What Should We Make of Biblical Human Sacrifices?
There are some texts and ideas in the Bible that might be difficult to examine because they are at odds with the principles of Christ. Someone reading the Bible out of context could misread God’s message when they come across stories or records of deeds done by persons the Bible seems to be lauding as heroes or a command from YAWEH to wipe out a whole group.
This occurs, for instance, in biblical descriptions of human sacrifice. People who claim to be on God’s side have been known to sacrifice their children, and in some cases, God himself appears to have ordered such sacrifices. There have also been instances documented by historians where a civilisation God wiped out was one that engaged in human sacrifice.
Human sacrifice stories in the Bible may provide light on the depths of human wickedness, the breadth of God’s love, and the majesty of the Gospel if we take them in their proper perspective.
Isaac and Abraham
Having waited for decades, Abraham and Sarah finally had a son. Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah was ninety when they had their son Isaac. Later on in life, God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac by burning him at the stake. Obediently, Abraham carried Isaac to the top of Mount Moriah, shackled him, and got ready to murder him. Then God intervened. He offered a ram as an alternative. A location Abraham called “The Lord Will Provide.”
God put Abraham through a test after all that, telling him, “Abraham!
The Lord spoke to Abraham from heaven, saying, “Abraham, Abraham! 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 of which I shall tell you….But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, saying, “Abraham, Abraham!
He answered, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, because now I know that you fear God, considering that you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham glanced back and saw a ram entangled in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham substituted the ram for his son in the burnt sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-2, 11-13).
For Christians, this text is extremely meaningful. Abraham’s homeland of Ur was among the several surrounding societies who practiced child sacrifice. In stopping the sacrifice of Isaac, God made it clear to Abraham and his offspring that such an act was unacceptable to Him. He also established the sacrifice system, wherein the blood of an animal was an acceptable (but insufficient) payment for sin, hundreds of years later.
Throughout the Judges’ time, Israel was under continual threat. Jephthah’s siblings disowned him since he was an illegitimate child, so he went to live with the heathen. Sometime afterwards, he was asked to defend Gilead and Israel from Moab and the Ammonites. The Lord was going to aid him once more, but in his folly, Jephthah had sworn to sacrifice whoever emerged from the door first after the triumph. As a result of God’s intervention, his lone daughter was born after he and his army defeated the Ammonites. And so he offered her up as a sacrifice.
Then the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he went through the territory of Gilead and Manasseh, and then he went from Mizpah of Gilead to the territory of the Ammonites. And Jephthah answered to the Lord, “If you would put the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to greet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt sacrifice.” So Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah. Suddenly, his daughter appeared at the door, tambourines in hand and a dance routine ready to perform for her dad. He had no other children, neither sons nor daughters, but her. When he did, he ripped his clothing and cried out, “Alas, my daughter!” You have lowered me to the lowest possible point, and you have been the source of much distress in my life. Because now my lips have sworn to the Lord, and I can’t go back on my word (Judges 11:29-31, 34-35).
However, when seen as a whole, the Book of Judges shows how Israel drifted farther and more away from God and fell under the direction of imperfect and immoral individuals. Many men, even the godly Jephthah, fell prey to evil because of their good fortune. The Lord was angered by Jephthah’s offering of his daughter as a sacrifice. It was the result of overconfidence and stupidity. He also spent a lot of time with non-Israelites, learning about their culture, and eventually having to pay the price for it.
Traditions in Canaan
Those who disregarded God’s teachings populated the country of Canaan. The Egyptians continued to disobey the God of the Hebrews despite witnessing His wrath during the 12 plagues. They refused to abandon their religion and customs, even after being driven from their homeland or mixed with another group. Human sacrifice, particularly of infants, was common in the worship of alternative deities. Because of God’s aversion to idol worship and bad activities, God used Israel to mete out justice to the people who practiced them. A few examples of these fictitious deities are Baal, Molech, and Ashtoreth.
You must not sacrifice your offspring to Molech in order to dishonor the name of the Lord your God (Leviticus 18:21).
And Topheth, in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, was profaned so that no one could offer a sacrifice of son or daughter in the fires of Molech (2 Kings 23:10).
The practice of human sacrifice is strongly condemned in these texts because God made it abundantly plain to His people that they were to refrain from taking part in such rituals. It was inevitable that Israel would experience setbacks whenever its people gave in to sin and began to worship pagan deities. God would aid the Israelites vanquish several cultures that practiced human sacrifice.
Christ’s Death on the Cross
We are helpless before God’s holiness because of the sins we have committed against Him, and thus we have been judged by His just justice and condemned. Eventually, people would start abusing the sacrifice system or starting putting too much faith in their own virtue, proving that it was flawed from the start. Humanity’s crimes could only be fully forgiven if a perfect payment were paid. If people were willing to accept it, only the blood of a spotless person could really wash away their sins. The eternal Word, the second person of the Trinity, took on human form, lived a sinless life, and offered himself as the ultimate atoning sacrifice.
Again Jesus screamed out in a loud voice, and then He gave up His spirit. Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shook, the rocks split, and the graves opened; and many of the saints who had been put to sleep were raised from the dead; and having emerged from the graves after His resurrection, they made their way into the holy city and appeared to many. Guarding Jesus at the time, the centurion and his men were shaken to their cores by the earthquake and the events that followed, declaring, “Truly this was the Son of God!” ‘” (Matthew 27:50-54).
Then Jesus, knowing that Scripture had been fulfilled, replied, “I thirst!”
They took a sponge, soaked it in the sour wine, placed it on a sprig of hyssop, and brought it to Jesus’ mouth. Thus, after taking the sour cup of wine, Jesus said, “It is completed!” “With a bowed head, He laid down His life” (John 19:28-30).
Jesus’ crucifixion and death may be viewed through the perspective of human sacrifice, but it was not. Jesus was not sacrificed to the gods of the Hebrews or Romans, but was instead put to death. Jesus, who was both God and man, voluntarily gave up His divine nature in order to take on human flesh and die for our sins. The Bible makes it plain that Jesus sacrificed His spirit so that God may forgive the sins of everyone who puts their faith in Him, rather than as a futile attempt to please a god by sacrificing someone else’s life for selfish gain.
People have been killing each other for as long as there have been humans in an attempt to appease false gods or because they have misinterpreted what God really wants all along. He forbade the practice of human sacrifice while selecting a people to do His will, keep His rule, and serve as an example to the rest of the world. Only God’s voluntary sacrifice on the cross matters eternally. Jesus’ death was a selfless act of sacrifice, more akin to a soldier’s death on the battlefield than to the sacrifice of a child on an altar to Molech.
The death and resurrection of Jesus triumphed over death for all time, in contrast to human sacrifice, which was useless in the face of the evil in the world. Faith in Jesus Christ alone, not in any gods, is the only road to eternal life.
It is said, “As distant as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our iniquities from us” (Psalm 103:12).