Analytic Theology

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Did the Ancient Israelites Practice Human Sacrifice?

February 5th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

DAVID KRONEMYER: There is no direct evidence they did, and by asking this question, I do not mean to impugn their righteousness or integrity. However, as an anthropological fact, human sacrifice was an integral component of precursor Canaanite religions, Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions 441 (1997). The Old Testament is scattered with allusive references to the practice, Judges 11:29-40 (Jephthah sacrifices his daughter Mizpah) and 2 Kings 3:27 (the King of Moab sacrifices his son).

The most significant incident is God’s intervention as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham’s predicament somewhat resembles Agamemnon’s. It is conclusively different, however, because Agamemnon actually did sacrifice Iphigenia, whereas God caused Abraham to hold back that fatal blow. Abraham’s proposed sacrifice of Isaac escalates the dynamic of sacrifice. Isaac is not merely a lamb, or a goat. He is Abraham’s son – a living, human being.

As a heuristic device, Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac illustrates Abraham’s compliance with divine command, even though it would have been wrongful had he completed the act. The Ten Commandments had not yet been revealed to Moses, with the injunction “thou shalt not kill.” However, there is no reason to suspect that to do so was an approved practice in Abraham’s time.

Frequently, the issue with foundational texts (such as the Old Testament) is not so much to focus on the substantive propositional content of what is expressed. Rather, it is more appropriate to ask: (a) why is it that whatever is being expressed, in fact is being expressed, as opposed to anything else; and, (b) what elements have been omitted, that one naturally might expect to have been included, in order to establish a more coherent picture. These missing reference points, had they been included, would situate the text within a milieu more consistent with our cultural expectations, or our imaginary reconstruction of the then-prevailing context.

There are several Biblical themes where one can see this dynamic at work. Again as a matter of cultural anthropology, multiple sources attest that animal sacrifice was an integral component of early Israelite theology. Its purpose was two-fold: (a) to propitiate God, who by and large is very angry in the Old Testament; and, (b) to express thanks to God, and worshipfulness towards God, by offering to him a paradigmatic iteration of a scarce economic resource, e.g. a first-born lamb or goat. As a result, God not only becomes appeased, but through deprivation, the people symbolically establish their subservience to divine will.

These interpretations are not disinteresting. It still is possible, though, to tease a deeper meaning from the text. This is: human sacrifice is wrong. And the main reason why it now is wrong is because at some earlier point in time, it was an acceptable practice. Absent this hypothesis, the story of Abraham and Isaac, for all of its ineffable qualities, lacks propulsion and momentum. It just as well could have been some other story, instead. For example, God might have prevented Abraham from sacrificing a pregnant goat.

This kind of anti-normative response is characteristic of several Biblical themes, particularly Jewish dietary restrictions. For example, there does not appear to be anything gastronomically undesirable about eating goat meat that has been boiled in its mother’s milk. Appeal to personal health or public welfare does not account for such a peculiar injunction. Although it may strike us as being unpalatable, the flesh of a young goat boiled in its mother’s milk may have been a genuine delicacy in pre-Moses Egypt.

One possible interpretation of this prohibition is that it was intended to differentiate the Jewish nation from the Egyptians, as they marched off into the wilderness of the Sinai Desert. This form of individuation in turn built cultural solidarity, as the chosen people faced the rigors of their trek. A similar tension may be at work in many other Exodus-era ritualistic behaviors, Jan Assman, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (1998). Again, the issue is not the historical origin of the practice, or its substantive efficacy. Rather, it is: why those particular proscriptions, instead of any other, or nothing at all?

Another illustration is that of “manna,” which is what the Jews dined upon as they peregrinated about the Sinai, Deuteronomy 8:2 – 3, 14b – 16a. Manna was “a food unknown to you and your fathers,” a point emphasized twice. Unlike the bread they had known in Egypt, manna was to be found only in the “vast and terrible desert with its saraph serpents and scorpions.” Why was it necessary to introduce manna, instead of, say, a large supply of bagels?

All we know about manna today is conjecture. It may have been the secretions of indigenous flora, F. S. Bodenheimer, “The Manna of Sinai,” 10 The Biblical Archaeologist 2 (Feb. 1947). It may have been akin to ambrosia, a concept (possibly) imported from Greek legend. We never will be able to track down the culinary properties of manna with any certainty.

It stands to reason that, during the Exodus, there was no lengthy supply chain to furnish the Jews with conventional and familiar groceries. Their only alternative was to live off the land. From an historical standpoint, it became far more plausible for the authors of the Torah to invent hypothetical delicacies, such as manna. Manna provides a practical explanation to the question, “What did they eat? It also normatively inverts the cultural expectation that the Jews would eat what they routinely ate in Egypt. It sharply juxtaposes a new practice, against its immediate predecessor.

Another related explanation is the Egyptian funerary practice to entomb food, together with other physical objects, with their deceased. They believed it would supply sustenance for the deceased, on the deceased’s subsequent journey through the cosmos. When one is on the move through the desert, it is impractical to engage in such elaborate rites. Something transitory and ephemeral, such as manna, exempts even the attempt at such a practice, instead permitting the creation of new ones in its place.

Finally, there is the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Initially, it bewildered the Jews, who asked: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”, John 6:51 – 58. A good question, if somewhat literal, because Jesus’ remarks implicate human sacrifice and cannibalism. Jesus then clarified his case: his flesh and blood (symbolically) are a vehicle, or a conduit, for the transmission of salvation from God to the individual. Jesus said: “I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and rinks my blood has eternal life.”

Eternal life, then, is not directly accessible to the individual. Rather, it is dispensed, to the extent it is, only through Jesus’ intervention as intermediary. Reinforcing this, transmission of or participation in the divine is inextricably linked to the consumption of a basic personal need, that is, food and water. One no more can do without the former, than one can survive without the latter.

In addition, participation in communion reinforces group solidarity. Etymologically, “communion” is a close cousin to “community.” In this sense, it performs a function similar to manna. Consumption of food necessarily is done by the individual. No one else can eat your dinner for you. Food has taste and texture only for the person who consumes it. Only that person is nourished by it. Communion normatively inverts solitary dining, transforming it into group activity. As St. Paul expressed: “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf,” 1 Corinthians 10:16 – 17.

Significantly, Jesus did not proffer manna as the requisite foodstuff. There is no indication in the Bible that, at this point, any manna was to be found. Perhaps it was indigenous to the Sinai Peninsula. For all we know, as an organic substance, it all had died off.

Even if the supply of manna still had been plentiful, though, it never would have served the purpose Jesus intended. The story of Abraham and Isaac normatively inverts whatever vestige of ritual human sacrifice still subsisted from precursor Canaanite religious practices. Abraham carried over a single element of that practice, but then rebuked it. Jesus, in turn, carried over a single element from the Abraham and Isaac story, but in turn normatively inverted it.

Oddly, Jesus’ offering of his body and blood resonates more thoroughly with the archaic Canaanite practice, than it does with Abraham. The reason why is simple: Jesus was foreshadowing his own impending sacrifice, reinforcing the path of his intercession with God on our behalf. His sacrifice is in continuity with the story of Abraham and Isaac. Jesus reciprocally rejoins it, carrying over its most important element. He reinterprets it, though, as his own paschal sacrifice for the benefit of those who partake of his body and blood.