The Hebrew Bible's Disturbing Attitude Towards Human Sacrifice

          The Hebrew Bible has achieved a remarkable feat; it has justified, in the minds of billions, what is seemingly unjustifiable—genocide. Much of the Old Testament is dedicated to defending the territorial rights of Israel, a right conferred by her deity.

In defense of this astounding claims, Scripture writers and future apologists blamed the victims. The people were wicked and had to be destroyed. There was no redeeming them.

In the fifteen chapter of Genesis, when God promises land to Abram’s descendants, there is an interpolation by a later editor of the Bible who presumably felt pressed to elaborate upon this strange arrangement as well as the manner in which it was allegedly brought about:

Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there…. they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:12-16).

It is not clear to me why this iniquity must be allowed to bloom for four centuries. Would it not be better to nip it in the bud? Nonetheless, this satisfies the redactor’s need for an explanation.

Later Scripture writers would use the wickedness of the nations, and Israelite’s imitation of it, to condemn Israel and to offer an explanation for her misfortunes.  One of the often condemned practices of the nations is that they sacrifice their children to the gods. Israel is warned to not practice this and condemned for doing so:

In what is purported to be a farewell speech by Moses:

When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you must not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead (Deuteronomy 18:9-11).

In what is purported to be a history of Israel:

Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign; he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. He sacrificed and made offerings on the high places, on the hills, and under every green tree (2 Kings 16:2-4).

Making a son or daughter pass through the fire is one of the ways that the Bible discusses child sacrifice. It is important to note that the Scripture writer juxtaposes human sacrifice with offenses that are no more than a waste of time, such as divination, soothsaying, sorcery, casting spells, consulting spirts, and talking to the dead. There is no indication that author deems one to be more problematic than the other.

More importantly, it should not be interpreted from these denouncements that the writer(s) condemn sacrifice per se. While later tradition would repudiate all human sacrifices, the Biblical record demonstrates that at some point the practice was considered both effective and laudable.

As we saw earlier, Ahab was an unfaithful king. As a consequence of his unfaithfulness, the curse of Joshua (Joshua 6:26) was fulfilled:

In his days [Ahab] Hiel of Bethel built Jericho; he laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua son of Nun (1 Kings 16:33-34).

Make no mistake; this is not a fulfillment of prophecy but the writer using a contemporary fact to his theological advance. Yet, it tells us some important facts about the social context of the Bible and the psychology of the writers.

We are looking into a time in which children were sacrificed to assure the favor of the gods when erecting a foundation stone or a city gate. In the view of the writer of Kings, that the gates of Jericho has been erected at the cost of the king’s son is condign punishment for Ahab’s idolatry.

However, this does imply that child sacrifice does not work or that it is sinful if it is offered to Yahweh. This is well-demonstrated in the chilling story of the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter:

Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, 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.” (Judges 11:29-31)

Biblical apologists like to point out that Jephthah makes this foolish vow of his own volition, but there is every reason to believe that Yahweh approves. The very next statement out of the Scripture writer’s pen is that Yahweh himself made the Israelites victorious:

So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel (Judges 11:32-33).

This is a great time for a commentary saying that the Lord did not approve of the vow but caused Israel to be victorious for other reasons, but instead, the reader is informed of the tragic fulfillment of the vow:

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; 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.” She said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites” (Judges 11:34-36).

Notice that both father and daughter attribute his victory in battle to Yahweh’s favorable reception of his vow and that they consider him bound to fulfill it. That it is his own daughter who is to be sacrificed is a personal tragedy but apparently, not a moral problem. Given the matter of fact presentation we find in this passage, it is reasonable to infer that intended readers would have been familiar enough with such a practice that it required no explanation or justification.

Lastly, it appears that it is not only sacrifices to Yahweh that brings about military victory but sacrifices to other gods as well:

When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land (2 Kings 3:26-27).

That’s right. When the “pagan” king sacrificed his son to his god, he was equally rewarded with military victory.

Thus, it is seems that when these particular stories were written (somewhere between the 7th and the 5th century BCE), the theologians of the day believed not only that Yahweh accepted human sacrifice but his people could be defeated by the favourable acceptance of a child sacrifice offered to a competing deity.

What is ultimately wrong with “causing a son or daughter to pass through the fire” is not that it is senseless murder, but that it is being offered to another god. And of course what is ultimately wicked about the so-called Amorites or Canaanite is that they made such sacrifices to the wrong god.