In this post, and the next, I plan to look at the handful of cases in the Hebrew Bible which seem to speak positively about human sacrifice, and discuss whether they are positive or not, and then conclude by discussing some theological implications. There is a common belief – an assumption perhaps – that the writers of the Bible were opposed to human sacrifice. This idea is probably grounded in the condemnation in the Bible of idol worship which sometimes, although not always, was associated with human sacrifice. The discussion, however, has tended to be dominated by a handful of references to the worship of Moloch, which appears to have included child sacrifice. The use of the verb עבר to pass over in places such as 2 Kings 23:10 which refers to causing children to “pass over the fire” to Molech is often thought to mean offering them as a burnt sacrifice, although this is uncertain and is disputed by scholars such as Francesca Stavrakopoulou1 as it does not refer unambiguously to ritual killing.
There are, on the other hand, two well-known cases in the Bible which seem to speak approvingly of human sacrifice: Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19, also known as the Akedah or binding of Isaac), and Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter (Judges 11:29-40). There is also a lesser-known case of someone sacrificing his son; 2 Kings 3:26-27 tells the story (not necessarily approvingly) of King Mesha of Moab sacrificing his firstborn son to avert a defeat, apparently successfully. Remarkably, the case of Jonah being thrown overboard from a ship during a storm in order to appease his god and calm the storm is rarely discussed in the context of human sacrifice although, in my opinion, it should be (and I discussed it in my PhD thesis on Jonah).
The case of Jonah
In the story of Jonah, after the prophet has caught a ship in an attempt to avoid, or delay, God’s commission to him to preach in Nineveh, a storm arose which threatened to sink the ship. The sailors prayed to their gods and called on Jonah to do the same. Eventually they cast lots – a kind of lottery – to determine who was to blame, and when the lot fell to Jonah he confessed that the storm had been brought about by his god because of his actions. In response, the sailors asked: What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us? (1:11). Jonah’s reply is unexpected. He could have told the sailors to take him back to shore to complete his mission, or to set him adrift in a raft to make his own way back, so his instruction to throw him overboard is surprising.
There are two possibilities about what is happening here.
- First, coupled with his repeated words in the final dialogue טֹוב מֹותִי מֵחַיָּי it is better for me to die than live (4:3, 8, 9) it is understandable that some have regarded Jonah as having suicidal tendencies from the beginning (that’s an interesting discussion for another time). His suggestion that the sailors throw him overboard rather than take him back to shore shows that at this point in the story he would rather die than complete his mission. However, if Jonah wanted to die it couldn’t really be regarded as a sacrifice.
- There could also be an irony in his words in that the prophet asserted that his God would be satisfied with a human sacrifice. Someone hearing the story for the first time may have been equally shocked that the God of Israel was apparently satisfied with the offering of a human life and immediately stilled the tempest. Phyllis Trible has suggested that in the detail earlier in the narrative that וַיָּטִלוּ אֶת־הַכֵּלִים אֲשֶׁר בָּאֳנִיָּה אֶל־הַיָּם לְהָקֵל מֵעֲלֵיהֶם [the sailors] hurled the cargo to the sea to lighten it from over them the implied meaning is that they were making an offering of their cargo to the gods of the sea. Throwing the cargo overboard so that the ship would ride higher in the water is, according to Trible, a “questionable nautical procedure” (although Acts 27:18-19 records a similar practice during a storm) and “this explanation also founders on the sea of grammar.” This is where the argument becomes more technical: she argues that the object of the phrase לְהָקֵל מֵעֲלֵיהֶם to lighten it from over them is the sea, not the ship, and this suggests the cargo was hurled to the sea as a sacrificial offering.2 The repetition of the verb טוּל to hurl with reference first to the cargo (v.5) and subsequently to Jonah (v.12, 15), emphasises that the purpose of the hurling was the same: to appease a god, or gods. It is in contrast to the initial use of the verb (v.4) to describe God hurling the storm to the sea. It also suggests that it was the view of both the sailors and Jonah that the god’s/gods’ hurling of a storm could be appeased only by hurling something back at the god(s).
There are several ironies here (the book of Jonah is full of irony!):
- Jonah’s request imitates the actions of the foreign sailors in attempting to appease their gods;
- the sailors were apparently more open to alternative options which would have preserved life than was Jonah (for example, they first attempted to row to shore before agreeing to Jonah’s request to throw him overboard);
- the picture we are given of the sailors is that they worked hard, even if their efforts were futile, while Jonah did nothing;
- and, finally, Jonah’s apparent belief that God would be appeased by a human sacrifice – if his voluntary death is understood that way – is in conflict with what appears to be the attitudes to human sacrifice elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.
I won’t go in to any further detail here about the ironic or satirical nature of the book of Jonah, except to say that the irony/satire may have been intended to shock, and a human sacrifice to appease an angry God may have been a disturbing idea to the book’s initial audience. It doesn’t necessarily suggest it was a normal way of thinking. It could also be an indirect allusion (possibly even parody) to the earlier cases of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac and the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. There certainly seems to be some parallels. In its ironic/satirical context Jonah’s attempt at self-sacrifice could be read as mocking rather than an endorsement of human sacrifice.
The Akedah, or the binding of Isaac
I have discussed this subject in earlier posts (The Binding of Isaac  and ). To summarise briefly, I am inclined to agree with Curt Leviant that God “expected Abraham to initiate a bargaining dialogue similar to the one for the people of Sodom” and rather than God desiring a human sacrifice “Abraham was put to the great test and failed” (my emphasis).3 Read this way, if the story makes any kind of comment on human sacrifice it is to condemn it.
I will come back to this interesting case in my next post, and then discuss some possible theological implications.
1 Francesca Stavrakopoulou, King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice: Biblical Distortions of Historical Realities (BZAW; Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 142.
2 Trible, Phyllis. “The Book of Jonah: Introduction, Commentary and Reflection,” Pages 463-529 in The New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996, 495.
3 Curt Leviant, “Abraham’s Failed Test,” Midstream 56, no. 3 (2010): 31.