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No. 86: Jephthah’s Daughter

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 86
June, 1996
Copyright 1996 Biblical Horizons

In my commentary on Judges, I demonstrated that Jephthah in his Spirit-led vow intended to offer to Yahweh the first person who greeted him from the doors of his house after the battle. Since it was a custom for the young women to come out dancing to greet the returning host, it was clearly a woman of his household he intended to offer up.

I also argued that to offer up as a burnt offering can have a figurative meaning. The word for "burnt offering" actually means "ascension," and in its verbal form is used for going up to the hill of Yahweh. Thus, there is no notion of actual human sacrifice in this passage. In the commentary I provided several lines of argument to demonstrate this.

Jephthah mourned because his daughter was his only child, and he had hoped to start a dynasty (Jud. 11:8). Instead, God claimed her for His dynasty, and she served Him at His house.

The daughter is unnamed. Like the mother of Samson, who is only called "the wife of Manoah," she functions as an archetype. The wife of Manoah is Eve, mother of the victorious Messiah to come. Jephthah’s daughter is Daughter Zion, God’s people, Yahweh’s (Christ’s) bride.

My further studies and growth in awareness of Biblical theology enable me to suggest some deeper answers to some matters I had to discuss tentatively in the commentary.

First, notice that the daughter mourns her virginity for two months (11:37). She thus entered her service in the third month, which corresponds to the time of judgment and resurrection in the Bible. This explains why she mourned for two months. And why months? I suggest that it is because in the deep structure of revelation, men are solar and women are lunar (compare Gen. 37:9-10). It is a matter of biological fact that women are lunar. Thus, measuring time in months is appropriate for a woman. Finally, why request time for weeping now? She would have the rest of her life to weep – of would she? Servants of the sanctuary were not allowed to mourn openly and publicly (Lev. 21:1-4, 10-12). I suggest that as a deaconess, the daughter would come under these rules, and thus would not be allowed to engage in outward mourning.

Second, she asks Jephthah to "let me go, and go down upon the mountains, and weep" (v. 37). Why did she weep, if she were going to be married in a special way to Yahweh? I suggest two complementary answers. For one, doubtless at the personal level she wept because she would never have a husband. If this were merely an edifying short story, that is all we would need to get from the text. But this is a theological text, one that communicates theology through narrative. I suggest, therefore, secondly, that the destined marriage to Yahweh awaited the coming of the true Messiah. Jephthah’s daughter, betrothed to Yahweh, would never come to a wedding under the Old Creation. (Compare Revelation 6:9-11; Hebrews 11:40.)

Third, why does she take along her companions (vv. 37-38)? The companions were those who would serve as her bride’s maids at her wedding, as we see in Psalm 45:14. Now they can only comfort her in her loss.

Fourth, why does she say that she will "go down" or "come down upon the mountains"? In the Bible, only God can come down upon the mountains. This expression cannot be taken literally here, for the girl could not fly and alight on the mountains. In my commentary, I suggested that she came down the sides of the mountains, and that this was somehow a symbolic picture of her work: Like Moses she would bring God’s word from the mountain sanctuary down to the women with whom she met four days each year. The problem with this suggestion is that it is not what the text actually says. It does not say she came down the mountains, but that she came down upon the mountains.

Figuring out precisely what Jephthah’s daughter meant by this expression is presently impossible for me, but finding a Biblical theological connection is not: The bride-daughter comes down upon a mountain in Revelation 21. To be sure, we have to go all the way to the end of the Bible to find this connection, and such long reaches are not in favor today. But we hold that God is the author of the whole Bible, and that it is one unified text. Thus, it is entirely possible that He placed a puzzle here in Judges 11 that is only explained in Revelation 21.

In Revelation 21, the bride-daughter comes down upon the mountain, but she no longer mourns and weeps for a virginity that will never be broken in marriage. The marriage has come, and she is beatified by her Husband. Her companions can rejoice with her.

This theological understanding of the passage clarifies for me the meaning of the last phrase in verse 39 and the statement in verse 40. Contrary to most modern translations, the last phrase of verse 39 stands alone, and says, "And she became a sign in Israel." The usual translation, "It became a custom" is impossible because "it became" is feminine, while "custom" is masculine. The word I have rendered "sign" is hoq, which usually translates as "statue, law, decree, ordinance, custom." It refers to something literally or figuratively graven in stone. Thus, the idea here is that Jephthah’s daughter became a living memorial sign, a teaching to Israel. She was a sign that it is God’s house, not man’s, that is to be built. She was a sign that God, not man, is king. She was a sign that Daughter Israel was to be God’s wife, not man’s.

Verse 40 literally reads, "From days, at days, the daughters of Israel went out to recount to the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four days in the year." Does this speak of a four-day occasion, or does it imply four times in a year? It seems to mean "from this time forth, at certain days." If it means four times during the year, the reference might be to new moon festivals associated with the equinoxes and solstices, since new moons seem to have been especially important to women, for obvious reasons (2 Ki. 4:23).

The only other time the verb "recount" is used in the Bible is Judges 5:11, "The voice of the minstrels at the watering places; there they shall recount Yahweh’s righteous deeds."And what did they "recount"? The recounting in Judges 5:11 is celebratory, and so there is no justification for seeing these as days of mourning for or with Jephthah’s daughter. Rather, the implication is of some kind of celebration. My guess is that the recounting consisted of the young women filling in Jephthah’s daughter regarding what was going on in their lives. She became a spiritual guide to them. They looked forward to these days of instruction and guidance from their deaconess.

Accordingly, the young virgins were instructed by the permanent virgin, Jephthah’s daughter. Thus, she is a type of the Church, instructing her citizens in proper behavior toward their Husband Jesus Christ.