Archive for February, 2013


This comparative study has examined sacrificial practices in the ANE world which is the setting of the OT story. It has tried to paint of picture of the cultural background and instincts, regarding blood sacrifice, which are the context in which the Torah laws must be read and understood. We have limited ourselves for the time being to examining the evidence provided by the Hebrew Scriptures themselves.

We have seen enough to further confirm our thesis, explaining the extreme length and detail of the Torah sacrifice-laws. We asked at the start, if sacrifice ultimately turned out to not be central to Yahweh’s concerns for Israel, why did it receive such extensive treatment in the Mosaic law? One possible solution was that the massive size of the sacrificial code reflects the difficulty of dealing with the topic, rather than its intrinsic importance.

We have discovered that there was indeed an inherent difficulty in this area which made it problematic to regulate and control: the opposing tradition of human sacrifice ran deep in ANE culture. It surrounded the Hebrews on all sides. The challenge was not in persuading Israel to sacrifice. We cannot say that the Torah ‘reveals’ the  practice to Israel: sacrifice was part of the Hebrews’ common cultural heritage. The challenge was not in instituting animal sacrifice: this also was widespread. The difficulty was in replacing human sacrifice with animal. And this was the Torah’s particular contribution, a distinctive feature of Yahweh-worship. While other gods at times required the blood of firstborn sons, the practice ‘never entered the mind’ of Israel’s God.

The massive length of this legislation in the Torah, then, should probably not be taken to indicate the importance of sacrifice as such in Yahweh’s intentions for Israel. It does not function to give great weight to the practice, for sacrifice already had an important place in the life of the Hebrews.

Rather its length is more likely a reflection of the difficulty of regulating existing sacrificial practices. Yahweh’s unique legislation would not be received easily by the community of Israel. Great emphasis and repetition was needed to achieve such a radical change, and to preserve it once established. Many layers of protection and control were required, to wean the Hebrews off and keep them off the traditional practice of human sacrifice which was so firmly rooted in their cultural world. We have seen how many of the law’s provisions, including priesthood and tabernacle, were explicitly aimed at this goal. There were other practices associated with pagan deities which were also difficult to eradicate: divination and spirit-mediums etc. But human sacrifice was the worst, the one most in the cross-hairs of the Mosaic legislation.


If this is so, then the Mosaic Law will need to be read in a slightly different light. It is true that the Torah upholds the problem of sin and the need for atonement. As the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘without the shedding of blood there is no release from sins’. But this was scarcely a new idea, or unique to Israel’s religion. Everyone in the ANE would have said the same. The Torah sacrificial system confirms this sense, widespread in ancient society, that blood atonement was needed to restore balance and order to the world. But this is not the Torah’s unique contribution. The new thing, the radical and world-changing thing which it introduces and codifies, is the replacement of human sacrifice by animal sacrifice. No longer must men destroy their children in the name of God. Israel had been set free from the clutches of the dark gods, and come into the life-giving hands of Yahweh.

This suggests that when we employ the Torah sacrificial laws in our account of the gospel of Jesus, we should speak of it in this light. How would this emphasis fit into our gospel story, how would it affect what we said about the cross of Jesus? Those are questions for another paper.

The prophets continued to emphasise the Torah’s teaching about Yahweh’s feelings toward human sacrifice. Jeremiah in particular mounts a sustained campaign against the high place of the valley of Ben-Hinnom (also called Tophet).

How can you say, ‘I am not defiled;
I have not run after the Baals’?
See how you behaved in the valley;
consider what you have done. Jeremiah 2:23

The practices connected with the valley run counter to the commands of God to Moses:

They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.  32 So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Jeremiah 7:31-32

The warning at the end here harks back to the command given to Noah: those who shed human blood in sacrifice, shall themselves be slain. Later, Jeremiah acts out a symbolic judgement on the valley:

This is what the LORD says: “Go and buy a clay jar from a potter. …go out to the Valley of Ben Hinnom…There proclaim the words I tell you,  3 and say, ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: … “they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent.  5 They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.  6 So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.

“‘In this place I will ruin the plans of Judah and Jerusalem. I will make them fall by the sword before their enemies, at the hands of those who seek their lives, and I will give their carcasses as food to the birds and the wild animals. … 9 I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and daughters, and they will eat one another’s flesh because their enemies will press the siege so hard against them to destroy them.’

“Then break the jar while those who go with you are watching,  11 and say to them, ‘This is what the LORD Almighty says: I will smash this nation and this city just as this potter’s jar is smashed and cannot be repaired. They will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.  12 This is what I will do to this place and to those who live here, declares the LORD. I will make this city like Topheth.  13 The houses in Jerusalem and those of the kings of Judah will be defiled like this place, Topheth—all the houses where they burned incense on the roofs to all the starry hosts and poured out drink offerings to other gods.’” Jeremiah 19:1-13


This is to be Jerusalem’s punishment: the whole city will become like Tophet.

The valley is described as an open disgrace, a standing reproach to Jerusalem:

I am against you, Jerusalem,
you who live above this valley
on the rocky plateau, declares the LORD—
you who say, “Who can come against us? Jeremiah 21:13

Jeremiah repeats his memorable earlier phrase:

They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.                                  Jeremiah 32:35

Eventually, the whole valley will be redeemed, the horrors brought to an end:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when the city shall be rebuilt for the LORD from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate.  And the measuring line shall go out farther… The whole valley of the corpses and the fat ash, and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD.      Jeremiah 31:38-40

For Jeremiah, the valley and the practices associated with it are at the heart of Israel’s sin, a clear turning-away from the Torah, and a main cause of the exile. In spite of the extensive sacrifice-laws of the Torah, more and ongoing prophecy is required to deliver Israel from this horror of human sacrifice.

Other laws

The Torah prohibitions against human sacrifice are put in the strongest terms:

Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the LORD.           Leviticus 18:21

Here the forbidden practice is associated with the worship of Molech, the god of the (neighbouring) Ammonites.

The LORD said to Moses,  2 “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any Israelite or any foreigner residing in Israel who sacrifices any of his children to Molech is to be put to death. The members of the community are to stone him.  3 I myself will set my face against him and will cut him off from his people; for by sacrificing his children to Molech, he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name.  4 If the members of the community close their eyes when that man sacrifices one of his children to Molech and if they fail to put him to death,  5 I myself will set my face against him and his family and will cut them off from their people together with all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molech. Leviticus 20:1

There was a tradition in the ANE that a killing could only be balanced out with bloodshed, so that bloodguilt could only be ‘driven out’ or expiated by shedding the blood of the guilty. The tradition is very closely related to blood sacrifice. The Torah makes provisions to break down this tradition: it is not the bloodshed but the intention that matters. In the case of an accidental killing, retaliatory bloodshed is not needed. In Numbers 35, Yahweh establishes cities of refuge, which relieve the offended family of the obligation to shed blood. However, those who deliberately murder should themselves be slain.

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it.  You shall not defile the land in which you live, in which I also dwell; for I the LORD dwell among the Israelites.     Numbers 35:33-34

We can hear themes from Cain and Noah’s stories re-echoing through this legislation.

Sacrificial blood-shedding practices were typical of the Canaanite peoples whom Yahweh was ejecting from the land:

Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery… Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.           Deuteronomy 18:10-12

Notable in these laws is the vehemence of the prohibition. Yahweh will make himself the implacable enemy of anyone who practices human sacrifice.

The Sinai laws, then, impose multi-layered safeguards to prevent the murderous religious practices of the time from surfacing in Israel. As we have seen, however, these barriers were not adequate to protect the people – like a spectre from the past, human sacrifice came back to haunt them again and again.

Now it’s time to take a closer look at the Torah laws regarding sacrifice, especially those prohibiting or condemning human sacrifice.

We have seen how the command to replace or redeem the firstborn son with an animal sacrifice is built into the fabric of the foundational exodus story. This structure gives the law central importance in the Sinai covenant requirements, based as they are on the premise of the exodus event. In fact this idea of the giving of the firstborn receives further development. Yahweh explains that by rescuing the firstborn son at the Passover, he has now annexed all firstborn sons in Israel as his special possession.

When I struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, I set apart for myself every firstborn in Israel, whether human or animal. They are to be mine. I am the LORD.  Numbers 3:13

While it may seem that the intention is the firstborn sons are to be offered as burnt offerings, Yahweh has something very different in mind.

I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are mine,  for all the firstborn are mine.  Numbers 3:12

The Levites are to substitute for the firstborn sons: they will be an offering to God instead. But this offering is a kind of living sacrifice: the Levites are now considered to belong to God for life. They are his priests.

The firstborn, it seems, was the son who might have been traditionally sacrificed to make the best impression on the god. By binding Israel within this exodus narrative, and channeling firstborn sacrifice into the concept of priesthood in this way, Yahweh effectively removes this option from them. The firstborn have already been offered, they are his, and the matter is, as it were, finished. The exodus story is used here to undermine and bar the tradition of firstborn sacrifice.

To reinforce this sanctity of the firstborn, these sons are also to be redeemed by a animal substitute. In the exodus story, Yahweh instructs Moses:

Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine….

All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD’S.  … Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem. Exodus 13:1-15

The same law is repeated at Exodus 34:19-20 and Numbers 18:15. At first Yahweh appears to buy into the traditional practice of sacrifice: the firstborn are to be offered to him. But then he subverts it: human sons are to be redeemed by an animal substitute. This effectively places them out of bounds for any later sacrificial use: for it is as though they have already been offered.

Tabernacle and Priesthood

Another thing the Torah does about sacrifice is to restrict who can perform it, and the locations where it can be done. All sacrifice is to be performed by the Levitical priest, at the tabernacle:

Speak to Aaron and his sons and to all the people of Israel and say to them: This is what the LORD has commanded.  3 If anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or a lamb or a goat in the camp, or slaughters it outside the camp,  4 and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, he shall be held guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood, and he shall be cut off from the people.  5 This is in order that the people of Israel may bring their sacrifices that they offer in the open field, that they may bring them to the LORD, to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and offer them as sacrifices of well-being to the LORD.  6 The priest shall dash the blood against the altar of the LORD at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and turn the fat into smoke as a pleasing odor to the LORD,  7 so that they may no longer offer their sacrifices for goat-demons, to whom they prostitute themselves. This shall be a statute forever to them throughout their generations.

And say to them further: Anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice,  9 and does not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, to sacrifice it to the LORD, shall be cut off from the people.                                                                            Leviticus 17:2-9

In Deuteronomy there is a considerable emphasis on ‘the place the Lord shall choose’ for his altar. All sacrifices are to be taken there.

Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see.  14 But only at the place that the LORD will choose in one of your tribes—there you shall offer your burnt offerings. Deuteronomy 12:13

It may be thought that the purpose of these laws was to boost the status of a privileged class, a priesthood who had the monopoly on sacrifice. But the Torah gives a different explanation: “so that they may no longer offer their sacrifices to goat-demons”. In other words, the Torah’s own explanation for limiting sacrifice to the tabernacle and priesthood was so that it could be controlled and monitored: there were to be no private sacrifices.

This restriction was explicitly intended to prevent pagan sacrificial practices, of which human sacrifice was the worst. In fact, so strong was this human sacrifice tradition, that those who sacrificed elsewhere were considered to have committed murder: if anyone does “not bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, to present it as an offering to the LORD before the tabernacle of the LORD, he shall be held guilty of bloodshed; he has shed blood” (Lev. 17:4)

The Torah functioned, then, not so much to encourage sacrifice, as to restrain  and limit it. Carefully prescribed temple sacrifice is portrayed as the remedy to the rampant, uncontrolled and pagan practices which otherwise flourished. In Israel the whole business of sacrifice was domesticated, brought under God’s roof, where it could be kept in check.

Mike Bird

Strange story: on Thursday the Katoomba Convention committee announces it’s dumping John Dickson from the platform for this year’s Convention, due to the controversy surrounding his latest book (on women’s ministry).

Mike Bird reacts by calling the committee hardline conservatives, and calling for a general boycott of the event.

KCC committee announces, also on Thursday, that they are canning the whole event due to low numbers.

This is all a bit confusing. I wish someone could tell me:

1. Why the committee exposed itself such negative publicity by appearing to punish Dickson for his very reasonable book. Whatever the controversy it would create to have him speak, it can’t be as much as they now cop for pulling him.

2. Why did they go public with the news and make it an issue about Dickson, if they were canning the event anyway the same day?? Why not just shut it down, without the whole ‘Dickson’ debacle? Doesn’t make any sense.

3. Was the decision to shut down women’s convention actually taken after the announcement axing Dickson? In which case, is there cause and effect here – is the number thing just an excuse?  If so, what’s the real reason? Was there something else that happened that day? Was it just because of Mike Bird’s campaign? Is Bird really such a big hitter? I wouldn’t have thought he could do more than…ruffle their feathers a bit.

What’s really going on here? Does anyone have the inside story?


Soon after this, King Josiah of Judah took steps to end this continuing practice of pagan sacrifice, including human sacrifice, in the land:

He defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech… The king also desecrated the high places that were east of Jerusalem on the south of the Hill of Corruption—the ones Solomon king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the vile goddess of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the vile god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the people of Ammon.  Josiah smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles and covered the sites with human bones.             2 Kings 23:10-14

However, in spite of Josiah’s reforms, at the time of Judah’s exile, 600 years after the judges, Baal-worship and its associated bloodshed was still plaguing Israel:

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: …they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent.  5 They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.  6 So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call this place Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter.         Jeremiah 19:3-6

The two practices here are very closely connected: worship of foreign gods including Baal, and the slaughter of human sacrifices. The one implies the other, and the murder associated with pagan worship is here the heart of Yahweh’s complaint about it. Jeremiah again:

They set up their vile images in the house that bears my Name and defiled it.  35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin.          Jeremiah 32:34-35

Here the worship of Baal and Molech are connected, and the connection is the human-sacrifice involved.

During the early years of exile, the prophet Ezekiel pointed to Israel’s murderous ways as the reason for the exile:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: Will you defile yourselves after the manner of your ancestors and go astray after their detestable things?  When you offer your gifts and sacrifice your children in the fire, you defile yourselves with all your idols to this day.      Ezekiel 20:30

This is what the Sovereign LORD says: You city that brings on herself doom by shedding blood in her midst and defiles herself by making idols, You have become guilty by the blood that you have shed, and defiled by the idols that you have made; you have brought your day near, the appointed time of your years has come. Therefore I have made you a disgrace before the nations, and a mockery to all the countries. Ezekiel 22:3-4

Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: You eat flesh with the blood, and lift up your eyes to your idols, and shed blood; shall you then possess the land?             Ezekiel 33:25

So I poured out my wrath upon them for the blood that they had shed upon the land, and for the idols with which they had defiled it.             Ezekiel 36:18

Once again, the bloodshed is described in a religious, sacrificial setting: ‘You eat flesh with the blood’ etc. It is worth remembering that the term for ‘shedding’ blood is Hebrew shefek dan, a phrase with strong sacrificial overtones.  Rather than being two separate indictments, idolatry and murder go together as two sides of the one crime: this is murder connected with idol-worship, i.e. human sacrifice. The prophets’ frequent complaints regarding violence and murder in Jerusalem and Israel, should be heard in this light, even when the connection with idolatry is not made explicit.

The writer of Lamentations has the same view of the causes of exile:

It was because of the sins of her prophets
and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed the blood of the righteous
in the midst of her. Lamentations 4:13

Again here, we hear of murder in a cultic context.

Some time after the exile, a psalmist describes Israel’s sin:

They did not destroy the peoples,
as the LORD commanded them,
but they mingled with the nations
and learned to do as they did.
They served their idols,
which became a snare to them.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to the demons;
they poured out innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan;
and the land was polluted with blood.
Thus they became unclean by their acts,
and prostituted themselves in their doings. Psalm 106:34-39

In this description of Israel’s conduct in the promised land, human-sacrifice is the basic indictment: this was the thing that destroyed the land.

In summary, from the earliest times through to the exile of 587 BC, the Hebrews, like everyone else, showed a marked tendency to engage in human sacrifice. Once in the promised land and confronted with the practices of their neighbours, they proved unable to resist its lure. This failing was at the heart of Israel’s abandonment of Yahweh, which led to their exile.

This finding confirms our suspicion that it was not an easy thing for Israel to conform to the Mosaic laws regarding sacrifice. The change required was probably deeply counter-cultural, and was resisted for many centuries. This would then be an adequate explanation for the extreme length and detail, the massive weight given to sacrificial laws in the Torah. This was an area which Yahweh felt needed close attention and careful managing.

The difficulty was not in persuading Israel to sacrifice – this came naturally. No doubt they would have done it anyhow. The evidence we have seen suggests that the challenge, the matter requiring great emphasis, was convincing Israel to eschew human sacrifice.

Tomorrow: a closer look at the Torah laws prohibiting or condemning human sacrifice.


Israel of course was born out of the soil of the Ancient Near East (ANE), and so shared many of its views and cultural traditions. Also, the promised land Canaan, where Israel was called to live, was steeped in pagan religious practices. Was it an easy thing for Israel to make and maintain the changes which the law of Moses required? In some cases perhaps it was. But in the case of human sacrifice, there is evidence of ongoing trouble.

As soon as Israel arrives in Canaan, the indigenous religion becomes a temptation to them. For the Canaanite, the name for god was Baal (lord), and it was easy for the Israelites to assimilate their religion to this tradition. But Yahweh is insistent that he is not Baal, and that Israel’s worship must be kept distinct. From this time onwards, however, worship of Baal is endemic in Israel: this is one of the main themes of Judges. Gradually through the OT it becomes clearer what this worship involved: worship of Baal included child sacrifice. The same is true of the cult of Molech (meaning ‘king’), another local deity. It seems these practices cames easily to the Hebrews, that they lapsed into them readily. The tradition seems to have been ‘inside’ them as well as all around in their environment. Thus human-sacrifice was a constant threat to Israel’s national life.

At times this practice bled across to the worship of Yahweh, and humans were sacrificed in his name:

And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand,  then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’S, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering.”                  Judges 11:30-31

Jephthah’s daughter comes out first, and so he feels bound by his vow to sacrifice her. It does not seem to occur to anyone here that this practice is forbidden: this is pre-monarchy, at a time when ‘each man did what was right in his own eyes.’ It seems knowledge and enforcement of the Torah was extremely  limited at this time. Probably then, the story gives us insight into the traditional or instinctive religious practices of the Hebrews.

In the time of Samuel, Baal worship was still plaguing Israel:

So Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.”  So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only.         1 Samuel. 7:3-4

This practice of human sacrifice did not end with the advent of the kings. The prophets continued to indict Israel and her kings for the worship of false gods. Central to the prophets’ complaint about Baal-worship, highlighted alongside the charge of ‘unfaithfulness’ to Yahweh, was this crime of human-sacrifice. Of the northern kingdom of Israel, it is written:

They forsook all the commands of the LORD their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal. They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They…sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, arousing his anger.      2 Kings 17:16-17

The c.8th prophet Hosea complained about Israel’s adultery, taking foreign gods as her husband:

Now they sin more and more;

they make idols for themselves from their silver,

cleverly fashioned images,

all of them the work of skilled hands.

It is said of them,

“They offer human sacrifices!

They kiss calf–idols!” Hosea 13:2

Once again human sacrifice is singled out as a main concern. This ultimately led to the northern kingdom’s destruction:

In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria and deported the Israelites to Assyria…

All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods  and followed the practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before them…

They forsook all the commands of the LORD their God and made for themselves two idols cast in the shape of calves, and an Asherah pole. They bowed down to all the starry hosts, and they worshiped Baal.  They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire.          2 Kings 17:6-17

Ahaz king of Judah the southern kingdom followed suit:

Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king …  He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and also made idols for worshiping the Baals. He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the high places, on the hilltops and under every spreading tree.         2 Chronicles 28:1-4

A couple of generations later, King Mannaseh was at it again:

Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty–five years… 2 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, following the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.  3 He rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole… He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them…  6 He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination… He did much evil in the eyes of the LORD, arousing his anger.

Moreover, Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end.         2 Kings 21:1-16

Once again we find bloodshed and murder reported in a context of human sacrifice.

Passover (doorpost)

Exploring a bit further, we find that this replacing of animal for child sacrifice is prominent at the beginning of Israel’s national story, in the exodus. The firstborn sons of pagan Egypt are forfeit, victims of the angel of death which Yahweh has sent out. But Israel is to redeem its sons by the blood of a lamb. Every house that is ‘covered’ by animal sacrifice will escape the plague, their sons will be safe.

The symbolic power of this story is of course immense. Here in a nutshell is the distinction between Israel’s worship of Yahweh and the nations’ worship of their false gods: the nations end up sacrificing their own sons, while Israel’s sons are protected, replaced by an animal.

This ‘replacement’ idea is made more explicit in the Torah’s teaching about future first born sons. Smack bang in the middle of the exodus narrative, we read:

The LORD said to Moses: “Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.”…

“When the LORD has brought you into the land of the Canaanites..and has given it to you,  you shall set apart to the LORD all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the LORD’S.  … Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem.   When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall answer, ‘By strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.  When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from human firstborn to the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD every male that first opens the womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.’                               from Exodus 13:1-15

Here, built into the foundational story of Israel, is the idea of replacing human sacrifice with animal. At the Passover, Yahweh established a new pattern for his new people, and they are to follow it from now on: animals may be offered to Yahweh, but “every firstborn son I redeem”.

Placing this material at the climax of the exodus narrative is giving it prime-time airing. It’s like placing it at eye height on the special display stand in the supermarket. The departure from Egypt is held up while we receive instructions about just two things: the passover festival and the redeeming of the firstborn with an animal. In other words, this theme is found here at the roots of Israel’s identity, at the heart of the Law. God in his kindness has provided Israel with animal sacrifice as a substitute, to put an end to human sacrifice.

This is prima facie evidence for our thesis that the Torah sacrificial system was given to Israel to restrain and replace traditional human sacrifice with animal sacrifice. How would this account for the large amount of space given sacrificial law in the Torah?


If the Torah sacrificial system was given to Israel to restrain and replace their traditional and ongoing tendency towards human sacrifice, then this would explain why so much detail and repetition was needed. The massive length and complexity of these laws would serve for emphasis, needed since this animal-only approach to sacrifice would have gone against the grain for ANE peoples. It is no small thing to dislodge religious traditions in a community, as we will see. They needed to know that Yahweh really meant it.

Also, the extensive detail about sacrifices ensured that in every case, priest and people were clear what sort of sacrifice was required. There was no room for misunderstanding, or for the idea to creep in the back door that there were still occasions for human sacrifice. All bases were covered, as it were. The extended law-code then functioned as a shield, spread as broadly as possible over Israel’s life, protecting against the horrors of pagan religious practice.

To confirm this thesis, we will need to demonstrate more thoroughly the Hebrews instinct and temptation towards human sacrifice. We would expect some evidence of ongoing difficulty, of a persistent struggle Israel faced in attempting to avoid this pagan practice. We also need to examine any further instances in the Torah or later canonical writings where human sacrifice is guarded against or prohibited, or where the two sacrificial systems are contrasted.

Tomorrow: The Hebrew instinct for human sacrifice

The next sacrifice is that of Noah, where the writer is careful to specify what he offered: birds and animals (Gen. 8:20). God’s instructions at the time reinforce this practice:

Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.  4 Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.   For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.

Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind.                     Genesis. 9:3-6

God gives the meat of animals as food, but not their blood, for this is ‘their life’. The implication here is that the blood was reserved for God, i.e. for sacrifice. Later Mosaic laws clarify: animals’ blood is to be poured out on the ground as an offering. Here, in Genesis 9, this animal sacrifice is what Noah has just done, which pleased Yahweh (Gen. 8:21).

Genesis 9:5 is not totally clear in the Hebrew, but taken with v.6 it says God will not tolerate the shedding of human blood. Notice the sacrificial context here: animal blood is reserved for sacrifice, but human blood must not be ‘poured out’ (Hebrew shofek). In the Torah and later this word ‘poured’ is normally used of the pouring of sacrificial blood. But it is also used of bloodshed more generally, suggesting a link between these two practices. By early readers, accustomed to pagan religion, the prohibition of bloodshed would have likely been heard as equally (or at the same time) a prohibition of human sacrifice.

The poetic form of the command to Noah, which interrupts the narrative flow for a time, gives prominence to these words. For the writer this is clearly an important moment: this prohibition needed to be heard. This suggests it was something particularly relevant for the original readers. It seems this is a practice they were likely to fall into, that either human sacrifice was lodged in the instincts of the Hebrews, or that it was so prevalent in the nations around them that it would be a serious temptation – or most probably, both.

Abraham’s Sacrifice

Abraham was in the habit of offering sacrifices to Yahweh, the God who had called him (Genesis 12:8; 13:4; 13:18). The one outstanding and lengthy sacrifice story involving Abraham is the shocking account of the near-sacrifice of Isaac on the mountain at Moriah (Genesis 22). Yahweh is testing Abraham’s loyalty: “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Genesis 22:12). But equally Yahweh is revealing himself. At first it seems he is the sort of God who requires these kind of human sacrifices. For Abraham this is probably understandable: that’s what gods are like. He may himself have in the past worshipped gods who made this sort of demand. Abraham is willing to obey now. But the test turns out to be a lesson in the character of this God who has called him:

“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him”…

And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.” Genesis 22:12-14

Yahweh provides a substitute for the child: an animal. This is a significant moment for the anti-human-sacrifice polemic we have already encountered: Yahweh does not wish to receive the blood of this boy. He provides a replacement to prevent it.


It is our contention in this study that the story of Abraham at Moriah can be read as a microcosm or parable for the whole sacrificial system of Israel given by Moses. Given to a people who had human sacrifice deep in their cultural ‘psyche’, and as a dominant mode of religion in their environment, the Torah sacrificial system is an attempt to restrain those tendencies and replace them with animal sacrifice. In the Torah, Yahweh in effect says to his people, ‘Do not lay your hand on your children or do anything to them’. Instead of their sons, to be offered up as burnt offerings, he provides them with an animal.

The Shedding of Blood – 2: Cain

Posted: February 19, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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Running through the OT is a polemic contrasting two different sacrificial approaches, and this issue of human sacrifice is at the heart of the matter. Even before the problem of sacrifice to other gods becomes a theme after the exodus, the problem of human sacrifice is already in the spotlight.

From the beginning, in Genesis 4, Abel’s murder at the hands of his brother occurs in a context of sacrifice. Cain has offered ‘the fruit of the ground’, and been rejected, while Abel’s meat offering was accepted. Cain’s next move is to pour out his brother’s blood on the ground. This aspect of the pouring out of the blood is emphasised by repetition in Yahweh’s indictment:

Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!  And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  Gen. 4:10-11

This image of the blood poured out on the ground is typical sacrificial imagery. The idea of ‘the ground’ links Cain’s offering and his murder. No doubt Cain was motivated to murder by jealous rage. But he has also done something to the ground which had born him inadequate fruit: he has poured blood on it, human blood. This would be a natural-enough practice for an ANE person, and it would probably be natural for an early reader to see a sacrificial dimension in the text.

Yahweh makes it clear that Cain’s act was totally misguided. Far from bringing blessing on the ground, this pouring out of human blood has cursed it (4:11-12). Abel’s animal sacrifice was accepted, but the blood Cain has poured out it an abomination. This theme of the polluting of the land by human sacrifice, will recur through the OT (cf. Numbers 35:33) – an ongoing disagreement with other religions which saw it as a source of prosperity and blessing.

Cain, convinced of his crime, is now worried that someone else will seek to atone for his murder by shedding his blood. This righting of the balance by bloodshed seems to have been the natural scheme of things. God places a mark on Cain, to make sure that no one else follows his lead and sheds his blood to atone for the murder.

The point is not so much to understand Cain’s motives, which were clearly wicked, but to see the way his actions are portrayed in the story. The writer (call him Moses), will go on to develop this human sacrifice issue extensively: not surprising if he sees it foreshadowed in this story, with its contrast between the first animal sacrifice and the first shedding of human blood.