome with dread because he knew that he couldn’t hold up his end of the bargain. In these contracts, the two parties would walk through the blood, the implication being that if either of them didn’t hold up his end of the bargain, his blood would be the next blood to flow through that ditch. Well, in the Genesis 15 account, you see the familiar pillar of cloud going through the ditch, but God never ordered Abram into the ditch.

So God was saying, “If I don’t keep up My end of the bargain, My blood will flow. If you don’t keep up your end of the bargain, My blood will flow.”

The children of Israel didn’t know exactly how God would deliver them from their sins, but that sacrifice was a reminder that God was going to take care of it; their job was to repent.

Essentially, sacrifice was the predecessor to Holy Communion. Both point to the cross, it’s just that one pointed forward and the other back. Useful (indeed, mandatory) for repentance, but misplaced when used for praise, don’t you think?

J. missed another detail too: Burnt offering had to be male. So his daughter didn’t qualify.

J. never should have made that vow in the first place. God was gracious to grant J. the victory, but what we all need to remember is that we have nothing to offer God other than ourselves. God has no use for my prize steers (which is a good thing, since I don’t have any). God desires to do things in us and through us, but more than that, God just wants a relationship with us. He wants us to talk to Him, and He wants us to listen to Him (He gave us a really big book full of his stuff, for starters).

No one gains anything from bargaining with God. Not us, and certainly not God, who already has everything (and if He did lack anything for some reason, He could just create it).

Now, if Jephthah had known these things, he never would have made that vow. Jephthah’s parents failed him, by not educating him properly. The price of that ignorance didn’t just stop after one generation either. It cost him his relationship with his daughter.

And I think that’s the greatest lesson we can learn from the story of Jephthah and his daughter. Jephthah mourned for the loss of his relationship with his daughter and her offspring, and Jephthah mourned for the husband and children she would never have. But God mourns even more bitterly for His broken relationships with us.

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5 thoughts on “The most disturbing story in the Old Testament

  • June 10, 2002 at 1:53 am

    Nice one. …as always.


  • June 10, 2002 at 10:43 am

    The same bits in Leviticus that define an olah (burnt offering) as male also define the exact species that could be offered, and obviously human was not among them (it was a bull, a male sheep or goat, or a turtledove or young pigeon). So two strikes against his offering his daughter.

    Another point – the Torah forbids anyone to offer sacrifice anywhere but the Tabernacle (later the Temple), after it is built. So, to keep the Torah, Jephthah would have to take his daughter to the priests and have them sacrifice her on the “brazen altar.” Even in the period of the Shoftim (judges), I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have done that.

    But finally, olah doesn’t mean “burnt offering” literally. It means “that which goes up,” and usually in context it does mean “go up in smoke.” But it is also the root for things like “aliyah” (go up, usually to Jerusalem, later in the OT). I’m guessing that she was given to the Levites, and attached to the priests’ households as some sort of servant, with no opportunity to marry and be redeemed from the household like most female slaves would have had because she was considered “holy” in the sense of “set apart, given to G-d.”

    Obviously none of this excuses Jephthah.

    Another point – sacrifice is used for praise extensively in the OT. The Torah has specific rules about peace offerings, which could be freewill offerings. Remember, with peace offerings, it isn’t like you are scratching G-d’s back for scratching yours, you are also contributing to His system (the priests get to keep some of the meat from these sacrifices). You are correct in saying that G-d Himself gets nothing out of sacrifices, but the priest is a representative of G-d and he does get something out of them. Only when the people sacrificed without right motives did G-d tell them He wasn’t interested in their sacrifices.

    Indeed, today G-d wants sacrifices – but apparently they are living sacrifices (I defer to Paul on this).

    And I don’t think communion is essential for repentance any more than sacrifice was, but perhaps you weren’t trying to say that. Sacrifice (and to some extent communion) would be the followup, the part where you restore the relationship by recognizing the moment when G-d’s Son actually rectified the situation. But that recognition can come with communion. Communion is a symbol, which people need because we live by symbols and analogies, just like the Jewish feasts were symbols. (But I am not a Lutheran and I recognize that consubstantiation teaches something quite different.)

  • June 14, 2002 at 5:46 pm

    Most disturbing? Not yet.

    The most disturbing are the various stories where God deliberately inflicts harm on people. Job is the obvious one. Maybe there’s some scholars who have a different view, but a God who has a bet with the devil and ruins a man’s life (and incidentally kills all the man’s family) is not much of a role model! Frankly, the whole story is pretty sick. The whole “nasty things sometimes happen to good people” thing is a fair point, but it’s the fact that God’s deliberately letting this happen that makes it evil – he’s told the devil, “Go and do your worst to this guy, torture him as much as you can.” If you accept that bad stuff happens bcos people have freedom of will, that being the key part of the image of God in which we are created, then it’s tolerable. But to accept that a God would deliberately target someone for suffering for no good reason – that I really can’t see.

    And the various battles during and around the Exodus, where God says “go and kill these people, and kill their women and children as well”. Not just a jealous God, but a God of war crimes and massacres.

    There’s also some interesting versions of the Bible going round. An older one I read had Moses going to the Pharoah and giving him the various warnings, and then says “But the Lord hardened Pharoah’s heart and made him say no” (or words to that effect, near as I can remember). And then God punishes the Egyptians for not doing what Moses told them to do, when it’s God that made them not do it in the first place. Yeah, that makes sense… At least with that, you can put the blame on the translators.

    I’m no Bible scholar, but as a “casual reader” of it, those are the main bits that bother me.


  • June 15, 2002 at 1:11 am

    Graham, I’d very much like to talk these things over with you (I’d like to hear more of your perspective, for one thing). I’m skipping town for a week and I’m not taking a computer, but feel free to e-mail me: dfarq (at) swbell (dot) net. I’d love to talk to you when I get back.


  • September 9, 2003 at 9:40 pm

    I think the one where David covets some guys wife, so he sends him out to die in battle is pretty wacked. Gotta love those old testament guys.

    BTW, Dave, I came to your Website looking for some technical stuff, and I am enchanted with it. It’s inspirational, at a time in my life when I need inspiration. Thx

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