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Did God Command Child Sacrifice?
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It is often supposed by skeptics that the God of the Bible accepts child sacrifice.
Only the most shallow reasoner could conclude that child sacrifice was commanded by God in the Bible. Yet, the criticism is so widespread that an answer is necessary, though the charge is so stupid it deserves to be ignored.
Leviticus 18:22 says: “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.” Molech was a Canaanite god who demanded the blood sacrifice of the firstborn child, usually by burning. God here commands the Israelites not to offer such a sacrifice. And in Leviticus 20:2, God orders that those who make such a sacrifice to be stoned to death.
But critics point to two stories in the Bible in support of the false notion that God commands child sacrifice. Never is the clear prohibition dealt with. The first and most obvious story is the offering of Isaac by Abraham. The second is the vow of Jephthah to sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house -- which happened to be his daughter.
The story of Abraham and Isaac found in Genesis 22:1-19 requires some historical context to understand. While we moderns would balk at a command from God to sacrifice our own child, this was common practice in the time of Abraham. That means it’s doubtful that Abraham would have batted an eyelash at the request, except for the lingering doubt that he might never have another child. And that doubt is what gives us the lesson of the story -- obeying God in faith, realizing that when he promises something he will bring it to pass.
Since God blessed Abraham with one child, it means that God can bless him with more. Recognizing that, Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, hoping that God would make good on his promise of descendants later on down the road. This shows amazing trust in God, because Abraham and Sarah tried for years before they got Isaac, even stooping to using Hagar to bear a child.
Then God stops Abraham from killing Isaac, which is the real counter-culture surprise in this story. Turns out that this sort of sacrifice isn’t acceptable to God; in fact, the only unblemished and worthy sacrifice is the one God provided to himself: Jesus. Though Abraham wouldn’t have thought in those terms just yet, the foreshadowing is obvious in retrospect.
We see the same motif of sacrificing the first born in the first book of Samuel. Hannah offers Samuel into temple service, which is the correct way to fulfill such a vow to God.
The temple service idea is behind the vow of Jephthah (Jdg 11:29-40), the second story often cited by critics who erroneously conclude that God commands child sacrifice. Jephthah makes a public vow that he will offer whatever comes out of his house first to greet him if God delivers the enemy. God does, and when Jephthah returns home his daughter is the first out of the house to greet him.
The fact that this vow is public indicates that his daughter very likely knew of the vow. So if she thought that her life was in any danger, she would have made sure she was the last person out of that house when her father returned.
Whatever was sacrificed to God was considered holy and received special consideration and treatment under the Law. Assuming she was promised to temple service, this is an effective way to disown and divorce herself from the family. In other words, Jephthah’s daughter was intentionally thumbing her nose at her father, for whatever personal reasons she might have had.
In any event, Jephthah was a judge of Israel and would have known the law against child sacrifice. His daughter being the first out of the house creates an unanswerable conundrum for him. On the one hand, to fulfill his vow he would commit a sin against the Lord -- one that merited the death penalty. On the other hand, to break his vow to the Lord would equally as grave a sin as the murder of his daughter. The responsible answer is to promise his daughter to temple service, thereby fulfilling his vow without having to commit a grave sin that would forfeit his life as well. The lifetime temple service would fit with text telling us that she bemoaned her virginity instead of her life.
Does the Bible permit child sacrifice? Well, in cases like Abraham and Jephthah, it seems to at least describe the action. However, the Bible describes sin all the time without condoning it. No one is going to point to a story like Abraham and Abimelech and say that it means God condones lying, since Abraham is called a friend of God and he lied in that story to protect himself.
So it is with child sacrifice. Just because an action is described as having happened in the Bible does not mean that God condones it. Both stories (Abraham and Isaac, Jephthah and his tragic vow) are clearly in the Bible to show the folly of the practice. Especially in light of the clear legal prohibitions against child sacrifice, the viable option of lifetime temple service (as we see with Hannah and Samuel), and the death penalty to those who do sacrifice their children. There is no excuse for practicing child sacrifice, and the act is abominable to God.
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