Human sacrifice is at once a most disturbing and inspiring theme of the Scriptures. It can demonstrate both what is wrong with the world and what is right. Let me explain.
First, we must consider the fact that the Canaanites did in fact do it, and so did Israel. Recently, I was researching this topic for my forthcoming commentary on the book of Judges (in Baker’s Teach the Text series) which recounts Jephthah’s horrific sacrifice of his daughter (11:30-40), a section I like to call “chapter 11 bankruptcy.” I was struck by the realization that human sacrifice is, sadly, quite common in Scripture. While it is strongly forbidden in the Pentateuch (Lev 18:21; 20:1-5; Deut 12:31; 18:10; cf., Gen 22:2, 12-13), the Israelites nevertheless partake in various forms of the practice from the settlement period to the exile (Judg 11:30-40; 1 Kgs 16:34 [cf., Josh 6:26]; 2 Kgs 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chron 28:3; 33:6; Ps 106:37-38; Isa 57:5; Jer 7:31; 19:5-6; 32:35; Ezek 16:20-21, 36; 20:26, 31; 23:37-39; Hos 13:2; Mic 6:7). In fact, there are far more references in the Bible to Israelites perpetrating the practice than there are to Canaanites!
The practice is also an “abomination” that is associated with Canaanite religion (Deut 12:31; 18:9-14; cf., 2 Kgs 17:31; Isa 66:3), and it is demonstrated by the Moabite king Mesha in 2 Kings 3:27 (cf., Am 2:1). The votive offering of a child appears to be an extreme and desperate wartime measure (to achieve victory) in the cases of Jephthah and Mesha, and perhaps also in Egyptian reliefs of besieged cities in the thirteenth century BC (e.g., Pharaoh Merneptah’s siege on Ashkelon). Archaeological evidence for human sacrifice may also be represented at ancient sites throughout the Mediterranean world and in Phoenician-Punic and classical texts.
OK, so I have reviewed the “disturbing” angle on human sacrifice, but what about the alleged “inspiring” part? Well, a Christian cannot reflect on this topic without considering the ultimate human sacrifice in Scripture, the death of Jesus Christ. Christ sacrificed himself, and Christians should follow suit. It is arguably the case that all forms of human sacrifice in the ancient Near East (apart from the Christian expression) are motivated by self interests—preserving life, appeasing deity, demonstrating loyalty, etc.—at the cost of victimizing others. Perhaps this is why the historical practice is so repulsive to God and why it is antithetical to the human sacrifice of Jesus who selflessly victimizes himself in order to preserve and save the lives of others. Ironically, human sacrifice motivated by selflessness is the greatest expression of love and life (Matt 10:38-39; 16:24-25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 9:23-24; John 15:13; Rom 12:1; Eph 5:2, 25; Phil 2:1-18; 2 Tim 4:6; cf., Isa 53), and Christians are called to practice it continually.
Thus, the Canaanites did it and the Israelites did it for all the wrong reasons. It was a thorough perversion of the way things ought to be. But Jesus also modeled it and Christians should aspire to it for all the right reasons. As an expression of love, human self-sacrifice can be a thorough demonstration of the way things ought to be.