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.