Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus? (Part 2)

Q. Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

In my first post in response to this question, I showed that the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God does not want human sacrifices.  Now in this post I will consider the cases of Isaac and Jesus, which might appear to be exceptions.

To start with Isaac, when we consider in its entirety and in its cultural context the story of God telling Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice, but then stopping him at the last minute, we realize that this story was actually included in the developing Hebrew Scriptures to discourage later generations of Israelites from offering human sacrifices.  As I say in another post, in response to a slightly different question, “It’s not as though God thought up human sacrifice as an extreme way to test Abraham’s loyalty. Rather, God was asking of Abraham what it was believed the other gods were asking of their followers. When Abraham demonstrated his complete devotion, God then made clear that he didn’t want human sacrifices.”

In other words, this episode from the life of Abraham was recorded and retold in the Scriptures  precisely so that later generations of Israelites would follow the example in the story and offer the animals God had designated as acceptable sacrifices, instead of their own children.  The need for this example is understandable.  The surrounding cultures were offering human sacrifices, and the Israelites might otherwise have felt that they were not as devoted to their own God, or that their God was not as deserving of costly devotion as other gods, if they did not do the same.

Turning to the case of Jesus, even though his death is often spoken of as a “sacrifice,” it’s important to understand that it was not a “human sacrifice” in the sense of the sacrifice of a human being to God.  Rather, it was God, in human form, sacrificing himself for our sakes.  Jesus described his own death in this way: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

The death of Jesus is so rich in meaning that in the Bible and Christian theology it is described and explained in many different ways.  Each way brings out a different facet of its significance.  One common understanding is that our sins and wrongs against God and other people were so serious and destructive that they were deserving of death.  But Jesus willingly accepted the death penalty in our place, satisfying the justice of God.  This is the sense in which he “sacrificed” himself for us.

But there are many other understandings of the meaning of Jesus’ death as well.  Perhaps the one that comes closest to what ancient cultures were trying to accomplish through human sacrifice is the idea of “propitiation.”  This term refers to the act of doing something generous for, or offering something valuable to, another person in order to change their disposition from hostile to gracious.  (The term comes from the Latin word propitius, meaning “gracious,” “favorable,” or “well-disposed.”)  The idea is that Jesus’ death on the cross was a precious gift to God that won His favor.

Accordingly John writes in his first epistle that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Later in this same epistle John elaborates to say, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”   In other words, God himself provided the gift that won back His own favor for us!

We should note, moreover, that what made Jesus’ sacrifice such a precious gift was not that it embodied the value of a human life, not even that of the long-awaited Messiah, as opposed to some less valuable offering.  Rather, it was the spirit of obedience, humility, generosity, and especially love in which Jesus offered himself that made his sacrificial death so pleasing to God.

And so we can see that the cases of Isaac and Jesus are not exceptions to the Bible’s consistent teaching that God does not want human sacrifices.  When we do consider them, however, these cases reveal more about what God has done for us in Christ.  Christian interpreters, in fact, have long seen a foreshadowing of Jesus’ incarnation and self-sacrifice in Abraham’s statement to Isaac that “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.”  As Micah said, in the words I noted last time, God does not want me to “offer my firstborn for my transgression,” or “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul.”  God himself, in Christ, has graciously made all the provision any of us needs to be forgiven and restored.

Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

Q. Why did God want human sacrifices, for example, Isaac and Jesus?

“The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (detail)

Actually, the clear and consistent teaching of the Bible is that God does not want human sacrifices.  I’ll demonstrate that in this post, and then in my next post I will consider the two cases you mention and explain why they are not exceptions.

The pagan nations surrounding ancient Israel did make human sacrifices to their gods, but the law of Moses insisted that this was not the way that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Creator of the world, wanted to be worshipped.  One law, in Leviticus, prohibits making any child a burnt offering to the Canaanite god Molech:  “You are not to make any of your children pass through the fire to Molech. Do not profane the name of your God; I am Yahweh.”  A more general law in Deuteronomy says, “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire.”

As I explain in this post, Jephthah, one of the judges, sacrificed his daughter in fulfillment of a vow because he was ignorant of the further law that said a human being who would otherwise be the subject of such a vow had to be “redeemed” (bought back), not sacrificed.  This story is included in the book of Judges to show what tragic and evil things happen when “everyone does what is right in their own eyes.”

The other historical narratives in the Bible uphold this standard from the law of Moses and use it to evaluate the later Israelite kings.  It is said about King Ahaz, for example, “He did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He . . . even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.”  About King Manasseh it is said similarly, “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. . . . He sacrificed his own son in the fire . . . He did much evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.”

Such human sacrifices were a chief reason why the kingdom of Israel was taken into exile, again according to the historical biblical narratives:  “All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God . . . They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them . . . They sacrificed their sons and daughters in the fire. They . . . sold themselves to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, arousing his anger.”

The prophetic tradition within the Bible similarly says that God does not want human sacrifices.  The prophet Micah, for example, reflecting on what he would have to offer to make up for his sins and be restored to God’s favor, considers greater and greater sacrifices, all the way up to the sacrifice of his own firstborn child, but then realizes that what God really wants is for him to live a life of humility and compassion:

With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

So the biblical teaching against human sacrifice is clear and consistent.  Why, then, did God say to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you”?  And why is the death of Jesus so often described as a “sacrifice”?  I’ll explore both of these questions in my next post.

How is it fair for God to “bring disaster on all people”?

Q. I recently had the opportunity to speak in my church. The theme of my message was, “God doesn’t do what is unjust.”  I talked about the great flood and how God rescued Noah from it because he was innocent, while the rest of the world was destroyed because they refused to believe and follow God’s words.  I also talked about the Sodom and Gomorrah episode and how those cities wouldn’t have been destroyed if there had been righteous people in them. I talked about Pharaoh, drawing on your blog post about why God hardens some people’s hearts. And finally I talked about Job, claiming that God Himself didn’t do those bad things to him, but Satan, with God’s permission.

But during the sermon some people stared at me as if I were an atheist, as if I didn’t know what I was talking about!  And I have to admit, I still haven’t found a completely satisfying answer to this question:  “Does God do what is unjust?” My doubts increased when I read the place in the book of Jeremiah where God says “I will bring disaster on all people.” That doesn’t sound fair or just. I’m really confused about this, despite everything I shared with my church and despite what you wrote in your post.  I hope you can clarify this for me and for all of those who have the same questions.  Thank you in advance!

I have to admit that I share your serious concerns about what is sometimes called “divine violence” in the Bible—episodes in which God wipes out entire cities (Sodom and Gomorrah) or nations (Egypt, through the plagues) or even the entire world (in the great flood).  In the post you mentioned in which I talk about Pharaoh, quoting my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, I call this issue “one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.”

I won’t repeat here everything I say in that post, or in some of my similar posts (such as this one about the episodes of genocide in the Bible).  Instead, let me speak just to the passage you cited from Jeremiah, as a way of addressing a large subject by looking at a small aspect of it.

That passage comes at the end of one of the four major parts of the book of Jeremiah.  It was placed there because it contains a reference to Jeremiah’s words being recorded on a scroll, and this is how the book signals the conclusion of each its major parts.  But the passage also looks forward to the next part of the book, which contains the prophecies that Jeremiah announced against the surrounding nations over a period of many years.

In other words, even though God says in this passage that he is going to bring disaster on “all people” (in Hebrew, “all flesh”), the placement of this episode in the book shows that this phrase refers specifically to judgments that follow against various specific nations for their pride, injustice, and idolatry.  In this case we see that God is indeed doing what is just, by punishing these wrongs.

Moreover, as the passage also says, Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch (whom it addresses directly) will be spared from these judgments, in the same way that Noah was spared from the flood (as you observed in your sermon).  The passage is still something of a rebuke to Baruch, who has apparently been complaining about the sorrows and discomforts he has experienced because of his role as Jeremiah’s helper and scribe—particularly given the hostility Jeremiah has faced for his dire warnings to the Judeans.  God tells Baruch, in effect, “Don’t complain, what you’ve been going through is still a lot better than what the nations are in for when I finally judge them for their wrongs.”  Baruch, at least, will escape with his life, which is a lot more than many others will do.  So God will be fair and just to Baruch by sparing him from the judgment that’s about to come on these surrounding nations.

This is not a comprehensive solution to the problem of divine violence in the Bible—I think that thoughtful, careful readers will always be troubled about that—but I hope I’ve at least helped you with some of your concerns about that specific passage in Jeremiah.

d’Allamagna Giusto, “The Prophet Baruch,” from the Loggia d’Annunciazione

Why does God allow people to commit atrocities in His name?

Q. One thing I really struggle with is the horrible things that people have orchestrated in the name of God.  Offhand I can think of the Crusades and the Jonestown massacre, just to name two. I understand our sinful nature and free will, but why on earth does God, whom I believe is still in charge, allow tragedies to take place that claim to come from God but clearly aren’t? It occurs to me that this makes sharing the gospel a bigger challenge.  Does the Bible provide any clue as to why this occurs?

Your question makes me think of the incident recorded in the gospel of Luke in which, at least according to some early manuscripts, when a Samaritan village refuses its hospitality, James and John ask Jesus, “Do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them, as Elijah did?”  Jesus replies, according to these same manuscripts, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.”  (See the translators’ notes in versions such as the ESV.)

Apparently the most reliable ancient manuscripts don’t contain the reference to Elijah, or any specifics of Jesus’ reply to James and John (they just say that “he rebuked them”).  Bruce Metzger writes in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament that the longer version of the story likely incorporates “glosses derived from some extraneous source, written or oral.”  If that’s the case, they may actually preserve a genuine tradition coming down from Jesus that wasn’t included originally in the gospels.  Alternatively, they may express an early understanding of what Jesus likely said to James and John on this occasion, based on his undisputed statements that “the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” and that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

Either way, the point is that starting with Jesus’ very first disciples, people have mistakenly thought they could and should wreak destruction on others in the name of God.  Jesus’ answer to James and John, however it has come down to us, shows that such people have the wrong spirit; they don’t realize that the mission of Jesus, and thus of his followers, is not to destroy people’s lives, but to save them.

I believe that God doesn’t actively intervene to stop such people for the reason you cited—the free will He has given to us, which allows us to choose loving, gracious, life-giving actions, even as it also permits us, if we choose wrongly, to be destructive.

You’re right that this creates problems for what we might call God’s “image” in the world.  (In biblical terms, it robs him of His glory.)  Certainly if people evaluated God by the worst actions of those who claimed to follow Him, few others would choose to follow.  But I believe the proper response for sincerely concerned followers is to redouble their efforts to bring honor and praise to God through generous, loving actions towards others.  These will correct the misimpression that violent actions create and help people understand what God is truly like.

In other words, rather than expecting God to intervene from heaven to stop people from doing violent actions in His name, we should recognize that God is expecting us to do loving actions in His name that will preserve His reputation in the world and bring Him the glory and honor He deserves.

Why wasn’t Aaron punished for making the golden calf?

Q.  I have some questions about the golden calf episode.

First, when Moses asked who was “for the Lord” and the Levites came to him, he told them to “slay each his brother, his companion, and his neighbor.”  He said, “Consecrate yourselves each upon his son and brother that the Lord may bestow upon you a blessing.” I gather they were slaying fellow Levites as a consecration.  This is hard to understand.

I’m also wondering why Aaron wasn’t punished for his part in the episode. Moses asked him, “What did these people to to you that you caused them to commit such a great sin?”  And Aaron reported correctly, “They asked me to make gods for them because they did not know what had become of you.”  However, Aaron was not removed from his priesthood or slain. He just went on being the respected associate of Moses.

I find all this mysterious and hard to understand.

Nicolas Poussin, “The Adoration of the Golden Calf”

I think it helps to realize, to begin with, that in this episode the Israelites didn’t believe they were worshiping a god other than Yahweh.  Rather, they thought they were still worshiping Yahweh, but they were now doing this as if He were a god like the ones the Egyptians and Canaanites worshiped.  Such gods had physical representations in the form of idols, and they were worshiped through immoral revelry.

The episode reveals that to this point the Israelites had been regarding Moses as the physical representation of Yahweh.  That’s why they spoke of him as the one who had “brought them up out of Egypt.” So when he was delayed on the mountain and the people didn’t know what had become of him, they wanted something else to represent Yahweh for them physically.  They “assembled against” Aaron (not just “gathered around” him) and told him to make them a god.  (The Hebrew word is ‘elohim, a plural form that most English versions translate as “gods,” but it should likely be taken as a “plural of excellence” meaning “God,” as the context seems to call for; see the translation note in the NIV.)

Under this pressure, Aaron makes a golden calf, and when the people see the finished product, they exclaim, “This is your God, Israel, who brought you up from Egypt!”  Going along with this identification, Aaron announces, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh!”

Unfortunately, if Yahweh were indeed the kind of god who could be represented by a golden calf, then such a festival would involve immoral revelry.  Traditional English versions tend to translate the terms “play” and “dance” in the account with discreet literalism, but the NIV’s “revelry” and “running wild” capture the meaning well.

The people were so “out of control,” in fact, that “they mocked anyone who opposed them,” as a footnoted alternative rendering in the New Living Translation puts it.  Most versions say something like “they were a laughingstock to their enemies,” but as there were no enemies present to observe the incident, I think this NLT alternative captures the sense of the Hebrew term well, which refers literally to those who “stood against” them.

So the people were being recklessly indulgent and they would not listen to their leaders when they tried to restrain them.  it was a near-riot, and desperate measures were called for to prevent the situation from disintegrating completely.  (Otherwise the people might have turned violently against Moses and even killed him.)

And so Moses called out, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.”  In other words, “Whoever still respects my leadership and my revelation about what Yahweh is really like, I need your help right away!”  When the Levites rallied to Moses, he told them, ““This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’”

This is actually characteristic language referring to all Israelites, not just Levites.  And it was only after the Levites did this to stop the situation from spinning completely out of control that Moses told them, ““You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”  In other words—in response to your first concern—Moses didn’t say to them, “God will bless you if you slay your fellow Levites.”  He said, after the fact, “Because you were willing to take the Lord’s side, even though this meant killing your fellow Israelites because they were rioting against Him, you have been set apart to the Lord.”  And that was the blessing—being set apart.  The blessing wasn’t something material that was promised in advance as a reward or incentive for taking up the sword.

In response to your second concern, I would suggest that Aaron was not punished for making the golden calf because he did this only when he was pressured by the people.  He may even have feared for his own safety and life if he refused.  He still should not have made the idol, but the responsibility was much more with the people than with him.  (This was a case similar to the one in which Miriam instigated a revolt against Moses’ leadership and enlisted Aaron to support her; she was punished but he was not, as I discuss in this post.)  The law of Moses would later distinguish between cases in which a leader sins and cases in which “the whole Israelite community” sins, and I think this was one of those latter cases.  In fact, the community was punished for their sin on this occasion not just by the Levites’ swords, but also through a plague that God struck them with afterwards.

I hope this explanation helps address your concerns.  But many aspects of the episode, including as the methodical slaughter of Israelites at God’s command, may still remain troubling and difficult to understand for thoughtful readers today.

Why would Jesus tell the disciples to bring swords and then rebuke Peter for using one?

Q. Why do you suppose Jesus would tell the disciples to bring swords, and then they do, and then Peter cuts off someone’s ear, and then Jesus clearly thought that was a dumb move, and heals the guy? It seems like a weird sequence of events.

The events you’re describing happen on the last night of Jesus’ life on earth.  At the Last Supper, he predicts Peter’s denial, and then warns the disciples that the circumstances of their lives and witness are going to change.  He asks them, “When I sent you out to preach the Good News and you did not have money, a traveler’s bag, or an extra pair of sandals, did you need anything?”  When they say “no,” he responds, “But now take your money and a traveler’s bag. And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”

It appears that there are some contexts that will be favorable to the life and witness of the community of Jesus’ followers, and in those contexts, it can count on what appears to be spontaneous support as God actually moves in people’s hearts to respond.  (This happens, for example, when Paul proclaims the good news in Thyatira and a woman named Lydia is listening. Luke, who was traveling with Paul at the time, describes what happened:  “The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’”

However, there are other contexts that are very unfavorable, indeed hostile, to the life and witness of the community of Jesus’ followers.  In those contexts, it shouldn’t expect the support of outsiders.  It has to supply its own provisions and it also needs to be prepared to defend and protect its members by reasonable means and precautions.

I think it’s significant that when the disciples reply to Jesus at the Last Supper, “Look, Lord, we have two swords among us,” he answers, “That’s enough.”  Many biblical interpreters believe that Jesus is saying it’s all right for the disciples to have some weapons as a deterrent and basic protection in a hostile environment.

However, in the Garden of Gesthemane, Peter moves from defense to offense by attacking first.  He also does this in a situation where the disciples are outnumbered and much less well armed than their opponents.  Jesus rebukes him and heals the man he injured, in order to prevent a bloodbath.

So it appears that while the community of Jesus’ followers can adopt basic protections and precautions, when it encounters an overwhelming force bent on doing harm, its response must not be to fight to the last one standing, but to be willing to accept suffering as the means of continuing its witness.

Dirck van Baburen, “The Arrest of Christ,” depicting the episode in which Peter strikes with his sword.

Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?

Q. Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter?  Or is the other point of view correct that says that she lived her life as a virgin and in that sense was sacrificed?

George Elgar Hicks, “The Lament of Jephthah’s Daughter” (1871)

Unfortunately Jephthah most likely did sacrifice his daughter after he vowed to make a burnt offering of “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph.”  The author of Judges includes this story as one of several horrific examples of what happened in the days when “Israel had no king” and “everyone did as they saw fit.”  These examples support the overall argument of the book, that the people need a king to help ensure that they will know God’s law and follow it.  As I explain further in my study guide to Joshua, Judges, and Ruth:

* * * * *

It wasn’t unusual for an Israelite who was counting on the LORD to make a vow, as Jephthah does.  This was a promise to acknowledge God publicly when he brought deliverance.  Vows like this are described often in the Psalms, for example, in Psalm 66:  “I will come to your temple with burnt offerings and fulfill my vows to you—vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke when I was in trouble.”

There would have been nothing wrong with Jepthah’s vow if he had only known the law.  Moses allowed the Israelites to offer anyone or anything they wanted to the LORD in payment of a vow, but it specified that if they dedicated a human being, they had to “redeem” that person by offering the value of their labor instead.  (These regulations are found at the end of the book of Leviticus.)  Jephthah should have paid ten shekels of silver into the LORD’s treasury, rather than sacrificing his daughter as a burnt offering.  But by now the Israelites were so used to Baal-worship, which included human sacrifices, that they were actually prepared to offer human sacrifices to the LORD–even though he had expressly forbidden them in the law.  And so Jephthah’s daughter suffers a horrific fate.

* * * * *

After offering this explanation, I then make these further reflections on the story of Jephthah:  “However, apart from his ignorance of the law and these tragic consequences, Jephthah is in other ways an exemplary judge.  He continually acknowledges the LORD as the one who delivered Israel in the past and who should be trusted to do so again.  The narrative says that the ‘Spirit of the LORD’ was on him, and that ‘the LORD gave [the Ammonites] into his hand.’  The book of Hebrews names him as a hero of the faith.”

In light of these observations, I ask these questions in the guide:

• Was Jephthah the best man he could have been, given his nation’s state of spiritual decline?  Or could he have been better?  If so, how?

• What consequences do you see in your own culture of an ignorance of God’s ways?  What activities are accepted, perhaps without question, that God doesn’t want people to practice?

What would you say in response to these questions?