Daughter of Jephthah

This enigmatic character leaves the reader questioning.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.

The story of this unnamed woman appears near the end of her father’s story (see Judges 11:1–12:7). Its position, as well as the events that it narrates, suggests that it functions primarily, though not necessarily solely, as a further explication of the character of her father. It is one of the most enigmatic stories in the Hebrew Bible.

Boullogne's painting of the daughters of Jephthah

The woman’s father, Jephthah, has a rather unconventional background. His mother is a prostitute; his father is identified as Gilead. But since Gilead also names the region in Transjordan from which Jephthah comes, the text may be implying that any of the men of Gilead could be Jephthah’s father. This questionable parentage leads to Jephthah’s being driven away from his home by his kinsmen. He becomes an outlaw and presumably builds up a reputation as a fighter. 

 When his people are threatened militarily by the Ammonites, they appeal to Jephthah to be their commander, Jephthah agrees, being enticed by the promise that he will become their overall leader if he is victorious. But before going into battle, he seeks a guarantee of success by vowing to God that if victory is granted to him, he will sacrifice to God “whoever [whatever] comes out” of his house first on his return from the fight (Judges 11:31).

The ensuing conflict proves victorious for Jephthah and his forces. The rejoicing is short-lived, however, for on the return to his house it is his daughter that he sees coming out to meet him. But while Jephthah bemoans the fate to which his vow has brought him, his daughter merely affirms that he must do what he has vowed to do. She asks only that she be allowed a two-month reprieve so as to spend time with her women friends on the mountains, mourning her virginity. This request is granted. When she comes back to her father, he does with her “according to the vow he had made” (Judges 11:39).

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Karla Bohmbach is associate professor of Religion and coordinator of the Women's Studies Program at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Her scholarship focuses on pedagogical issues and feminist interpretations of the narratives of the Hebrew Bible.

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