Human sacrifice in the ancient Near East (Leviticus 20)

Numerous archaeological discoveries and ancient (including several Old Testament) texts record various examples of human sacrifice that took place throughout the ancient Near East. For example:

  • A relief on a tower in southern Spain, dating to approximately 500 B.C., gruesomely depicts a child, cradled in a bowl, about to be sacrificed as a part of a banquet feast to a two-headed monster.
  • Excavators have uncovered a large, sacred cemetery, dating to 400-200 B.C., in the Phoenician city of Carthage in North Africa. They estimate that the Carthaginians buried more than 20.000 urns here, each holding the remains of one or two children, most of them aged four years or younger. Inscriptions of the urns indicate that all of these infants and toddlers were sacrificed to a Phoenician deity.
  • During times of national emergency, children were sacrificed in an attempt to placate various deities (e.g. by the king of Moab as recorded in 2 Kings 3:26-27).
  • Royal tombs excavated in Ur (Mesopotamia) and Egypt contained the remains of ritually slain attendants intended to accompany the deceased into the afterlife.
  • Children were used in Mesopotamia as foundation sacrifices, a practice whereby a sacrificial victim was interred in the foundation of a building or gateway for the purpose of affording magical protection for the site.
  • Several authors who wrote during the thousand-year period from the fifth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. attest that child sacrifice was a Phoenician custom. Tertullian, an early church father who lived in North Africa around A.D. 160-225, decried the continuing practice of child sacrifice.
Some Israelites also are known to have made human sacrifices. Ahaz (2 Kings 16:3, 2 Chronicles 28:3) and the people of Israel and Judah (2 Kings 17:17) sacrificed their children, a practice God condemned as “abomination” (Deuteronomy 12:31, Jeremiah 32:35).
Israelites were known to sacrifice their sons and daughters “in the fire” to Molech in the Valley of Ben Hinnom (2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 32:35). “In the fire”, rendered in the New American Standard Bible with the ambiguous phrase “passed through the fire”, is clarified in Jeremiah 7:31, which records that people “burned their sons and daughters in the fire” (both NIV and NASB) in the Valley of Ben Hinnom.
Considerable controversy surrounds the “Molech” offerings. Some scholars argue that Molech was not a deity at all but a type of sacrifice in which children were dedicated as temple prostitutes. But Biblical evidence clearly indicates that Molech was an Ammonite deity (1 Kings 11:7).
Abraham was willing at God’s command to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22), but God at the last moment provided a substitute offering, highlighting both His own ability to provide and Abraham’s faithfulness, as well as implicitly expressing His disapproval of human sacrifice.
God condemned this practice not only because it was horrible (unthinkable from our twenty-first century perspective!) but also because it defiled His sanctuary and profaned His holy name (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5). Because of this and other sins God had expelled the majority of the original pagan inhabitants of the promised land; the Israelites were required to keep His commandments, lest the land “vomit” them out as well (Leviticus 20:22-23).

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