It is a topic not much discussed in polite company. Despite the fact that it relates to the primary sacred text of my spiritual tradition, I do not ever remember it being raised during my years of formal theological study.
But, if you read the text of the Hebrew Scriptures carefully, it is impossible not to feel the nagging presence of an unpleasant and awkward question.
Does the Old Testament command, or at least tolerate, the practice of child sacrifice?
Honesty compels the serious reader to at least acknowledge that this is a legitimate question. It is difficult to read Exodus 22:29,30 without feeling a little squeamish.
You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses.
The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: for seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me. (Exodus 22:29,30)
The implications of this commandment for the oxen and the sheep are clear. They are intended to be the victims of ritual slaughter as a sacrifice to God. So, difficult is this verse that the King James Version softens it by offering a variant reading changing “oxen” and “sheep” to “ripe fruits” and “liquors”.
Thou shalt not delay [to offer] the first of thy ripe fruits, and of thy liquors: the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me. (Exodus 22:29,30 KJV)
“Ripe fruits” and “liquors” could be offered without being slaughtered. But the more accurate text clearly reads “oxen” and “sheep” which would have been killed as an offering to God. It is not immediately obvious how the text is suggesting a different fate for “The firstborn of your sons” who are also to be offered to God.
Earlier in the Book of Exodus the connection between the treatment of firstborn animals and firstborn human beings is made explicit.
Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine. (Exodus 13:2)
To “consecrate” the firstborn animals meant to kill them. Again, it is not clear that the text makes a distinction between the treatment of firstborn animals and first born human beings.
In the Genesis story of Abraham and Isaac it cannot be without significance that no hint of surprise or distaste is recorded when God orders Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham hears the command and sets out immediately, without question or complaint, to obey God’s order to kill his own son.
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. (Genesis 22:1-3)
Later biblical tradition also bears witness to the fact that human (though in this case not child) sacrifice was viewed as a legitimate practice.
While Jeroboam was standing by the altar to offer incense, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the Lord to Bethel and proclaimed against the altar by the word of the Lord, and said, ‘O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: “A son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who offer incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.” ’ (I Kings 13:1-2)
Certainly God, in the Old Testament, is portrayed as showing no qualms about causing the death of innocent children.
Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock. (Exodus 11:5)
It is a bloodthirsty picture that must give us cause to ponder how we are to deal with these ancient texts.
The Bible is a conversation. It is a divine conversation among the people of an emerging community as they struggle to understand what it means to be the people of God.
The earliest Hebrews were surrounded by human sacrifice. Human sacrifice was a common practice in the cultures surrounding the Hebrew people. As abhorrent as it may be to modern sensibilities, it would not be surprising if there were people in ancient Israel who for a time considered the possibility that child sacrifice might be a valid way of entering into relationship with God.
There is enough reference in the Pentateuch to the practice of causing one’s offspring to “pass through fire” to suggest that there was some opinion among the Hebrews that it might be a legitimate practice. The most likely understanding of this expression is that it refers to burning a child in a sacrificial fire. It is important to notice, however, that by the time we get to 2 Kings this act is always viewed as a sign of the degeneration of religion and the break down of God’s social order.
he [Ahaz king of Judah] 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. (2 Kings 16:3; cf. 2 Kings 17:17; 21:6; 23:10)
The significant thing to notice, given the cultural context of the nations surrounding Israel, is how quickly the idea of human sacrifice was disposed of by the Hebrews. Although animal sacrifice was widely practiced until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, the idea of human sacrifice is clearly detestable to the majority of the Old Testament authors.
This of course leaves the question of what might be the point of any sacrifice in a religious system. There is no definitive answer to this question. My own suggestions would be:
1. The sacrifice of a living being dramatically embodies the understanding that God is the source of all life and that the spiritual journey is a process of offering all of life back to its Source.
2. Sacrifice demonstrates that it is costly to follow God. For a person in ancient times to voluntarily give up an animal was an expensive proposition.
3. The ritual offering of a life keeps at the centre of the community’s consciousness the reality of life and death. In a strange way, this action emphasizes the absolute sanctity of life. All life is valuable to God. In offering a sacrifice human beings are giving to God the most valuable gift they possess, while at the same time acknowledging the transient nature of all existence.
4. The sacrificial system embodied the reality that self-sacrifice is the way to life. The path to true life lies through death. The sacrificial system prepares for the statement of Jesus that,
‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)
The universe is designed to work through sacrifice. When I “take up” my cross, I put down my life. I “pass through fire”. I lay all that I am and all that I have on the altar as an offering to God. In this process my consciousness opens to an awareness of the reality of the Life that never dies.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the formal ritual sacrificial system is that it no longer functions. Whatever revelation was embodied in this rite, it is no longer practiced. Human beings have evolved beyond the point where the sacrifice of another life is deemed a valid expression of devotion to God. This underlines the essential point that the revelation of God is an unfolding relationship. We understand certain things differently today than the Hebrew people understood them three thousand years ago. While the lessons remain the same, the way we feel led to transmit those lessons has evolved. The practice of ritual sacrifice serves to encourage us to remain open to God’s unfolding revelation in our own lives.