Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament


Some people have argued that God demanded human sacrifice, based on the following verses:

1. Leviticus 27:28-29 (NASB)

Nevertheless, anything which a man sets apart to the LORD out of all that he has, of man or animal or of the fields of his own property, shall not be sold or redeemed. Anything devoted to destruction is most holy to the LORD.

No one who may have been set apart among men shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death.

2. Exodus 22:29-30

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day.

3. Joshua 6:21

They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it - men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

4. Numbers 31:25-30, 40-41 (NKJV)

Now the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: "Count up the plunder that was taken - of man and beast - you and Eleazar the priest and the chief fathers of the congregation; and divide the plunder into two parts, between those who took part in the war, who went out to battle, and all the congregation. And levy a tribute for the LORD on the men of war who went out to battle: one of every five hundred of the persons, the cattle, the donkeys, and the sheep; take it from their half, and give it to Eleazar the priest as a heave offering to the LORD. And from the children of Israel's half you shall take one of every fifty, drawn from the persons, the cattle, the donkeys, and the sheep, from all the livestock, and give them to the Levites who keep charge of the tabernacle of the LORD."

The persons were sixteen thousand, of which the LORD's tribute was thirty-two persons. So Moses gave the tribute which was the LORD's heave offering to Eleazar the priest, as the LORD commanded Moses.

5. Genesis 22:2

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

6. Judges 11:30-39

And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break."

"My father," she replied, "you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry."

"You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed.


There are several verses that indicate that God is against child sacrifice. God expressly forbids it:

and its practice is described as evil:

The Old Testament stops just short of forbidding all human sacrifice, for Jesus was a (voluntary, adult) human sacrifice and clearly his sacrifice was acceptable to God. (See Was Jesus' death a violation of the commandment against human sacrifice? by Glenn Miller for more on this.) However, the OT doesn't prescribe or require human sacrifice. All the rules concerning what sorts of offerings were acceptable for various purposes mention only animals, birds, and grain - humans are never mentioned as an option. In fact, humans in general would not be acceptable as sacrifices because their sin made them imperfect, and only perfect sacrifices were acceptable.1 (Hence Jesus is the only human who could ever be accepted as a sacrifice.)

1. Lev. 27:28-29 Looking at the passage more closely, it uses the phrase "devoted to destruction for the Lord," not "sacrifice" or "offering" as is used in the rest of the chapter (and book). "Devoted to destruction" is a phrase applied to things (usually associated with sin) that God ordered the destruction of, as opposed to sacrifice of. (See the response to 3.) Also, it's not encouraging the devotion of people to destruction, but merely saying that if anyone or anything is devoted to destruction, it's final.

2. Ex. 22:29-30 True, God said, "The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether man or animal."2 God then instructed the Israelites, "Redeem every firstborn among your sons,"3 and provided a way for them to be redeemed: "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."4 God didn't intend for Ex. 22 to require the physical sacrifice of the firstborn; if he did, he wouldn't have provided a way for them to be redeemed.

3. Joshua 6:21 God called for the destruction of the city as opposed to the sacrifice of the city. The difference is illustrated in the account of Saul's rejection as king (1 Samuel 15:17-23, 32-33):

Samuel said, "Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, `Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.' Why did you not obey the LORD? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the LORD?"

"But I did obey the LORD," Saul said. "I went on the mission the LORD assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal."

But Samuel replied: "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king."

...

Then Samuel said, "Bring me Agag king of the Amalekites." Agag came to him confidently, thinking, "Surely the bitterness of death is past."

But Samuel said, "As your sword has made women childless, so will your mother be childless among women." And Samuel put Agag to death before the LORD at Gilgal.

God distinguished between destruction and sacrifice, for he stated that the cities were to be destroyed as punishment for their wrongdoing5 and he rejected Saul for intending to sacrifice the sheep instead of destroying them immediately. Saul also made a distinction, for he set aside the sheep and cattle to be sacrificed later instead of slaughtering them in the city. Sacrifices had to be made in a certain way for them to be acceptable; simply killing the animals did not qualify.6 The same would hold true for humans, if the humans would have been acceptable sacrifices (which they were not, because of their sin).

Secondly, the notion of sacrifice involves the giving up of something by the person making the sacrifice. For example, even the poor were required to sacrifice something they owned as a sin offering,7 and David refused to make a sacrifice that cost him nothing.8 Killing men in battle was self-defense, something the Israelites would have done anyway, and destroying the rest of the town before they had taken anything in plunder would not be a sacrifice either.

4. Num. 31:25-41 At first glance, this appears to call for the sacrifice of people, since they are to be given as an offering. However, the actual phrase used is "heave offering," which indicates the part of an offering or sacrifice that was given to the priests:

Part of the plunder was to be given to God as a tithe, but God instructed that it be given to the high priest and the Levites as provision for them. This makes sense, since this passage deals with the division of the spoils among the soldiers and the rest of the Israelites. Thus the people mentioned were not sacrificed, but probably became servants to the priests.

5. Genesis 22:2 God gave this commandment as a test of Abraham's faith: did Abraham place God first in his life, or did he value his son more highly than God? Since this was a direct command from God, Abraham was right to obey it - he knew that God was trustworthy and would not require him to do wrong. He demonstrated his faith by preparing to make the sacrifice; yet before he carried it out, God stopped him and told him not to kill Isaac. Clearly God did not want the sacrifice itself, or he would not have prevented it from happening. See also the article on Abraham and Isaac.

6. Judges 11:30-39 Though this incident is recorded in the Bible, it does not mean that God approved of it. Jephthah placed himself in this situation by rashly making a vow (which, incidentally, the Bible warns against doing: see Proverbs 20:25). Once it was made, he had to sin either by breaking his vow or by sacrificing his daughter.

Glenn Miller points out that burnt offerings had to be male, yet another reason why the sacrifice wouldn't have been condoned by God.9


Footnotes

1. Lev 22:20-21 (Back to article)
2. Ex 13:2 (Back to article)
3. Ex 13:13 (Back to article)
4. Num 3:12-13 (Back to article)
5. 1 Sam 15:2-3 (Back to article)
6. Lev 17:3-6 (Back to article)
7. Lev 5:5-11 (Back to article)
8. 1 Chr 21:18-25 (Back to article)
9. Lev 22:18-19. From Women in the Heart of God (IIc) by Glenn Miller - scroll to section 5, near the end. (Back to article)


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