Judges 11.31 – "Whoever" or "Whatever"

I was reading in the Book of Judges again this morning and was reminded of the interesting translation issue in Judges 11.31.

Parallel Translations of Judges 11.31

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.” (ESV)

whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites shall belong to the LORD. I shall offer him up as a holocaust.” (NAB)

then 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.” (NASB)

then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.” (NRSV)

This range of translations is fairly widespread.

What is at Issue in Judges 11.31?

The basic issue here involves whether Jephthah intended an animal sacrifice when he made his vow in Judges 11 or whether he intended a human sacrifice.  If the translation is “whatever,” this suggests that Jephthah intended an animal sacrifice.  If it is “whoever,” it suggests human sacrifice.  Each translation reflects a fundamentally different understanding of the religion practiced in Ancient Israel, i.e. one in which human sacrifice is acceptable and another in which it is not.  (On this topic I would recommend, Levenson’s The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity.  I side with Levenson.)

Here at least, I believe that both translations are possible.  “Whatever” would add an extra layer of twist to the story, whereas “whoever” would diminish that to a certain extent (though not completely).  Yet I think “whoever” would actually make more logical sense.  If Jephthah intended “whatever,” his daughter is not a “what,” she is a “who.”  So, he would not have had to sacrifice her.  What I would do here then would be to translate as “whoever” while marking the word with a note saying that “whatever” is possible.

2 Comments

  • Dr. Claude had written about the whoever/whatever dilemma in Judges 11:31 before. Personally, I also agree that whoever is the better word.

    On a side note, the Jerusalem Bible is more direct about it:

    And Jephthah made a vow to Yahweh, ‘If you deliver the Ammonites into my hands, then the first person to meet me from the door of my house when I return in triumph from fighting the Ammonites shall belong to Yahweh, and I will offer him up as a holocaust’.

    • Qohelet, Thanks for the link. I had not read the post before, but he goes into a good bit more detail. I would encourage anyone who reads this comment section to check it out.

Comments: