Was Child Sacrifice Once Common?

Was Child Sacrifice Once Common? September 22, 2013

As modern people, we often find it hard to believe that ancient people lived as they did. And in the case of some practices, like human sacrifice, we may suspect that reports are exaggerated. In a discussion in a comment thread, this subject came up. Ezekiel 20:25-26 seems to suggest that child sacrifice in Israel was once not only common but required by law. Of course, laws which simply say that every firstborn male is to be offered to God are now tempered by laws allowing a price to be paid instead of sacrificing a human child, or which treat the Levites as consecrated to God and thus an offering in place of the firstborn of the rest of Israel. But these seem like they could be later attempts to reinterpret a law that required firstborn males to be sacrificed. I would love to hear the perspective of those who work primarily in the domain of Hebrew Bible or ancient Levantine archaeology, to hear your thoughts on this aspect of ancient Israel.

Last week in my Sunday school class, we reached Hebrews 11, and spent a significant amount of time talking about the story of Abraham trying to offer Isaac. That story has been coming up a lot. And it is a disturbing story, as it should be from our perspective. Even if it is an attempt to combat child sacrifice, by presenting God as not really wanting it, it still doesn't challenge the possibility of God asking for such a sacrifice, even if it suggests that God wouldn't make someone go through with it.

A major question that came up in the comments on the other post is whether child sacrifice could really once gave been common. My own view is that people in ancient times felt themselves to be at the mercy of dangerous forces upon which their fragile lives depended. Any action however radical that could placate those forces and get them to act favorably towards humans would seem worth it. The existence of the practice in other societies even in our time might substantiate this.

Today we know that nature is not a person and natural forces cannot be bargained with. If nature is not merely a dead object we can abuse, neither is it a god or a pantheon. Thinking of nature as like anotherl iving thing, to be domesticated by humans when possible, but still treated with kindness and care, is perhaps the best analogy.

Science eliminates the felt need to sacrifice one's children in the hope of bringing rain or fertility or averting pestilence and famine. Now if only we could stop sacrificing children on the altar of convenience, self-interest, and profit, we would be making even more substantial progress.

Science can radically revolutionize our understanding, but it doesn't eliminate the need for prophetic voices to challenge our moral assumptions.


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  • x x
    • Abortion for convenience is not sacrifice.

      • Just Sayin’

        Same result though — murder.

        • Perhaps you live in Chile. I live in the U.S., where abortion isn’t murder.*
          *Exceptions exist to this rule in some states.

          • Just Sayin’

            Perhaps you live on the moon. Of course killing an unborn child is murder.

          • Define “murder”. Otherwise, your statement sounds about as sensible to me as “of course the moon is made of cheese”.

          • Just Sayin’

            If I have to define murder for you, you should be in bed by now. You’re obviously underage for the internet.

            I know … define “under age” … define “unborn child”… define “the”…


          • Have fun getting any laws you propose misinterpreted.

          • Just Sayin’

            Have fun playing the definitions game.

  • Hello James, I don’t think that the doctrine of devotional sacrifice


    should be your main concern.

    These children would have suffered during several hours.

    Most Evangelicals believe in eternal hell for almost everyone which is far worse.

    Children and their parents will undergo an unbearable ordeal which will last 100000000000…………….. years.

    As long they buy this blasphemous teaching, they won’t have any problem buying any other atrocity described within the Bible.

    Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


  • Guest

    Imagine what Judaism and Christianity would be like if Isaac was actually sacrificed.

  • Joshua Smith

    Interesting. Makes me wonder if the main reason Jeremiah decries the sacrifice of children to Ba’al in the ben-Hinnom Valley is not because they thought child sacrifice particularly evil, but rather because it was a sacrifice to an idol/competing deity.

  • Gary

    Assuming JEPD is valid, and dating of J&E redacting, I do not see how someone can make any other assumption than early E had Isaac sacrificed (regardless of the story being real or fiction). Friedman, “Who Wrote the Bible”, “the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac is traced to E. It refers to the deity as Elohim in vv 1,3,8 and 9. But, just as Abraham’s hand is raised with the knife to sacrifice Isaac, the text says that the angel of Yahweh stops him (vv 11). The verses in which Isaac is spared refer to the deity as Yahweh (vv 11-14). These verses are followed by a report that the angel speaks a second time and says, “…because you did not withhold your son from me…” Thus the four verses which report that Isaac was not sacrificed involved both a contradiction and a change of the name of the deity… It has been suggested that in the original version of this story Isaac was actually sacrificed, and that the intervening four verses were added subsequently, when the notion of human sacrifice was rejected (perhaps by the person who combined J and E). …. Moreover, Isaac never again appears as a character in E. Interestingly, a later midrashic tradition developed this notion, that Isaac actually had been sacrificed.”

  • Brian

    Child sacrifice is still commmon today: it’s called abortion . . .

    • arcseconds

      You think that people undergoing abortions are sacrificing things that are valuable to them in order to placate their savage deities?

      That’s a very interesting take on abortion, especially as it’s almost the opposite of what everyone says about it on both sides of the debate.

      But then again, x x made this same remark above, so maybe this opinion is very widespread.

  • arcseconds

    OK, so I guess I will try to summarize my arguments why I think it unlikely 🙂

    The main thing is, as far as I know, there are a mere handful of cases where there’s unequivocal evidence for a cultural practice of child sacrifices.

    I have absolutely no expertise in this area, and I’ll happily accept corrections. But not only was that my preconception (and I’m not entirely ignorant about world cultures), but it’s also backed up by several whole minutes of intensive googling!

    The wikipedia page on child sacrifice for example, bears this out.

    Now, I’ve already agreed that the logic of the sacrifice looks like it could easily led towards child sacrifice. That’s the argument that you give in your 3rd paragraph. It’s a good a priori argument for the widespread existence of such a practice.

    But we should prefer facts to theory, of course, and the facts (again, from what I know) don’t bear this out. If this argument worked, then child sacrifice should be very widespread, comparable to animal sacrifice, because every pre-modern society faces the things you mention.

    Yet we don’t see this. So there must be something wrong with the argument. Maybe we don’t understand the logic of the sacrifice as well as we think we do, or maybe we do and there are other considerations that almost always prevent it from being carried to this extreme. At any rate, seeing that it seems to fail to describe societies we know about more than it succeeds, we can’t put too much weight on it.

    So, is it possible that the ancient Hebrews had such a practice? Yes, of course it is. We know that some societies do, so we know it’s not impossible for a human society to go this way.

    Is there evidence for it with respect to the Hebrews? Yes, there are some textual references that are plausibly explained by there being such a practice. But there are alternative explanations that are also fairly plausible. In some cases, and I think Ezekiel is one of them, that explanation works a bit better than the alternatives.

    But the question to my mind is whether the fact it makes a bit more sense of a few scant textual references is really enough to take it from a low background probability to making it more probable than not that there was a widespread cultural practice of child sacrifice.

    And at the moment I don’t think it does, particularly as the alternative explanations remain fairly plausible. I’d also have to emphasize that the passage in Ezekiel seems pretty odd in other respects, most notably the suggestion that God has given orders that are inherently bad in order to punish Israel. The story of Abraham also is not easy to know what to make of, and isn’t nearly as convincing a piece of evidence for child sacrifice as the Ezekiel one. The oddness of these texts makes me more hesitant to use them as historical evidence.

    To change my mind, I would either need to be shown that child sacrifice is (or was) much more common than I currently think it is, or some really convincing physical or textual evidence for the existence amongst the Hebrews (discovery of a text describing how to carry out a child sacrifice, with every indication that the author thinks this is a fine idea, would be a really good start) , or a compelling argument that shows that the alternative explanations don’t work as well as I think they do, and the only real way to understand these passages is by the existence of child sacrifice.

    Finally, I want to note once again that the occasional child sacrifice when there’s a huge amount at stake (or by the odd individual who takes things a bit too far) is a lot more probable than sacrificing every first-born child as a matter of course, which is what Ezekiel is saying happened. That would be a completely unprecedented level of sacrifice, probably making ancient Israel rivaling the Aztecs for bloodshed. I’m also inclined to doubt it on the basis of practicality: if you’re continually decimating your population, I think your chances of survival when you have belligerent neighbours are rather poor.

    So I definitely feel we can’t take Ezekiel entirely seriously here.

    As far as Uganda goes, that’s one of the handful of examples, so I was already taking that into account. I also think there are specifics about Uganda that should make one wary of connecting it to an ancient tribal society, but that’s another post.

  • Michael Wilson

    child sacrifice is a bit rare, typically adults are sacrificed. Infanticide is a lot more common, unhealthy children generally but from what I’ve read, a number of hunter gather societies will expose one of a of a pair of twins, since a woman can’t be expected to carry two. In general, human sacrifices tend to be exogenic; slaves, P.O.W., criminals and such. never the less, the bible and classical sources attribute child sacrifice to Canaanite peoples (Carthaginians and Moabites and Ammonites) and it seems that Israelites and Judhaites also practiced it. The so called Carthaginian Tophet has been revealed to have simply been a burial place for children and fetuses (Canaanites often buried infants in jars) and is not evidence of Carthaginian child sacrifice, but against those that just think that the classical writers or the biblical ones were just smearing their enemies is the fact that both sources independently agree on a Canaanite practice, and that tit was barred in Leviticus suggest that some Israelites thought that child sacrifice might be proper. Since children are a valuable resource and mortality was very high in the ancient world, I imagine child sacrifice would have been a rare but socially powerful spectacle of devotion.

  • Gary

    I could see the scarcity of food as a motive. Starvation effects could drive the value of a young child who cannot contribute to the tribe down, while feeding the able-bodied was more important for survival of the group. I doubt if child sacrifice would be likely in good times. Only in desperation,looking for some help from a deity. Along the same lines, I doubt if the very old and sick were fed well during starvation events, which were probably common.

    • Gary

      And along these lines, on animal sacrifice, Friedman comments that primarily animal sacrifice was to give thanks for food, before the whole priest, temple thing. You did it yourself. And you ate it yourself. No whole, burnt sacrifice thing, where the meat was lost.

  • Andrew Dowling

    It doesn’t make much sense to me that in ancient agrarian societies, which had both very high infant mortality rates and in which a healthy child was one of the most important commodities you can have, that there would be a practice of sacrificing every first born child. It “could” have occurred, but it seems to go against too many evolutionary instincts. The practice of other human societies which practiced human sacrifice mainly sacrificed slaves and prisoners of war, which makes a lot more sense if you’re trying to appease gods but not hurt your ability to produce food.

    It also makes a lot of sense that the ancient Hebrews would’ve painted the gods and practices of their enemies in the most negative light possible. Throughout history you can see people demonizing the ‘other’ via accusations of killing children, child sacrifice etc. Makes sense that as stories were told around the campfire and people were praising Yahweh, they would say “not like Moloch, that monster who demands the blood of babies!!”)

    At the same time, history is also full of so many horrors one would think were not possible that almost anything is possible, but these horrors are usually done against “others” and not instituted “in-house.”

    • It is indeed against evolutionary instincts, and surprising practice if it occurred. But we know that sacrifice of children was practiced, and it seems that people who lived in constant threat of drought, famine, and pestilence, might have been precisely the ones to try this desperate measure of gaining the favor of a deity they thought could keep those things at bay.