A God Driven by Blood, Suffering and Death: Human Sacrifice in the Bible

When Christians get all choked up and teary eyed by New Testament texts (such as John 3:16), they would do well to consider the history from the Old Testament of God’s lust for human blood and life as the real basis for Jesus’ sacrificial atonement. So Christian, if you thought of God as your loving Heavenly Father, think again!
He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a man, that he should change his mind." (1 Samuel 15: 29)

(The following section is from a much longer article I wrote on human sacrifice in the Bible)

III. Empirical Texts Telling of the Wars of Yahweh and the Slaughter of Men, Women and Children (as animals) to Satisfy God’s Craving for Blood and Life

Apart from the Tetratuch, the book of Joshua forms one of sixth section of the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua - Kings) that conveys Israel’s epic story. The intension of the authors of this epic (especially in Joshua) was to portray the Israelites as having completely destroyed all the inhabitants of Canaan in a massive sweep under the divine concept of Holy War / Divine Warrior. (Both are modern terms given to the context where Yahweh Himself leads the Israelite armies into battle completely wiping out the Canaanites. However, this is contrary to the text of Judges which has the inhabitants of Canaan still living within the land right alongside the Israelites. )

In the early epic accounts of the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh is a local warrior god-king who goes forth first and leads the Israelites into battle: "It shall be, when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, then you shall act promptly, for then the LORD (Yahweh) will have gone out before you to strike the army of the Philistines." (2 Samuel 5: 24) (Note 1)

As Divine or Holy Warriors, the Israelite men would ready themselves for war through consecration in reframing from sex and not cutting their hair (Judges 5:2). This is also the vow also of the Nazirite Holy Warriors like Samson and also forms the basis for an ancient poetic text of The Song of Deborah in Judges 5.

This is Holy Vow is again reiterated in 2 Samuel 11: 6-14 with the story of King David and Uriah when Joab brings Uriah home to sleep with Bathsheba to cover up David’s sexual sin. But as a dedicated Holy Warrior, Uriah refused sex (2 Samuel 11: 11). Although Nathan foretells David of his coming crisis (2 Sam. 12 1-15), the section ends when Yahweh kills the new born innocent child of David and Bathsheba to atonement as a crude sacrifice for their sin. (However, once the first child’s slaughter is accepted as the atonement for sin, Yahweh can then bless them with a second child who will become famous: Solomon (vs.24)).

The above elements are brought together in the epic tale of the fall of Jericho where both the concepts of both Holy War and the Divine Warrior are incorporated with the common ancient Near Eastern magical number seven: “Also seven priests shall carry seven trumpets of rams' horns before the ark; then on the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. "It shall be that when they make a long blast with the ram's horn, and when you hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people will go up every man straight ahead.” (Joshua 6: 4 - 5). (Note 3)

When God destroyed the city wall, the slaughter / sacrifice of all men, women and children along with their animals can begin under the the concept of Holy War. But this Semitic Warrior-King deity of the Israelite army doesn’t act out of loyalty or love, but demands and expects a high price: All the booty of the city from the death of all living things to its gold, silver, bronze and iron as his portion of the “harem” or the BAN.

They utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword…They burned the city with fire, and all that was in it. Only the silver and gold, and articles of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD. (Joshua 6: 21 & 24)

{Word study: שָׂרַף as used in this context is associated with בָּאֵשׁ as the text reads “שָׂרַף בָּאֵשׁ” or “to burn with fire”. This is a cognate of the Akkadian ina isati sarapu “to destroy by fire” as in relation to burning figurines in magic rituals.

The word שָׂרַף as used in this study is associated in the Priestly work of Leviticus in the burning of animal sacrifices (see also Numbers 17:4, Judges 7: 31, 19: 5 and 2 Kings 17:31). (Note 4) However, most importantly, פרש is used in the Hebrew Bible in the context of children burnt to the gods: Duet. 12: 31, Jeremiah 7: 31, 19: 5, and 2 Kings 17: 31. (Note 5)

Thus all life - both human and animal - of the city of Jericho, is ritualistically slaughtered and only then can Yahweh feast on the smoke from the blood and bodies of the victims as the city is “שָׂרַף בָּאֵש” or burnt with fire.}

Thought the cultic magical elements flow full and free in Joshua 6 - 7, the victory is short lived due to hidden sin! Unknown to Joshua, Yahweh was denied his full booty. Not the precious lives of the non-combatant being all the innocent women, children, babies, the unborn and animals (which Christians tell us God really loves), but Yahweh’s personal lust is for the material metal wealth which includes everything from the gold, silver to the bronze and iron that could be used in his earthly house / tabernacle.

Once the murder of all life in Jericho completed, everything is then burnt to Yahweh so that he can enjoy the smell of the human sacrificial spoils of war. (Notice that the cultic proper killing of life of both humans and animal in Jericho means that their blood must be drained. Thus in Joshua 6: 21 author is sure to make it a point to tell the Jewish reader of this epic that death was to be by “the edge of the sword” before the ritual / sacrificial burning (Joshua 6: 24) could begin!)

Finally, the future fate of the city is sealed with divine curse placed on anyone who tries to rebuild it: “Then Joshua made them take an oath at that time, saying, "Cursed before the LORD is the man who rises up and builds this city Jericho; with the loss of his firstborn he shall lay its foundation, and with the loss of his youngest son he shall set up its gates." (Joshua 6:26). (Here the curse is much like one would find in such major ancient Near Eastern Akkadian texts such as the epilogue to the Code of Hammurabi. Thus, Yahweh’s curse in verse 26 has set the stage for the slaughter of Achan and all that belonged to him.

Because Yahweh was denied his lust for gold and silver, this Warrior God will take his vengeance on the 3,000 Israelites by not marching as Israel’s Divine Warrior – King into Holy War against Ai:

So about three thousand men from the people went up there, but they fled from the men of Ai. The men of Ai struck down about thirty-six of their men, and pursued them from the gate as far as Shebarim and struck them down on the descent, so the hearts of the people melted and became as water.” (Joshua 7: 4-5)

The reason revealed to Joshua is that “Israel has sinned” by taking Yahweh’s blood money or the gold and silver the city was slaughtered for: "Israel has sinned, and they have also transgressed My covenant which I commanded them. And they have even taken some of the things under the ban and have both stolen and deceived. Moreover, they have also put them among their own things.” (Joshua 7: 11) Thus, all of Israel must consecrate themselves to be made holy (as in a divine ritual for Holy Warriors and priests: “ 'It shall be that the one who is taken with the things under the ban (harem) shall be burned with fire, he and all that belongs to him, because he has transgressed the covenant of the LORD, and because he has committed a disgraceful thing in Israel.'" (Joshua 7: 15).

Since Yahweh was indeed cheated out of his gold and silver, human bodies must now sacrificially be feed to God to quench his hunger for blood and life: “Joshua said, "Why have you troubled us? The LORD will trouble you this day." And all Israel stoned them with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones.” (Joshua 7: 25)

A usually in this epic cycle, the slaughter of men, women, children, babies along with even the unborn are sacrificed as an atonement for the original material wealth of gold and silver God was denied. As such, Achan’s whole extended family is sacrificed by stoning (death caused by blunt force trauma associated with both bleeding) then - just like Jericho - the slaughtered families are sacrificed with fire to Yahweh so God can feed on their burning bodies by way of the the fire and smoke.

To mark the spot as holy, an altar built of stones is set up to honor Yahweh: “They raised over him a great heap of stones that stands to this day, and the LORD turned from the fierceness of His anger. Therefore the name of that place has been called the valley of Achor to this day.” (Joshua 7: 26)

With Yahweh’s hunger for human blood and flesh satisfied, God will once again honor the covenant and march with the Israelites into Holy War; this time against Ai.

Learning from his past mistakes with God, Joshua now cuts a deal with Yahweh to make up for their defeat in the first battle due to Achan’s hidden sin. In this divine deal, the Israelites will get to keep all the minor “spoils and its cattle” (8: 2), but as demanded by God before, all the human life of 12,000 souls must be sacrificially killed and again burnt to satisfy Yahweh’s hunger for human blood and life: “…then all Israel returned to Ai and struck it with the edge of the sword. All who fell that day, both men and women, were 12,000-- all the people of Ai. For Joshua did not withdraw his hand with which he stretched out the javelin until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. … So Joshua burned Ai and made it a heap forever, a desolation until this day.” (Joshua 8:24c - 26 and 28)

In Conclusion: Although the religious rhetoric of both the Deuteronomistic Historian to such prophets as Hosea, Jeremiah and Ezekiel denounce human sacrifice and tries to place it in the context of Israelite monotheistic apostasy on the Canaanite god Molech, there is little (if any) textual evidence that the Canaanites ever practiced human sacrifice as noted by Susan Ackerman that; “At Ugarit evidence for child sacrifice is surprisingly sparse.” and, after surveying current scholarship of the subject in 1992, she states; “And even if the correct reading is bkr, the ‘first-born’ referred to could just as easily be animal as human. Again, we must conclude that no certain interpretation is possible.”(Note 5) Plus the fact that of the 8 verses in the Hebrew Bible which relates a god of human sacrifice to Israel (blamed for its fall 2 Kings 17:17)and Judah (a sacrificial practice restricted to areas near Jerusalem as a Canaanite god, there is no evidence that mlk is to be vocalized in Ugaritic as Molech. (Note 6)

In the final analysis, we must understand that the Hebrew Bible is the result of an editorial process whereby history is rewritten to reflect perceived Israelite monotheistic orthodoxy and to keep her god Yahweh relative just as one can see how a revision of the life of King David is refined more in the work or the Chronicler such as in who really killed Goliath (Elhanan 2 Samuel 21:19 or David 1 Chronicles 20: 5 9 (here Elhanan only kills Goliath brother Lahmi) or who cause David to number Israel (God 2 Samuel 24:1 or Satan 1 Chronicles 21:1).

It is my personal view that Yahweh or the God was a fringe god of the poor hill country Israelites associated with the Ugaritic pantheon of the rich and educated Canaanites of the low country coastal area. Though not the only god the Israelites worshiped, Yahweh was the Divine Warrior god king who lead the Israelites into victorious battles, he protected the early Israelites in Holy War and, like the Canaanite gods El and Baal, Yahweh could create and control the weather and fertility of those who served him.

But like the pre-Columbian Mayan god in Mel Gbson’s movie Apocalypto,in return Israel's God demanded and received human sacrifice. Though the Hebrew Bible’s earliest traditions of this epic are now obscured with redacted layers of orthodox Israelite religion, yet only to to remerge once again in the demand for human blood and death in the atonement Christianity gave to their God (Yahweh) with the theology of the sacrificial slaughter of Jesus just a the Israelites had done!

End Notes
1. An excellent discussion of this concept can be found in Frank M. Cross: Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. See the chapter on “The Divine Warrior“, pp. 91 - 111 and P.D. Miller, The Divine Warrior in Early Israel, (Harvard Semitic Monographs V, 1970).

I have used the term slaughter in the context that David’s first born, just like in the epic context when Yahweh himself slaughters the first born of both the Egyptian’s children and animals in the Covenant of the Passover to be taught as a sign for all future Israel: “For the LORD will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you. When you enter the land which the LORD will give you, as He has promised, you shall observe this rite. And when your children say to you, 'What does this rite mean to you?' you shall say, 'It is a Passover sacrifice to the LORD who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.'" And the people bowed low and worshiped.” (Exodus 12: 23 - 27).

2. Seven is a common magical and religious number in Semitic text such as those, not only from Ugarit, but text written in Akkadian. (see: Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3 edition, edited by J.B Pritchard (Princeton University Press, 1969). Biblical numbers of 3, 6, 7, 40, 70 are understood as divine numbers with magical meanings. These very numbers not only influenced the Gospels and Revelation, but even Jesus himself!

3. This point is noted in a related code by the Priestly editor as stated by W.W. Hallo: “Under the Levitical dispensation, animal slaughter “Except at the authorized altar” is murder”. The animal too has life (older version: “a soul”) its vengeance is to be feared, its blood must be “covered” or explained by bringing it to the altar.” (William W. Hallo, The Origins of the Sacrificial Cult: New Evidence from Mesopotamia and Israel, in Ancient Israelite Religion: Essays in Honor of Frank M. Cross (edited by P. Miller, P. Hanson and S.D. McBride Fortress Press, 1987) pp. 3-13)

4. As characteristic with general Hebrew sacrifice (where the animal is killed and the blood drained before it is burnt), Abel’s animal sacrifice (along with its “fat portions”) is simply regarded by Yahweh in the text as וַיִּשַׁע which the LXX renders as “και επειδεν”, but the meaning is not clear. The LXX makes it plain that Cain’s sacrifice was not on the same level as Abel’s by “ου προσεσχεν”. Thus, Cain is cursed to leave the sedentary life which had just been cursed on Adam by Yahweh himself (Gen. 3: 17 - 19). Cain then takes on the wandering life of a herdsman that can then supply the sacrifices of animals whose blood and flesh are more pleasing to Yahweh. For an excellent discussion on this see: John W. Wevers, Notes of the Greek Text of Genesis (Septuagint and Cognate Studies 35; Scholars Press, Atlanta, 1993).

For context of this, see both works by the late C.H. Gordon: The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (New York, 1965) and his Homer and Bible: The Origin and Character of East Mediterranean Literature (New Jersey, 1967). Gordon’s study is brought up to date by the master of ancient Greek religion; Walter Burkett, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions (Harvard University Press, 1998) where both humans and animals function in the role of sacrifice to the Gods to remove the guilt of sin.

5. Susan Ackerman, Under Every Green Tree: Popular Religion in Sixth-Century Judah (Atlanta, Scholars Press, Harvard Semitic Monographs 46, 1992) pp.122 - 123.

6. Again see the discussion by Ackerman, Under Every Green Tree, pp. 126 - 143. As added proof, Molech is not even discussed in N. Wyatt’s chapter The Religion of Ugarit: An Overview in W.G.E. Watson and N. Wyatt eds., Handbook of Ugaritic Studies (Leiden, EJ Brill, 199) pp.529 - 585. In fact, the Index of Divine Names (843 - 844) has no reference to Molech at all in this massive text of 892 pages.

Harry McCall