Biblical and Greek Ambivalence Towards Child Sacrifice
Divergent Perspectives on Human Sacrifice in the Bible
As everyone knows, nothing could be more repugnant to the God of Israel than human sacrifice. – Judah Goldin.
Rabbi Phinehas said in the name of Rabbi Benaiah: [Abraham] prayed: “Master of the Universe, regard it as though I had sacrificed my son Isaac first and only afterwards sacrificed this ram.” – Midrash.
Jon Levenson begins his book on child sacrifice, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, with these quotes, which offer two divergent assessments of the biblical perspective on child sacrifice. Each can be supported with by texts in the Bible.
Some biblical texts use language that appears to require child sacrifice.
שמות כב:כח מְלֵאָתְךָ וְדִמְעֲךָ לֹא תְאַחֵר בְּכוֹר בָּנֶיךָ תִּתֶּן לִּי. כב:כט כֵּן תַּעֲשֶׂה לְשֹׁרְךָ לְצֹאנֶךָ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים יִהְיֶה עִם אִמּוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי תִּתְּנוֹ לִי.
Exod 22:28 You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats. You shall give me the first born. You shall give Me the firstborn among your sons. 22:29 You shall do the same with your cattle and your flocks; seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me.
Although this text could just mean giving the firstborn son to the Temple or local shrine to serve as a priest, the simple meaning of the command in context is to give the firstborn son as a sacrifice, “the same with your cattle and your flocks.” This is, in fact, how Jon Levenson understands this verse in the opening chapter of his book on child sacrifice.
Replacing the Sacrifice of Child with an Animal
Exodus 34:19 modifies the law by suggesting that firstborns are not to be given to God, but should be redeemed/replaced (whether by livestock or money is unclear):
שמות לד:יט כָּל פֶּטֶר רֶחֶם לִי וְכָל מִקְנְךָ תִּזָּכָר פֶּטֶר שׁוֹר וָשֶׂה. לד:כ וּפֶטֶר חֲמוֹר תִּפְדֶּה בְשֶׂה וְאִם לֹא תִפְדֶּה וַעֲרַפְתּוֹ כֹּל בְּכוֹר בָּנֶיךָ תִּפְדֶּה וְלֹא יֵרָאוּ פָנַי רֵיקָם.
Exod 34:19 Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep.34:20 But the firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you shall break its neck. And you must redeem every firstborn among your sons. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.
This is not be the first time in the Torah that a child offering is replaced by something else. Famously, at the end of the Akedah story, Abraham offers a ram in place of his son Isaac. Two other children in the Bible were less lucky.
The Practice and Prohibition of Child Sacrifice
Mesha Sacrifices His Son to Repel an Israelite Invasion
The biblical story of Mesha king of Moab sacrificing his firstborn son in order to win a battle is dramatic in its humanity and pathos:
מלכים ב ג:כו וַיַּרְא מֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב כִּי חָזַק מִמֶּנּוּ הַמִּלְחָמָה… ג:כז וַיִּקַּח אֶת בְּנוֹ הַבְּכוֹר אֲשֶׁר יִמְלֹךְ תַּחְתָּיו וַיַּעֲלֵהוּ עֹלָה עַל הַחֹמָה וַיְהִי קֶצֶף גָּדוֹל עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּסְעוּ מֵעָלָיו וַיָּשֻׁבוּ לָאָרֶץ.
2Kings 3:26 The king of Moab, seeing that the battle was going against him… 3:27 took his first-born son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up on the wall as a burnt offering. A great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and went back to [their own] land.
The sacrifice appears to have worked, but how exactly? Whose wrath is being described? Was it the great wrath of the Moabite high god Kemosh, who helped his people defeat the Israelite attack? Alternatively, was it YHWH’s anger?
Some commentators, apparently unable to accept the possibility of the king of Moab sacrificing his own son, suggest a backstory that Moab had taken the Edomite king’s son prisoner and that this is the child who was slaughtered. The Edomite king had brought his army to assist Israel, but the sight of his son being offered as a sacrifice crushed him and turned his anger against Israel, thus dissolving the coalition and freeing the Moabites.
The Biblical Prohibition of Child Offerings
The assumption among commentators that the Bible would not tell a story about child sacrifice being efficacious, appears to have support in a number of biblical sources:
ויקרא כ:ב אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מִזַּרְעוֹ לַמֹּלֶךְ מוֹת יוּמָת עַם הָאָרֶץ יִרְגְּמֻהוּ בָאָבֶן.
Lev 20:2 …Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones.
The identity of Moloch has long been a matter of controversy, but should probably to be identified with the Ammonite god, Milcom.
דברים יח:י לֹא יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ קֹסֵם קְסָמִים מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף׃
Deut 18:10 Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer.
Passing a child through fire, may not have involved the death of the child (this too is a matter of scholarly debate).
The biblical admonitions against a specific ritual, burning a child for Molech, suggests that it was being practiced among Israelites. In fact, the existence of child sacrifice among the Israelites/Judeans is stated explicitly in other biblical books. For example, Kings, in its description of Josiah’s reforms, writes:
מלכים ב כג:י וְטִמֵּא אֶת הַתֹּפֶת אֲשֶׁר בְּגֵי בני [בֶן] הִנֹּם לְבִלְתִּי לְהַעֲבִיר אִישׁ אֶת בְּנוֹ וְאֶת בִּתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ לַמֹּלֶךְ.
2Kings 23:10 He also defiled the Tophet, which is in the Valley of Ben-hinnom, so that no one might consign his son or daughter to the fire of Molech.
Jeremiah also speaks about this same Tophet:
ירמיהו פרק ז:ל כִּֽי עָשׂוּ בְנֵי יְהוּדָה הָרַע בְּעֵינַי נְאֻם יְ-הֹוָה… ז:לא וּבָנוּ בָּמוֹת הַתֹּפֶת אֲשֶׁר בְּגֵיא בֶן הִנֹּם לִשְׂרֹף אֶת בְּנֵיהֶם וְאֶת בְּנֹתֵיהֶם בָּאֵשׁ אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוִּיתִי וְלֹא עָלְתָה עַל לִבִּי: ז:לב לָכֵן הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם יְ-הֹוָה וְלֹא יֵאָמֵר עוֹד הַתֹּפֶת וְגֵיא בֶן הִנֹּם כִּי אִם גֵּיא הַהֲרֵגָה וְקָבְרוּ בְתֹפֶת מֵאֵין מָקוֹם:
Jer 7:30 For the people of Judah have done what displeases Me—declares YHWH… 7:31 And they have built the shrines of Tophet in the Valley of Ben-hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in fire—which I never commanded, which never came to My mind. 7:32 Assuredly, a time is coming—declares YHWH —when men shall no longer speak of Tophet or the Valley of Ben-hinnom, but of the Valley of Slaughter; and they shall bury in Tophet until no room is left.
These texts suggest that the Tophet was an area in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom in which the Judeans sacrificed their offspring, following an attested ancient Mediterranean practice.
The Tophet in Carthage
The most famous example of a society that practiced child sacrifice is the Punic (Phoenician) kingdom of Carthage (contemporary Tunisia). Eleven Punic burial grounds for infants have been found; the largest in the capital city of Carthage. These burial grounds are referred to in scholarship as “Punic tophets.” Most scholars agree that the infants buried there, usually around three months old, were sacrificed.
Theological Motivation behind the Practice of Child Sacrifice
The Torah does not offer a clear reason why a father should sacrifice his son. The laws in Exodus discussed above imply that the firstborn son is God’s “due,” just as firstborn animals are. To put it another way, perhaps this was understood by some Israelites as part of the covenant, which can be described as an alliance between a vulnerable God who requires the loyalty of a human ally. In a covenant, there is an element of reciprocity: a person accepts the god as king, and the king bestows success and military prowess on the servant.
Perhaps child sacrifice was understood by some as part of the cost of this covenant. Even if correct, however, it leaves open the question of how such an idea could have taken root. It seems necessary, then, to posit that any theological explanation necessarily masks a deeper psychological one, which reflects on the unconscious ambivalent relationship between father and son.
Psychological Interpretation: A Father’s Ambivalence
In his The Golden Bough, James Frazer portrays a predictable enmity between a king and his first born son who immediately, at birth, is granted the powers of his father. The father is expected to abdicate. He is no longer the monarch and is now the subject. As Frazer notes, it is a powerful motive for infanticide.
Tracing the psychoanalytic understanding of the development of kinship, conflict, and continuity in Genesis, Devora Steinmetz focuses on the father and son relationship and the awareness of the father that,
[Whatever he] has accomplished will die with him if he has no son to take over. It is here that the ambivalence lies. As an extension of the father, the son ensures his immortality, yet as successor the son usurps his place – he can continue for the father only upon the death of the father. To the father, then, the son represents both the ultimate promise and the ultimate threat, immortality and death, and the father responds both by claiming his son and by rejecting him, in being torn between nurturing and killing him. The more closely the son resembles the father, the more he seems able to continue for the father, the more likely violence will erupt.
Whatever elements of subconscious aggression against one’s child there may be, simultaneously fathers also love their children and humans tend to abhor murdering innocents. Myth may help navigate such ambivalence, as illustrated by two examples from the Bible and one from Greek mythology:
- Jephthah and his daughter;
- Agamemnon and his daughter, Iphigenia;
- The sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.
These well-known stories have disturbed readers for centuries; yet, they have been the basis of ideological movements which have influenced many. Below, I briefly summarize the contents of each story and note the signs of ambivalence it contains.
Story of Jephthah and His Daughter
This story, also the haftarah for Parashat Chukkat, is found in Judges 11:1-40.
For eighteen years Israel suffered under the cruel yoke of the Ammonites. Jephthah, a marauding warrior, son of his father’s concubine who was driven out of the house of his family, is persuaded to save Israel from bondage to the enemy. Jephthah vows unto the Lord that if He delivers the children of Ammon into his hands (Judg 11:31):
שופטים יא:לא וְהָיָה הַיּוֹצֵא אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא מִדַּלְתֵי בֵיתִי לִקְרָאתִי בְּשׁוּבִי בְשָׁלוֹם מִבְּנֵי עַמּוֹן וְהָיָה לַיהוָה וְהַעֲלִיתִהוּ עוֹלָה.
Judg 11:31 Then whatever/whoever comes out of the door of my house to meet me on my safe return from the Ammonites shall be YHWH’s and shall be offered by me as a burnt offering.
Jephthah successfully vanquishes the Ammonites but his celebration turns to mourning and he rends his garments when he realizes that it is his only child, his daughter, who is first to greet him, with drums and with dance. Painfully, Jephthah proclaims that he has no choice but to honor his vow. His daughter supports him in his decision, but, asks for a respite of two months to experience the world that will escape her, to cry over the emptiness of her life accompanied by her friends. After two months she returns and is put to death while still a virgin.
This is the simple reading of the story’s ending, but some commentators (Radak and Ralbag), noting that the text never directly says that he sacrifices her, have argued against it and concluded that he didn’t really sacrifice her but claim that she was secluded and survived as a perpetual virgin in an almost monastic setting, separated from all except for a limited few days each year.
Many interpreters who believe that the story does end with her death, condemn the act. Josephus, for example, in his Antiquities concludes that “he sacrificed his daughter as a holocaust …that the sacrifice was neither lawful or pleasing to God.”  Nevertheless, Josephus still tries to partially defend Jephthah by pointing to some mitigating factors.
The midrash makes note of the rabbinic law that a vow can be cancelled by a court, and asks, “wasn’t Pinchas around to cancel the vow?” It answers this question with the following imagined scenario:
אלא פנחס אמר הוא צריך לי ואני אלך אצלו, ויפתח אמר אני ראש קציני ישראל ואני הולך לי אצל פנחס, בין דין לדין אבדה הנערה ההיא… ושניהם נענשו בדמה.
However, Pinchas said: “He needs me, why should I go to him?” Jephthah said: “I am the head of the Israelites, why should I go to Pinchas?” Between the two of them the girl was lost… and both of them were punished for her blood… (Gen. Rab. 60)
In this reading, pride and hubris would not permit either to approach the other, and a young woman died. Tradition was not happy with the act of child sacrifice even though the Bible describes its practice by one of the judges. The issue the biblical text seems most bothered by, however, is the rashness of Jephthah’s vow, not the legitimacy of a human sacrifice; the text may even be implying that the fact of his daughter coming out first was a sort of punishment from heaven for his rash vow.
Agamemnon and Iphigenia
Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, is also said to have sacrificed his only daughter. In the Iliad, Agamemnon is chosen as the commander of Greek forces who were to sail to Troy to defeat the Trojans whose prince (Paris) seduced and “kidnapped” Helen, the wife of Agamemnon’s brother Menalaus, king of Sparta. Once the Greek forces had assembled they could not sail because the goddess, Artemis had sent headwinds to block the boats’ movement.
Artemis was upset because Agamemnon, who was a noted hunter, had killed a deer from the sacred forest of Artemis, and, to add insult to injury, had boasted that he was a greater hunter than the goddess. To appease the winds, the seer, Calchas advises Agamemnon that he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia to the goddess. Agamemnon initially rejects the killing of his daughter, but eventually relents. He sends for Iphigenia, who is at the palace with her mother, Clytemnestra. Iphigenia is brought to Agamemnon. The rest of the story is reflected in two divergent endings, both from the 5th century B.C.E.
In the earlier version by Aeschylus (484 BCE), Iphigenia begs her father for her life, but, to no avail. Agamemnon sacrifices her and the boats sail. Ten years later, on the return of Agamemnon to Athens Clytemnestra repays Agamemnon for the killing of Iphigenia by murdering him.
In the later version of the story by Euripides (414-412 BCE), Iphigenia accepts her fate and beseeches her father to accomplish the act. As he is about to kill her, Artemis magically substitutes a hind, a deer for her. Iphigenia tells her story:
…on the altar there
High was I placed, and o’er me gleamed the sword.
Aiming the fatal wound; but from the stroke
Diana snatch’d me, in exchange a hind
The two endings to the story highlight the ambivalence the Greeks felt. In Aeschylus’ version, Agamemnon does sacrifice his daughter, but the reader gets to experience vicarious revenge when Clytemnestra kills her husband. Euripides is apparently troubled not primarily by Agamemnon, but by the goddess Artemis. Can it be that this is what she really wants? The tension is solved by having Artemis accept a substitute animal at the last moment, as God does in the story of the binding of Isaac.
The Akedah: Abraham and Isaac
The story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, the Akedah (Gen 22:1-19), expresses similar ambivalence about child sacrifice. God and Abraham have entered into a berit (covenant) whereby a son, Isaac will be born to Abraham and Sarah. His descendants will be as numerous as the stars in heaven. In turn, Abraham will accept the will and mastery of God. To test the bonds of this berit, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son on the top of Mt. Moriah.
Abraham and Isaac, accompanied by two young men, rise up early in the morning to begin their journey. When they approach their destination Abraham and Isaac proceed alone. The altar is readied. Isaac carries the wood for the fire. Some midrashim, commenting on the phrase (Gen 22:8) “and the two walked together,” describe father and son as being of one mind, with Isaac actually encouraging his father and proud to have been selected to be the sacrifice. Are we certain that this was his real feeling? Is the destruction of family what his father had taught him? What effect will it have on his mother? Will she kill herself in despair or by chance? Again, in these midrashim, Isaac will facilitate his own slaughter by asking to be tied so as not to disrupt his own sacrifice; yet, we can imagine his struggle to live.
As Abraham lowers the knife to plunge it into the neck of Isaac an angel calls out to Abraham once and then again to stop the killing of his son. A ram appears; and, as in Euripides version of the Agamemnon and Iphigenia tale, the animal is offered as a sacrificial substitute. Violence directed towards a human is re-directed to an animal that is substituted as a sacrifice.
No Happy Ending
As troubling as this story is, a closer look makes it even more troubling. The conclusion of the text says (Gen 22:19) that “Abraham returned unto the young men (וַיָּשָׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל נְעָרָיו)” and they journeyed to Beer-sheba. The wording of the text suggests that Abraham left the place of sacrifice without Isaac.
Some critical scholars, such as Tzemah Yoreh, have gone so far as to suggest that the story has been redacted by an “Israelite Euripides.” The original simply has Abraham sacrifice his son and return home alone. A later sage could not accept that God would let the story end this way, and revised it to have God stop the sacrifice at the last minute, like Artemis, and substitute an animal. But the redactor forgot to adjust the ending, giving away to the critical reader what the original story said.
Commentators have grappled with this verse for generations. Among the many interpretations collected by Louis Ginsburg in The Legends of the Jews, is a claim that Abraham actually sacrificed Isaac and placed his ashes on top of the altar, but that Isaac was resurrected. This hypothesis was rejected by Ibn Ezra as being the very opposite of what the Torah text concludes.
Traumatized and Injured
Other commentaries suggest that Isaac could not continue on with his father, but that he needed time to recuperate physically, emotionally, or both. Midrash Hagadol (ad loc) has Isaac sent to stay in paradise (for two years) to be cured from the injury inflicted by his father before the angel stopped him from completing the sacrifice. Abraham had intended to bleed Isaac a little to show his willingness to offer to God his most precious possession. The knife had resulted in a small incision in the shape of a bead. Rabbi Berekhiah offered another explanation, that Isaac was sent by Abraham to Shem to study Torah.
Thus, the ambivalence inheres not only in the biblical text (redacted or not), but in the commentators who feel that even if Abraham did not actually kill his son, he severely damaged him in one way or another.
Discrediting Child Sacrifice
Looking at how these three stories developed over time, or were reinterpreted over time, suggests that the authors or editors were bothered by this practice and wished to paint portraits empathetic with the child victim. Shalom Spiegel went so far as to suggest that (p. 73),
[They] came to abolish and discredit the statutes of the old world …the primitive notion of the sanctity of the first born and its derivative demand for the literal sacrifice of children …a terror-laden inheritance from idolatrous generations.
Although this claim goes beyond the evidence, it is true that redemption of the first born replaced child offering in biblical legislation, and that the Torah and prophets alike came out against child sacrifice in no uncertain terms.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
November 15, 2016
November 30, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Dr. Rabbi Samuel Z. Glaser, z”l, was Rabbi Emeritus of the Elmont Jewish Center and Adjunct Associate Professor at Hofstra University, NY. He earned his Smicha at Yeshiva University and his PhD in Clinical Psychology at St. John’s University, NY.
Essays on Related Topics: