The Shedding of Blood – 6: The Hebrew Instinct for Human Sacrifice (cont.)

Posted: February 23, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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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.

  1. Alan Wood says:

    Just two little things, Jonathan:
    God is down on murder, too, right?
    How did scattering human bones defile a place of human sacrifice?

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks Alan, I think your first point is that it’s not just the sacrifice aspect that makes bloodshed sinful in the OT. I think you’re right. Murder is murder. My point in these posts is that more often than we realise, there were sacrificial overtones to bloodshedding. Religion was so much more integrated into the lives of the people, it wasn’t just one compartment. When Daniel’s mates were sent into the fiery furnace, were they a burnt offering? Probably had at least at hint of that about it.

      The human bones, I think you’re meaning Josiah’s reform in 2 Kings 23. It was predicted by a prophet in 1 Kings 13. I think maybe human bones make things unclean, like dead bodies do. So you can defile an altar’s holy status with them. Maybe.

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