Is a Vow a Moral Justification for Human Sacrifices?
Human sacrifices are clearly an abomination to YHVH. There is nothing more repulsive, repugnant, abhorrent, and abominable to YHVH than human sacrifices, and the most vicious of them: the murder of unborn human beings. Abortion, the politically correct term for this hideous act of taking a human life, is nothing less than another form of human sacrifices to the evil one. For more truth about abortions, read the article “The real face of abortion America must see it to believe it!“.
There is a story in the Bible in which Yiftach a judge of Israel faced with the dilemma to break his vow before YHVH or to sacrifice his daughter—the dilemma he must not have been into. What Yiftach did is a great deal of debate—did he keep his vow and killed his daughter, or he spared her?
And this is the story.
There was time when YHVH ruled over Israel through judges. Such a judge of Israel was Yiftach the Giladite. Yiftach was a mighty brave one. (Jdg 11:1) When the Ammonites came to fight against Israel, the elders to the two tribes and a half on the east of the Jordan went to Yiftach to ask him to be their commander in the fight against the Ammonites. (Jdg 11:5-6) Yiftach agreed and the people set him over them as a commander. (Jdg 11:11)
And the Breath of YHVH came upon Yiftach, and he passed through Gilad and Menashsheh toward the Ammonites. (Jdg 11:29) And Yiftach made a vow to YHVH, and said,
If You give the children of Ammon into my hands, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall belong to Yehovah, and I shall offer it up as an ascending offering. (Jdg 11:30-31)
By the words “whatever comes out”, evidently, Yiftach did not think of what would come out of doors of his house to meet him. He certainly could not have poosibly thought of any case of human beings coming out to meet him. “Whatever comes out of the doors” is an expression that does not apply only to any animal that might possibly run out to meet him, but to humans, too.
What Yoftach did say was, ‘Asher comes out, I will offer it’. The Hebrew word אֲשֶׁר asher, by its use in the Hebrew Scripture, can mean either whoever or whatever; it is equally used in both applications throughout the Scripture. Therefore, in Hebrew that phrase could refer to any human being with its application “whoever” but also to any animal, or “whatever”. Hence, from his vow we cannot say with certainty what Yiftach meant when he vowed to YHVH, and the vow could be translated as, ‘whoever or whatever comes out, I will offer him/it’.
However, judging by the context of the story, he could not have possibly vowed in these words that he would offer some a human being, but that he might present as a burnt offering an animal sacrifice, according to the laws of the Torah. For it is not, and was not, lawful to even think of human sacrifices, nor is it moral.
Subsequently, Yiftach imposed a very difficult vow on himself, which would not have been the case, if he had merely vowed to sacrifice an animal. Even without any vow, he would have offered, not one, but many sacrifices after obtaining a victory, as that was customary in such cases to vow the best of the flock.
However, in his eagerness to smite the Ammonites and to thank YHVH for it, Yiftach did not vowed anything particularly to offer as a thanksgiving, and thus, he therefore left his vow to YHVH unfinished. Probably, what was in heart was that whatsoever YHVH should bring to meet him, he would dedicate it to Him.
One thing is certain, though. Yiftach did not mean to offer any human sacrifices. As we will see from our reading below, the tragedy he put himself into was a mere slip of senseless words out of his mouth.
Yiftach then fight against the Ammonites and YHVH gave them into his hands. Thus, the Ammonites were humbled before Israel. (Jdg 11:32-33)
Animal or human sacrifices
Upon his return, Yiftach came to his house and saw his daughter, his only child, coming out to meet him with timbrels and dancing, as it was a custom in Israel since the time of the Exodus (see at Exo_15:20), most likely as the head of a group of women to receive the warrior with joyous music.
And when he saw her, he tore his garments, and said,
Oh my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are among those who trouble me! And I, I have given my word to Yehovah, and I am unable to turn back. (Jdg 11:34-35)
At such a meeting Yiftach was extremely troubled and tore his clothes as a sign of his intense agony, as he was unable to turn back his vow, that is to revoke it. Compare Psa_66:14 with Num_30:3, Deu_23:23-24). That Yiftach had not thought of his daughter at the time of the vow, can be determined in the words that came out of his mouth when he returned from the battle.
With regard to Yiftach’s vow, the view expressed by Josephus and the Sages and also by “the church fathers”, was that Yiftach put his daughter to death and burned her on the altar as a blood sacrifice, a view that prevailed until the middle ages. That view was most likely based on the words, “he did to her his vow which he had vowed” which cannot be understood in any other way than that he offered her as a burnt-offering.
On the other hand, the law concerning a vow could not possibly give any right to a sacrifice of a child to any idol, much less to YHVH, without opening a very wide door to a violation of the same Law that prohibits under pain of death any human sacrifices. Human sacrifices, according to the Torah, are nothing less than an abomination to YHVH (see Lev_18:21; Lev_20:2-5; Deu_12:31; Deu_18:10).
Moreover, human sacrifices were repulsive even to the majority of the pagans and only the most wicked of them, depraved in a moral and religious sense, performed them as an act of worshiping their idols.
If Yiftach, therefore, vowed a human sacrifice to Jehovah, he must have either uttered his vow foolishly, or else have been thoroughly depraved in a moral and religious sense. However, what we know of this Judge of Israel by no means suggests any assumptions that he was morally deprived, or ignorant of the Torah, but just the opposite.
The facts that he prayed to YHVH for victory over the enemies of Israel and that Yiftach vowed a vow show that he was morally solid. Otherwise, it would have been out of place to say that the Spirit of YHVH had come upon him and given him the victory.
And Yiftach’s daughter said to him,
My father, if you have given your word to Yehovah, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, because Yehovah has taken vengeance for you upon your enemies, the children of Ammon. Let this be done for me: let me alone for two months, and let me go and wander on the mountains and bewail my maidenhood, my friends and I. (Jdg 11:36-37)
And she went with her friends, and bewailed her maidenhood on the mountains. At the end of two months she returned and he did to her as he had vowed, and she knew no man. Since then it was a statute that the daughters of Israel went every year for four days to lament the daughter of Yiftach. (Jdg 11:38-40)
But the entreaty of the daughter, that he would grant her two months, in order that she might lament her virginity on the mountains with her friends, seems incompatible with the account that she was to be put to death as a sacrifice. The reason being is that to mourn one’s virginity does not mean to mourn because one must die a virgin, but because one has to live and remain a virgin. If this course of reasoning is correct, we should expect that there was a dedication of some sort on the part of Yiftach’s daughter to set her life apart to YHVH to serve Him.
Because, if a maiden lament her virginity, this can only be that she will have to remain a virgin for life. Then, the solitude of the mountains would have been the most appropriate way and place to devote her life to YHVH.
What proper sense can the words of Yiftach’s daughter only gain, if we do not connect them with the clause, “he did to her according to the vow which he had vowed” and understand them as describing what the daughter did in fulfilment of the vow?
The words “he did to her according to the vow which he had vowed” could possibly mean that the father fulfilled his vow on her, and she knew no man; i.e., he fulfilled his vow through the fact that she knew no man, and dedicated her life to YHVH, as “a spiritual burnt-offering” in a lifelong chastity.
The words “he did to her according to his vow” presuppose undoubtedly that Yiftach offered his daughter. On the other hand, however, burnt-offerings could only be offered on the altar of the Tabernacle by the Levitical priests. Therefore, it would have been incredible that a priest should have consented to commit such a crime before YHVH.
However, as previously said, the Sages, and more particularly Rashi, believed that Yiftach did kill his daughter. They said that it was decreed that no one should do such a thing anymore in Israel (i.e., they publicized that no one should offer a human being), because had Yiftach gone to Phinehas, the High Priest, or vice versa, he would have nullified his (i.e., Yiftach’s) vow (i.e., Phinehas would have instructed him what the law was in such an instance). “However, they were particular about their honor, and as a result she was destroyed”, the Sages said. Consequently, they were punished: Phinehas, by the Divine presence leaving him as it is stated in 1Ch_9:20, “Previously God was with him” meaning God was not with him; and Yiftach was afflicted with boils and dismemberment as it is stated, (Jdg_12:7) “And he was buried in the cities [plural] of Gilead.” (His limbs were buried in the various cities.) This is the interpretation of the Sages.
Did the father kill his daughter or he dedicated her?
So, did Yiftach kill his daughter to fulfill his vow, or he dedicated her to YHVH for life. The answer could be found in the proper rendering of another Hebrew word in the vow.
Let us read the vow again.
If You give the children of Ammon into my hands, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall belong to Yehovah, and I shall offer (alah) it up as an ascending offering (olah). (Jdg 11:30-31)
The word in question here is עָלָה alah, to ascend, hence to offer up, as the sacrifices burnt on the altar ascended to YHVH. The noun will be olah which is commonly translated as an [ascending] offering. How could that help solve the Yiftach dilemma?
There can be a little doubt that Yiftach had not had anything in his mind but an animal sacrifice when he vowed to offer whatsoever would have come out to meet him. The word olam comes here in help, because, olam does not involve the idea of burning, like a burnt-offering, but simply that of going up, ascending.
When a virgin, therefore, was set apart as a spiritual olam, it followed that henceforth she belonged entirely to YHVH: that is to say, she was to remain a virgin for the remainder of her days. And the solitude of the mountains would have been the most appropriate way and place where Yiftach’s daughter could have devoted her life to YHVH. Therefore, the solution to Yiftach’s dilemma might have been right there in his vow.
He said, “I shall ascend (alah) it as an ascending (olah)”. And his daughter ascended to the mountain as an ascending to dedicate herself to YHVH. And it was this dedication which the daughters of Israel went every year to recount, not to lament the death of Yiftach’s daughter, on the mountains four days in the year.
We derive this from the actual meaning of the Hebrew word תִּנָּה tannah, used only here and in Jdg_5:11 with which we are coming to the third Hebrew word in question. Tannah is rendered as “to lament” in Jdg_11:40 in both translations JPS and KJV, but “to rehearse” or “to recount” in Jdg_5:11 in both JPS and in KJV.
It is the opinion of the present author that the proper translation of tannah in Jdg_11:40 should be “to rehearse” or “recount” what Yiftach’s daughter did, because otherwise it will be improper to say in Jdg 5:11 that they lamented “the righteous acts of the LORD”. We read in Jdg 5:11,
Louder than the voice of archers, by the watering-troughs! there shall they rehearse the righteous acts of the LORD, even the righteous acts of His rulers in Israel. Then the people of the LORD went down to the gates. (Jdg 5:11 JPS)
So far, we discussed what might have transpired from the vow Yiftach took before YHVH and we said too little about what the Torah says in such cases like this.
What the Torah says about such a vow
We read from the Book of Leviticus which the present author believes is probably the most mistranslated, misread, and misinterpreted book in the Bible, but for on this the reader is encouraged to read the articles “Which is the most important book in the Bible?” and “Why Leviticus is the most important book in the Bible“.
Or when a soul swears, speaking rashly with his lips to do evil or to do good, whatever it is that a man swears rashly with an oath, and it has been hidden from him, when he shall know it, then he shall be guilty of one of these. And it shall be, when he is guilty of one of these, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned, and shall bring his guilt offering to Yehovah for his sin which he has sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a female goat as a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him, for his sin. (Lev 5:4-6)
What this law is saying is this: if anyone should swear idly, foolishly, thoughtless, or irrelevantly to do good or evil i.e., that he would do whatever, and it is hidden from him, i.e., if he did not consider that he might commit sin by such thoughtless swearing, and if he perceived it afterwards and discovered his sin that had caused guilt with regard to the things which he had thoughtlessly sworn, then he shall bring a guilt offering and he shall be forgiven.
And indeed, in Lev_5:4-6 provision is made for those who may by ignorance or for whatever reason impulsively vowed something that proves to be hidden from him, that is he is unaware of the consequences of his actions.
In such a case, he may redeem himself by giving an offering of, notice here what the law says, a female from the flock, a lamb or a female goat as a sin offering. This is the case of Judge Yiftach. This is most likely the solution to the dilemma faced by Yiftach: to kill his daughter and keep his vow, or to sin before YHVH by breaking his thoughtless vow.
Let us read again Lev 5:4-6 with Yiftach in mind.
As Yiftach swears, speaking rashly with his lips to do evil by sacrificing whoever will come to meet him, whatever it is that he has sworn rashly with an oath, that he has been unaware of , when he shall come to the realization of what he has done, then he shall be guilty. And it shall be, when he is guilty of it, that he shall confess that in which he has sinned, and shall bring his guilt offering to Yehovah for his sin which he has sinned, a female from what is his as a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement for him, for his sin.
Yiftach did swear thoughtlessly to do a possible sin, which act of sin he was unaware of, and was found guilty. He, however, did confess his sin and allowed his daughter to dedicate herself for life, and his sin was atoned.
In conclusion, when all circumstances considered, it compels us to accept the interpretation of “a spiritual sacrifice”. And it was this dedication which the daughters of Israel went every year to recount, not to lament the death of Yiftach’s daughter, on the mountains four days in the year.
There can be a little doubt that Yiftach had not had such a dedication in his mind when he came to the realization that he vowed immaturely to sacrifice whatsoever would have come out to meet him. Because, the word olam, as aforesaid, does not involve the idea of burning, like a burnt-offering, but simply that of going up on the mountain and on altar as His father Avraham did.
The Isaac sacrifice
With all that being said, how are we, then, to consider the demand of YHVH to Avraham to offer Him his only son Isaac as “a burnt-offering”, as it is widely understood in Judaism and Christianity? It is widely accepted in these two religions that God “commanded” Avraham to offer up his son as “a burnt sacrifice”, he obeyed, and then God supplied him with a ram in Yitshak’s stead. This obedience of the forefather was counted for him as righteousness.
The conclusion derived from this event is that God teaches not physical human sacrifices, but spiritual sacrifices are required. Despite this interpretation of the most dramatic story in the Bible, the legitimate question that rises is whether the Isaac sacrifice is not a form of human sacrifices.
While, the present author completely agrees with the concept of spiritual sacrifice as a dedication of soul to YHVH, nevertheless, he completely disagrees with the notion that the Merciful One would even come close to the idea to demand a human sacrifice from Avraham, although He did not mean it.
This whole idea of God commanding but not meaning a human sacrifice from Avraham is absurd and preposterous, and the sooner we abandon it, the better we understand what YHVH asked, not commanded, His friend Avraham. But for more wisdom on this controversial subject, the reader is asked to read the present author’s article “Take Your Son, Your Only Son! Did YHVH Tell Abraham to Sacrifice Isaac?“
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.