Faith and Ethics: The Story of Jephtha

(Jephthah’s Vow: The Return by Edwin Long (1829–1891), photo credit: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum / CC BY-NC-ND)

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Part I: Divine Command Theories
Part II: Abraham and Isaac

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

The Story of Jephtha

The story of Job is similar. Job is “tested” by Satan with the knowledge and compliance of God. The most direct similarity with Abraham’s offer, however, is to be found in the story of Jephtha. The story of Jephtha (Judges 11:1–40) is interesting because there is no happy ending. In contrast to Abraham, Jephtha does indeed bring the final offer.[111]

Jephtha was a “mighty warrior” (Judges 11:1) and he led Israel in a struggle against the Ammonites. In this struggle he was helped by the Lord. Jephtha 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” (Judges 29:30–32).

Jephtha went to war and the Lord gave the Ammonites into Jephtha’s hand. The Ammonites “were subdued before the people of Israel” (Judges 29:33). Then Jephtha came to his home at Mizpah. What came out from the door of his house? “His daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances.” Jephtha, so the Bible tells us, “did with her according to his vow that he had made” (Judges 29:39).

What to make of these stories? The similarity between the story of Abraham offering Isaac and that of Jephtha offering his daughter is striking. Both appear prepared to sacrifice their children. In both stories the children willingly comply. There is only one difference though. Abraham did not have to offer Isaac at the last moment, whereas Jephtha’s daughter is actually sacrificed.

Another difference is that Abraham did not volunteer a vow to God, whereas Jephtha more or less caused his own unfortunate destiny because he himself sought the help of the Lord in securing his military success. Perhaps this makes Jephtha an even more unlikely candidate for advertisements with exhortations to respect human life than Abraham. Jephtha seems also a bit naïve. Making a vow that you will offer “whatever comes out from the doors” of your house is rather uncommon. What comes out of the doors of your house? Usually your wife, your children – in short: your own family. So it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jephtha knowingly and willingly jeopardized his own kin for the sake of military success.

The story of Jephtha was a source of inspiration for several artists, as one can understand on the basis of the drama of the story. Handel (1685–1759) based his oratorio Jephtha (1751) on the vicissitudes of the unfortunate warrior. But, like so many others, the pious Handel could not live with the patent immorality of the story. The text of the oratorio was written by Reverend Thomas Morell (1703–1784) who made some amendments to the cruel story that make it more palatable to the taste of those who want to maintain the Bible as an important sourcebook for morals. Morell and Handel also introduced more characters. There is a certain Hamor who is betrothed to Jephtha’s daughter who gets the name of “Iphis” in the oratorio, presumably suggested by a happy analogy from Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenea, the victim of a similar paternal vow.[112] The happy ending is, as in the story of Abraham, secured by the intervention of an angel. In Act Three of Handel’s oratorio, Jephtha is preparing to carry through the sacrifice of his daughter, but at the last moment an angel appears, declaring that it was the Holy Spirit that inspired Jephtha’s vow and explaining that its intent can be met if Jephtha’s daughter remains for ever a virgin, dedicated to God. General jubilation is the result. Commentator Winton Dean (1916– ) is not very satisfied with this deus ex machina: “Morell’s attempt to reconcile the Jehovah of the Old Testament with the Christian God betrayed him into an equivocal treatment of the vow and a feeble end, marred by a mixture of Puritanism and sentimentality characteristic of eighteenth century pietism.”[113] There is no angel in this story, Dean tells us. After a sojourn in the mountains bewailing her virginity Jephtha’s daughter returns and pays the full price, he says. And that is true. The Reverend Morell and the pious Handel apparently could not live with such an immoral ending in a biblical story.

Not only pious people were shocked by the story. Voltaire (1694–1778) was incensed as well. He wrote about the “abominable Jewish people” who complied with human sacrifices. They were barbarians and on the basis of barbaric laws they were prepared to sacrifice their children.[114]

Is this an unduly harsh verdict? Not from the perspective of an autonomous ethic, of course, but from the perspective of divine command ethics it is certainly not barbaric to conform to the commands of a perfect and eternal God who sometimes requires us to do things that, from our own limited point of reference, seem impossible to justify. For the divine command theorist these consequences are “all in the game”: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9). St. Paul formulates a similar idea:

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is moulded say to its moulder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? (Romans 9:20–22)

Texts like those of Isaiah and Romans are often quoted by those who cannot explain how divine goodness and omnipotence can be reconciled with the evident evil in the world. So they take refuge in the “as-the-heavens-are-higher-than-the-earth” argument. But does it hold? Is it true that God cannot be judged by human standards of morality? American author Sam Harris (1967– ) is not convinced and answers that human standards of morality are precisely what believers use to establish God’s goodness in the first place.[115] Harris is right.

An analysis of the moral theory implicit in the stories of Jephtha and Abraham is all the more pertinent once we realize that their attitude is not something that is to be found only in old books, but in real life as well. The lynchpin is the figure of Phinehas. What the attitude manifested by Abraham and Jephtha can lead to is shown in the intriguing story of Phinehas told in the book of Numbers. As we saw in Chapter 2, it can result in a total rejection of all temporal legal authority and a direct claim to operate as the executor of God’s own wishes. For this is what Phinehas is: a priest, judge, and public hangman in one. He knows the will of God. And who can defy the will of God? Should not all moral considerations be swept aside once the will of God can be known? And what does God think of the heretics, unbelievers, seducers of the people who stray away from the path God has indicated? Of course, we should “not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams” (Deuteronomy 13:1–3), as was likewise made clear in Chapter 2. But what should we do if some people do listen to the treacherous seducers in our midst? Should we not use all means available to us to stop those false prophets?[116]

This seems especially pertinent when the state as a whole strays from the path of God. In that case we have an “apostate state,” as even countries like Saudi Arabia are in the eyes of religious extremists like Bin Laden and Zawahiri. In that case we must – as Phinehas had the courage to – defy the authority of our political leaders.

This is, basically, the worldview that religious extremists subscribe to. And this worldview is based, among other things, on a firm rejection of the notion of moral autonomy. Religious terrorists are firm believers in divine command morality. Not in a metaphoric or poetical, but in a literal sense.[117] But if that is the case, should we not ponder over the question of how to foster moral autonomy among the citizenry? Especially in a historical context of multiculturalism and globalization, when the will of a religious leader in some far away country (Fukuyama’s “religious crackpot”) has relevance for the way some citizens of Western democracies think, this seems of vital importance.

Adherents of Divine Command Theory

As I have stated before, the theory of ethics, or more precisely of “metaethics,” that is implicit in the stories of Abraham and Jephtha is called the “divine command theory” of ethics. According to this theory “morally right” means “ordained by God,” and “morally wrong” means “forbidden by God.” There is no independent or “autonomous” ethical good, but morality is ultimately founded in the will of God.

We have to distinguish this position from the one that proclaims that religion influences moral behavior, or that people are “inspired” by their religious belief. The Dutch legal philosopher Bart C. Labuschagne (1962– ) writes: “Man’s morality is rooted in his religiousness. Religion equips man with the motivation and the grounds to be moral … .”[118] From a psychological point of view this can hardly be denied. Man is “rooted” in religion and “inspired” by his faith. But the philosophical question is: is this necessarily true? Would morality lose all binding force if not backed up by religion? The adherents of divine command ethics answer in the affirmative.

We do not only find adherents of divine command ethics among biblical and Qur’anic religious figures (Moses, Abraham, Mohammed), but also among the great philosophers and theologians. The moral philosopher Janine Marie Idziak presents an impressive list of adherents among the great philosophers of the Western tradition: John Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Pierre d’Ailly, Jean Gerson, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and many others.[119] Divine command ethics is a well-known current in philosophical metaethics.

But although the intellectual credentials of the theory – see the impressive list of adherents presented by Idziak – cannot be denied, the practical consequences of adopting it seem, under the present circumstance of a multi-religious composition of the population in many societies, far-reaching. Accepting the direct voice of God (Mohammed, Jesus, Moses) or his text[120] (the majority of the believers) as the ultimate foundation of ethics could lead to self-sacrifice and martyrdom.[121] And what is worse: it could lead to the sacrifice of others, as the story of Abraham and Isaac spells out. In an age of international religious terrorism this poses considerable problems for the maintenance of the political order.[122]

It is very well comprehensible that these problems have stimulated several commentators and scholars to look for alternatives to divine command morality. Following the will of God, whatever that may lead to, may make us true believers and earn the praise of God, but it does not make us good citizens. Therefore, people have always inquired whether there are other options.

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.

Part IV: Command Ethics or Divine Command Ethics?

[111] See on Jephtha: Linton, Anna, “Sacrificed or Spared? The Fate of Jephtha’s Daughter in Early Modern Theological and Literary Texts,” German Life and Letters, 57, no. 3 2004, pp. 237–255; Houtman, Cornelis, “Rewriting a Dramatic Old Testament Story. The Story of Jephtha and his Daughter in some Examples of Christian Devotional Literature,” Biblical Interpretation, 13, no. 2, 2005, pp. 167–190; Sjöberg, Mikael, “Jephtha’s Daughter as Object of Desire or Feminist Icon,” Biblical Interpretation, 15, 2007, pp. 377–394.

[112] See: Dean, Winton, “Handel’s Farewell to Oratorio,” included in: Handel, Jephtha, Oratorio in Three Acts, Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Conducted by John Eliot Gardiner 1988, Decca.

[113] Ibid.

[114] Voltaire, Extrait des sentiments de Jean Meslier [Memoir of the Thoughts and Sentiments of Jean Meslier], in: Voltaire, Mélanges [Miscallaneous Works], Préface par Emmanuel Berl, Texte établi et annoté par Jacques van den Heuvel, Gallimard, Paris 1961, pp. 458–501, p. 487.

[115] Harris, Sam, Letter to a Christian Nation, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2006, p. 55.

[116] See: Collins, John T., “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 122, no. 1 2003, pp. 3–21; Spiro, Abram, “The Ascension of Phinehas,” Proceedings of the America Academy for Jewish Research, 22 1953, pp. 91–114; Veldman, Ilja M., “The Old Testament as a Moral Code: Old Testament Stories as Exempla of the Ten Commandments,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, 23, no. 4 1995, pp 215–239; Feldman, Louis H., “The Portrayal of Phinehas by Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus,” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, 92, no. 3/4 2002, pp. 315–345.

[117] See on literalism: Gresh, Alain, L’Islam, la République et le Monde, p. 84.

[118] Labuschagne, Bart C., “Religion and Order: Philosophical Reflections from Augustine to Hegel on the Spiritual Sources of Law and Politics,” in: Bart C. Labuschagne and Reinhard W. Sonnenschmidt, eds., Religion, Politics and Law: Philosophical Reflections on the Sources of Normative Order in Society, Brill, Leiden 2009, pp. 71–94, p. 72.

[119] See Idziak, Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Readings, pp. vii–ix and Blanshard, Brand, Reason and Belief, George Allen & Unwin, London 1974.

[120] Fernández-Armesto, Felipe, “Books of Truth: The Idea of Infallible Holy Scriptures,” in: Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Ideas that changed the World, Dorling Kindersley, London 2003, pp. 106–107.

[121] See on this: Davis, Joyce M., Martyrs. Innocence, Vengeance, and Despair in the Middle East, Palgrave, MacMillan, Basingstoke 2003.

[122] See on this: Esposito, John L., Unholy War. Selengut, Charles, Sacred Fury.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

Paul Cliteur: Towards a Secular Europe

Animated map shows how religion spread around the world

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


  1. It was foolish for Jephtha to promise such a sacrifice, and the Bible does not speak positively of rash vows. The story of Jephtha is in the Bible not as an example to be followed, but as a warning of the danger of making rash vows, for a vow made must be kept no matter the cost. Even Jephtha admits that this was a calamity, ensuring he would have no descendants.

    • It should also be noted that the Bible never speaks positively of Jephtha sacrificing his daughter. Carrying out a vow to do evil is evil, and Jephtha's sin of a rash vow and murder brings about his ruin.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here