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God Loves the Smell of Burning Flesh: Human Sacrifice in the Bible

World famous Christian apologist William Lane Craig is well known for his hilariously inept defense of the savage excesses of his God, who apparently isn’t able to present a defense himself.

For the Canaanite genocide, Craig’s punch line is that every Canaanite adult deserved death because they sacrificed children to their god, all the children hacked to pieces were actually getting a ticket to heaven, and it was the Israelite soldiers forced to perform this butchery for whom we must actually shed a tear. (Craig’s argument is eviscerated here.)

Let’s move from genocide to another area of biblical violence, human sacrifice.

Abraham and Isaac

The Abraham and Isaac story in Genesis 22 is often given to show God’s rejection of human sacrifice and, as it is in the Bible today, that may well have been the purpose. But, like a cheerful fairy tale that comes from a darker original, the Isaac story may not initially have had its happy ending.

The documentary hypothesis (discussed more here) argues that the first five books of the Bible are an amalgam of four sources with differing agendas. Read the Abraham and Isaac chapter closely to see how it might have originally read (my source: The Bible with Sources Revealed by Richard Elliott Friedman, 65).

  • Verses 11–15 have an angel stop Abraham and declare the whole thing a test, but where did the angel come from? God has no problem talking directly to Abraham to demand this inhuman sacrifice, and then an angel pops up from nowhere? That section looks like an addition.
  • Verses 16–17 say, “Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you.” Done what? If Isaac was not withheld, apparently he did get sacrificed.
  • Abraham and Isaac set out together in verse 6, but verse 19 concludes the story with, “Then Abraham returned to his servants.” Alone.

There’s very little condemnation of child sacrifice in a story that rewards a man for his willingness to perform it.

But doesn’t the Bible reject human sacrifice?

Just to make clear that the Old Testament comes from a post-Bronze Age Mesopotamian culture, it tells us 37 times that God loves the pleasing aroma of burning flesh. And God has a big appetite: “The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock.” (Ex. 34:19). But God is reasonable. One verse later, he clarifies: “Redeem all your firstborn sons”—that is, sacrifice an animal instead.

We find a similar demand in Deuteronomy 18:10, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire.”

Human sacrifice in the Bible

The Bible acknowledges that sacrificing humans is powerful mojo, because that’s how the Moabite god Chemosh beat Israel’s God (2 Kings 3:27). The combined forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom were about to defeat Moab when the Moabite king sacrificed his son to Chemosh. The result: “There was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack and returned to their homeland.” (More here.)

Though the Bible talks a good story as it rejects human sacrifice, it’s a sock puppet, and you can make it say just about whatever you want. You think God can’t say precisely the opposite of what he commanded before? Take a look:

You must give me the firstborn of your sons (Ex. 22:29).

But nothing that a person owns and devotes to the Lord—whether a human being or an animal or family land—may be sold or redeemed; everything so devoted is most holy to the Lord. No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; they are to be put to death (Lev. 27:28–9).

As if bragging to his drinking buddies, God laughs about it afterwards. To teach the stiff-necked Israelites who’s boss, God said, “So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live; I defiled them through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am Jehovah” (Ez. 20:25–6).

Now what was William Lane Craig saying about sacrificing children to gods? Looks like there was a lot of that going around, not just among the bad guys.

Conclude with examples in the New Testament in Part 2.

Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves.
Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.
— Robert A. Heinlein

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Bob Seidensticker

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