Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel?

08 Nov
from Google Images

from Google Images

A number of Biblical critics believe that child sacrifice was both practiced in ancient Israel, and such a thing was not only approved but even commanded by God. While it may be true that child sacrifice was practiced at times in ancient Israel, it can be shown that it was never given God’s approval. On the contrary, God abhorred such activity.[1] Richard Dawkins is one who believes such things were committed in ancient Israel and even commanded by the God of the Bible.

God ordered Abraham to make a burnt offering of his longed-for son. Abraham built an altar, put firewood upon it, and trussed Isaac up on top of the wood. His murdering knife was already in his hand when an angel dramatically intervened with the news of a last-minute change of plan: God was only joking after all, ‘tempting’ Abraham, and testing his faith. A modern moralist cannot help but wonder how a child could ever recover from such psychological trauma. By the standards of modern morality, this disgraceful story is an example simultaneously of child abuse, bullying in two asymmetrical power relationships, and the first recorded use of the Nuremberg defence: ‘I was only obeying orders.’ Yet the legend is one of the great foundational myths of all three monotheistic religions.[2]

A number of things mentioned above show Dawkins misunderstands the text, and one has to wonder if it isn’t deliberately so. After all, Dr. Dawkins is not someone who would normally misunderstand what he reads. Therefore, bias is a consideration. First of all, ‘child abuse’ is hardly a consideration if Isaac wasn’t a child. I argue in another blogpost[3] that he was of military age and could have resisted his father, if he decided to do so. So, it seems Isaac was a willing participant in the act.

Secondly, the act is never actually carried out. The reader is immediately alerted in Genesis 22:1 that this is a test, and God does not intend to carry out the event. Abraham doesn’t know this until after God stops him from carrying out his ‘command.’ Another consideration is the actual phrasing of the ‘command.’ It seems clear that God understands what such a thing would have on Abraham’s life. Note the continual emphasis throughout this incident upon the bond between father and son (Genesis 22:2-3, 6-10, 12-13, 16).

Notice as well the use of the word “go” in Genesis 22:2 (cf. Genesis 12:1-2). Bells should be going off in Abraham’s mind in that God used similar language in Genesis 12—“in going, go” (Hebrew). This should recall to Abraham not only God’s call in the beginning, but also God’s promise to Abraham at the time of the call, and his promise concerning Isaac in particular (Genesis 17:18-19, 21). Abraham would mentally be trying to fit God’s new word to him contextually with what he had told him earlier.

Finally, the Hebrew word translated ‘now’ in many translations is actually more often translated ‘pray’ and ‘beseech’. How would this change our understanding of Abraham’s test? It seems that God is not commanding Abraham to do anything. Rather, he is asking him to do as he says. In other words, if Abraham was unable to comprehend the end of God’s purpose, he wouldn’t have incurred any blame by declining to comply with God’s will/request.

Therefore, it seems that a contextual reading of Genesis 22 shows that both Abraham and Isaac were willing participants in the events therein described. They were not forced upon them by an over-demanding, cruel and inconsiderate God. Rather, it should be understood as a freewill offering done by each of the participants, and in the end God creates in Abraham, Isaac and their descendants an entirely new worldview—one not considered in their culture—a worldview that God does not require nor is he pleased with human sacrifice.[4]


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

[2] Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion, (Ealing, Bantam Press, 2006), page 242

[3] See my study The Relationship of Abraham and Isaac.

[4] I’ll be speaking more of this subject in succeeding blogposts, but if more information is desired about the Genesis 22 events, one could read my blogposts: The Value of God’s Tests, Abraham’s Ultimate Test and What Did Abraham Sacrifice to God?

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Posted by on November 8, 2015 in apologetics


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