Human sacrifice is, thankfully, extremely rare today, but even reading about the practice in past times makes us shudder. When we come across it in the Bible, we are rightly horrified, but it’s doubly distressing to find God proposing to Abraham that he show his devotion by sacrificing his son. Even if this was just a test, we’d expect Abraham’s response to be ‘No way!’ – just as we’d expect a modern soldier to refuse to obey an unethical order. But Abraham agrees to do so – though with a broken heart. It’s hard to accept of a hero of the faith, but does his response show that actually Abraham didn’t expect God to be any better than the gods of the foul religions which demanded human sacrifice?

In Abraham’s day, human sacrifice was so common that we might even consider it normal. In Egypt and in Mesopotamia where he was born, it was common to sacrifice victims when their ‘divine’ leaders died. The ruler’s wives and slaves were killed and placed in his tomb so they could continue to serve him in the afterlife. Probably it was believed that this would make the rulers more kindly disposed towards their obedient subjects now that they had become fully gods.

In Canaan, human sacrifice occurred much more frequently, as a part of normal worship. Their myths said that the god Mot liked to consume humans and was insulted when given other food, while the god Molech preferred roasted babies.

These were not just stories – they reflected actual horrific religious practices. Most of the evidence for it in Palestine was destroyed when these religions were wiped out after Joshua’s invasion, and again when the Exile ended a revival. The last we hear of them is in Jeremiah’s anguished report: ‘They have built a shrine of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, at which to burn their sons and daughters’ (Jeremiah 7:31). Seafaring Canaanites exported their religion when establishing Carthage, and excavations there, in modern Tunisia, have uncovered a huge Tophet shrine containing the charred bones of hundreds of infants.

In Abraham’s time, Canaan was not an inviting place to visit. It was run by warlords who lived in small fortified towns and protected the farmers – probably like the ‘protection’ given by the Mafia. It was a narrow strip of land connecting Egypt to the other great civilisations in Europe, India and Mesopotamia – a place traders travelled through as quickly as possible rather than a destination in itself. This is reflected in the ancient name Ca-na-na-um, which meant something like ‘merchants’.

In contrast, Abraham’s home town of Ur was highly civilised – they had plumbing and indoor toilets. Even centuries later in Palestine, they were still using holes in the earth: the Law of Moses reminded people to carry a trowel to cover up their excrement (Deuteronomy 23:13). (No wonder Abraham’s father didn’t finish the journey – he stayed at Haran, the last outpost of civilisation on the northern border of Palestine!).

God’s plan for Isaac

Abraham said he’d heard God telling him to go to Palestine, and now that same voice told him to sacrifice his son Isaac. In his place I think I would have turned tail and gone back – I would certainly have decided to stop listening to a being who now seemed as capricious and cruel as the gods of the surrounding nations. But Abraham had got to know and trust God in a special way. Previously God had promised him and Sarah (when they were about 100 years old) that they would have this son, and that a whole nation would descend from him. Abraham appears to reason that if God was now asking him to kill Isaac, he must surely have a plan.

Why did God put Abraham through this mind-scarring test? Probably because such a dramatic and frightening experience made it unforgettable – it became the definitive rejection of child sacrifice. Even today, when hardly anyone knows Bible stories, this one is often remembered. Stopping human sacrifices required this megaphone approach. The story ends when God showed that he had already provided a ram, which was caught in a bush nearby. Rather than being capricious and cruel, God is shown to be someone who keeps his promises, and plans ahead. This story, which couldn’t fail to be told forever, is an object lesson that no one would forget.

Sacrifice or Service

The trajectory of history from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice and finally to offerings of money and service seems inevitable to us now. But this change didn’t happen by some mysterious force of human progress. Its origins and impetus come from the Bible. Even Saul, the first king of Israel, learned that ‘Obedience is better than sacrifices’ (see 1 Samuel 15:22).

Israel was, as far as we know, the first nation to take a stand against human sacrifice. Not only did the Law forbid this (Leviticus 18:21), but it even kept animal sacrifices to a minimum and minimised any pain. They had to be killed by the almost painless method of slitting the jugular vein so they lost consciousness. If done in a calm environment with a sharp knife, an animal displays no distress.

Jephthah’s daughter is often thought to be an example of human sacrifice. She came running up to congratulate him on his victory, not knowing he had promised to sacrifice the first thing he saw when he got home. However, Moses’ Law commanded that any person devoted as an offering must be redeemed by money (Numbers 18:15-17). The text doesn’t say she was sacrificed, so it is likely that she was given into holy service, much like Samuel was, because she went off with her friends to weep that ‘She had never known a man’ (Judges 11:39, ESV). They weren’t weeping about her impending death, but mourning the fact that she’d never marry.

Recent Killings

Human sacrifice has been found in many societies, and in some places it ended only fairly recently. It has been almost completely abolished today, apart from a few underground practices which are declared illegal in all countries. We may regret the way the Conquistadors destroyed the civilisations of the Mayans and Aztecs, but surely not that they ended the widespread practice of offering beating human hearts to the gods. Equally, few can regret the fact that missionaries stopped the daily child sacrifices for Kali in India in the 19th century. The most recent missionary-led campaign against human sacrifice was in Papua New Guinea, where tribal leaders apologised in 2007 for having eaten four Methodists in 1878.

It would be an exaggeration to say that the Bible and Christianity has been the only force behind this movement away from sacrifices, but it has certainly been the major cause of change. Starting with Abraham, continuing with Moses, and culminating in Jesus, there has been a continuing emphasis on reducing or ending blood sacrifice.

Today we rightly emphasise religious tolerance, but we shouldn’t let this blind us to unacceptable practices in some religions. The Indians put up statues in honour of William Carey, the missionary who helped expunge the practice of burning the widow on her husband’s pyre. South Africa put up a statue of Archbishop Tutu who helped persuade it to abandon apartheid. Perhaps one day Afghan women will be allowed to put up a statue to those who defeated the Taliban and enabled them to get an education.

Just because a ‘normal’ practice is a religious custom, it doesn’t make it acceptable. God used a painfully unforgettable method to teach this to Abraham. When we need to get similarly important messages heard, sometimes we may need to use a megaphone too.