Many Bible teachers have broken their heads about the question of whether Jephthah literally sacrificed his daughter. The Herziene Statenvertaling [Dutch translation which is used for the original commentary], indicates in verse 4040that the daughters of Israel went yearly to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year. that she has continued to live, for there can be talked to her annually. However, there are other translations of this verse that speak of “commemorate the daughter of Jephthah” as does the translation used here, the NASB. Then the thought is more of an annual remembrance of her premature death.
A small selection of what esteemed bible interpreters have put forward on this subject shows that it is difficult to give an unambiguous answer to this question.
Henri Rossier: She would have to spend her whole life as a separated one and would not have a husband to have relations with, so she would always remain childless. In that sense she would live on as a dead person.
William Kelly: He sacrificed his daughter, after his determined intransigent mind. The holy wisdom of Scripture avoids the details of a fact that so contrasts with the thoughts of God.
Frederick William Grant: With regard to Jephthah’s vow, with it seems to be connected haste and failure, but certainly not the human sacrifice that many have assumed. Most youngest commentators agree and believe that his daughter was simply dedicated to God to lead an unmarried life as verses 37-3937She said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go to the mountains and weep because of my virginity, I and my companions.”38Then he said, “Go.” So he sent her away for two months; and she left with her companions, and wept on the mountains because of her virginity.39At the end of two months she returned to her father, who did to her according to the vow which he had made; and she had no relations with a man. Thus it became a custom in Israel, clearly show.
Martin Luther: Some maintain that she was not sacrificed, but the text is too clear to allow that explanation.
Kurtz, in Sacred History: Evidence of literal sacrifice is found in the father’s desperation, the generous resignation of the daughter, the annual remembrance and mourning of Israel’s daughters, and in the story of the writer himself, who is unable to clearly describe the terrible scene he sees with both admiration and horror.
Edersheim: The great Jewish commentators of the Middle Ages have pointed out, in contrast to Talmud, that the two expressions in verse 3131then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” (“it shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering”) are not identical. Never is it said of an animal burnt offering that it will be “the LORD’s”, for the simple reason that a burnt offering as such already is.
But if it concerns people who are offered to the LORD, then this expression is used, as in the case of the firstborn of Israel and of Levi (Num 3:12-1312“Now, behold, I have taken the Levites from among the sons of Israel instead of every firstborn, the first issue of the womb among the sons of Israel. So the Levites shall be Mine.13For all the firstborn are Mine; on the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I sanctified to Myself all the firstborn in Israel, from man to beast. They shall be Mine; I am the LORD.”). But in these cases it has never been assumed that it is a literal human sacrifice. If the loving daughter had dedicated herself to death, it is almost incomprehensible that she wishes to spend the two months that remained of her life not with her heart-broken father, but in the mountains with her friends.
Samuel Ridout: I have never been able to change my mind about the fact that Jephthah has done with his daughter what every simple reader who reads this section believes he has done. He makes himself known as a severe, self-righteous man who later kills 42,000 of his fellow Israelites with a good conscience. Such a man is also able to literally sacrifice his own daughter. He had drawn the sword to defeat the Ammonites, he killed his daughter because he had promised it, and killed his brothers. Friend and enemy were treated the same.
Personally, I tend to think that Jephthah has indeed sacrificed his daughter. That is the impression I get when I read the text as it appears. It says that he “did to her” according to the vow which he had made. In other words, to me this indicates that he took a concrete action.
After this selection still a remark is left to make about the last verse of this chapter. If the daughter Jephthah was commemorated annually, how much more is the Lord Jesus worth to be commemorated every day, especially every first day of the week.