The Shedding of Blood -7: Human Sacrifice and the Torah Sacrificial Laws

Posted: February 25, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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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.


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