The Bible clearly demands child sacrifice. And it also clearly forbids it. How do we make sense of this?
Can a Bible verse be used to trump another Bible verse?
I recently responded to “Christ’s Crucifixion Isn’t Child Sacrifice,” a post from Alan Shlemon of the Stand to Reason ministry. Amy Hall of STR countered with the suggestion that I read her 2015 post, “God Didn’t Command Child Sacrifice.” I used one passage to argue for God’s demand of child sacrifice, but she wants to use a different one.
Let’s jump in.
Hall starts with the passage I used, Exodus 22:29–30.
You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day.
Unlike some of the Old Testament passages that demand a child sacrifice, there is no addendum here insisting the Israelites redeem the sons (that is, to sacrifice a lamb or donate money instead of killing the baby). Note also that the sons are treated the same as cattle or sheep—that is, killed and burned as a sacrifice. This eliminates the idea that they’d be devoted to God as priests.
Hall wants to reinterpret the child sacrifice question with the lens of another passage, Exodus 13:12–13:
You are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the Lord. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons.
So we have two passages, and Hall prefers the one that makes God look less evil. Is that an honest following of the evidence or are we just seeing an agenda to make God look less evil?
Hall justifies her choice by handwaving that the Ex. 22 passage tells us when to do it, not how to do it. The how was given nine chapters back.
I have higher standards for the Almighty. I can’t imagine an omniscient god giving incomplete instructions with the hope that the listener would put the scattered clues together.
She says about the Ex. 13 passage, “I don’t know how that could be clearer.” I agree that it’s clear, but then that’s true for Ex. 22 as well. “Give me the firstborn of your sons”—what could be clearer?
A Jewish source, theTorah.com, agrees: “On its own terms, the simplest interpretation of [Exodus 22:29] is that it requires the slaughter of all firstborn sons.” We can consider various interpretations, but don’t pretend that Ex. 22:29 doesn’t say what it plainly says.
Hall points out that what’s happening in the story is relevant. Exodus 13 tells of the Israelites leaving Egypt after the ten plagues. That final plague was the death of the firstborn, and chapter 13 defines the annual Passover ritual that commemorates God passing over the Israelites’ homes (and only killing Egyptian firstborn children) and freeing the Israelites from bondage. Offering the firstborn to God and then redeeming it commemorates the Passover.
But we’re still stuck with Exodus 22:28, set in the middle of a long list of laws, not the Passover ritual, which clearly demands the firstborn males with no option to redeem.
You could argue that this law couldn’t have been widely followed because it’s too much of a tax on the population, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that God demanded child sacrifice.
You could argue that it would be out of character for a loving God, but this is the God who drowned the world. This is the god who demanded genocide on the six tribes who were living in Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:16–17). This is the god who said that you could devote people, animals, or property to him but cautioned, “No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; they are to be put to death” (Leviticus 27:29).
You could argue that we’re at an impasse, with Hall preferring Ex. 13 and me preferring Ex. 22, but I’m happy to acknowledge that Ex. 13, in its context, is clearly against child sacrifice. This is just another example of contradicting passages in the Bible, which makes the Bible an ambiguous and unreliable authority.
As a tangent, I’d like to consider two sentences in Hall’s article. First, Exodus 13:15:
[God said how to explain the Passover:] “When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed the firstborn of both people and animals in Egypt.”
But this misery was unnecessary. This is coming from an omnipotent god, a god who could have simply teleported the Israelites out of Egypt. Or convinced the Pharaoh to make the Israelites citizens with equal rights. Or a thousand other alternatives to killing every Egyptian family’s firstborn child. Is this the pro-life God Christians eagerly quote?
God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh’s fall would be more dramatic and God’s resulting glory and reputation would be greater (Ex. 9:13–16). The Christian response might be, “Well, yeah—that works for me,” but skeptics are horrified at this God-sized ego.
The second sentence is from Hall, explaining the parallels between the command to sacrifice newborns and the tenth plague.
God was merciful to the firstborn of the Israelites by not destroying them along with the firstborn of the Egyptians, and as a result, now they all belong to Him.
God was merciful? “You should thank me for not killing you” is what you hear in the context of battered woman syndrome. Is this the God-is-love guy that Christians are so proud of?
And consider “they all belong to Him.” God established the rules for slavery, so owning people is fine with him, but I think this is talking more about life as a gift from God. The idea is that if life is God’s gift, he could yank it back as he chose. William Lane Craig said it this way, “God is under no obligation whatsoever to extend my life for another second. If He wanted to strike me dead right now, that’s His prerogative.”
But that’s not how gifts work. If I gave a painting to someone or donated it to a museum, it’s not my painting anymore. It’s no longer mine just as if I had sold it. Anyone’s gift of life is no longer God’s to take away.
What sense does sacrifice make?
Let’s conclude by considering the idea of sacrifice itself. The Bible says 37 times that God loves the pleasing aroma of burning flesh, and “food offering” appears 64 times.
Think about the mechanics of these offerings. Killing animals and burning the carcasses to send that life force through rising smoke to a god up in the sky? Sure, Chemosh or Moloch and the other make-believe gods of neighboring tribes might get their make-believe mojo this way, but do 21st-century Christians really want to say that their Yahweh has this same Bronze Age metabolism? The creator of 200 billion galaxies is fed from animal sacrifices from one region of one planet? How is Yahweh the one and only god when he’s constrained by the limited imagination of an ancient holy book?
Religion is like a man in a dark room
looking for a black cat
that isn’t there …
but he’s found it.
— seen on the internet