Leviticus brings us God’s holy laws for the Israelites. When they obeyed His laws and walked in the ways that He commanded, He promised His people great blessings. If they turned from God to follow other gods and chose to live as they wanted, God made it abundantly clear that He would punish them with drastic measures (Leviticus 26). One of the most important laws that God decreed was that which dealt with something being devoted to destruction. Here is what Yahweh told the Israelites in Leviticus 27:28-29 about this concept:
“But no devoted thing that a man devotes to the Lord, of anything that he has, whether man or beast, or of his inherited field, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord. No one devoted, who is to be devoted for destruction from mankind, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death.”
To be devoted to destruction is to be given totally to the Lord. This is a death sentence. Whoever or whatever is devoted to destruction must be put to death for the law to be fulfilled. Note that the verse says “no one” who is given over and so devoted to God from “mankind.” It applies personally to an individual or group of people. We see the effect and impact of this throughout the Old Testament, but for now let’s consider the case of Jephthah and his daughter in Judges 11.
Although the son of a prostitute and shunned by the rest of his family, God chose Jephthah to be a judge over Israel to bring her redemption during a period of oppression by the Ammonites. While leading his men to where they would engage the enemy, Jephthah, in the Spirit of the Lord (Judges 11:29), made a drastic vow. As recounted in Judges 11:30-31, this is what happened:
And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”
Let’s pause to see what a burnt offering entailed. The very first chapter of Leviticus addresses this. Everything stated there deals with male animals. In every case, however, the animal is killed so that its blood can be thrown upon the altar, e.g. Leviticus 1:5. A burnt offering, just as with something devoted to destruction, is a death sentence for whatever is being offered to the Lord.
The incident with Jephthah is one that Bible students have long debated because of what happened when he returned home in victory. Judges 11:34-35 details this poignant situation:
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore 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.”
Jephthah’s rash vow meant that his own daughter must be the offering that he would make to the Lord for his success in battle.
The point of contention is: Does the text mean what it says? Did Jephthah devote his daughter to destruction by actually giving her as the burnt offering to fulfill his vow?
His daughter knew that she had been given as a sacrificial lamb for the redemption of Israel. She asked for a two month reprieve to enjoy the remnant of her short life. Judges 11:39-40 then says:
And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that 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.
Was she sacrificed? It certainly appears so. Subsequently in Israel, the females in the land remembered her and lamented over her. Why would they lament if she hadn’t been devoted to destruction – killed – and made a burnt offering to complete Jephthah’s vow?
Could Jesus have been thinking of Jephthah in His declaration during the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:37?
“Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”
In other words, don’t make vows – especially rash ones! Let your word be what it is lest something you say comes back to bite you. This is indeed what happened with Jephthah and his daughter. It’s a tragic incident that need not have occurred, but Jephthah, being under the Law, believed he had to honor his vow. We can learn from this by heeding the Words of Jesus.