October 5, 2005

HUMAN SACRIFICE: ABOMINATION OR SECRET TO SUCCESS (For AOG)

Genesis 22

Abraham Tested
1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied.

2 Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?" "Yes, my son?" Abraham replied. "The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!" "Here I am," he replied.

12 "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram [a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided."

Judges 11
29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD : "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, 31 whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering."

32 Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the LORD gave them into his hands. 33 He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon.

34 When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of tambourines! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, "Oh! My daughter! You have made me miserable and wretched, because I have made a vow to the LORD that I cannot break."

36 "My father," she replied, "you have given your word to the LORD. Do to me just as you promised, now that the LORD has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. 37 But grant me this one request," she said. "Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry."

38 "You may go," he said. And he let her go for two months. She and the girls went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. 39 After the two months, she returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. From this comes the Israelite custom 40 that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.

Leviticus
18:21 And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.

20:2 Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.

Deuteronomy
12:30 Take heed to thyself that thou be not snared by following them, after that they be destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying, How did these nations serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.

12:31 Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God: for every abomination to the LORD, which he hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters they have burnt in the fire to their gods.

Here we have, at the heart of Rosh Hashanah, one of the foundation stones of western civilization -- the offering of Isaac. As we discussed yesterday, note the importance to the story that Isaac is considered Abraham's only son. Ishmael has been banished and is no longer Abraham's son. G-d's relationship descends from Abraham through Isaac to Israel.

The fact that Isaac is Abraham's only son -- and when G-d says only, He means now and forever -- is one of the odd things about this story. G-d has promised that Abraham's descendents will be a mighty nation, more numerous than the stars. How can that G-d's promise come true is Isaac, Abraham's only son, is sacrificed? Abraham, thous a notoriously stiff-necked man, never argues with G-d but goes along. We have to suspect, don't we, that Abraham has figured out the "test." But, of course, G-d knows that Abraham knows and Abraham knows that G-d knows. So what kind of test is this? In Temple today, the Rabbi brought up an interesting suggestion: the test is not whether Abraham is willing to sacrifice Isaac. What sort of test is that? Given the time, given the mores, given the demands of neighboring gods, given that G-d is G-d, why wouldn't Abraham comply? The real test, suggested the Rabbi, was whether Abraham -- who had steeled his nerves to the task, who had traveled for days, who had bound his son and raised the knife -- would stop when told to stop. He passed that test. If he had failed, then G-d's promises would have been forfeit. As he passed, the promises remained.

But what about Jephthah and his vow that "whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." Given the story of Isaac, given the law making human sacrifice an abomination, why would he make such a vow, why would G-d reward it and how could he (or He) see it carried out. There are important lessons in Jephthah's story about rash vows and what it means to pray and see a prayer seemingly answered. If G-d intended the Gileadites to triumph, should He have changed His mind because of Jephthah's vow? Obviously, we must be circumspect in the promises we make, to each other and to G-d.

On the other hand, the most likely explanation for the story of Jephthah's daughter is that it is misunderstood. Jephthah could not have gotten either the people of Gilead or the Priests to go along with a human sacrifice. Moreover, the story seems oddly interested in the state of his daughters virginity for a story about human sacrifice. What seems to be going on here is that Jephthah vowed that whatever came out to greet him would either be consecrated to G-d or, if appropriate, be sacrificed as a burnt offering. In ancient Israel, a person could be consecrated to G-d, cloistered and would not thereafter marry. This makes sense of the daughter's response to Jephthah's news ("Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry") as well as the ending of the story, "And she was a virgin" as opposed to "And she was a burnt offering."

Posted by David Cohen at October 5, 2005 11:39 PM
Comments

Nice reading of Genesis 22 here:
http://www.listenersbible.com/watch/

Posted by: Jorge Curioso at October 5, 2005 9:50 PM

Jephthah's daughter must still sacrifice, and for no reason at all.

If anything, the story illustrates that foolish pride destroys lives.
Jephthah should have humbled himself before the Lord, admitted that he'd made a mistake, and begged forgiveness.

Instead, he put his daughter into a nunnery, in effect turning her from a princess into a slave, simply to avoid admitting error.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 5, 2005 11:18 PM

Well, he suffered, too. He felt bad.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 5, 2005 11:31 PM

Sexist.

Posted by: Sandy P at October 6, 2005 12:30 AM

I like it. It's a very funny story.

Posted by: Brit at October 6, 2005 4:40 AM

Jephthah put his daughter in a nunnery?

It would be nice if we could just amke the words "burnt offering" go away, if we could say they were something like the "Satanic Verses" in the Koran.

Alas for me, a have read the story of Iphegenia, sacrificed by her father to obtain a fair wind for Troy, and who mourned her virginity in almost the same words as the daughter of Jephthah.

The word for "burnt offering" in Judges 11:31 is "olah," [Strong's 05930]. It is the same word used in the story of Abraham and Issac. When Abraham carried the knife and fire to the mountain, he wasn't getting ready to send Issac to a nunnery.

Could it not be that Jephthah was as bad a man as Agamemnon, blinded with blood-lust and pride, seething with rage against the family which had discarded him, thus making a wild, rash vow and holding himself to its unforeseen consequence?

Things were rough in those days, and His ways are not always our ways.

Posted by: Lou Gots at October 6, 2005 8:33 AM

Well, Jepthah suffered, too, in that he had no other children and therefore never had grandchildren, so basically his family line ended with that vow.

Posted by: Buttercup at October 6, 2005 9:09 AM

Admittedly, there's a lot of pressure to find away around the conclusion that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering. But the argument from the language is pretty strong. The "and" in Jephthah's vow could easily, in Hebrew, have been a disjunctive "or." So the vow was to consecrate whatever came out to greet him to the Lord, or to sacrifice it as a burnt offering if appropriate.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 6, 2005 9:52 AM

Abomination.

Abraham failed the test. If God is good, then he cannot have called for Isaac's death, for bad fruit cannot come from a good tree, neither can a bad tree bear good fruit. Obviously Abraham obeyed a false God when he prepared the sacrifice.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at October 6, 2005 10:40 AM

Yes, that's the Islamic position. Judaism and Christianity are, in this as in most things, subtler, suppler and more nuanced than atheism and Islam.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 6, 2005 10:59 AM

How postmodern of you.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at October 6, 2005 11:01 AM

Robert I don't understand either of your comments.

Posted by: Scof at October 6, 2005 1:52 PM

Robert hit the nail exactly on the head. This God is called Yahweh.

http://www.pantheon.org/articles/y/yahweh.html

Or the Demiurge:

The insane, imperfect Creator God, often referred to as the Yahweh of the Old Testament. A false deity who believes himself the one true god. Also known as Yaldabaoth, Samael, Sakla and various other names and titles.

Posted by: BJW at October 6, 2005 2:06 PM

Scof,
I don't understand what you don't understand.

To clarify:

(To answer David's question) Human sacrifice is an abomination. Success through human sacrifice is an abomination.

Abraham failed the test. He heard a disembodied, supernatural voice and assumed it was God. How could he have known that it was God or was a false god or demon? By applying the simple test of logic that I mentioned above, which is also described in the Bible. The nature of the request gives clues to the requestor. Is child sacrifice good? Answer: no. Is asking someone to commit human sacrice good? Answer: no. Is God good? Answer: yes. Can God do something that is not good? Answer: no. Therefore, can the disembodied voice requesting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac be God's. Conclusion: no.

As far as PostModernism goes, compare David's exegesis and appeal to subtlety, suppleness and nuance with the following paragraph from a discussion of PostModernism:

Instead of rooting knowledge in particular utterances, or "texts", the basis of knowledge was seen to be in the free play of discourse itself, an idea rooted in Wittgenstein's idea of a language game. This emphasis on the allowability of free play within the context of conversation and discourse leads postmodernism to adopt the stance of irony, paradox, textual manipulation, reference and tropes.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at October 6, 2005 3:50 PM

Robert: I have no objection to that at all. Post-modernism contains nothing that didn't occur to a tribe of desert nomads 3000 years ago, including the appearance of the Author in the book.

Another good example is that Jews, and to some extent Christians, are willing to contemplate the possibility of G-d as untustworthy narrator. For some reason, atheists always disbelieve in a somewhat simple-minded, easily comprehended god, but the actual G-d is a sophisticated Author who drives the narrative forward for his own purposes, not ours.

You say that human sacrifice is immoral, but without G-d you have no basis for that conclusion. It wasn't immoral in the societies surrounding the Israelites and there was no particular reason that Abraham would have thought human sacrifice to be odd. Abraham, after all, had already witnessed the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah -- he knew that his G-d was a vengeful G-d. Why wouldn't he have expected human sacrifice? So how can you say that it is immoral unless you believe in an absolute and unchanging standard of morality? As you know, I'm eager for you to believe in such a standard, and you're eager to deny that it exists.

BJW: Children shouldn't play with matches.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 6, 2005 5:07 PM

Another good example is that Jews, and to some extent Christians, are willing to contemplate the possibility of G-d as untustworthy narrator. For some reason, atheists always disbelieve in a somewhat simple-minded, easily comprehended god, but the actual G-d is a sophisticated Author who drives the narrative forward for his own purposes, not ours.

This kind of puts a crimp on objectivity, don't you think? If the source of objective truth can't be trusted, why pay attention to it?

You say that human sacrifice is immoral, but without G-d you have no basis for that conclusion.

Why not? God is not the only concept upon which to base a standard of morality.

It wasn't immoral in the societies surrounding the Israelites and there was no particular reason that Abraham would have thought human sacrifice to be odd.

You are practicing a form of temporal multiculturalism here, which further strengthens your similarities with post-modernism. If moral standards are objective, then human sacrifice was as wrong then as it is today.

So how can you say that it is immoral unless you believe in an absolute and unchanging standard of morality? As you know, I'm eager for you to believe in such a standard, and you're eager to deny that it exists.

I do believe in such a standard. I just don't base it upon the subjective feelings of a personal being known as God. People of all cultures and times have sought for such a standard, it didn't start with the Jews. And as people, our moral decisions are always clouded by our subjective feelings, which isn't as bad as everyone claims, but it does make agreement difficult, since we don't all share the same feelings.

But we do share a lot of feelings in common. There is an objective grounding to our feelings, as they are the result of millions of generations of successful reproduction and survival. Our feelings represent ingrained habits that have proved necessary to survival and contain much inherent wisdom, whether we understand them or not.

But we also have the shared legacy of cultural evolution upon which to build an objective standard of the good and the bad. All societies that once practiced ritual human sacrifice have either abolished the practice or have vanished from the earth. Granted, I am an inheritor of that tradition, and have the advantage of historical hindsight, but isn't that hindsight a proper tool with which to judge the validity of those past claims of revealed truth?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at October 9, 2005 10:36 AM

Robert: If you want to call your god Evolution, it's perfectly alright with me.

Posted by: David Cohen at October 10, 2005 8:45 AM
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