The story of Jephthah in the Book of Judges disturbs people, and rightly it should because it relates a disturbing historical moment. This story has been brought up, to me personally, by numerous atheists as a reason to consider the Bible as “immoral“. Of course the problem is that the author who is relating the story to us doesn’t present the story as a crowning achievement in morality for several reasons.
First, the Book of Judges presents a time in the history of the nation of Israel where the people are in rebellion against God, so God allows the consequences of actions to play out. The young nation is under attack from several fronts both physical and spiritual. The theme “every man did what was right in his own eyes” or “they did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” is constantly thrown up as a reminder of the spiritual and moral state of the nation.
Second, there is the issue that Jephthah is held up by the author of Hebrews as an example of faith in God in what is known as the “Faith Hall of Fame“. This seems, to some, to somehow condone his actions, but is this a reasonable assumption? When we look at the list in which he is included,
“For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-… (Hebrews 11:32, ESV)”
anyone would realize that this list, apart from the mention of the last judge and first prophet Samuel, are not necessarily paragons of virtue: Gideon was a coward, Barak was an assassin, Samson and David had a weakness for women, in fact, it seems as though every person that is mentioned has had some serious moral failing in their story, but the common thread is that even in their failings, God used them, God made promises and fulfilled them in spite of their respective sin, not because of it.
Finally, when it comes to the story, as the author of Judges presents the it, there is no commendation of Jephthah’s actions, merely the record of it. Some try to minimize the action of Jephthah, saying that he did not follow through with his oath, however there’s nothing in the text to allow for that conclusion, in fact, the author is clear,
“… she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. (Judges 11:39, ESV)”
In conclusion, when it comes to the objection by atheists or skeptics to what is clearly presented as a historical event, the atheist’s objection is patently empty and proves the biblical assertion because to decry Jephthah’s action and to rightfully condemn it, they have to assume that the Christian worldview is true, that life is a gift from God, and that God has perfectly prescribed how he is to be worshipped and Jephthah’s actions were not in line with them.