What Was Jephthah Thinking?



Damien F. Mackey



Why, if Jephthah the Judge of Israel were a child killer,

would Paul praise him for his “faith” (Hebrews 11:32-33)?



The rollicking and bloodthirsty Book of Judges has been a stumbling block for some, with preachers recoiling in horror from the very thought of engaging in a discussion of the incident of Jephthah and his supposed sacrifice to God of his own daughter – his only child in fact.

But was Jephthah really that foolish?

Even those clever authors, I. Kikawada and A. Quinn (Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1-11, Ignatius: 1985) are aghast at what they regard as the callous and pitiless “Song of Deborah”, and also the antics of the strong man, Samson, about whom they write (p. 134):


Samson fits the pattern of a champion worthy of a people unworthy of their God–a champion strong but stupid, willful, lustful, unclean; one of his great triumphs coming after the humiliation of Judah (the once vaunted lion’s whelp) and through the ridiculous agency of the ass’s jawbone; his other triumph coming after his own humiliation by the uncircumcised and through an act tantamount to suicide. Even in this final triumph the author takes care to deflect our sympathies. Samson calls not for God’s glory but for his own revenge. And then there is the young boy who places Samson’s hands on the pillars, the young boy who in an act of kindness places Samson so he can rest, a young boy who for his kindness will be crushed to death.



And they continue on in the same fashion (p. 135): “….Samson’s willingness to defile himself for sweets is a nice commentary on his desire for Gentile women”.

Samson is so stupid according to these authors’ way of thinking that he even gets wrong his own riddle (ibid.): “Samson’s answer is completely wrong. In particular, we can now understand the suggestion made by Torczyner in the 1920s that the correct solution to this riddle is “vomit”.”

This supposed “solution”, however, completely misses the point of Samson’s riddle – Samson knew exactly what he meant by it. Here follows an account of the more enlightened explanation of the riddle by professor Cyrus Gordon.


Posted at: http://www.thebookblog.co.uk/2012/01/samsons-sweet-riddle/


Peter Buckley | January 14, 2012


One of Britain’s iconic foodstuffs is Lyle’s Golden Syrup. Everyone knows the century-old design: a round tin can with a lid you prise off with a knife; racing green bodywork with the golden words arching over a central picture of a dried dead lion, and emanating from its stomach is a swarm of bees. A strange image for a foodstuff?



Under the logo are the words: “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”, a reference by its creator Abram Lyle to a scene in the Bible. While no one is certain why this quotation was chosen, Abram Lyle was a deeply religious man and it has been suggested that it refers either to the strength of the Lyle company which delivers the sweet syrup or possibly even to the trademark tins in which Golden Syrup is sold. Lyle’s is “Britain’s oldest brand” according to the Guinness Book of World Records , having remained almost unchanged since 1885. So the lion corpse definitely hasn’t done them any harm!

The full quote, a riddle, is “Out of the eater something to eat came forth, and out of the strong something sweet came forth” (Judges 14:14 NWT)

This is a good example of a bible account in the style of journalism, accurately conveying what took place. Samson killed a lion and later found that bees had made a hive in the carcass, from which honey was dripping. The strong aversion of most bees to dead bodies and carrion is well known. However, the account states that Samson returned “after a while” or, literally in the Hebrew, “after days,” a phrase that can refer to a period of even a year (The expression “from year to year” in Hebrew is literally “from days to days”). The time elapsed would allow for scavenger birds or animals and also insects to have consumed the flesh or the burning rays of the sun to desiccate the remainder. That a fair amount of time had passed is also evident from the fact that the swarm of bees not only had formed their nest within the lion’s corpse but also had produced a quantity of honey. He told nobody about the lion or the honey, but made a pact with the Philistines that within a week they could not solve the riddle. In translation there is no possible way to solve this riddle without being in on the secret about the lion and the bees. The Philistines found out the answer from Samson’s wife Delilah, who had nagged Samson into telling her. They [succeeded] by saying to Samson just before the week expired: “What is sweeter than honey, and what is stronger than a lion (a-ri)?” (Judges 14:18)

It happens that while ‘a-ri’ is well-known in the sense of ‘lion’ it is at the same time a very rare word for ‘honey’ preserved in Arabic, but nowhere in extant Hebrew literature. The biblical text is cleverly constructed, because up to that point in the account, it refrains from calling the lion ‘a-ri’. Instead the solution is kept from the reader by calling the lion a ‘ke-fir a-rayot’ (maned young lion) and later, ‘a-ryeh’ (apparently distinguishing the larger African from the Asian lion), neither of use in solving the riddle. One example of how every word is there for a reason.


Thanks to: Cyrus H Gordon (1974): Riddles in history


Saint Paul did not share the negative opinions of modern commentators about the Judges, including in his praise of them “Samson and Jephthah” (Hebrews 11:32-33): “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah …. who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised …”.

The following item provides us with a far more realistic interpretation of the Jephthah incident (from http://www.htdb.net/1901/r2897.htm):




The original, Judges 11:30, when properly translated, reads thus: ‘And it shall be that whoever comes forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace, from the children of Ammon, shall surely be Jehovah’s, and I will offer to him a burnt offering.’ The vow contains two parts:


(1) That person who would meet him on his return should be Jehovah’s, and be dedicated forever to his service, as Hannah devoted Samuel before he was born. (1 Sam. 1:11.)

(2) That Jephthah himself would offer a burnt offering to Jehovah.


Human sacrifices were prohibited by the Law (Deut. 12:30); and the priests would not offer them. Such a vow would have been impious, and could not have been performed. It may be safely concluded that Jephthah’s daughter was devoted to perpetual virginity; and with this idea agrees the statements that ‘she went to bewail her virginity;’ that the women went four times in every year to mourn or talk with (not for) her; that Jephthah did according to his vow, and that ‘she knew no man.’


We are glad that our attention is called to this evidently better translation, which clears away the difficulty, and shows that the burnt-offering was one thing, and the devotion of the daughter another thing. We are to remember, too, the testimony of the entire Old Testament, to the effect that prior to our Lord’s birth all the women of Israel coveted earnestly the great blessing and privilege of being possibly the mother of Messiah, or amongst his forebears. We are to remember, also, the exultant language of the Virgin Mary when finally it was announced to her that she had won this long-sought prize: “Henceforth all shall call me blessed”–all shall recognize me as the one who has attained this blessed privilege of being the mother of Messiah.





Possible Literary Appropriations of the Jephthah Story


We may get glimpses of the famous story in later literature, e.g., Greek, Islamic.


  • Agamemnon and Iphigenia



The Homeric masterpieces, Iliad and Odyssey – thought to be the “classics” and “key works” of “western civilization” – are replete with biblical allusions.



I have previously pointed out:


Similarities to The Odyssey of the Books of Job and Tobit



The Book of Tobit apparently influenced other Greek literature as well, as we read at (http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=12-02-036-f):


…. some readers have found in [the Book of] Tobit similarities to still other pagan themes, such as the legend of Admetus. …. More convincing … however, are points of contact with classical Greek theater. Martin Luther observed similarities between Tobit and Greek comedy … but one is even more impressed by resemblances that the Book of Tobit bears to a work of Greek tragedy—the Antigone of Sophocles. In both stories the moral stature of the heroes is chiefly exemplified in their bravely burying the dead in the face of official prohibition and at the risk of official punishment. In both cases a venerable moral tradition is maintained against a political tyranny destructive of piety. That same Greek drama, moreover, provides a further parallel to the blindness of Tobit in the character of blind Teiresias, himself also a man of an inner moral vision important to the theme of the play.

Bearing just as obvious a connection with non-biblical literature, I believe, is the demon Asmodeus (Tobit 3:8), who is doubtless to be identified, on purely morphological grounds, with Aeshma Daeva, a figure well known in ancient Iranian religion. …. Moreover, Tobit’s nephew Ahikar (1:22) is certainly identical with a literary character of the same name, time, place, and circumstances, found in the Elephantine papyri from the late fifth century B.C. …. In short, whatever may be the case relative to questions of historical dependency, Tobit’s cultural contacts with the ancient world of religion, philosophy, and literature are numerous and varied. ….

[End of quote]


One could greatly multiply examples such as these.

And it may be the case, too, that the story of Agamemnon and Iphigenia owes something to the Judges’ story of Jephthah and his daughter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iphigenia):


The Achaean (Greek) fleet was preparing to go to war against Troy and had amassed in Aulis. While there, Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition, killed a deer in a grove sacred to the goddess Artemis. She punished him by interfering with the winds (either by becalming them or by blowing the ships back into port) so that his fleet could not sail to Troy.

The seer Calchas revealed that in order to appease Artemis, Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnon at first refused, but, under pressure from the other commanders eventually agreed.[4]


Iphigenia and her mother Clytemnestra were brought to Aulis under the pretext of a marriage to Achilles, but soon discovered that the marriage was a ruse. In some versions of the story, Iphigenia remains unaware of her imminent sacrifice until the last moment, believing that she is led to the altar to be married.


My comment: Though Iphigenia, like the daughter of Jephthah, may not finally have been sacrificed.

The article continues:


Whether or not Iphigenia was actually sacrificed depends on the source. According to HyginusFabulae, Iphigenia was not sacrificed.[4] Some sources claim that Iphigenia was taken by Artemis to Tauris in Crimea on the moment of the sacrifice, and that the goddess left a deer[5] or a goat (the god Pan transformed) in her place. The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women called her Iphimede (Ἰφιμέδη)[6] and told that Artemis transformed her into the goddess Hecate.[7] Antoninus Liberalis said that Iphigenia was transported to the island of Leuke, where she was wedded to immortalized Achilles under the name of Orsilochia.


  • Prophet Mohammed and Jephthah



Now we also find that poor ‘Abdullah, the father of Mohammed, in an episode that harkens back to the era of the Judges, to Jephthah’s vow, in fact, wrongly construed (Judges 11:30): ‘… whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering’, was elected by his father, ‘Abdel Muttalib, as the one of his ten sons to be sacrificed to God in thanksgiving.

Ultimately ‘Abdullah was spared that grim fate, due to an encounter between ‘Abdel Muttalib and the shamaness, Shiya.

{Here, again, in the case of the ruler and Shiya, we may have a reminiscence of king Saul of Israel’s clandestine visit to the witch of Endor (I Samuel 28:7)}.



Another facet of the Jephthah story will recur again in the biography of Mohammed, later, in the quite different context of which person will have the honour of placing the fabled Black Stone of the Ka’aba back on the eastern wall after repairs.

Abu Umayyah will advise the assembled crowd to wait for the next person who will come through a nearby gate in the courtyard of the Ka’aba. That person was, as fate would have it, Mohammed himself.

A less traumatic fate, however, than the one experienced by Jephthah’s daughter!


This whole wall building episode in the story of Mohammed is somewhat like the biblical one of Nehemiah. And Mohammed strangely has a contemporary “Nehemiah”.

See my:


Two Supposed Nehemiahs: BC time and AD time




As I have come to conclude in a two-part article:


Biography of the Prophet Mohammed (Muhammad) Seriously Mangles History







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