The Horror and Splendor of Human Sacrifice

By Kenneth Way Mar. 19, 2012 8:00 a.m. Biblical Exposition, Ethics, New Testament, Old Testament, Theology

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.


  • Mike Sanborn Mar. 19, 2012 at 10:30 AM

    Well you certainly got everyone's attention with this title! I was wondering where you were going to go with this :) Good article, Ken.

  • Jean Way Koenig Mar. 19, 2012 at 10:48 AM

    I'm learning through this course I'm taking (Perspectives) how right you are. I have become deeply convicted about how soft I am, and how we are each called as Christ's follower's to be willing and ready to truly take up our cross and follow him. May God find me faithful should that day come.

  • Ed Morsey Mar. 19, 2012 at 11:16 AM

    Very thought-provoking. Thanks.
    I had a classmate at UCSD who burned himself to death in protest of the Vietnam war. Presumably, his motive was to stop the killing so as to save lives. How is this different than what the Bible is advocating?

  • Kenneth Way Mar. 20, 2012 at 9:11 AM

    Ed, was your friend’s name Mesha or perhaps Jephthah? I see some analogy to the ways that all three of these individuals made sacrifices in order to change the outcome of a war (cf., Judg 11; 2 Kgs 3). I suppose if your friend did what he did out of love for neighbor (rather than for purely selfish reasons, such as notoriety or vindication) then he could be on the right track. However, his tactics also strike me as unwise when one considers his other available options that could effect some change.

  • Tim Mar. 20, 2012 at 3:52 PM

    On more than one occasion in reading online or in free curbside newspapers, the kind full of Christianity hate, I find them ragging on Christianity being the human sacrifice religion - referring to Jesus sacrifice himself for us. It is common for these folk to ignore any contact or engage with any distinction to give it proper understanding. They also ignore one of their favorite practices of sacrificing unborn children to secure sexual activity and personal convenience. Also the idea that the very liberty they enjoy was purchased with the willing human sacrifice of many through out history and those of first responders today.

  • MTS Mar. 21, 2012 at 10:55 PM

    Interesting article. I wonder how a discussion of God's requesting Abraham to sacrifice his son would fit into this article. We understand it as foreshadowing, but it begs the question of why God would ask him to do something abhorrent. The answer undoubtedly would deepen our understanding of who God is.

  • Ken Way Mar. 22, 2012 at 1:13 PM

    Since the story of the binding of Isaac (Gen 22) is set before the Sinai revelation, I suspect that the Patriarch would not have viewed human sacrifice as an abomination. Rather, Abraham likely viewed the practice as a demonstration of exceptional devotion to God. Thus God is portrayed in the story as meeting Abraham where he was at (given a limited knowledge of Torah) and communicating with him via practices that were meaningful at that time. The beauty here is, of course, that God did not allow Abraham to follow through with it.

  • Mike Yancy Mar. 28, 2012 at 12:56 PM

    Dr. Way, I read your post with great interest. In one way it makes me think of all the admonitions to make Christianity "culturally relevant." Well, it seems obvious to me that God did make His word culturally relevant to His people while making a clear distinction between what the culture meant by meaningful relevance versus what He had in mind. My first thought upon reading what you said along with all the other comments was of Matthew 16:24, "Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me." (NASB) As I read this verse along with the passage in Philippians 2:1-8, I get a better understanding of what Jesus meant by self sacrifice which makes your object lesson regarding human sacrifice all the more helpful. Not having arrived by any means, I continue to pray that God will show me what true humility means in looking out for the interests of others.

  • Alice C. Linsley Jul. 19, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    Thanks. This is a good piece to prompt deeper thinking on the subject.

    My research has led me to consider the possibility that Abraham's offering of Isaac was faith-based in that he believed that Isaac was the promised Seed of the Woman who would trample down death by death and lead captives to immortality. The ram in the thicket invokes images of Horus who the Horites perceived as rising in the east as a lamb and setting in west as a ram. Lots to ponder.

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