Does God Admit that He Legally Sanctioned Child Sacrifice in the Book of Ezekiel?

Does God Admit that He Legally Sanctioned Child Sacrifice in the Book of Ezekiel? January 6, 2016

William Blake, “The Flight of Moloch” (1809). WikiMedia.

About a month ago, I wrote a post entitled “The Legacy of Child Sacrifice in Early Judaism and Christianity.” Although that post was ultimately intended to look at Israelite child sacrifice in a fairly broad context, one of its centerpieces was Ezekiel 20:25-26, which gives us some of the most unambiguous evidence of an originally positive attitude toward (firstborn) child sacrifice in early Jewish religion.¹

I looked at those verses at some length there; but still, there were a couple of things I left out, as well as other points that people wanted some clarification on.

For those who didn’t read the first post, Ezekiel 20:25-26 comes in the course of God rehearsing the history of the disobedience of the wilderness generation, described in several books of the Torah. Although you can see the chapter as a whole for even more context, the relevant verses here—and those immediately leading up to them—are translated by NRSV as follows:

23 Moreover I swore to them in the wilderness that I would scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries, 24 because they had not executed my ordinances, but had rejected my statutes and profaned my sabbaths, and their eyes were set on their ancestors’ idols.25 Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live. 26 I defiled them through their very gifts, in their offering up all their firstborn, in order that I might horrify them, so that they might know that I am the LORD.

So we have a rejection of “ordinances” and “statutes” which, several times earlier in the chapter, were associated with life, unlike this set of “not good” laws.

The type of analysis of these verses (and their larger context in Ezekiel 20) that P.W. van der Horst offered back in 1992 has become increasingly typical in the decades since:

Three times (vv. 11, 13, 21) God says that his good laws and statutes were meant to be a way to life, but because Israel had from the beginning consistently refused to live according to them, God had already decided in the wilderness period to exile his people from the promised land and to give them ‘not-good’ laws that would lead to death instead of life, specifically by having them sacrifice their first-born children by burning them alive.²

I want to call attention to the specific language that van der Horst uses, about God giving them laws that would lead to death “specifically by having them sacrifice…” The interpretation he’s relying on is, of course, that Ezekiel 20:25-26 suggests that there was some law (or laws) that actually commanded firstborn child sacrifice, by which they were “defiled” and/or “horrified/desolated,” in their following it. Although this interpretation is taken as a given by almost all scholars who’ve commented on these verse, it’s not necessarily the only possible reading.

The Hebrew text of verses 25-26 reads

וגם־אני נתתי להם חקים לא טובים ומשפטים לא יחיו בהם׃ ואטמא אותם במתנותם בהעביר כל־פטר רחם למען אשמם למען אשר ידעו אשר אני יהוה

I know not everyone is up to speed on their Biblical Hebrew, but I’ve put one word in bold that’s quite important here. This is the first word of verse 26, translated as “I defiled.” Most importantly though, this word is prefaced by the letter vav, which in a context like this appears to be a simple conjunction, more often than not just meaning “and.” [Edit: I’ve totally revised my opinion on this; I explain more in a forthcoming follow-up.]

In light of this, verses 25-26 could be understood in a way so as to more clearly suggest two separate things here, unlike what van der Horst and others have suggested: that God gave the disobedient Israelites bad laws (whatever these were), and it also just so happens that—not necessarily having anything to do with these laws—the Israelites were “defiled . . . through their very gifts, in their offering up all their firstborn,” too.

More on that shortly; but for now, it may be worth taking a look at the various major Biblical translations, and how their renderings here go to support or challenge this interpretation. 

Those translations that render an “and” between the two verses include LXX, RSV, NJB, ESV, JPS, NASB; and those without it include NRSV, NAB(+RE), NJPS, NET, HCSB, NIV, NLT. This is significant because those translations without the conjunctive “and” are more amenable to an interpretation integrally connecting verse 25 and 26. Here, the conjunctive Hebrew letter could be understood more specifically than just “and,” thus making the suggestion that these verses represent separate ideas less likely.³

One option along these lines is to take the vav here as what we call epexegetical, which signifies that the sentence that follows it explains the prior sentence, or even rephrases it. This is probably best rendered in English as “namely…” or “that is to say…”, and here this would mean that the “not good” laws are specifically those relating to sacrifice. Yet epexegetical vavs are very rare, so it’s very unlikely that this is what is signified here.

A more likely interpretation would preserve the conjunctive aspect of the vav here, but would also suggest that the second idea here was included within the first, or was even a sort of consequence of the former. Thus we’d understand this as something like “I gave them laws by which they could not live; and [among other things commanded in these laws, or as something that following these laws entailed,] their very offerings/gifts—the offering up of all the firstborn—led to their defilement.”

Among the translations mentioned above, NJPS is one of the most unambiguous in interpreting the syntax along these lines, actually putting a colon at the end of the first verse to suggest that the second part elaborates on the first:

Moreover, I gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live: When they set aside every first issue of the womb, I defiled them by their very gifts—that I might render them desolate, that they might know that I am the Lord.

(HCSB’s translation is similar to this, though lacking the colon that NJPS has.)

It’s interesting, however, that among both critics and supporters of the child sacrifice interpretation of Ezekiel 20:25-26—and, for the record, the latter far outweighs the former—the particular issue of the conjunction between vv. 25 and 26 doesn’t seem to be discussed. As suggested earlier, most commentators simply accept that the two ideas and verses are integrally connected:

The correlation of the two verses is . . . that the laws in v. 25 are exemplified in v. 26. Those decrees and laws in v. 25, which YHWH revokes for the second wilderness generation as not good and not life-giving, thus include directions concerning the cult offerings mentioned in v. 26 (mattanot).⁴

Although some of the more specific aspects of the conjunction have been neglected, there are several key pieces of evidence in favor of the consensus view.

For one, even if we were to just take 20:25 by itself, the author of this verse was clearly uncomfortable with earlier laws that been ascribed to God; and we find a similar discomfort in Jeremiah 7:22—only here it is unambiguous that this was specifically about laws relating to sacrifice. Here God delivers the extraordinary statement that during the original Mosaic law-giving, “I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”⁵ Moreover, just a few verses later, in Jeremiah 7:31, we have a nearly identical qualification, only now specifically about child sacrifice:

And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.⁶

(See similarly Jeremiah 19:5 and 32:35.)

Second, there may also be somewhat of a parallel structure shared between Ezekiel 20:25-26 and 20:11-12, 19-20, where 20:12 and 20:20 are clear references to things like Exodus 31:13; thus these might be construed similarly to what I suggested earlier, where the second idea/verse could be included within the first, or is an elaboration on it—and is clearly from the Pentateuchal laws, too.

11 I gave them my statutes and showed them my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live. 12 Moreover I gave them my sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the LORD sanctify them. (Ezekiel 20:11-12)⁷ᵃ

19 I the LORD am your God; follow my statutes, and be careful to observe my ordinances, 20 and hallow my sabbaths that they may be a sign between me and you, so that you may know that I the LORD am your God. (20:19-20)

(Exodus 31:13 reads ‘You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.”‘)

Further, perhaps significantly, in Ezekiel 20:21 the charge of profaning the Sabbath is not separated from the more general condemnations by any type of conjunction:

But the children rebelled against me; they did not follow my statutes, and were not careful to observe my ordinances, by whose observance everyone shall live; they profaned my sabbaths. Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them…

The last thing I want to explore is Ezekiel 20:26 in itself. Again, as translated by NRSV, this verse reads

I defiled them through their very gifts, in their offering up all their firstborn, in order that I might horrify them, so that they might know that I am the LORD.

Is this really an accurate rendering? If so, how exactly are we to interpret this? What does this say about God’s agency here?

When we look at the various ways this verse had been rendered, we can see that it admits of several different interpretations, and in turn translations. The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) seems to give the most “severe” translation, not only in that God has direct agency in “polluting” the Israelites, but in making them sacrifice, too:

and I polluted them with their own offerings, making them sacrifice every first-born son in order to fill them with revulsion, so that they would know that I am Yahweh.

In the revised edition of NAB (NABRE), God similarly “has” them make the sacrifices, though it also switches to a passive “let them become defiled”:

I let them become defiled by their offerings, by having them make a fiery offering of every womb’s firstborn, in order to ruin them so they might know that I am the Lord

In the original version of NAB, however, it simply says “I let them become defiled by their gifts, by their immolation of every firstborn,” instead of the more direct “by having them make a fiery offering.” Interestingly, the change between RSV and NRSV exhibits the reverse: in RSV, we have God’s agency in making them offer the sacrifice,

and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the LORD.

whereas in NRSV, this language has been removing:

I defiled them through their very gifts, in their offering up all their firstborn, in order that I might horrify them, so that they might know that I am the LORD.

The New Living Translation (NLT)—one of the most dynamic translations on the market—represents a total shift, where God is dissociated from any active agency here, the Israelites both polluting themselves, and simply “allowed” to make sacrifices:

I let them pollute themselves with the very gifts I had given them, and I allowed them to give their firstborn children as offerings to their gods—so I might devastate them and remind them that I alone am the LORD.

Finally, NASB and the NET Bible translate very similarly, clarifying that what God really did here was make a declaration or pronouncement,⁷ᵇ and also shifts the agency in sacrifice to Israelites themselves:

and I pronounced them unclean because of their gifts, in that they caused all their firstborn to pass through the fire so that I might make them desolate

I declared them to be defiled because of their sacrifices—they caused all their first born to pass through the fire—so that I would devastate them, so that they will know that I am the LORD

How do we navigate all this? Again, if we turn to the Hebrew itself, the first snippet of the verse can safely be rendered something like “I defiled them in/with their gifts/offerings…” 

For our purposes here, the most relevant problem arises with the second bit. The first word of this second section begins with the same preposition that prefaced the previous word, “in/with,” followed by a verb—to “pass through/over.” The issue, however, is that the subject of the verb “causing to pass over” can’t unambiguously be said to be God himself, as several of the translations (NJB, NABRE, RSV) construe it. More convincingly, the subject could be said to be the Israelites themselves; though for it to have unambiguously been “they caused [the firstborn] to pass over,” the Hebrew verb here would have been different.⁸

All of these things considered, the most obvious translation is something like “I defiled them in their offerings, in (their) causing all the firstborn to pass over…” (Though even here, the “their” in “their causing all the firstborn to pass over…” isn’t explicit.⁹) 

In any case, at this point we can start to put everything that’s been discussed together. If the idea behind Ezekiel 20:26 were that the Israelites’ sin here is egregious unauthorized child sacrifice, it’s hard to imagine that the verse wouldn’t have been worded differently to emphasize that they “defiled” themselves¹⁰ (again, as several translations erroneously read into the verse), or to otherwise distance God from the whole sordid affair.

But far from distancing God from all this, all accurate renderings of the verse have him intimately involved in it. But, again, how exactly is God involved here?

One important observation is that if 20:25 and 26 were separated, we’re left with no clue what these “not good” laws in v. 25 were. Yet if we do interpret them together, not only do we have an idea of what these laws consisted of (at least in part), but we now have a plausible mechanism for God’s agency in v. 26: God “embedded” his punishing will within the (bad) Law(s) itself; and in the Israelites’ following it, they actually enacted his will in a way. 

In the perspective of the author of Ezekiel, by the time of the giving of these laws, the damage had already been done; the Israelites had already sinned. There’s nothing in Ezekiel 20:26 about imperfectly following the Law, like in the hypothesis of scholars like Ronald Hals, who’ve tried to split the difference between the divine and Israelite agencies here vis-à-vis the “not good” laws of Ezekiel 20:25 by suggesting that Israelite misinterpretation of the Law—that is, erroneously interpreting the Law as commanding child sacrifice, when that was not actually the intention—was itself the punishment, on analogy with the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.¹¹

Yet as Jon Levenson writes of the “not good” laws,

the assertion in Ezekiel 20 is not that God left a wayward Israel to their own devices, or that he froze them in a posture of defiance like that in which he froze Pharaoh. Rather, the point is that because the people in their rebellion refused to obey YHWH’s life-promoting laws (especially those governing the Sabbath [vv 21-24]), he, in turn, saddled them with bad laws that would, nonetheless, ultimately serve his sovereign purpose. The product of his punishment is not a perverted will, as in the case of Pharaoh, or a deceitful oracle, as in the incident about Micaiah [in 1 Kings 22:19-24] . . . but rather the laws themselves. In a sense, the best way to understand Ezekiel’s point is by inverting the theory of double causality; the ultimate cause of the “laws that were not good” was Israel’s rebellion; the proximate cause was divine revelation (The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, 7)

⁂     ⁂     ⁂

I’ve now written a follow-up to this post, here.


[1] Among some of the feedback on my original post, someone suggested that at least one point I hadn’t made a big enough distinction between “Judaism”—something that, technically speaking, is in many ways considered a later or secondary phenomenon—and “Israelite religion.” However, I still feel compelled to use “early Judaism” here, just on the off-chance that someone doesn’t catch that by “Israelite religion” I really am talking about one of the streams of tradition that pooled to form (the wellspring of) “Judaism.” (Was that a mixed metaphor?)

[2] “‘I Gave Them Laws that Were not Good’: Ezekiel 20:25 in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity,” 95.

[3] It might also be worth pointing out—though in and of itself this doesn’t say much—that, with the exception of NJB and ESV, those translations with the conjunction “and” are slightly more dated than those without it; though NASB usually represents a more literal translation, too.

[4] Finsterbusch, “The First-Born between Sacrifice and Redemption in the Hebrew Bible,” citing Hossfeld, “Verteilung,” 181 here. Milgrom notes that “[r]ather than denying that God ever sanctioned human sacrifice as does his older contemporary Jeremiah (Jer 7:31; 19:5; 32:35), Ezekiel uniquely takes the tack that God deliberately gave such a law in order to desolate them” (“Were the Firstborn Sacrificed to YHWH?”, 52).

Tatlock writes

While Ezek 20 might present Yahweh as “remorseful” concerning the bad ordinances he had prescribed, it admits that he had ordained the rite of child sacrifice, which is in contrast to his outright denials in Jeremiah (7:31; 19:5; 32:35). (“How in Ancient Times They Sacrificed People: Human Immolation in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin with Special Emphasis on Ancient Israel and the Near East,” 231)

and Patton that the author of Ezekiel

presumes that at some point in Israel’s history, child sacrifice was a prescription imbedded [sic] in a legal collection ascribed to Yahweh. . . . The law itself was evil, given by Yahweh as punishment for their sinfulness in the wilderness, in order to guarantee their ultimate destruction, while preserving Yahweh’s righteousness in the face of this disaster.” (“‘I Myself Gave Them Laws That Were Not Good’: Ezekiel 20 and the Exodus Traditions,” 78-79)

Levenson suggests

At first blush, the meaning of these verses seems clear: the sacrifice of the firstborn is indeed an abomination, just as Jeremiah thought. But, whereas Jeremiah vociferously denied the origin of the practice in the will of YHWH, Ezekiel affirmed it: YHWH gave Israel “laws that were not good” in order to desolate them, for only as they were desolated, only as they were brought to humiliation, could they come to recognize YHWH and obey his sovereign will. Here, as often in the Hebrew Bible, God’s goodness conflicts with his providential designs: he wills evil in order to accomplish good. The evil that he once willed is the law that requires the sacrifice of the first-born. The good toward which this aims is Israel’s ultimate recognition and exaltation of him as their sole God. (The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, 5, emphasis mine)

Heider asks “[a]s to v. 26, why is the sacrifice of the firstborn cited as the ultimate specimen of the fulfillment of such laws?” (“A Further Turn on Ezekiel’s Baroque Twist in Ezek 20:25-26,” 721). Van Seters notes that “Ezekiel, in 20:25–26, seems to confirm this practice of child sacrifice, while at the same time contradicting Jeremiah (or the [Deuteronomist] editor) on the matter of divine law” (A Law Book for the Diaspora, 147).

Dewrell simply says that ‘Ezekiel seems to imply that the “law that is not good” commanded the sacrifice of children (Ezek 20:31a)’ (“Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel and Its Opponents,” 193); and Lange that “Ezek 20:25-26 documents the existence of a command of YHWH prescribing child sacrifice” (“‘They Burn Their Sons and Daughters — That was No Command of Mine’ (Jer 7:31): Child Sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible and in the Deuteronomistic Jeremiah Redaction,” 116).

Stavrakopoulou notes that “[t]he explicit assertion that YHWH commanded the sacrifice of the firstborn is striking”; and, once several considerations about the verses are taken into account, this “leaves little room for doubt that YHWH was believed to have legislated for child sacrifice” (King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice, 184, emphases mine). Bloch writes, somewhat ambiguously, 

It is not clear whether [lawsthat did not offer them life ( . . . lit. “by which they should not live”) . . . in v. 25 is to be interpreted as a result or purpose clause. But in v. 26 Yahweh declares his intentions explicitly: so that I might devastate them. (The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1-24, 637)

Joyce is one of the very few who raises the possibility of the independence of the two verses, though ultimately leaning in favor of their commonality: “[w]hile v. 25 could be self-contained, it is likely that v. 26 is intended to elucidate it” (Ezekiel: A Commentary, 151). Finally, the only really relevant comment by Hahn and Bergsma is that

some interpreters opt to emend the text, like Johann Lust, who would delete most of v. 26 as a later (erroneous) interpolation. Similarly, Julius A. Bewer reverses vv. 25-26 and v. 27, so that Ezekiel’s shocking claim merely echoes Israel’s blasphemous misconstrual of the LORD’s demands. (“What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26”)

Friebel sees the “decrees” and “judgments” not as actual laws, but that they “refer back to the divine judgment of exile in v. 23”; and he actually suggests that “[t]he reason for the decrees of judgment and the declaration of the people as defiled are the consequences of the people’s gifts and child sacrifices” (“The Decrees of Yahweh That Are ‘Not Good’: Ezekiel 20:25-26,” 36). In effect, then, he suggests a direct causation between v. 25 and 26, only in a reverse order from the way we usually think of it. Although Friebel’s proposal is undoubtedly creative, I still find it unpersuasive, for several reasons I’ll get to in Part 2.

[5] See Halpern, “The False Torah of Jeremiah 8 in the Context of Seventh Century BCE Pseudepigraphy,” 338-39:

Jeremiah and Ezekiel both mention the sacrifice of the first-born in connection with their rejection of past revelation. . . . Jeremiah claims that the scribes falsified it, and Ezekiel that Yhwh falsified it. But the two have in common the view that the falsified provisions included Yhwh’s demand that the Israelites burn their children for him.

[6] van der Horst quotes Heider, The Cult of Molek: A Reassessment, that Ezekiel 20:25-26 is “Ezekiel’s counterpart to Jeremiah’s insistence that child sacrifice was something ‘which I did not command, nor did it enter into my mind’ (Jer, 7:31; 19:5; 32:35)” (372).

[7a] Friebel, “Decrees,” 29 n. 25, writing about v. 12, argues

in v. 12 . . . וגם . . . נתתי להם ‘and also . . . I gave to them’, with respect to the Sabbaths, is a further resumptive repetition that elaborates on and specifies the preceding “giving” of the statutes and ordinances in v. 11 (ואתן להם)

[7b] On this see especially Friebel, “Decrees,” 32. I didn’t find this convincing, though.

[8] העבירו, having the third-person suffix.

[9] Maybe, then, there’s even a third option here where it’s neither God having “directly” made them sacrifice nor “their causing” the sacrifice, but something closer to just “I defiled them in their offerings, in the firstborn being passed over…” Could this subtly suggest specifically the laws demanding the sacrifice? (In my previous post I discussed the specific language used in Ezekiel here in conjunction with the language of these laws; I’ll explore this even further in Part 2 of this one.) 

That being said, the parallel in Ezekiel 16:21 may slightly play against this, favoring “I defiled them in their offerings, in their causing all the firstborn to pass over…”; and see 20:31, too.

[10] See Ezekiel 20:7, 18; Leviticus 11:44.

[11Ezekiel, 141.

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