Judges 11:31 (KJV) Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD'S, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
The Puritan minister Richard Rogers comments (in his folio on Judges, published in 1615, p. 569; spelling original):
"This vow, though hee meant well, was ill made and in great ignorance, in that he did not make it more distinctly and aduisedly. For what if a dogge had first met him? which is a fauning creature, and had been like enough to have first come foorth to meete him? hee could not have offered it to the Lord, it being vnclean, and so forbidden to be made a sacrifice. His words haue this meaning when he saith (It shall be the Lords, and I will offer it for a burnt offering)--that is, I will offer it in sacrifice, and it shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, for hee meant simply, that he would offer the first thing that should meete him; if he had thought of his daughter, would he have made that vow? And will any say, that in so vowing, he meant, that if that which should first meete him, should not bee fit for sacrifice, he would offer it to virginitie, and yet perhaps it should not be fit for that neither? as if it had been a dogge: and if he had meant to offer it to virginitie, as some hold he did; did hee not see that his daughter had been most like to haue bin the partie vpon whom his vow should have bin performed? For who had bin liker to have first come foorth to meete him then she? And would he (think wee) have vowed that which might haue turned to his owne, and his daughters so great sorrow? . . . "
This seems an appropriate response to the views of Dake, John Wesley, Adam Clarke, and others asserting that Jephthah merely dedicated his daughter to "perpetual virginity." The interpretation presumably arises because it is supposed to be inconceivable that Jephthah could have performed a human sacrifice to the Lord. But in a time of general apostasy such as this (compare Judges 8:24-27 and 21:25, and also 2 Kings 22:8-11 for a parallel instance of ignorance of the Torah), such a misinterpretation of the law on dedicated things (Lev. 27:29) is not at all astonishing. (There are also some insightful remarks by Matthew Poole on 11:39 regarding Jephthah's likely ignorance of the Leviticus passage.)
Notice John Wesley's wildly intemperate comments, in his Notes on the Old Testament, on v. 40:
"It is really astonishing, that the general stream of commentators, should take it for granted, that Jephthah murdered his daughter! But, says Mr. Henry, 'We do not find any law, usage or custom, in all the Old Testament, which doth in the least intimate, that a single life was any branch or article of religion.' And do we find any law, usage or custom there, which doth in the least intimate, that cutting the throat of an only child, was any branch or article of religion? If only a dog had met Jephthah, would he have offered up that for a burnt-offering? No: because God had expressly forbidden this. And had he not expressly forbidden murder? . . ."
Wesley's paragraph offers nothing but the reaction of a man who thinks to win an argument with emotionalism and bluster that he cannot make good with reasons. (This is not at all a usual tactic from Wesley, as far as I have read him, so it is rather startling to find him sounding so unhinged here.) Matthew Henry's point (which incidentally the widely-circulated Matthew Henry Condensed completely misrepresents, making him say that "it is thought that he did not offer his daughter as a burnt-offering. Such a sacrifice would have been an abomination to the Lord") is actually an excellent one, and in indulging in loaded rhetoric about throat-cutting, Wesley forgets where God did in fact seem to command Abraham to "murder" his son Isaac, Gen. 22:1-2 , but saved the lad at the last minute! I imagine (as Henry further suggests) that Jephthah had some vague recollection of this along with perhaps muddy and confused ideas about the requirements of the Torah. Perhaps he even hoped that God would intervene to save his daughter from the vow. But in this case, since the vow was not of God, God left Jephthah to suffer its consequences.
And Wesley's attempted refutation of the analogy of a dog being offered up is also foolish, since one reads of no mental reservation on Jephthah's part in making his vow--"Whatsoever cometh forth--unless it is unclean or unlawful or otherwise unfit--I will offer for a burnt offering"! Indeed, the fact that he made such a vow without regard for the consequences of an unclean animal being the first thing out of his house strongly indicates Jephthah's shallow understanding of just what the law required.
And this assessment of Jephthah was obviously considered self-evident by none other than William Shakespeare, who in 3 Henry VI (V.i.89-91) has Clarence justify breaking faith with his father-in-law Warwick with a lengthy speech that includes:
thou wilt object my holy oath.
To keep that oath were more impiety
Than Jephtha when he sacrificed his daughter."
Supporting this appraisal of Jephthah's deficient grasp of the requirements of God (though dissenting as regards the nature of the sacrifice, which these commentators suppose could not have been an animal), the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary offers the following:
" . . . [I]t looks extremely as if he, from the first, contemplated a human sacrifice. Bred up as he had been, beyond the Jordan, where the Israelitish tribes, far from the tabernacle, were looser in their religious sentiments, and living latterly on the borders of a heathen country where such sacrifices were common, it is not improbable that he may have been so ignorant as to imagine that a similar immolation would be acceptable to God. His mind, engrossed with the prospect of a contest, on the issue of which the fate of his country depended, might, through the influence of superstition, consider the dedication of the object dearest to him the most likely to ensure success. . . .
And from their note on v. 34:
"The shriek [see v. 35], and other accompaniments of irrepressible grief, seem to indicate that her life was to be forfeited as a sacrifice; the nature of the sacrifice (which was abhorrent to the character of God) and distance from the tabernacle does not suffice to overturn this view, which the language and whole strain of the narrative plainly support; and although the lapse of two months might be supposed to have afforded time for reflection, and a better sense of his duty, there is but too much reason to conclude that he was impelled to the fulfillment by the dictates of a pious but unenlightened conscience."
The well-known Amplified Version of the Bible quotes a portion of the preceding paragraph in a footnote illustrating that "Scholars fail to agree as to what Jephthah really did," but seems to decide against the position of Jamieson-Fausset-Brown, remarking at last that "the fact that the maidens mourned her virginity and not her death seems to prove that she did not die." Similarly, the Full Life Study Bible considers v. 37's "she knew no man" to indicate that "she was presented to God as a living sacrifice, to devote her entire life to service and chastity at the national sanctuary (cf. Ex. 38:8, 1Sam. 2:22)."
However, this observation fails to take into account the linkage in the Hebrew mind between untimely death and the production of children--cf. the Geneva Bible's marginal note at 11:37 that "it was counted as a shame in Israel, to dye without children" (qtd. from 1560 ed.), which we may also find illustrated by the prophecy of Messiah as being "taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living" in Isa. 53:8 . (Note, too, the reassurance two verses later in Isaiah that "he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days . . . .") Even beyond the cultural usage, there is nothing strange about an untimely death being mourned as a loss of potential, whether that of bearing children, writing great books, painting masterpieces, or being a comfort to someone else. The Amplified's observation, therefore, while obviously the result of careful study, does not really qualify as useful evidence, much less set aside the case for the contrary position.
In sum: the evidence of the passage suggests that the "burnt offering" actually occurred, contrary to the histrionic claims of Wesley and the cautious doubt of other commentators. And Matthew Henry, in remarking on Jephthah's conduct, gives the probable reason for the obscurity of the narrative regarding this offering:
"Most condemn Jephthah; he did ill to make so rash a vow, and worse to perform it. He could not be bound by his vow to that which God had forbidden by the letter of the sixth commandment: Thou shalt not kill. God had forbidden human sacrifices, so that it was (says Dr. Lightfoot) in effect a sacrifice to Moloch. And, probably, the reason why it is left dubious by the inspired penman whether he sacrificed her or no was that those who did afterwards offer their children might not take any encouragement from this instance. Concerning this and some other such passages in the sacred story, which learned men are in the dark, divided, and in doubt about, we need not much perplex ourselves; what is necessary to our salvation, thanks be to God, is plain enough."