The Hebrews (and especially the authors of Scripture) were aghast at the practice of human sacrifice in the cultures around them…even though some of their own rulers were sometimes guilty of it. 2 Kings 16:2-3 says that King Ahaz

did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering [lit. “made his son to pass through the fire”], according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.

And Scripture is quite clear—from the “sacrifice of Isaac” onwards—that God isn’t asking his people to engage in human sacrifice. But there’s still one instance in particular in which we find Jephthah, one of the judges of Israel, offering up human sacrifice (his own daughter!) to the God of Israel. So what do we make of this? The account is found in Judges 11:29-40. First, there’s Jephthah’s rash oath:

Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manas’seh, and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering.”

He’s successful in battle, which results in the tragic death of his virgin daughter:

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. And when he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”

And she said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.” And he said, “Go.”

And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made. She had never known a man. And it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

It’s easy to feel bad for Jephthah, who seems to be a singularly unlucky guy. Here he is, trying to offer God a sacrifice for winning the war, and it turns out in about the most horrific way imaginable. Quite reasonably, this is the sort of passage that a lot of nonbelievers find horrifying. Here’s a guy who God has raised up as a judge of Israel, and who claims to be following the God of Israel, and he’s offering God human sacrifices? How is that okay?

It’s not. And that’s the point.

The first thing to understand is that there’s a difference between the Bible describing something, and the Bible endorsing it. This is particularly true in reading the Book of Judges, which is all about how, after the death of Moses and his successor Joshua, “Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Ba’als” (Judges 2:11). The book repeatedly reminds us that “in those days there was no king in Israel” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) to explain the chaos and anarchy in which the people find themselves. The people had stopped obeying God or even their judges (the military rulers who were periodically raised up).

Even the Judges themselves, although they’re raised up by God as military leaders, aren’t always moral exemplars. When the people try to make Gideon (perhaps the greatest of the judges) king, he tells them to follow God instead…and then makes them a golden idol to worship in his hometown of Ophrah, “and all Israel played the harlot after it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family” (Jdg. 8:22-27). He was also a polygamist with many wives and at least one concubine (Jdg. 8:30-31), and his concubine’s son murders seventy of his half-brothers in an attempt to establish a monarchy. Samson is famously betrayed by one of his female friends, Delilah. Even the Levites (the priestly tribe) are depicted as having concubines (leading to events in Judges 19-20 almost too ghastly to repeat). Nobody is depicted as following the Law.

The book’s grim conclusion, after recounting twenty-one chapters of bloodshed and violence, is that “in those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Jdg. 21:25). That’s not an endorsement, even though some fringe Protestants think it is. When the Book of Judges tells us people are doing what’s right in their own eyes, it’s important to remember that what they were doing “was evil in the sight of the Lord” (Jdg. 2:11; 3:12; 4:1; 10:6; 13:1). Judges is showing the insanity of what we would today call “moral relativism.”

Turning away from Mosaic Law towards Canaanite law had horrifying implications, because their pagan practice that included human sacrifice. The Law had specifically warned the people not to adopt the morality of their Canaanite neighbors and enemies, as these people were so debased as to sacrifice their own children (Deut. 12:29-31):

When the Lord your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take heed that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do likewise.’ You shall not do so to the Lord your God; for every abominable thing which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

So the fact that we find Jephthah doing the exact thing that the Law warned would happen if people followed Canaanite morality rather than the Law of Moses should inform our reading. The Biblical author isn’t endorsing this: he’s showing how far the people (and their leaders!) have fallen.

So that’s an important background, because it turns out that Jephthah isn’t the innocent victim of happenstance…and what he’s guilty of may have been a great deal worse than simply “making a rash oath.” St. Augustine points this out in Quaestiones in Heptateuchum, but since I don’t think that there’s an English translation of that yet, we’ll have to rely on this (quite good) summary:

What, precisely, did Jephthah intend to vow? Whatever he had in mind, Augustine observes with a trace of wit, it surely was not a sheep “for it is not the custom now, nor was it then, for sheep to run out to greet a returning master.” Instead, this is the sort of behavior one expects from a dog—but that would have been a sacrifice at once illicit, contemptible, and unclean. None of this is new. But Augustine also adds his own, more sinister analysis: the Latin text of Jephthah’s vow in verse 31 reads not quodcumque, but quicumque—not “whatever comes forth to greet me,” but “whoever.” Augustine’s conclusion is chilling: Jephthah never intended anything but a human sacrifice all along. Who? Surely, if not his “only beloved” daughter, Jephthah must have planned to sacrifice his wife.

Augustine’s reading is clearly influenced by the Latin, which has “whoever,” while the Hebrew and Greek are more ambiguous (the verbs can mean either “whatever” or “whoever”). But the point about the sheep is a good one: whatever (or whoever) Jephthah has in mind, it doesn’t seem to be one of the animals usually sacrificed by the Jews.

What do we make of this? If Jephthah were a villain, through and through, it would be easy to simply write it off as another bad action of a bad ruler (of which, Israel had many, by its own reckoning). But Jephthah is (for unrelated reasons, obviously) one of the good ones, actually. Hebrews 11:32-34 says:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

We want our saints immaculate…or at least not murderers. But many of the great saints in Israel’s history had blood on their hand. Perhaps the best we can do, in the face of this, is to group Jephthah’s killing of his daughter with other bad acts by otherwise good men: like Gideon’s idolatry, or King David’s murder of Uriah (after all, those men, too, made the Hebrews 11 “Hall of Fame”).

But there may yet be a silver lining: the era in which Judges was written was a morally confusing landscape. Even the “good guys” were deeply compromised by their culture and their own forgetfulness of their tradition. That doesn’t sound so different from the last fifty years in our own Church and country.

There is a pious expectation that, in the face of the gravity of the evils around us, God will raise up particularly great saints. And hopefully he will! But we may be in a situation more like the Book of Judges, in which even our saints have glaring flaws. Make of that half-full glass what you will: it’s either an obvious source of lamentation (“the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”) or a great sign of hope in God’s mercy on our mostly-terrible attempts at sanctity. If God can have mercy on those like Jephthah who trusted in him even though he killed his own child, perhaps he will have mercy on the Christians today who trust in him, even though they kill their own children.