We see in the book of Judges a portion of Scripture that is quite difficult. An interesting fact about the book of Judges is that the people were without a king and did what was right in their own eyes (17:6; 21:25). So seeing a person make such a rash vow is not that odd. Many people who are acting on what they feel is best will do very foolish things. Also, this text that I will quote in a moment, is recorded faithfully in Scripture which does not necessarily mean that God approves of what happened.
Even though this is true, I believe that this argument for this particular Scripture fails because of what was asked and how God delivered.
In Judges 11 we see Jephthah who was a son of a prostitute who had been driven out from his family because of this (11:1-3). He was a mighty warrior and a man that the people of Israel would call on to bring them deliverance (11:6). He did not exactly like this that they came to him after driving him out. So he made a deal with them that if he ran the ammonites out he would be head over Israel (11:9).
He first tried dealing with the king of the Ammonites with no luck in coming to an agreement (11:12-28). Since they would not he knew he would have to defeat them in battle. This context seems to point to the fact that Jephthah wanted to have the victory so he could be head over those who had driven him out. So, he made a very rash vow.
In verses 30 and 31 we see him say, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” This is a very rash vow because what usually comes out of a house is a person. And God condemns human sacrifice (c.f. Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut. 12:31; 18:10). In each of the listed Scriptures, God clearly says you shall not offer your children to a false god, you will not offer your children as a sacrifice as the pagans do, no one is to burn their children as an offering.
This is very clear and very offensive to God. Yet, Jephthah made this vow for victory. Why I reject the idea that He genuinely killed his daughter as a sacrifice is found in verse 32. God gave him victory over the ammonites. God gave him victory for this vow which he condemns? This just does not cut it with the rest of Scripture. But this is not the only reason why I reject that he killed his daughter.
Reading further we see that she came out and greeted him in celebration (v. 34). That she was his only child (v. 34). Next we see that she asks him if she could go and bewail/weep for her virginity for two months and that ever year the daughters of Israel go and weep for her for four day over her virginity (37-40). If she was to be killed and burned as a sacrifice it seems odd that her virginity is what she bewailed. Also, her being his only child which could carry the family bloodline on makes this concept more natural too.
At that time carrying the family lineage on was very important. Now, this would not happen. She was bewailing her virginity because she was to be dedicated to the Lord as a temple, or at this time tabernacle, servant for the remainder of her life. She would not bear any children for her father.
Along with this, the text does not say he killed her. It just says he fulfilled his vow. We see in Romans Paul saying that we are to be living sacrifices to the Lord (12:1-2). If we can be living sacrifices now, it seems likely that the case old be true for then too. This and the fact that the daughters of Israel would yearly commemorate her indicates “a period of mourning for lost fertility” (IVP Bible Background Commentary OT, 264).
It is because of these arguments why I hold that she was a perpetual virgin dedicated to the service of the Lord and not killed and offered as a burnt sacrifice. Even though I do believe this way, Jephthah may have very well of gave her as a burnt sacrifice. Remember, this was a time that everyone did what was right in their own eyes. They were not exactly faithful God-honoring people then. Some were for sure but not all. And the Scriptures do not always approve of what they record.
Even though that is true, I still do not think God would allow for Jephthah to have received his victory with such an abhorrent vow to God. It just seems that God had a special hatred for this type of human sacrifice that he would not give victory for such a vow. One final tidbit too. The text of the vow could be rendered to say or instead of and. So he could be saying that whatever comes out will be the Lord’s or I will offer it up as a burnt sacrifice rather than and I will offer it up as a burnt sacrifice (11:31).
This text is a bit of a difficult one for sure. Many use it as a reason to reject Christianity. I believe that it is fairly easily cleared up with the arguments presented above. Whether you go with the Bible faithfully records instances that occurred but does not always approve or you go with the argument of perpetual virginity, you have a case to show that God is not this twisted psycho that some want to call Him. He is holy and pure and we can read this text and walk away knowing that He is exactly that with no weight to drag us back.