The Shedding of Blood – 4: exodus

Posted: February 21, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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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

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