Saturday, March 5, 2011

Killing in the Name of the Wrong God

In the book of Leviticus, the children of Israel are commanded not to offer or sacrifice their children to Molekh, presumably a Canaanite deity. One text reads,

…thou shalt not give any of thy seed to set them apart to Molech…(Lev 18:21)

This prohibition is restated and further developed in Leviticus 20:1-5 where the death penalty is prescribed for the one who so offers his seed or offspring to the Canaanite god. Armed with modern, egalitarian sensibilities of the value of human life, many readers find the idea of human sacrifice, let alone sacrificing one’s child[ren], to be unduly abhorrent. Of course YHWH, the god of the Hebrews, would proscribe or prohibit human sacrifice, the thinking goes. How could a good God call for the killing of another human, let alone innocents? However, as this post will develop, the prohibition against child sacrifice here is not rooted in the value of human life but in the seemingly minor ritual detail of what god the sacrifice is being made to.

Deuteronomy 7:1-2 instructs the children of Israel to commit genocide, to wipe out seven nations from existence:

When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou; and when the LORD thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them.

Now it is highly noteworthy that the words translated “utterly destroy” (transliteration: ha’chareim t’chareym) here are often translated as “devote [to destruction].” Without addressing all uses of cherem, it is worth noting that this word is loaded with cultic or ritual meaning. An example of its cultic or ritual use is to be found in Leviticus 27:28:

…no devoted thing (cherem), that a man may devote (ya’charim) unto the LORD of all that he hath, whether of man or beast, or of the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing (cherem) is most holy unto the LORD.
In this passage a person voluntarily devotes or makes cherem something unto YHWH (“the LORD”). He is not permitted to redeem it or to sell it, it must be given over as “most holy” to YHWH. An example of this in action would be a man devoting his fatted ox as an offering to YHWH. Once dedicating or devoting an object, thus making it cherem, it must be offered to YHWH. A similar use is found in I Samuel 15:21 where the devoted items are offered in sacrifice as burnt offerings to YHWH.

Returning to the prohibition against human sacrifice to Molekh, we learn from Deuteronomy 7 (see also Deuteronomy 20:16-17), that it is not the human sacrifice component that is the root issue. It is not that YHWH values human life for its own sake. Elsewhere YHWH requires the genocidal devotion or offering (cherem) of entire people groups—men, women, children, and animals. What moral take away is there from this? We learn that killing is not always a bad thing—what is important is whose name one is killing in.

Most Bible believing and Bible reading Christians obviously will not accept this ethical conclusion. They, like much of the world, have moved ahead in our moral amelioration to accept the dignity of human life. However, it bothers me that so many of these same Christians will claim the Bible as their ultimate moral compass and final authority. Hypocritically they herald the Bible as their guide but they accept humanistic value systems which they, in turn, ascribe to God.

No comments: