The Shedding of Blood – 8: Other Torah laws

Posted: February 26, 2013 by J in Bible, Theology
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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.


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