Though thoroughly condemned by later Bible writers and editors, was human sacrifice accepted as a form of worship in early Judaism/archaic Yahwehism? Did the earliest Bible writers think that Yahweh needed to be appeased by the blood and deaths of humans? And if so, do a few vestiges of this abhorrent practice remain in the Bible? Was it only later, as the religion evolved, and people became more enlightened, that people began to think that instead of being appeased by human sacrifice, Yahweh instead detested it?
Certainly there are some Bible verses that condemn the practice. But then again, there are other verses that seem to say that Yahweh DID want and require sacrifices. Here's a look:
In several places the Bible condemns human sacrifice:
“‘You shall not give any of
your children to sacrifice to Molech; neither shall you profane the name of
your God: I am Yahweh. Leviticus
Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,
“Moreover, you shall tell the children of Israel, ‘Anyone of the children
of Israel, or of the strangers who live as foreigners in Israel, who gives any
of his seed to Molech; he shall surely be put to death. The people of the
land shall stone him with stones. I also will set my face against that
person, and will cut him off from among his people because he has given of his
seed to Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name. If
the people of the land all hide their eyes from that person, when
he gives of his seed to Molech, and don’t put him to death; then I
will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off,
and all who play the prostitute after him, to play the prostitute with Molech,
from among their people. Leviticus 20:1-5
take heed to yourself that you not be ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before you; and that you not inquire after their gods, saying, "How do these nations serve their gods? I will do likewise." You shall not do so to Yahweh your God: for every abomination to Yahweh, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods. Deuteronomy 12:30-31
When you are come into the land
which Yahweh your God gives you, you shall not learn to do after the
abominations of those nations. There shall not be found with you anyone
who makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one who uses
divination, one who practices sorcery, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a
charmer, or a consulter with a familiar spirit, or a wizard, or a necromancer.
For whoever does these things is an abomination to Yahweh: and because of
these abominations Yahweh your God does drive them out from before you. Deuteronomy
Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign… He did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh, after the abominations of the nations whom Yahweh cast out before the children of Israel. For he built again the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; and he reared up altars for Baal, and made an Asherah, as did Ahab king of Israel, and worshiped all the army of the sky, and served them... He made his son to pass through the fire, and practiced sorcery, and used enchantments, and dealt with those who had familiar spirits, and with wizards: he worked much evil in the sight of Yahweh, to provoke him to anger. 2 Kings 21:1-6
Yes, they sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons. They shed innocent blood, even the blood of their sons and of their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan. The land was polluted with blood. Thus were they defiled with their works, and prostituted themselves in their deeds. Therefore Yahweh burned with anger against his people. He abhorred his inheritance. Psalm 106:37-40
Yet here is a clear statement from Yahweh to "give the firstborn of your sons to me".
“You shall not delay to offer from your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. “You shall give the firstborn of your sons to me. You shall do likewise with your cattle and with your sheep. Seven days it shall be with its mother, then on the eighth day you shall give it to me. Exodus 22:29-30
Yahweh said that once a person is devoted to him, that person must be put to death, and can't be redeemed.
“‘Notwithstanding, no devoted thing, that a man shall devote to
Yahweh of all that he has, whether of man or animal, or of the field
of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing is most
holy to Yahweh. “‘No one devoted, who shall be devoted from among men,
shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death.
“‘Notwithstanding, no devoted thing, that a man shall devote to Yahweh of all that he has, whether of man or animal, or of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed: every devoted thing is most holy to Yahweh. “‘No one devoted, who shall be devoted from among men, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death.Leviticus 27:28-29
Skeptics cite the battle from Numbers 31 as an instance of human sacrifice. When the Israelites took the prisoners, Yahweh got a cut. One in 500 were sacrificed as Yahweh's wave offering. The Levites got the better deal, they got to keep one in 50 of the people.
Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Take the sum of the prey that was taken, both of man and of animal, you, and Eleazar the priest, and the heads of the fathers’ houses of the congregation; and divide the prey into two parts: between the men skilled in war, who went out to battle, and all the congregation. Levy a tribute to Yahweh of the men of war who went out to battle: one soul of five hundred, both of the persons, and of the cattle, and of the donkeys, and of the flocks: take it of their half, and give it to Eleazar the priest, for Yahweh’s wave offering. Of the children of Israel’s half, you shall take one drawn out of every fifty, of the persons, of the cattle, of the donkeys, and of the flocks, even of all the livestock, and give them to the Levites, who perform the duty of the tabernacle of Yahweh.” ...The persons were sixteen thousand; of whom Yahweh's tribute was thirty-two persons. Moses gave the tribute, which was Yahweh's wave offering, to Eleazar the priest, as Yahweh commanded Moses. Numbers 31:25-30, 40-41
After the Holy Spirit came upon him (or the "Spirit of the Lord/Yahweh" as the Holy Spirit seems to have been called back then), Jephthah made a vow that would entail him sacrificing his own daughter! He promised to Yahweh that if he were victorious in battle over the Ammonites, he would offer as a burnt offering whatever was the first to greet him upon his return. Yahweh apparently accepted the terms of his offer, even though in his omniscience he would have known that it would result in the sacrifice of Jephthah's own daughter, because the text specifically says that Yahweh delivered the Ammonites into Jepthath's hand.
Then the Spirit of Yahweh came on Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over to the children of Ammon. Jephthah vowed a vow to Yahweh, and said, “If you will indeed deliver the children of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be, that whatever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, it shall be Yahweh’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah passed over to the children of Ammon to fight against them; and Yahweh delivered them into his hand. He struck them… with a very great slaughter…. Jephthah came to Mizpah to his house; and behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances: and she was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. It happened, when he saw her, that he tore his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you are one of those who trouble me; for I have opened my mouth to Yahweh, and I can’t go back.” She said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to Yahweh; do to me according to that which has proceeded out of your mouth, because Yahweh has taken vengeance for you on your enemies, even on the children of Ammon.” She said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may depart and go down on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.” He said, “Go.” He sent her away for two months: and she departed, she and her companions, and mourned her virginity on the mountains. It happened at the end of two months, that she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she was a virgin. It was a custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to celebrate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year. Judges 11:29-40
Yahweh gets mad because Saul broke a treaty/promise made by Joshua and put some of the Gibeonites to death. But for Saul's misdeed Yahweh waits until after Saul is dead and sends a famine and stops answering prayers to punish the Israelites. So to appease Yahweh, the Israelites turn over to the Gibeonites seven of Saul's descendants, who are killed "before the Lord" and exposed on a hill! This satisfied Yahweh who then starts answering prayers again.
There was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David sought the face of Yahweh. Yahweh said, “It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he put to death the Gibeonites.” The king called the Gibeonites, and said to them (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn to them: and Saul sought to kill them in his zeal for the children of Israel and Judah); and David said to the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? And with what shall I make atonement, that you may bless the inheritance of Yahweh?” The Gibeonites said... “The man who consumed us, and who devised against us, that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the borders of Israel, let seven men of his sons be delivered to us, and we will hang them up to Yahweh in Gibeah of Saul, the chosen of Yahweh.” The king said, “I will give them.” But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of Yahweh’s oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite. He delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the mountain before Yahweh, and all seven of them fell together. They were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, at the beginning of barley harvest…. they gathered the bones of those who were hanged. They buried the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son in the country of Benjamin in Zela, in the tomb of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded. After that God was entreated* for the land. 2 Samuel 21:1-9, 13-14
* NIV says “After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land”, and NASB says “after that God was moved by prayer for the land”. Various translations of 2 Samuel 21:14
There is also the practice of "the Ban" (Hebrew/Semitic word "Haram") by the Israelites. This was a practice where the Israelites would kill all the inhabitants of a vanquished town, men, women, and children, putting them to the sword, "devoting" them to Yahweh.
Then Sihon came out against us, he
and all his people, to battle at Jahaz. Yahweh our God delivered him up before
us; and we struck him, and his sons, and all his people. We took all his cities
at that time, and utterly destroyed* every inhabited city, with the women and
the little ones; we left none remaining. Deuteronomy 2:32-34
When Yahweh your God shall bring
you into the land where you go to possess it, and shall cast out many nations
before you, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite,
and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and
mightier than you; and when Yahweh your God shall deliver them up before you,
and you shall strike them; then you shall utterly destroy them*: you shall make
no covenant with them, nor show mercy to them; Deuteronomy
So the people shouted, and the
priests blew the trumpets. It happened, when the people heard the sound of the
trumpet, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down
flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him,
and they took the city. They utterly destroyed* all that was in the city, both
man and woman, both young and old, and ox, and sheep, and donkey, with the edge
of the sword. Joshua 6:20-21
Skeptics will also sometimes cite the famous incident where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.
It happened after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” He said, “Here I am.” He said, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go into the land of Moriah. Offer him there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” Genesis 22:1-2
The apparent commands for human sacrifice from Exodus 22 & Leviticus 27The apologists say that the command from Leviticus 27 ("No one devoted, who shall be devoted from among men, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death") is not talking about a ritualistic human sacrifice of people being killed and burned upon an alter, but rather it is about people being put to death under "the ban". This was actually judicial execution, when people were condemned to death for evil acts, such as worshipping false gods, or like when the Canaanites were exterminated for their evil ways (including the sacrifice of their own children). That is, there is a distinction between someone/thing being marked for destruction due to being associated with sin, and being condemned due to sin, which is what this is talking about, and something being marked for sacrifice, which had a requirement of being clean and without blemish/sin. (more on that below)
Regarding the command from Exodus 22 ("You shall give the firstborn of your sons to me"), the apologists say that this is not a command for the Israelites to sacrifice their first-born sons, but rather a command to dedicate them to God's service. They will also point out that the son was not supposed to be killed but rather redeemed, as commanded in Exodus 13:12-13: "that you shall set apart to Yahweh all that opens the womb, and every firstborn which you have that comes from an animal. The males shall be Yahweh's. Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb; and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and you shall redeem all the firstborn of man among your sons.".
The incident from Numbers 31
Apologists say that the people taken as part of "God's share" ("Yahweh's tribute was thirty-two persons"), were not to be killed/sacrificed, but rather were given to the priests (for their service?), as a wave offering or heave offering (some Bible versions translate it as wave, others as heave), similar to a tithe.
Jephthah's daughter incident from Judges 11
First, the apologists dispute whether Jephthah actually went through with it, whether he really did the dirty deed and sacrificed his daughter. This is based on the ambiguity of the text, since at the end it doesn't actually say that he offered his daughter as a burnt offering. And lending support to this position is the fact that the daughter went into the mountains to bewail not her impending death, but her virginity. So this could mean that instead of being sacrificed, she was redeemed, her life given over to the Levites, to be devoted to the service of the temple, which would have meant she would never marry and would remain a virgin. And the reason Jephthah was so upset about it was because this meant that he would not have any descendants to leave his property to. So whether he really did sacrifice her is the point, since if he didn't it then the point would be moot, because presumably there is nothing wrong with offering your daughter to a life of temple service. So that seems to be the position of the apologists, that no, he didn't actually carry it out.
The second position of the apologists, is that even if he DID sacrifice her, it was a foolish, rash vow that he made. He didn't foresee that it would be his daughter to be the one to greet him, because the custom at the time was for the women of the town to greet the returning warriors at the entrance of the village, and not at their homes. Jepthah would have fully expected some kind of animal to greet him at the door of his own house, and that was what he had in mind when he made the vow.
The third position of the apologists is that the Holy Spirit did not inspire Jephthah to make this rash vow, nor did God accept it. Though it does say that the "sprit of the Lord" came upon Jephthah, the Holy Spirit only inspired him to go into battle against the Ammonites. JP Holding says that whenever the Bible says that someone was inspired by the Spirit of the Lord it is detailed IMMEDIATELY after it is said who the Spirit came upon. Jephthah's vow was not endorsed by God, especially since a burnt offering was strictly supposed to be a male and not a female, according to the Mosaic law. So even if Jephthah DID do the dirty deed, it was on his own accord, and contrary to the Mosaic law. Another point made by JP Holding, in his reply to Ebon, is that in Judges 10:16 it states that God had already elected to deliver Israel, because "Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the Lord. And he could bear Israel's misery no longer". So JP says that Jephthah's rash vow had nothing to do with God delivering the Ammonites into Jephthah's hand, as God had already intended to do so before the vow was made.
Saul's descendants killed "before the Lord" to avenge the Gibeonites
For this incident apologists will say that God allowed the deaths of Saul's descendants to show the Israelites that they had to live up to their promises and make amends to people they had wronged, and there would be consequences to pay. The Gibeonites were the ones who chose the death of Saul's descendants as payback, not God. Because they were a "pagan people" they wanted revenge on Saul's descendants. So God had to honor their request in order to protect his own reputation by forcing the Israelites make amends.
In another defense used by JP Holding, he says that it wasn't the death of Saul's descendants that caused God to start again answering prayers (or become entreated with the land). He says "This one was used by Dan Barker, who omits things to suit his purposes. Here, he leaves out verses 10-14a, which tell us that God was intreated (sic) AFTER Saul's bones were reclaimed and buried. It had NOTHING to do with the sons of Rizpah, etc., or any human sacrifice" (read 2 Samuel 21:10-14) So according to JP, it was because Rizpah, Saul's concubine, protected the bodies of those killed from the birds, and because David brought the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan, and the bones of those who had been killed, and gathered them up and buried them in the tomb of Saul's father Kish; THAT was the reason why God became entreated with the land/started again answering prayers.
The practice of "the ban"
Apologists say this wasn't human sacrifice, but judicial execution, when people were condemned to death for evil acts, such as worshipping false gods, or like when the Canaanites were exterminated for their evil ways (including the sacrifice of their own children). It was all okay, because the people killed were evil, and in need of extermination. Otherwise they would continue on in their evil ways, and entice the Israelites to follow as well in detestable practices like the worship of foreign/false gods and child sacrifice (for example Deuteronomy 20:17-18).
Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac
This one doesn't count because God called him off before he actually did the deed. It was just a test of Abraham's loyalty/obedience.
The apparent commands for human sacrifice from Exodus 22 & Leviticus 27, plus the practice of "the ban"I think the apologists are right here. Leviticus 27 ("No one devoted, who shall be devoted from among men, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death") is not talking about a ritualistic human sacrifice of people being killed and burned upon an alter, but rather an application of the ban, when someone/thing was marked for destruction. Now you can argue (and I do) that the ban is still a form of human sacrifice (see below), but at least its not a RITUAL human sacrifice complete with burning the dead body upon an alter.
Regarding the command from Exodus 22 ("You shall give the firstborn of your sons to me"), I have to agree with the apologist here again in that the son was supposed to be redeemed instead of sacrificed, as commanded in Exodus 13:12-13. In fact, the redeeming of the first-born son is a ritual still practiced today by orthodox and conservative Jews, called Pidyon HaBen or Primogeniture. Now it may well be that the practice of redeeming the son was a remembrance of an earlier era when human sacrifice was abolished, and before this in archaic Yahwehism the human sacrifice was actually carried out. This is the opinion of some scholars, but others dispute this. The Jewish encyclopedia states: "The interpretation of the custom of redeeming the first-born as a modification of an older custom of sacrificing the first-born sons in connection with the Passover feast (Baudissin, in Herzog-Plitt, "Real-Encyc." 2d ed., x. 176; comp. also Frazer, "The Golden Bough," 2d ed., ii. 48), has no foundation in history."
The incident from Numbers 31
I think I'll have to allow here that the people taken as part of "God's share" (Yahweh's tribute was thirty-two persons) were not killed/sacrificed, but given to the priests. A wave offering (or heave offering) was indeed given over to the priests. So I'm with the apologists on this one too.
Jephthah's daughter incident from Judges 11
It does seem that the text is somewhat ambiguous, so is it possible that she was not sacrificed? Christian/Jewish theologians have struggled with this question over the centuries. Some have concluded no. However, many have concluded that the answer is yes, since the text does say "whatever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me... it shall be Yahweh’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering", and then later "she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed". So maybe the text really isn't so ambiguous after all. The only way it could have been any more direct and unambiguous is for the text to have included "and offered her up for a burnt offering" after "she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed". However, admittingly it seems strange that she should go into the mountains to bewail her virginity, and not her loss of life. Yet, maybe that wouldn't be so strange for the culture at that time. After all, this would be a culture in which premarital sex was strictly forbidden, and in a male-dominated society where a female's worth was merited by her getting married and having offspring, then maybe it wouldn't be so strange after all that a girl's biggest lament is that she would never marry. Things were different in the culture of the Ancient Near East/ANE, which is what J.P. Holding and the other apologists are so fond of saying when it suits their case.
Yet skeptic Ebon brings up a very good point in this: "it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went four days each year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite" (NKJV). So why would the girls of Israel lament Jephthah's daughter every year if she only went into temple service? However JP Holding takes Ebon to task for using only the New King James version of the Bible and not looking any further. He says that the Hebrew word used actually means to "commemorate" instead of "lament". An indeed, some of the Bible versions do use such translations see here (plus of course the World English Bible quoted above uses the word "celebrate"). However even if the word "commemorate" is more fitting, I think Ebon's point still stands. Why would a girl being devoted to temple service be such a remarkable and noteworthy event for the girls of Israel to commemorate it every year? That doesn't make sense, but it does make sense for them to commemorate or honor a girl whose life was given to assure victory in battle. Just like we have Memorial Day in the U.S. to commemorate and honor (but not really lament, bewail, or mourn) those who have died in military service.
And there is something else to take note of, in verse 39 it says: "And she was a virgin" (NIV). This seems to indicate that yes, she died from this... and she was (she died) a virgin. So that seems to add support to her really being sacrificed, it seems to imply some finality, otherwise it would say something like "and afterwards she remained a virgin for the rest of her life". Other translations have something similar, such as "She had never known a man" ESV, "and she had no relations with a man" NASB, "She knew no man" NKJV, and the most direct being "and she died without having a man" NLV (see here). Yet curiously, the Young's literal translation indicates just the opposite: "and she knew not a man; and it is a statute in Israel: from time to time the daughters of Israel go to talk to the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four days in a year." (see here). So is the Young's translation the most accurate, since its supposed to be a "literal" translation? Or have the Young's translators let their own beliefs bias their translation in order to give a more favorable outcome? I don't know. But overall, in regards to this question I think there is a preponderance of evidence that yes he indeed did sacrifice her, but yet not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. Enough for a civil case decision yes, but not enough for a criminal conviction. So in other words, he probably did do it, but then again maybe he didn't.
But moving aside from that question, assuming he did indeed sacrifice her, did the Holy Spirit inspire him to do so? First I think its kind of a silly argument to say that only the text that immediately follows "And the Spirit of the Lord" came upon him" is what he was actually inspired to do. In Judges 6:34, has the Spirit of the Lord only caused Gideon to blow a trumpet, but NOT to summon the Abiezrites to follow him? In Luke 4:18, has the Spirit of the Lord only anointed the writer to proclaim good news to the poor but NOT to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, or to set the oppressed free? Remember, there were no commas or periods in the original text. But back to the story at hand, reading the text in context, it seems like the entire episode is precipitated by the Spirit of the Lord coming upon Jephthah, or at least that is what someone who is not bending over backwards to try to distort the story would conclude.
Now did Jephthah know that his daughter would be the one to greet him at the door, and she would be the one to which his vow for a burnt offering would apply? No, of course not. The text makes that plain, with him expressing such anguish upon seeing his daughter greet him. But that's not the point. The point is that God, being omniscient, would have known that the sacrifice would involve the daughter. And knowing this, did God accept the sacrifice? The text seems to indicate so, since it says that the Lord delivered the Ammonites into Jephthah's hand. As Ebon says, "the text tells us explicitly that Jephthah did not win just by lucky chance, but that "the Lord delivered them into his hands" (11:32)". J.P. Holding says that this is an argument from silence, but how so? It says that Jephthah made a vow that if the Lord delivered the Ammonites into his hand he would do something, then it says the Lord delivered the Ammonites into his hand, and then he did what he vowed. How much more direct cause-and-effect can it be? JP says that Jephthah's rash vow had nothing to do with God delivering the Ammonites into Jephthah's hand, as God had already intended to do so before the vow was made. He says "If Ebon were to vow to grind his daughter into hamburger as an offering to God if the next car to drive past his home happened to be an import, would a subsequent import drive-by show that God had accepted his vow? But yet if the word of God said that subsequent to Ebon making his vow the LORD CAUSED an import to drive past his home (as opposed to one just happening to drive by), then yes, that WOULD show that God had accepted his vow!
But in any event it seems like a strange episode. What point was the writer trying to make? That keeping a vow to God is most imperative, even when it involves sacrificing your own daughter? Was the writer really trying to leave the ending ambiguous, to leave you wondering.... did he or didn't he? Maybe. Or maybe there is a better explanation. Maybe it really did happen that in ancient times a man named Jephthah sacrificed his daughter to (so he thought) ensure the Israelites' victory. Apparently it was believed by not only the pagans of the time but the Hebrews as well that a leader of a battle sacrificing his own offspring was a way to ensure victory- this is demonstrated by the story from 2 Kings 3:4- 27, in which "the fury against Israel became great" once the Moabite King Mesha sacrificed his son to the Moabite's god Chemosh, and as a result the Israelites withdrew. And since the Israelites under Jephthah had victory over the Ammonites (really having nothing to do with his daughter being sacrificed, of course, but due to rational factors like better fighting, weapons, or tactics, or superior numbers, or the element of surprise, fighting spirit of the warriors, etc), as a result there really were a festival held every year where the young women would lament and mourn for his daughter, and commemorate her sacrifice, which in the view of ignorant ancient people, was the reason for their victory. And then later, the story was incorporated into the sacred folklore of the Hebrews, and as the Hebrew religion evolved and they began to take a dim view of human sacrifice, the ending was softened up by later writers and compilers, to make it a little more ambiguous. But it was too ingrained in their folklore to leave out completely. So to me that is the most likely explanation.
Saul's descendants killed "before the Lord" to avenge the Gibeonites
I'm glad that Yahweh wanted to show the Israelites that they had to live up to their promises and make amends to people they had wronged, and was so concerned about his reputation that he made sure that restitution was given to a "pagan" people. But wasn't he concerned about his reputation in accepting such an unjust restitution? Couldn't his answer to the Gibeonites have been something like: "No, the Lord hates injustice and the shedding of innocent blood. The iniquity of Saul is not upon his descendants and their blood will not be shed. Instead, all of Israel will pay tribute to the Gibeonites as a restitution, to make atonement for for the wrongs committed".
Regarding J.P. Holding's defense that the death of Saul's descendants had nothing to do with God again answering prayers/becoming entreated with the land, that's baloney! The text specifically has God himself giving the reason for no longer answering the people's prayers (and the resulting famine)- it is because of what Saul did to the Gibeonites. Despite the claims of J.P. Holding, the gathering and burying of the bones is only a side issue in the story and is excluded from the skeptic's quote merely in the interest of brevity. (read the entire story here in 2 Samuel 21:1-14). The story makes it clear that Yahweh is only satisfied when the Israelites make up for this injustice by allowing the Gibeonites to kill those from the "house of Saul". For us today that itself is a gross injustice, but in ancient times when the story was written it was not seen that way. People from the same "house" (or family, and including the slaves) were viewed as sharing in the guilt of the head of the family, and so deserved to share in the punishment. This is just like the case from 2 Kings 10:1-17 where Ahab's entire family is killed for what Ahab as done (see here for more on that).
But here again I think there is a better explanation in this. Maybe it really happened that there was an extended drought and a resulting famine in ancient Israel at the time. That would be no surprise, since droughts are certainly not uncommon in that arid region of the world. Of course as an ancient people in the pre-scientific age, the Israelites had no idea the drought was merely because of normal changing weather patters, due to certain meteorological conditions involving normal variations in high and low pressure regions, shifting water temperatures and ocean currents, which had caused the rains to cease. Instead, they wondered why they were being punished by their national god Yahweh. And so having a guilty conscious because of what Saul had done, they figured "Aha! That's it! Yahweh is angry with us because of what Saul did to the Gibeonites!" So they did what they thought they needed to make amends. They grabbed the people from Saul's house and strung them up "before the Lord". And sooner or later the drought did end as all droughts eventually do, the rains came, and so some time later a sacred story was put down in writing about how God had caused a famine and stopped answering their prayers until they made amends to the Gibeonites by putting to death the members of Saul's house. In their eyes, this was seen as righting a wrong, and not committing yet another injustice. And the sacred story even included God audibly answering them and telling them exactly why he caused the famine.
The practice of "the ban"
The ban may not be a ritual, burn someone upon an alter human sacrifice, but to kill all the inhabitants of a town- men. women, children, and babies, as a "devotion to the Lord" is still human sacrifice in my book. Yes its a terrible thing to sacrifice your own child by killing them. But its okay to sacrifice someone else's child? Oh that's right, it was all okay because they were a "pagan" people worshipping false gods, and were oh so evil, at least according to the Israelites writing the accounts, and besides, God said to do it! Yeah, right. Actually, the ban was also practiced by the other "pagan" people of the time. They would kill all the inhabitants of a vanquished town as a "devotion" to THEIR god, just as the Israelites would kill the inhabitants as a devotion to Yahweh (the Moabite Stone details how the Israelites themselves were put to death under the ban by their enemy the Moabites, as a devotion to the Moabite god Chemosh). Isn't it strange that God wouldn't mind his people doing the same practice as their "pagan" neighbors when in this case the practice is so horrible and suspect? Remember, when questioned why its okay to ignore God's prohibitions in the Bible against mundane things, like wearing clothing made of two materials (Lev 19:19), putting tattoos on the body Lev 19:28, or men trimming the edges/corners of their beard or sideburns (Lev 19:27), the apologists say that its because God didn't want the Israelites to do the same as the "pagans". But yet, with a practice that is the most terrible imaginable, the wholesale killing of vanquished people- men, women, children, old people, and babies, it was okay with God that the Israelites did the same thing as the pagans? Or here again, is there a better explanation? It seems that in the ancient near east when the Semitic tribes went to war, the victors would kill all the people (and animals) of the vanquished towns in order to appease their national/tribal god. It was a way of sharing the spoils of war with the god. They really believed that doing so would help to ensure the god's help in the next battle. And so the Israelites practiced the ban for Yahweh, just as their pagan neighbors practiced the ban for THEIR gods.
Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac
I agree with the apologists that this one doesn't really count because God called him off before he did it. It was just a test. But if God is omniscient then he didn't really need to test Abraham since he already knew exactly what would happen before it happened, did he? Yet apologists can say that the test wasn't for the sake of God to find out what Abraham would do. Rather it was for the sake of Abraham (and the later Hebrews) for God to demonstrate that he is a DIFFERENT kind of god from the pagan gods. He is a god that DOESN'T want human sacrifices!
Do a few vestiges of the practice of human sacrifice remain in the Bible? No, at least not when it comes to RITUAL human sacrifice. Before doing this study, I thought that there indeed are a few relic verses to indicate that ritual human sacrifice was accepted as a form of worship in early Judaism/archaic Yahwehism, but that appears not to be the case. Yet the practice of the ban does qualify as another form of human sacrifice, and the instance of the Gibeonites being put to death reflects a primitive and ancient concept of justice and retribution, and so qualifies as well. The instance of Jephthah's daughter becoming a burnt offering is a little murkier, but probably also qualifies too. So even though these cases are well deserving of condemnation, overall this issue, as evidence against the Bible being the word of God, isn't as strong as I first thought. But hey, that's just my take on it. What do I know?
A Legacy of Human Sacrifice? from the Skeptical Review
Yes, the Legacy of Human Sacrifice another from the Skeptical Review, Farrell Till responds to Matt Bell in section below
Skeptic's Annotated Bible From the SAB contradiction list, giving of verses on both sides of the issue
From Ebon Musing's Foundation of Sand essay. including as a contradiction "Does God accept human sacrifice?"
A Reply to J.P. Holding Ebon replies to J.P. Holding's critique of his essay (see apologist section below) Scroll down about 2/3rds of the page to "On Jephthah's Daughter"
Ritual Human Sacrifice from Evil Bible.com
Human Sacrifice in the Bible from Exposing Chrisitianity.com
Q&A on Judges 11:29-40 from Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod
Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament from Rational Christianity
Joe and the Volcano? Does God endorse human sacrifice? from Tektonic's J.P. Holding
Jephthah and Daughter: Bad News for the Firstborn? "An Examination of What Happened on the Way Home from Ammon", another one by J. P. Holding
"Till's Legacy of Human Sacrifice" Matt Bell replies to an earlier article (see above section) in which Farrell Till discussed a legacy of human sacrifice on which belief in the vicarious atonement of Jesus was probably based.
Did Jephthah keep his vow and sacrifice his daughter, as indicated ... from the Restored Church of God
Jephthah's Vow/Sacrifice from the Sunnyside Church of God
Theology Online Forum debate on Jephthah's daughter
Jephthah Wikipedia article
Human Sacrifice Wikipedia article
Human Sacrifice from Bible History.com
The Sacrifice of Jephthah's Daughter in an encaustic painting on marble decorating the right pilaster of the sanctuary apse in the main church at the Monastery of St. Catherine. It dates to the 6th century.
Reader Essays on the Subject
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Note: these Bible verses (unless otherwise noted) are from the World English Bible, the only public-domain (no copyright) modern English translation (based on the 1901 American Standard Version).
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