Quick note: when I first chose this subject I thought it was a slam dunk criticism to answer, and it turned out I was wrong. So in light of that I deleted the post I had hastily typed and re-researched the subject. What follows is two posts, the first that does hit some of the easier points to knock down and the second that deals with the difficult case of Jephthah and his vow. Finally, both posts are in response to an article posted originally on EvilBible.com you can find the article here.
Is God a moral monster? This question, as stated in the title of Paul Copan’s excellent book on the subject of the moral challenges to the God of the Old Testament is one that inevitably comes up with many atheists. The forms of the challenge are many but one of the most frequently used is the question of whether or not God endorses human sacrifice.
The easiest and most pointed way to refute the challenge from a biblical standpoint is to point out that human sacrifice is explicitly forbidden in the law as given by God to His people through Moses. In Deuteronomy 18:10 we read, “ Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire…” This doesn’t get to the heart of the objection, though, because even if the skeptic you’re dealing with didn’t already know about the prohibition in the law they already have one or more specific incidences in mind they’ll challenge you to answer.
First we’ll deal with the challenge concerning the commanded sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, for the relevant scripture see Genesis 22. No disrespect to the atheist but, this challenge simply has no teeth. Put simply, no one dies, certainly not young Isaac. The best you can blame God for inflicting upon father and son here is possibly PTSD. It’s clear to me, however, that the command to sacrifice Isaac was a test of Abraham’s faith, see also Hebrews 11:17-19. Let’s be clear in the logic of this position, an all-knowing God who does not lie commanded His servant to sacrifice the son He gave him and told him He would continue the promises he had made to him through and only at the last minute changed his mind? In reality, Abraham was relying on the promise God had already given him about Isaac when he said to him, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” This is not his way of telling Isaac it’s him without telling him.
Next are a series of objections that I’ll lump together and answer as a group for the sake of space. There is Achan the thief in Joshua 7, there is a statement about humans being “fuel for the fire” in Ezekiel 21:33-37, and there is a claim of a command to burn all non-believers in Deuteronomy 13:13-19. None of these passages is speaking about sacrifice AT ALL, they’re describing punishment for transgressions against God or His laws. Achan stole from the temple, the Ammonites (subjects of the Ezekiel passage) were worshipers of Moloch who in their view did command human sacrifices and they were being judged for murdering innocents, and I know it’s kind of a strained distinction but the town and belongings of the non-believers were burned not necessarily the people themselves and they were being judged not for being non-believers but for rising in rebellion because of their unbelief. Secondly, the judgement in this case is being explained hypothetically, so much like the case with Abraham and Isaac, no one is actually dying. And lastly, there is clear provision for an investigation to determine if the state of rebellion exists before enacting the judgement.
Finally I think it’s worth noting the purpose of sacrifice in Old Testament times in general and in the Jewish cultural milieu specifically. A sacrifice is meant to get the attention of a God in a way that will illicit a sometimes very specific response (rain to cure a drought) or a more general one. In the Judaism of the time the sacrifices were expected to be specific animals for specific things and must be handled in specific ways. We always, in the scriptures, see specific purposes of praise, reconciliation, etc. apparent in the offering of animals and it’s never done haphazardly. So wouldn’t we expect to see human sacrifice treated similarly if it were a feature of the culture endorsed by the God that is the subject of the text in which it is supposedly being endorsed?
In the next installment we’ll look at the story of Jephthah and his vow, a most troubling passage in reference to human sacrifice in the bible. If you’re the type that likes to read ahead head on over to Judges 11:29-40.