The following question is sometimes asked: " How can a man who offered his own daughter up as a burnt offering because of an ill-considered vow appear as a hero of the faith in Hebrews 11:32?"
The vow to which this question refers was: "And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, 'If You will indeed deliver the people of Ammon into my hands, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the people of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD's, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.'" Judges 11:30-31 (NKJV)
After his victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah returned home and "there was his daughter, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing; and she was his only child. Besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, 'Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low! You are among those who trouble me! For I have given my word to the LORD, and I cannot go back on it.'" (Judges 11:34-35). And so he did: "… and he carried out his vow with her which he had vowed. She knew no man." (Judges 11:39).
Did he really offer his daughter up as a burnt offering? This question has been debated over the centuries and many respected commentators hold the opinion that he did, which gives rise to the question above.
This interpretation simply originates from the words translated as "and I will offer it up as a burnt offering", without regard to the possibility of another translation, the circumstances of the people involved, the law of Moses and all the context of this episode.
The original Hebrew allows for a subtle change in the sense of the words, so that the second part of the vow is not necessarily a direct consequence of the first, i.e., should the LORD give him the victory, Jephthah promises:
Whatever comes out of the doors of his house to meet him shall surely be the LORD's (even if it were a person).
He would offer it up as a burnt offering (if it were an animal).
This interpretation is more coherent, for:
The law of Moses forbids homicide (Exodus 20:13).
It also forbids human sacrifices (Leviticus 18:21; 20:1-5, Deuteronomy 12:31).
Jephthah was a man who evidenced being God-fearing, and evidently knew the law of Moses; he knew the LORD abominated human sacrifice, although it was done by the Canaanites to their idols.
Jephthah (Who God Sets Free) had been marked by his unfortunate birth, from a prostitute. The law of Moses ordained "One of illegitimate birth shall not enter the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the LORD." Deuteronomy 23:2 (NKJV). His half-brothers, sons of his father, rejected him and he had been banished from the midst of his people. He was, nevertheless, a brave man and he commanded a group of outlaws like himself to raid the enemies of Israel (like David would do many years later - 1 Samuel 22:2).
Suffering because of his origin, of which he was innocent, he wasn't discouraged and God used him later. If we have to suffer because of the fault of others, we should not allow ourselves to become paralysed with bitterness, but follow bravely on. God can still use us even we feel rejected by those who surround us.
There are people who find themselves isolated or out of fellowship with their brethren because of preconceived notions and customs in their society, neighbourhood or even churches. Their potential isn't tapped. We know that every believer has a place in the family of God. Let us help these people to be accepted because of their character or their gifts. God can use them.
One day, desperately in need of a brave man to face their enemies, the elders of Israel remembered Jephthah again and called him from where he lived in exile, offering him the leadership of their army. After they agreed with his conditions, he returned to his country of Gilead and was appointed by the people to head their army in an official ceremony, and he then solemnly declared his words before the LORD in Mispah (Watch Tower). In this we see that his God was clearly the LORD.
After Jephthah attempted to resolve the question diplomatically with the enemies, the Ammonites, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him and he advanced toward the place where Ammonites were, and it was during this advance that he made his vow.
Would this have been an ill-considered vow? It appears to me that Jephthah was directed by the Holy Spirit when he made it, and although he couldn't have known what the result would be, the LORD did. Immediately after the vow, the LORD gave Jephthah an absolute victory over the enemy, indicating it has His approval.
Jephthah had no other children besides this daughter who went to meet him celebrating the victory. This explains his great sadness when he perceived that, because of the vow he had made, he now had to dedicate her to the LORD: he would never be able to give her in marriage, and she would be forced to remain a virgin for all her life, and he would be without descendants because he had no other children. It becomes clear that the vow, according to the will of the LORD, avoided the emergence of a descent from him which would be under the curse of the Law.
To make a vow before God is a serious matter: "When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed. Better not to vow than to vow and not pay." Ecclesiastes 5:4-5 (NKJV). It happens sometimes that, moved by a touching appeal and without time to reflect, people promise the world for some cause, or go to the front promising to dedicate their full time to missionary work, and so on. Later, they aren't able to fulfil their promise. We shouldn't promise more than we can deliver.
Even though Jephthah may have desired very much to have a line of descendants, and felt very much for his only daughter who he loved, he was faithful to the vow he made before the LORD. His daughter also resigned herself to the fulfilment of the vow of her father, only asking for his permission to first visit her friends to lament her destiny with them for two months, which he readily gave. For her it was a tragedy, as the young girls of her time only considered themselves accomplished when they married and had children; spinsters or childless women were despised. She would never become an honoured mother in Israel, and her life would be dedicated to the LORD, humbly serving in the tabernacle. It is a unique case in the Bible, so much so that it became a custom in Israel for young girls to go out every year for four days to celebrate her memory.
The LORD blessed Jephthah for his faithfulness, and gave him another important victory, over the rebellious warriors of Ephraim. After having been despised and expelled by his people in his land because of his origin, by believing in the LORD Jephthah proved to be a man of faith, by fulfilling his promises and paying his vow he proved to be a man of his word, and by proceeding without hesitation though prudently he proved to be a man of action and determination. Because of his great qualities he judged Israel for six years, and was included with other heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11:32.