The Child Sacrifice Question (1)

The Child Sacrifice Question (1)

The Sacrifice of Isaac
Vecellio Tiziano, The Sacrifice of Isaac

One of the perennial challenges atheists bring before Christians (here, for example) is, “If you thought God was telling you to kill your child, would you do it?” When we answer “no, God would not do that,” they ask, “What about God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22?”

It’s not a bad question, but it’s hardly unanswerable. Let’s tear it apart some and we’ll see why. What is it about a command to sacrifice a child that makes it wrong?Most obviously, child sacrifice itself is wrong, for reasons I’ll come back to in a follow-up post. Therefore even to intend to sacrifice a child is wrong; and if God had commanded Abraham to do it, with the intent that Abraham would go through with it, it would have been wrong. But we know that God did not intend for the sacrifice to go through. So God is innocent of the most damning charge that could be brought against him in this respect.

That’s important, but it’s only a start toward an answer. For one thing, we want to know how we can be confident God wouldn’t do the same thing today. I believe the answer may be almost too obvious to see: it’s because we know child sacrifice is wrong.

Abraham was a man of his times and of his culture: times in which child sacrifice was practiced commonly and was thought to be good. When God told him to sacrifice Isaac, it would have been an incredibly painful thing for Abraham to consider doing. It would have meant a horrible loss. But it would not have involved anything like the kind of moral dilemma that it would for us, because Abraham would not have regarded it morally wrong. Probably no one would have.So God was not doing anything wrong from God’s perspective, because he did not give the command with the intent to carry it through. Abraham was not about to do anything wrong from his own perspective, either, because he did not know it was wrong.

It seems to me this leads us to the basic answer that the atheist’s question requires: God would never intend that any of his people to do wrong, and God would not call on any of his people to do something that the person knew was wrong. Thus we know that God will not repeat today what he did with Abraham.

That’s one basic answer, at least, and I think it accomplishes at least the minimum required of a response to this challenge. Much more could be and has been said about it, for it is one of the most important, most compelling (see Kierkegaard’s treatment in Fear and Trembling), and yet most controversial passages in all of literature. I’ll simply address a couple of loose ends.

First, am I letting God off the hook too easily? Is it justifiable to tell someone to do something you know is wrong, when you know you won’t let them do it in the end?I think so. It was a test; and we see tests of the same sort carried out all the time. We call them simulations, or psychological experiments, or character opportunities, or investigations into one’s honesty. When there is sufficient reason to justify it, we approve of such tests.

God had an overriding, morally sufficient purpose for this test: to allow Abraham to demonstrate his trust and his obedience, while also showing him that his trust in God was justified.

This is a rare privilege, and rarely sought after, and probably one that only a theist can really appreciate: the opportunity to discover in oneself that one has real trust in God, and to see that God is worthy of that trust. It’s only possible in extreme circumstances; for only then is real risk-taking, character-defining trust called for.

Character is developed as it is being defined, and it is defined as it is being developed; and the most difficult moments of our lives are the most defining. This was an experience of extreme character-building and extreme trust-building. Human character and trust in God are two of the highest goods in God’s economy. Abraham learned a lot about God there on the mountain, and he learned a lot about himself as well. Both discoveries were supremely valuable.

Note, however, that it would not have been character-building had it been a case of God’s forcing Abraham to do what Abraham knew was wrong. To be required to do what one knows is wrong is destructive of character; but this is not what happened there then.

In fact I wonder–I do not know, but I wonder–whether this was the first recorded instance in history when child sacrifice was explicitly interdicted. If so, then it might have also been the moment when humans first began to understand that child sacrifice was wrong.

Now that we know it to be so, it would be impossible for God to test us the same way he did Abraham. He wouldn’t do it.

There is one more loose end to tie up: if child sacrifice is wrong, why doesn’t that apply to Christ’s death on the cross? Wasn’t that a case of the Father sacrificing his own Son? I’ll come back to that soon in another post.

12 thoughts on “The Child Sacrifice Question (1)

  1. Where to start?

    What is your position on biblical law? Do you think that the Ten Commandments (and which set of them?) are still valid, or do you take the Noachide laws as valid? Is you decision influenced more by Paul than Jesus, for example? This is an important distinction if we are to properly evaluate your apologia here.

    “Thus we know that God will not repeat today what he did with Abraham.”

    Sorry, but He did. This time he followed through too. What about Jephthah? God is not innocent of this charge.

    What was God’s overriding, morally sufficient purpose for this act?

    “humans first began to understand that child sacrifice was wrong.”

    Really, you think that humans have the free will to decide for themselves what constitutes a morally wrong act? What need have we, then, of a moral law giver? Not only is He not the messenger, He isn’t even the source of human morality – we are.

    Back to my point about your position on biblical law; what use Exo 34 19:20 (The final draft of the Ten Commandments that the bible tells us were the ones put in the Ark of The Covenant) where God Himself writes the instruction that He wishes the first-born male child as a sacrifice?

    Why does Abraham get a pass on this, but no one else?

  2. Tris,

    If you don’t know where to start, you might consider reading the Old Testament for starters.

    What makes you think God approve of the incident with Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11)? He doesn’t need to “get a pass” on this any more than anyone else does who does not approve of an immoral or unwise decision.

    I can’t make heads nor tails of your paragraph beginning “Really, …” Here’s a short answer in case I’m close to interpreting you correctly, though: Free will has nothing to do with what is or is not immoral, except that free will is a necessary condition for morally significant decision-making. And what you say about God not being the source of human morality is (a) an unsupported bare assertion and (b) irrelevant to the question in the OP and (c) false, for reasons that I have argued frequently here.

    Exodus 34:19-20 does not say that God wishes the first-born male as a sacrifice.

    What is my position on biblical law? See here, please.

  3. P.S. In response to a question you asked after posting your comment here, I haven’t blocked you. I was kind of curious myself why your comment got sent into moderation at first, and I haven’t figured it out yet. Certain key words will do that, but I don’t know what caused it this time.

  4. @Tris
    If you care to read carefully the text of Exodus regarding the firstborn children, you would see that it says back in
    Exodus 13:11-15

    Exodus 13:11–15 (NASB95)
    11 “Now when the LORD brings you to the land of the Canaanite, as He swore to you and to your fathers, and gives it to you,
    12 you shall devote to the LORD the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the LORD.
    13 “But every first offspring of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, but if you do not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.
    14 “And it shall be when your son asks you in time to come, saying, ‘What is this?’ then you shall say to him, ‘With a powerful hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.
    15 ‘It came about, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore, I sacrifice to the LORD the males, the first offspring of every womb, but every firstborn of my sons I redeem.

    Tom also pulled in the complete text of Exodus 34:19-20, where it also instructs the Israelites to redeem the firstborn sons, ie, they were NOT to be sacrificed. Note that this applies only to the firstborn males – this law of dedication to the LORD does not apply to subsequent children (or the offspring of livestock, for that matter).

    The Law also continues on in Leviticus and it specifically says in Leviticus 18:21 and Leviticus 20:1-6 that the Israelites were NOT to offer their children to Molech – the punishment for doing so was death.

    Just go to, and do a search for Molech, or human sacrifice and you’ll see that there is a thread running through the OT prohibiting this detestable practice. In fact, after the nation divided into Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) in the time of Rehoboam (Solomon’s son), the northern kingdom especially ‘did what was evil in the sight of the LORD’ and followed the abominable practices of the surrounding pagan nations, including child sacrifice, and this was one of the reasons that God passed such harsh judgement on them (the southern kingdom eventually went too) by raising up Assyria to destroy the nation and carry the survivors off into exile (and the Babylonians for the southern kingdom).

    Jephthah is an exceptional case: (a) this occurs in the period of the Judges, a particularly dismal period in Israel’s history, when God repeatedly had to discipline them for not keeping His covenant (the Law of Moses), so whatever abominations were committed should not be taken as normative for Israel, and (b) Jephthah made an extremely stupid vow, which he was not required to make in the first place; if he actually did sacrifice his daughter (she may have simply remained unmarried and dedicated to the LORD’s service rather than being sacrificed), it does not imply that God approved of his act. It is there in the record, certainly as an example of what not to do.

    This seems to be a typical atheist ploy – proof-text with no regard to historical or literary contexts – why don’t you learn how to read the Bible first?
    Here, I’ll even give you a link to help you out…

  5. It also says in Leviticus 20:4-5 regarding the one who offers up his child as a sacrifice that if that man is not put to death, God Himself will set His face against that man and his family and cut him off from his people. There is no record of that happening to Jephthah, and in fact, in Hebrews 11, Jephthah is regarded as a hero of the faith (Hebrews 11:32), so it would seem possible that he did not actually sacrifice his daughter after all. However, we recognize that even heroes of the faith were not perfect people – they all made mistakes, some very serious and sinful ones – they were commended for their faith and trust and obedience, but that does not imply God approved of their failings.

    When Jephthah returned to his home at Mizpah his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing in celebration of the victory. She was his only child, the apple of her daddy’s eye. He obviously did not expect that she would be the first to come out to meet him. He screamed his agony, and tore his clothes while he explained his vow to her. Jephthah had a lot of faults, but lack of integrity was not one of them. “I have given my word to Yahweh, and I cannot take it back” (11:34–35).
    Jephthah’s daughter heroically accepted her fate. She recognized that her father could not renege on a vow made in the name of Yahweh. She did request, however, that she be given two months to go to the mountains to mourn her virginity with her companions. Marriage and motherhood, the essence of life for an Israelite girl, would never be hers to experience. Her father was perfectly willing to comply with this last request of his daughter before she became the Lord’s (11:36–38).
    At the end of two months Jephthah’s daughter returned to her father. He “did with her according to the vow which he had made.” She was given to Yahweh. Then the note is added: “And she had no relations with a man.” Obviously the writer wished to underscore that this young lady was given to the Lord in a state of virginity. Four days each year the daughters of Israel went (to the tabernacle?) to commemorate10 the daughter of Jephthah. They recalled the willing sacrifice which she made in order that her father might fulfill his vow (11:39–40).
    Jephthah certainly gave his daughter to the Lord. Did he also offer her up as a burnt offering? Scholars are divided. The text does not actually say that she was slain and then immolated. For this reason some scholars have proposed that Jephthah gave up his daughter to a celibate life of service at the tabernacle.11 At least two passages speak of females who had ministry responsibilities at the tabernacle (Exod 38:8; 1 Sam 2:22).
    Human sacrifice was illegal under the law of Moses. A person vowed to God could be redeemed by the payment of a stipulated amount (Lev 27); but obviously in this case no redemption money was paid. The question of human sacrifice here is mute. Good arguments can be made for and against that interpretation of the text. This much is certain: If Jephthah actually sacrificed his daughter he sinned in a grievous manner. No vow should be kept if the keeping of that vow involves a greater sin than the breaking of that vow.

    Smith, J. E. (1995). The books of history (Jdg 11:34–40). Joplin, Mo.: College Press.

  6. abortion == child sacrifice to the god of the age, who occasionally masquerades as “Convenience” or “Self-determination” or even “Choice”.

  7. Just one question, Tom. I may have misunderstood you, but are you saying that Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac would not have been morally wrong as God had not at that time explicity stated that child sacrifice was wrong?

  8. Oh, and the general prohibition against child sacrifice of both sons and daughters is stated in Deuteronomy 12:28-31 and Deuteronomy 18:9-14, so don’t make the silly mistake of assuming that only male children could not be sacrificed, but daughters could. The pagan nations also practiced ritual prostitution, dedicating their children to serve as cult prostitutes – this too was explicitly prohibited by the Law of Moses (see Deuteronomy 23:17 for example). In short, Israel was to NOT imitate any of the detestable practices of the surrounding pagan cultures – human sacrifice in particular – in Genesis 22, God already makes this distinction by stopping Abraham from carrying out His instruction to sacrifice Isaac – it was never God’s intent that Abraham actually kill Isaac. If one thinks about it, human sacrifice was implicitly forbidden by God’s commands to Noah (Genesis 9:1-11). If the Tablet Theory of Genesis is correct, and I am convinced that it is, then Abraham would very likely have been aware of this, no doubt much to his consternation, and perhaps also why he could have reasoned that if God was asking him to do this, he would trust that He would resolve the dilemma, as Hebrews 11 indicates. Oh the change in Abraham as he learned over the years to walk with God and believe and trust Him!

  9. Further on #8. I was saying that if my view here is plausible, Abraham might not have been placed in a moral dilemma; for even though child sacrifice was wrong, in that time and place he would not have known that it was wrong.

  10. Hey Tom,

    Nice thoughtful post. Given what you’ve said, I understand how, in your world view, you are being entirely consistent when you say that God wouldn’t ask you to do that, now. 

    I do think Jephthah causes some problems, here, but I couldn’t endorse your post 100%, could I, heh.

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