The Morality of Barbaric Oaths: Finding Middle-Ground for the Secular Reader

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

by Keith Lodermeier

This essay considers two biblical tales each involving a paternally initiated oath to the Israelite god, YHWH. Both fathers unintentionally offer his child as a sacrifice, one for a fulfillment of the oath and the other for transgression. Both oaths arise from the misguided and unwise actions of the fathers. The first story is that of Jephtha, the bastard son of a prostitute who had been driven away by his legitimate brothers only to be recalled in order to lead an attack against their oppressor, the Ammonites, in a time of apostasy:  

If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering1    

The second oath is that of Saul whose army is rescued by Jonathan, Saul’s son, after a near catastrophe in battle with the Philistines: “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies.”2

Before continuing, I would like to call attention to the moral significance of these narratives in reaction to the tendency from, what I will refer to as, the “secular reader” to focus on the barbarism of such narratives rather than focusing on, or even to the exclusion of, the real point. As a secular reader, it is difficult to whisk away the colorings of contemporary Jewish interpretation, Christian interpretation, as well as reactionary atheistic interpretation. Because this is a non-dogmatic research paper, I do not intend to criticize Jewish or Christian interpretation, but instead wish to address the common tendencies in atheistic interpretations in attempt to assess the nature of morality contained in the two biblical narratives more accurately.

Richard Dawkins, one of the most prominent atheists currently in the limelight of anti-religiosity, offers a thoroughly condemning summary of Jephtha’s story in his 2006 book, The God Delusion. This quote is taken after Dawkins mentions Jephtha’s return home from battle to see his daughter come out of the door of his house:  

Understandably Jephtha rent his clothes, but there was nothing he could do about it. God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering […] God did not see fit to intervene on this occasion3  

There is no doubt to the fact that YHWH did not intervene, but it is not so simple a matter to say that he was looking forward to the burnt offering.

To the secular reader, Dawkins’ interpretation is infinitely more sensible than one that involves faith in divine will, but Dawkins’ view undermines his own skepticism in the literal sense of being thoughtful and reflective. The essential flaws in the atheistic interpretation of biblical texts is in the tendency to make interpretations in reaction to dogmatic interpretations and the lack of understanding YHWH’s motives. I do not intend this to be an argument against the overall thesis of The God Delusion, just against the devaluing of literature on account of anti-religious reactionism. Essentially, I wish to find middle ground between religious fervor and anti-religious fervor.

In the case of Abraham, the secular reader doesn’t have much of a problem with the text because barbarism is avoided, nor in Saul’s story because Jonathan is spared and also because of Saul’s obvious decline from favor. Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac is obviously a test that YHWH had no intention of making Abraham fulfill. Jonathan is likewise saved by the will of YHWH working through the actions of the troops. Why, then, doesn’t YHWH do the same for Jephtha’s daughter? As a secular reader, we can very easily come away with an answer similar to Dawkins’, that YHWH is simply bloodthirsty.4 But the principal difference is that in Jephtha’s case, it is not a test, it is a punishment. However, we have to treat the punishment as more aimed at Jephtha himself or we have to treat Jephtha’s household as one entity: an individual sin incurs an inclusive punishment. To a secular reader, someone paying for someone else’s sin seems a ludicrous and ineffective approach to law enforcement. But what is really happening with this text is comparable to a modern-day corporation with a rouge employee who does something illegal that catches the public eye. In most cases, it would not be only the individual who takes the blame. Indeed, the employee would probably lose his job, but the company itself feels most of the damage. In the Old Testament, this is not a unique occurrence of such unified responsibility. Innumerable individuals in the Old Testament bring disaster upon not only their entire household but upon their lineage as well.5 This is not to excuse barbarism, but we are making a mistake when we impute our own contemporary, Kantian morals into a text.6

So, what exactly is Jephtha’s sin? In one sense, we have to say that the punishment of YHWH not intervening is one that results from Jephtha’s attempt to manipulate YHWH or bargain with him. The first word in his oath, “If,” is a dangerous one; it marks a conditional clause. Herein this word lies the crux of what is important to YHWH: faith is not conditional in any circumstance. This is not to say that Jephtha’s oath was to the effect of “If you don’t do this for me, I will reject you.” The interpretation I am proposing is more along the lines of “If you, YHWH, do something for me, then I will do something for you,” whereas Jephtha should have been doing something for YHWH all along. Even if he hadn’t been, he shouldn’t have asked YHWH for the favor because if YHWH wills destruction for someone, they are to assume the deed is righteous. In a sense, Jephtha’s proposal to YHWH is a preemptive, albeit unintentional, rejection of his god.7

The sin of attempting to manipulate YHWH is, in the context of the Old Testament, greater in degree than that of killing one’s own daughter. This is an area of potential misunderstanding that a secular reader can easily, and understandably, fall into. Manipulation is an attempt to gain power over YHWH, a small rebellion, and YHWH does not look too kindly on rebellion, for it is “the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king.”8 This is, of course, Samuel addressing Saul, but it is applicable to the sins committed by both Saul and Jephtha. It is not the sinister quality of witchcraft that we might think of in a contemporary context, like devil worship or something deliberately evil. Witchcraft is only sinister in this society because it isn’t the worship of YHWH; it is deistic infidelity. But, of course, if one is not worshipping YHWH, he is in opposition to YHWH. This turns the witchcraft, or we might just call it idolatry, into a hostile action against the Israelite god.9

The secular reader has an advantage when reading this story because of his disinterestedness—that is, the secular reader who does not have an active un-interest in dogmatic interpretation. Because it is simply fiction, the secular reader does not have to take the moral lesson seriously. If this lesson of Jephtha and his oath were applied in contemporary western society, there is no doubt that a secular person would consider YHWH a bloodthirsty monster for allowing an innocent child to be murdered on behalf of his monomaniacal pride. However, in no other literary instance do we rightly object to a fictional set of values to the extent that we reject the text itself. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is a fitting example. The values presented are repulsive. The tradition of the lottery which involves the ritual murder of an unlucky town member is more important than common, Kantian values. This story certainly incurred criticism for being immoral when it was first published in 1948, but this is the same mistake of rejecting the Jephtha story. And any serious literary critic would by now reject the rejection of Jackson’s story on the grounds of it being immoral.

The idolatry of Jephtha is not easy to see upon first reading, but he commits it by being more concerned with his political career than the will of his god. Thus, YHWH’s motives for turning Jephtha’s oath malignant become apparent. This is YHWH’s way of letting everyone know what approach to being a judge is appropriate, or at least what approach is not appropriate. This also brings us to another dimension of the punishment. The punishment for attempted manipulation is more expansive than I have already stated. It is an inclusive punishment with respect to Jephtha and his household, but in a mild sense, inclusive to all of Israel as well. Jephtha’s status allowed him to serve as an example to the entire Israelite community.

When Israel moves into the era of kingship, YHWH has an identical motive. A king is close to being an idol, and instead of attempting to consider YHWH’s will, the Israelites become servants of the king. Thus, YHWH appoints a failure to reveal folly of their misplaced trust.10 The primary difference between Jephtha’s story and the story of Israel appointing a king, is the difference between a personal, intimate sin and a collective sin committed by an entire society. However, the collective sin that Israel experiences as a result of asking for a king is contingent upon Saul making personal sins. His arrogance is apparent in his oath: “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies.” Saul’s principal mistake is in taking the battle personally when he is a mere actor in YHWH’s script. It does not make sense for an actor to take the events of a certain plot personally because he has agreed to act out the will of the author.

Another difference between the two stories is that Jephtha’s oath is fulfilled with the sacrifice of his daughter and Saul’s oath is thwarted by the troops’ objection—however, credit is given to YHWH for preventing Jonathan’s death. Perhaps the reason YHWH spares Jonathan is the same reason that Dawkins does not attack that particular narrative: Saul’s loss of favor is obvious to any reader, so Dawkins has nothing to complain about; and YHWH doesn’t need to allow Jonathan to die to prove to everyone that Saul is a bad king. And even if Saul had sacrificed Jonathan, Dawkins would have a hard time criticizing the text for its immorality because the values of Saul’s actions are not ambiguous. He is censured by Samuel on numerous occasions and gets the silent treatment from YHWH. He is even reduced to seeking the aid of the Which of Endor. These punishments and slander would not be considered sufficient in a real-life, contemporary setting, in fact, they seem innocuous. But the secular reader should have little difficulty accepting this set of fictional values, that theses punishments are indeed severe to the biblical characters.

One then is left with the question that if the punishments that Saul had suffered were severe, why didn’t YHWH simply show the same decline in favor with Jephtha instead of allowing the unnamed daughter to die? Wouldn’t this be better proof of YHWH’s superiority and morality? I have already stated my first answer to this question: the murder of Jephtha’s daughter is really a punishment for Jephtha himself because she is a symbol of his household. This is not entirely satisfying to a secular reader, so I propose a second answer in an explanation of YHWH’s motives for sparing Jonathan rather than further addressing the Jephtha story. The real motive YHWH has in sparing Jonathan is not mercy, it is not on account of his righteousness, nor the righteousness of the troops. YWHW spares Jonathan because he wants to accentuate Saul’s folly by showing his need for the aid of the troops’ moral opinion to guide him. Saul is such a bad leader that his subjects tell him what to do, and furthermore, his son receives more respect. All of YHWH’s motives come down to the overall lesson that he wants the Israelite community to grasp and repetitively consider: only worship YHWH; by appointing a king, you have consigned yourselves to folly, rebellion, idolatry, “the sin of witchcraft”; by attempting to manipulate YHWH, you do the same.  

In light of this, we could easily picture YHWH having allowed Jonathan to be sacrificed if only the oath had been made by a more favorable individual than Saul and in a different circumstance. In fact, YHWH is so unconcerned with the fate of one individual that he does not fully spare Jonathan. He only defers his damnation. For, when Samuel and YHWH reject Saul, they do so in a more similar way to Jephtha’s household than first meets the eye.

Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the LORD thy God, which he commanded thee: for now would the LORD have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. / But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee11

The “man after his own heart” is of course David who takes over after Saul and Jonathan die. Thus it is not only Saul who has been rejected by YHWH, but his lineage as well. “Thy kingdom shall not continue” essentially means his genetic kingdom will not continue as it would have been, and certainly not at the seat of power.


This interpretation of the deferment of Jonathan’s damnation bridges the gap between the two ostensibly morally disparate narratives. What on the surface appears to show YHWH’s capriciousness, saving some and allowing others to die, actually shows just how consistent YHWH is. The secular reader is confused by this and comes to misguided conclusions because what is at stake in his world, Kantian morality, is not in YHWH’s. In YHWH’s world view—or should we say universe view12—the most important thing that matters is trusting in YHWH and remembering his superiority.

I sincerely doubt that this essay would change the mind of Richard Dawkins or others who think about biblical barbarism in the same way. In fact, I think this essay actually would appeal more to the fundamentalist religious demographic on account of the difficulty in making sense of the texts in question. It is unsatisfying for a fundamentalist to think that YHWH is always changing his mind in matters of morality. To the fundamentalist, the barbarism is not an impediment to appreciation of the texts. This is the very opposite in the case of anti-religious reactionists. However, as I have said, the intention of this paper is not to condemn atheists or to encourage fundamentalists. It is to look at the bible as literature rather than either evidence of supernatural inspiration or evidence of religious barbarism. The middle-ground between the two is that the secular reader should be as concerned with YHWH’s morality to the same extent that he is concerned with Iago’s morality or Peter Pan’s morality.


Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2006.  

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1976.  

Bible, King James Version. Electronic text provided by Oxford Text Archive. Last   updated: 8-11-06. Access date: 5-9-07. <>.                                        

1 Judges 11:30-31. Some scholars have argued that Jephtha did not actually sacrifice his daughter but that he thwarted her maternal potential, that the offering was her right to be wed. This essay does not take up that issue, but assumes that by “offer,” death is implied.  

2 1 Samuel 14:24  

3 Dawkins 243  

4 YHWH most certainly is a warrior-god and has frequent bloodthirsty tendencies. This I do not contend. However, my point is that there is more to it to that, and also, to a secular reader, YHWH’s being bloodthirsty is of little consequence since YHWH does not determine a secular person’s moral consciousness, nor does it tarnish his reputation by connection to such an ugly history.

5 I will discuss this further with Saul and Jonathan.

6 By Kantian values, I mean simply that a person is to be considered an end and not a means to an end.

7 Perhaps by contemporary standards, Jephtha’s real sin was in unnecessarily jeopardizing his household. Why not promise a cattle offering or to simply be a good person if successful in battle?

8 1 Samuel 15:23

9 One might even consider YHWH a sort of conscious meme. A meme is a unit of cultural transmission that fights for survival in a similar way that genes fight for survival in the gene pool—interestingly, Richard Dawkins coined the phrase in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. YHWH’s jealousy and threats, then, serve to keep him in the meme pool.  

10 Actually, Saul was not a failure until he became king and YHWH tampered with his heart: “And it was so, that when he had turned his back to go from Samuel, God gave him another heart” (1 Samuel 10:9).  

11 1 Samuel 13:13-14  

12 Considering that YHWH is primarily a deity of national identity in the time of Judges and 1 Samuel, it would actually be most accurate to say “Israel-view.”  

Categories: Articles

Minnesota Atheists

Positive Atheism in Action Since 1991