Thursday, December 13, 2012

Does Scripture condone child sacrifice?

Thom Stark wrote a longwinded attack (“Is God a Moral Compromiser?” available online) on Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster?

Stark is a “Christian” of the John Spong variety. He’s a theological soul mate of Randal Rauser, who’s often written sympathetically about Stark’s material. I’m going to concentrate on one of Stark’s prooftexts:

After quoting Ezk 20:23-26, Stark says:

Some Israelites were appealing to the law of Moses to justify the institution of child sacrifice. Exod 22:29b says: “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me.” With good reason, Israelites interpreted this as a command to sacrifice their firstborn children to Yahweh.

Ezekiel admits that Yahweh did in fact command the Israelites in the wilderness to sacrifice “all their firstborn” to him. But Ezekiel reinterprets this as a “bad command”… (89).

Stark’s analysis suffers from multiple confusions:

i) He assumes that Ezekiel is alluding to Exod 22:29. However, that’s not the only passage which uses this type of language. As one commentator points out:

Part of the vocabulary of v26 (“every opening of the womb,” “make over”) echoes the law of the redemption of the firstborn particularly represented in Exod 13:12-13. It ruled that, whereas firstborn male sacrificial animals were to be sacrificed, firstborn sons were to be redeemed with money paid to the sanctuary. L. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48 (Word 1990), 12.

If that’s what Ezekiel is actually alluding to, then that’s hardly a command to perform child sacrifice. Just the opposite: it’s a command to redeem firstborn sons.

ii) But even if Ezekiel is alluding to Exod 22:29, Stark misconstrues that passage. As one commentator explains:

The giving of the firstborn of animal and child to the Lord has already surfaced in Exodus (13:1-2,11-13), and will appear later in 34:19-20. There is one major difference between the data in chap. 22 and that in chaps. 13 and 34. Both chaps. 13 and 34 urge the parent to “redeem” (with a sheep maybe?) every firstborn son (Exod 13:13b; 34:20b). Exod 22:29 omits any reference to the “redemption” of the firstborn son.

In response, I say that the primary emphasis on these two verses is on giving to the Lord the first and best of one’s agricultural and animal products. The statement about the giving of the firstborn son is terse and almost parenthetical. Hence, the data is truncated and is to be “filled in” with the fuller data from chaps. 13 and 34.

Second, there are other passages in the Bible of individuals “given” to the Lord with no mention of their being “redeemed.” For example, when Hannah prayerfully vows, “If you will…give [me] a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life” (1 Sam 1:11), does she mean “sacrifice” the child, or dedicate/hand over the child? Similarly, Num 8:16 refers to the Levites as those “who are to be given wholly to me.” “Wholly given” surely does not mean “sacrificed,” but “dedicated.” V. Hamilton, Exodus: An Exegetical Commentary (Baker 2011), 418-19.

In other words, Exod 22:29 is just a shorthand statement, qualified by other statements of the same kind in the same book.

iii) Stark has Ezekiel deliberately opposing the Mosaic law. Yet Ezekiel revered the authority of the Mosaic law (Ezk 22:26). His indictment of Israel in Ezk 5-6 invokes the curse sanctions in Lev 26. His indictment of Israel in 8:5-18 has its background in the Mosaic prohibitions contained in Exod 20:3-6, Num 33:52, Deut 4:1-20, 5:1-12, and 17:2-5.

iv) Ezekiel is addressing the exilic community. But why were the Jews exiled in the first place? Because they were covenant-breakers. Because they disobeyed the Mosaic law.

And they were exiled, not merely because they disobeyed God’s law. Rather, their disobedience took a specific form. They disobeyed God’s law by defiantly doing the very things which God solemnly forbad. By emulating the abominable practices of their pagan neighbors. That’s the very thing which the Mosaic law forewarned them to studiously avoid (e.g. Lev 18:21, 20:1-6; Deut 12:31, 18:9-13).

Now, on Stark’s interpretation, he has Ezekiel telling the Jews that God banished them, not for disobeying his commands, but for obeying his commands. According to Stark, God originally commanded the Jews to practice child sacrificed, the Jews complied, then God punished them for obeying his command. Of course, that interpretation is utterly nonsensical.

v) As one commentator notes, 

Some interpreters even take 20:26 as implying that Yahweh commanded the Israelites to sacrifice their children to Molech, but it is clear in 16:20-21 that Jerusalem acted against Yahweh's will and express command when, as the folding baby girl turned whore, she slaughtered the children she had borne to Yahweh by making them pass through the fire (the same act of which the people are accused here. H. Hummel, Ezekiel 1-20 (Concordia 2005), 596-97. 

vi) Finally, Stark has a tin ear for Ezekiel’s morbid sarcasm, which he employs for shock value. As one commentator observes:

Ezekiel is being horrendously controversial in this whole chapter, creating a rhetorical parody of Israel’s history in order to highlight its worst side. In a context of such sustained sarcasm and irony, we cannot suddenly take a verse like this as a face-value doctrinal or historical affirmation. C. Wright, The Message of Ezekiel (IVP 2001), 160.


  1. Hi Steve,

    Herem killing is a form of sacrifice and the OT has many, many instances of Yahweh-commanded herem killing, including the slaughter of women, the elderly, infants, and entire societies. In all those instances those people are being sacrificed to Yahweh.

    If you haven't read Susan Niditch's book "War in the Hebrew Bible" then I recommend that you invest the time.

    1. I'm familiar with your equivocation regarding the "sacrificial" nature of herem killing. That claim is part of your schtick.

    2. Your comment is irrelevant to my specific post. We can discuss your assertion, but it's not a counter to my post.

    3. Steve, your reply is worth a face-in-palme d'or. Israelite genocide was a form of holy war conditioned on the herem offering of all human beings, possessions and lifestock to God. When you deny the obvious you show your igrnoance.

    4. RD Rauser said:

      "Steve, your reply is worth a face-in-palme d'or. . . . When you deny the obvious you show your igrnoance [sic]."

      Amusingly enough, one could say misspelling "ignorance" when accusing someone else of ignorance is worth a Face Palme d'Or. Zut alors!

    5. RD Rauser

      "Steve, your reply is worth a face-in-palme d'or. Israelite genocide was a form of holy war conditioned on the herem offering of all human beings, possessions and lifestock to God. When you deny the obvious you show your igrnoance."

      i) Once again, your allegation is irrelevant to the specific content of my post. The fact that you feel the need to change the subject is a backdoor admission on your part that I was right.

      ii) In addition, you're playing a semantic shellgame, where you equate holy war and the herem offering with "sacrifice." That's a bait-n-switch scam, in which you trade on the semantic ambiguity of generic terms ("holy," "offering") to make a claim that's more specific than the data you vaguely adduce.

      iii) You also continue your duplicitous tactic of imputing to opponents things they didn't affirm or deny.

    6. For instance, to say that herem killing is "sacrificial" plays on Classical connotations of human sacrifice to appease the gods. Rauser needs to specify what he means.

  2. I guess I should ask, "Why would it be wrong if Yahweh demanded the wiping out of a society?" Is there an ethical standard above God? I fail to see why God would be kept to the moral standards of men, he could have a perfectly good reason for not allowing them to live, especially in the framework of salvation history. Maybe I am callous, but I don't see what the big deal is, its in scripture, so...

  3. Pseudo-Augustine

    God is supposedly just, loving and righteous. But the Bible portrays God as ordering the targeted killing of innocent women, children and babies in 1 Samuel 15.

    If you whitewash these crimes then maybe you are callous...

    1. Paul, as a Muslim apologist, don't you have a similar problem in Islam? Didn't Muhammad do a lot of killing in the name of Allah?

    2. Nowhere does the Quran command the targeted killing of innocent children and babies. During his life, Muhammad gave various injunctions to his forces and adopted practices toward the conduct of war. The most important of these were summarized by Muhammad's companion and first Caliph, Abu Bakr, in the form of ten rules for the Muslim army:
      “ O people! I charge you with ten rules; learn them well!
      Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone'

      See 'Islamic military jurisprudence':

    3. i) Wikipedia is hardly a serious source of information on the topic at hand.

      ii) You're appealing to Hadiths of dubious historicity.

      iii) Muslims simply redefine who is innocent. Women and children of infidels are classified as the enemy for jihadist purposes. They are fair game.

  4. I've remained aloof of the Arminianism/Calvinism thing. But if this is the way that their standard-bearers treat the OT...

    Anyone heard of Marcion? Anybody?

    1. Derek how do you deal with 1 Samuel 15 then?

  5. What's your problem with 1 Sam 15?

  6. Derek did you not bother to read the comments above?

    God is supposedly just, loving and righteous. But the Bible portrays God as ordering the targeted killing of innocent women, children and babies in 1 Samuel 15.

    If you don't see a problem then maybe your moral compass is defective...

    1. That's ironic coming from a convert to Islam, a militant religion if ever there was one.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I read your tendentious whining. Amalek attacked God's chosen ones and they paid the price for it. It's not my problem that you are bothered by the fact that the Holy God of the universe is not one to be screwed with.