Jewish Practice and Abolishment of Human Sacrifice

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Right outside of the southern wall of the old city of Jerusalem lies a deep valley known as the Valley of Hinnom (Gei Hinnom) or Gehenna. Today as one walks through modern Jerusalem, coming across the Valley that frequently hosts food truck festivals and summer concerts, they may never know the dark history of the location.
One of the pivotal moral leaps within world history is the abolishing of human sacrifice. To our modern worldview the idea that one would kill their child in worship of a god sounds abhorrent, ignorant, evil, etc. And, as the Judean prophets reminded the people time and time again, it should be viewed as such. But from a psychological perspective human sacrifice makes complete sense given a specific a-priori worldview.
Imagine you fully believe that a certain god is responsible for the rainfall, the absence of which would plunge your entire community into famine. Another god is responsible for the plague, which has already destroyed the community a few miles down the road. Yet a third god will decide whether or not you will be victorious in the next regional battle, a frequent occurrence these days. Now if you truly believe that any of these gods desire the sacrifice of a child to provide nourishment or withhold suffering from your community, it is actually extremely irrational to withhold your children from slaughter.
Now if one wanted to change this practice, as the early Jewish prophets did, they would need to challenge the conception of God/gods rather than just rebuke the act itself. And, as we will soon see, the outlawing of human sacrifice sometime in the 7th century BCE, was a major victory for the progressive moral of the prophets over the stale and immoral traditions of the kings and priestly class.
When we take a close look at the pages of the Hebrew Bible it seems difficult to escape the conclusion that early Judean kings were complicit in child sacrifice.
Of King Ahaz (~732 BCE) it is said that he “made his son pass through fire” (2 Kings 16:3) - a clear reference to sacrificing his child to the Canaanite deity Moloch. Of King Menashe, who ruled 40 years after Ahaz, the Bible is equally explicit that he too sacrificed his sons (2 Kings 21:6). And remember, these were the kings of Judah who were supposedly moral light years ahead of the northern kings of Israel.
The Judean king Josiah is credited with major religious reforms during his tenure as the Jewish leader. According to many historians it was Josiah who first began to demand that all sacrifice be done solely in the Jerusalem temple and that only God alone should be worshipped. Before Josiah we know that priests would sacrifice in a multiplicity of places (known as Bamot) to a variety of gods (to the dismay of many of the prophets). And, worst of all, these sacrifices were occasionally human.
One of the first things that Josiah did when he became king was to destroy the altars in the Valley of Hinnom:
And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech. (2 Kings 23:10)
So Josiah comes on to the scene and radically changes the rules. No longer would the king be sacrificing children in the Hinnom valley, rather all worship was directed to the Temple. But simply destroying these altars wouldn’t be enough, for if people truly felt that these human sacrifices were necessary for their survival they would continue to do so.
No, to really change the status quo it would take a courageous prophet, one who can speak for God himself, to really change things. And that’s exactly what Jeremiah would do a generation later. Not only does Jeremiah rail against child sacrifice, but he claims that it is actually contrary to what God wants. Child sacrifice won’t protect you from harm, Jeremiah taught, rather it is child sacrifice that will actually cause God to bring about your own destruction!
Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle. Because they have forsaken Me, and have estranged this place, and have offered in it unto other gods, whom neither they nor their fathers have known, nor the kings of Judah; and have filled this place with the blood of innocents; and have built the high places of Baal, to burn their sons in the fire for burnt-offerings unto Baal; which I commanded not, nor spoke it, neither came it into My mind. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that this place shall no more be called Topheth, nor the valley of the son of Hinnom, but the valley of slaughter; (Jeremiah 19:3-6)
But what if people still didn’t listen. People are stubborn. Who is this man Jeremiah that he claims to speak for God! How would Jerusalem, such a strong and fortified city that defended itself against the Assyrian empire 100 years ago, ever be destroyed?!
But there was a well-known story that had been passed down for generations. No one remembered the exact details - or even the conclusion - but everyone knew the premise. God came to our forefather Abraham commanding him to sacrifice his son. The Akedah. A completely reasonable premise given the sociological reality of the Mesopotamian Iron Age. Perhaps in some versions of this story Abraham really does kill his son. After all, there are many details in the story, such as Abraham returning down from the mountain alone (Gen 22:19), that suggests that Isaac may have actually been killed in some initial version.
Engaging in the most Jewish act of taking tradition and innovating it for a new reality - a group of scribes and prophets set pen to paper. They wrote down this story, but ensured that its conclusion was explicit in its progressive moral message. Although the human instinct may have been for Abraham to kill his son - God doesn’t want that! Many commentators even explain that the real test of the Akedah was Abraham listening to God the second time and not killing his son.
Ironically, for many today the Akedah is used to underline the fact that the Torah is immoral. The Torah condones child sacrifice, people say - just look at Abraham. It is only when people understand the historical and literary context in which this story appears, that they can grasp the true moral importance of this narrative. 
 Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online. His blog entry, So You Have a Jewish Father, was selected as one of the three best for the third quarter of 5779. You can find it on the Jewish Values Online website at the top left.
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