Posted by Clark Bates
March 16, 2019
In the summer of last year, I was blessed with the opportunity to study at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. The city is truly amazing, with a history so profound that it’s often hard to fathom that you’re actually walking down the same streets as some of the most famous minds of all time. I stood in the gardens where Lewis Carroll was inspired to write Alice in Wonderland, wept on the spot where Latimer and Ridley were burned alive for the Protestant faith, and even held the oldest piece of the Gospel of Matthew in my hands. It was truly a profound experience, but one of the more fascinating days for me was a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum. This museum houses artifacts from every age of civilization and even many fossils from long before.
In one corner of the immense building is a two-story room lined with the various weaponry throughout history. In the center are curiosities from all over the world, used by peoples long gone. Suffice it to say, there are some very dark elements to some of these exhibits, not the least of which is the display of actual human heads shrunk by tribes in the Amazon, as well as the pieces of victims of cannibal tribes recovered many years ago. Amidst this gruesome display, much is written on the practice of human sacrifices in cultures all around the world, and while this topic is often too disturbing for many to reflect on, it has made me consider an interesting, although morbid, truth: The practice of human sacrifice can be found in all regions of the world.
A Sacrifice I Desire…
The Bible even speaks of human sacrifice, specifically in the form of infant sacrifice. In the book of 2 Kings we read of King Josiah enacting sweeping changes across the land of Israel:
“He brought all the priests from the cities of Judah and ruined the high places where the priests had offered sacrifices, from Geba to Beer Sheba. He tore down the high place of the goat idols situated at the entrance of the gate of Joshua, the city official, on the left side of the city gate. . . . The king ruined Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom so that no one could pass his son or his daughter through the fire to Molech.” (2 Ki. 23:8-10)
The phrase “pass his son or his daughter through the fire to Molech” refers to the Canaanite practice of offering living infant children to the god Molech, by burning them alive on his altar.
Later on, in a prophecy given to Jeremiah, we read that YHWH will judge the nation of Israel for committing this very same practice:
“They set up their disgusting idols in the temple which I have claimed for my own and defiled it. They built places of worship for the god Baal in the valley of Ben Hinnom so that they could sacrifice their sons and daughters to the god Molech.” (Jer. 32:34-35a)
The act of human sacrifice was common in the Ancient Near East as a means of finding favor with the gods. Archaeology has confirmed this practice not only here, but all over the world:
- Between 1922 and 1934, archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley excavated the Royal Cemetery of Ur, wherein several rooms were unearthed containing human remains in what appeared to be a primitive human sacrifice ritual.
- In Homeric legend, the King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigeneia, to the goddess Artemis, so that the Greeks would be victorious in the Trojan War.
- Phoenicians and Carthaginians sacrificed infants to the gods. In the child cemetery known to archaeologists as Tophet (literally “roasting place”), spoken of in OT, it is estimated that 20,000 urns containing the remains of infant sacrifices were found.
- According to Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca historica there were ancient Greeks in the 1st century BC that also practiced infant sacrifice. He writes, “There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.”
- Cicero claims that puppets thrown from the Pons Suplicius by the Vestal Virgins in a processional ceremony were substitutes for the past sacrifice of old men.
- According to Roman sources, CelticDruids engaged extensively in human sacrifice. According to Julius Caesar, the slaves and dependents of Gauls of rank would be burnt along with the body of their master as part of his funerary rites. He also describes how they built wicker figures that were filled with living humans and then burned.
- The ancient Chinese are known to have made drowned sacrifices of men and women to the river god, Hebo.
Given the widespread nature of human/infant sacrifice, it would seem that there is something common to the various cultures of mankind that relates sacrifice to a deity as essential. Of course, there were various reasons for sacrifices to be made. In some cases, servants were sacrificed at the death of their masters so that they would serve them in the afterlife. In others, sacrifices were made for blessing at war, or even harvest. On a wide scale, no matter what the specific purpose of the sacrifice, the general reasoning was that the one making the sacrifice needed to gain favor in the eyes of the deity. The Bible uses another word for favor, “grace”. It also stands to reason that the more important the thing being sacrificed was to the one making the sacrifice, the more value it would have in gaining this “grace” from God.
In the Bible, we read that the practice of infant sacrifice, and human sacrifice as well, is considered an abomination to God. In the book of Leviticus, we read that:
“You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you…. You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord…. do none of these abominations…” (Lev. 18:3;21;26)
What’s more, YHWH condemns the practice harshly, saying:
“Say to the people of Israel, anyone of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.” (Lev. 20:1-5)
It becomes clear that while this practice was common among the nations, it was not commanded by YHWH.
Exceptions to the Rule?
Of course, the careful reader will immediately think of two exceptions, Abraham and Jepthah. Given what has been read above, there must be a contextual light given by which these other examples should be read. I have written on the “near” sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham here, but suffice it to say that the purpose of this act is clarified in Scripture, not as a demand for a child sacrifice, but both as a test of Abraham’s faith and a foreshadowing of what was to come in Jesus.
The story of Jepthah takes place in the book of Judges. A dark book, recounting a time of wickedness in Israel heretofore unknown. It is said to be a time when “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The book of Judges serves more as a cautionary tale than any form of prescriptive practice. Even the “heroes” of each narrative are flawed and failing. Jepthah is one such “hero”. We read in Judges 11 that he has been recruited by Israel to defeat the oppressive Ammonites. A crafty man, and an astute warrior, it seems that this judge of Israel will do well. Then we come to his tragic vow:
“And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering’…. Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.” (Jdg. 11:30-31;34)
Much discussion has gone into what exactly happened here. Some surmise that Jepthah did not sacrifice his daughter in the sense of killing her, but rather devoted her to virginal service in the tabernacle. I do not believe this to be the case. There is nothing in the text to suggest that this sacrifice was any different than the standard use of the term throughout to the rest of the Hebrew Bible. What’s more, the act of child sacrifice was common among the Ammonites and the entire theme of the book of Judges is one wherein the Israelites are conforming to the habits of their oppressors. Additionally, there is no command from YHWH for Jepthah to make this vow. His actions are rash and troubling, but this example does not contain a request for human sacrifice from YHWH.
Given all of this, the fact that human sacrifice was practiced widely in the world but that the God of Israel declared it to be evil, how can I title this article as I have? Because the God of the Bible does demand a human sacrifice…once. That sacrifice came in the form of a man named Jesus of Nazareth:
“For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.” (Heb. 7:26-27)
Eternity in their Hearts
Years ago, an author named Don Richardson wrote a book titled Eternity in their Hearts wherein he cataloged multiple cultures all across the world and their belief systems. He found that if he traced the beliefs back far enough, even the most pluralistic societies once believed in a singular, supreme deity, from which humanity fell and could not return to its presence. The pantheon of gods was meant to act as a go-between for these people to the supreme god. I believe there is something similar observed here. All across the world, it was recognized that mankind was lacking the grace of God needed them in daily life. In addition to this, they recognized that this “grace” could not come by any means other than a sacrifice. To obtain the most “grace” the sacrifice must be most valuable, which then translates to the sacrifice of another human being. All of this represents a fallen, warped understanding of the greater message of the Gospel, that God does demand a sacrifice, and that sacrifice must take the form of a human, but it is not a sacrifice any human can give.
In no way am I suggesting that human sacrifice, like that practiced among pagan people, was, in any way, acceptable unto God. Far from it. What I am suggesting, is that the recognition of a need for a supreme sacrifice on behalf of mankind to gain the grace of God is intrinsically written on the hearts of all men. On a subconscious level, all cultures possess the knowledge that they are separated from God, and the only way back to a right relationship with Him is a sacrifice. It seems natural for the human mind, especially in its fallen state, to conclude that a sacrifice to God must be something valuable to the person making the sacrifice. Therefore, the more valuable the sacrifice, the farther it will go towards attaining grace. And what could be more valuable than another human being? What could be more valuable than a human being in one’s own family? What could be more valuable than a precious child born to the sacrificer himself? Enter infant sacrifice.
The truth is, God does require a human sacrifice. He does require a valuable sacrifice. But it is a sacrifice no human on earth can offer, for the value required is beyond the value of any human being. In order to satisfy this requirement, God himself became a human being, Jesus of Nazareth. He walked as a human, talked as a human, hungered and thirst as a human, even wept as a human. And then he offered himself as a sacrifice, dying as a human. But because he was not JUST human, death could not hold him, and he rose again, conquering death and returning to the Father in heaven. A sacrifice was required and a sacrifice was given. Because of this, there is no need for sacrifices of flesh to God, only the living sacrifice of a life wholly devoted to Him, lived in accordance to His will, in recognition of the grace provided.
 Salisbury, Joyce E. (1997). Perpetua’s Passion: The Death and Memory of a Young Roman Woman. Routledge. p. 228.
 Cicero “Pro Roscio Amerino” 35.100
 J. A. MacCulloch. “The Religion of the Ancient Celts – ch xvi, 1911”.
Gaius Julius Caesar Commentaries on the Gallic War – Book VI:19, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869; and Gaius Julius Caesar Commentaries on the Gallic War – Book VI:16, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869.
 Strassberg, Richard E. (2002). A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. Berkeley: University of California Press. Page 202.