Judges 11 and Child Sacrifice
Updated: Oct 24, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
When one reads the Scriptures, many themes emerge about the God of Israel. He is, for example, loving and faithful to the Israelites and His covenant with them (Deuteronomy 7:9). The God of Israel, for most Americans, has a lot of commendable qualities. However, some have difficulties saying that. They see various passages in the Old Testament that seem to indicate that God condones child sacrifice. One passage in particular that Americans have trouble with is Judges 11.
In this passage, the Israelite judge named Jephthah kills his daughter by offering her as a sacrifice to God (Judges 11:39). How could God claim to be a God of love when Scripture does not reprimand Jephthah? Does God not think that children have intrinsic worth? Passages like this cause some Americans to think that God is perfectly fine with child sacrifice and is therefore an evil and corrupt God. Upon closer inspection, though, this is not the case. For of all the qualities of God found in Scripture, there is one that should be unanimous. That quality is the immense value God places in the lives of children. Far from being an unloving and immoral God, Scripture presents Him as being totally and unashamedly against child sacrifice. God is a loving God that considers the lives of children to possess inherent dignity and worth, and this caused Him to condemn the notion of child sacrifice through His Law and His prophets.
In the ancient land of Israel, God said that He hated the sacrifice of children. Many pagan gods were worshipped that way, but not the God of Israel. He did not in any way support the actions of the Gentile nations which offered their children to their gods, such as Molech and Baal. If any Israelite sacrificed one of their little ones to Molech, God commanded that Israelite to be stoned (Leviticus 20:2). They were to be taken out of the community on the spot. This is because God took personal offense to child sacrifice, going so far as to say that it profaned His own name (Leviticus 20:3). In His eyes, it was an abomination (Deuteronomy 18:12). In fact, the Mosaic Law condemned the practice in four specific texts (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:10). The prophet Jeremiah remarked how evil and detestable it was to God to offer child sacrifice (Jeremiah 7:30-32). When the pagans offered their children to the god Baal, the prophet says that such a sacrifice had never even crossed God's mind (Jeremiah 19:5). God cared deeply about the lives of children according to Scripture. The pressing question then presents itself: If the God of Israel as described in the Old Testament was unloving towards children, then these passages should not exist. Yet they do, and they demonstrate the loving character of God.
Despite this evidence, some will present the Israelite military leader Jephthah and his actions in Judges 11 as proof that the God of Israel possessed an evil character. To understand this objection, let's get some context. Jephthah was an exiled man called upon by Gilead to fight against the nation of the Ammonites (Judges 11:6). Before he fought them, though, he made a foolish vow to God that, if he could defeat the Ammonites, he would offer to God as a burnt offering sacrifice whatever exited his house first (Judges 11:30-31). Normally, Israelite homes had on the first floor a bunch of animals, so Jephthah was assuming that something like a goat would exit his house. Yet when Jephthah defeated the Ammonites and returned home, his daughter came out of the house to meet him. Would Jephthah keep his vow and sacrifice to God his own daughter?
Jephthah, blind to God’s words in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, unfortunately followed through on his vow and killed his daughter (Judges 11:39). He acted like his previous enemy, the Ammonites, who would offer their children to Molech. God did not command Jephthah to kill his daughter, and certainly would have been angry at Jephthah. Such an action deserved the punishment of death by stoning. Jephthah should have broken his personal vow which contradicted God's explicit Law. Such a vow held no weight when compared to God's Law.
One apparent issue is that the book of Judges does not comment on the morality of the sacrifice, and just moves on to the next episode. This has prompted the objection that Scripture was accepting towards Jephthah’s murder. Such an objection does not carry much weight, though. For the entire book of Judges is about recounting the evils of the people of Israel before they received a king to guide them. This is signified through the concluding words to the book of Judges, "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25, cf. 17:6). Jephthah is simply another example of an Israel who made up his own morality. So, just because Scripture does not condemn the action of Jephthah, does not mean it condoned his action.
God is a God of love. In particular, He loves children. If any person claims today that God was heartless in the Old Testament, he or she would need to reckon with the biblical evidence to the contrary given here. Child sacrifice was rejected without excuse in the Old Testament laws and prophets, and only a good God who cared about children would reject such an action. God did not reject child sacrifice for any other reason than that the nature of the action itself was grotesque. The crime deserved death through stoning, indicating how serious the action was in God’s eyes. Catholics interpret Judges 11 like St. Jerome, who said, "In vowing he [Jephthah] was foolish, through lack of discretion, and in keeping his vow he was wicked'" (quoted in Summa Theologica, II-II, 88, 2, ad 2).