Child sacrifice

In the 22nd chapter of Genesis, there is a story that continues to haunt me. I’ve read it countless times. I’ve read commentaries and expositions of the text. I’ve preached sermons on the passage. I’ve tried to analyze it and examine it from a variety of different approaches. I’ve discussed it with teachers and peers. It continues to trouble me. I don’t really understand it.

The story is known by various titles: The Sacrifice of Isaac, The Command to Sacrifice Isaac, The Binding of Isaac. The basic story is that God directed Abraham to take his son, Isaac, to the mountains and offer him as a burnt offering. Abraham complied with God’s instructions. Isaac accompanied Abraham to the mountain. Abraham gathered the firewood, built an altar, tied up Isaac and laid him on the altar. He raised the knife to kill his son. At the very last minute, just before Abraham committed infanticide on his own son, he saw a ram caught in a thicket. He makes the substitution and sacrificed the ram. Isaac survived.

In the story, Abraham is praised for is actions and promised that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand that is on the seashore, because he obeyed God’s instructions.

The story is gut-wrenching. What kind of God demands the sacrifice of a child? What kind of parent agrees to carry out the sacrifice? How could Abraham have believed that God demands the murder of a child? How can we believe in a God who orders that murder?

As I said, I’ve read the commentaries. I know the line that the story is about obedience and God’s ability to provide the ram, not about human sacrifice. I’ve preached sermons that claimed that this is a pivotal moment in Israel’s history. Prior to that moment, Israel, like other peoples of the ancient mideast, practiced the sacrifice of children. After that moment, there were no more child sacrifices.

But this isn’t the last story of brutality against children in the Bible. We have stories of both Moses and Jesus narrowly escaping waves of infanticide. And we have a series of stories in the book of Second Kings that use a strange euphemism to talk about child sacrifice. Judgements are rendered about good kings and bad kings. The text says King Ahaz “even made his son to pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.’ (2 Kings 16:3) Later we read that the northern kings “made their sons and daughters pass through fire.” (2 Kings 17:17) Manasseh, judged to be the word of the kings of Judah, “made his son pass through fire.” (2 Kings 21:6) Finally, we hear of a good King, Josiah, who defied Topheth, “so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech.” (2 Kings 23:10). Euphemism or not, it is clear that long after the time of Abraham and Isaac, the kings of Israel, at least the bad ones, continued to practice the sacrifice of children.

It is clear that these acts described in Kings are terrible and wrong. They are named as acts of bargaining with, persuading, bribing, and appeasing the gods. They are named as acts of idolatry to false gods.

Make no mistake about it. I condemn every act of child sacrifice. I condemn the notion that God would demand such from any human. God has no need that humans must satisfy. God doesn’t command humans to give anything. God is not concerned with wealth or any process of trading (you give your son, I give you the throne). God does not engage in commerce. Every notion that God works in such a manner, including the theology that God sacrificed Jesus on the cross, is idolatry and expresses a belief in a god that is not the God of the bible. As I have said over and over, God did not kill Jesus. God is not the cause of the brutality of the Roman empire. God, however, does know the pain of a parent who has lost a child.

As troubling as these passages of the Bible are, it seems that we continue to sacrifice our children. According to the most recent America’s Health Ranking Annual Report, the U.S. infant mortality rate is 5.9 deaths peer 1,000 live infant births, while the average rate among the OECD countries is 3.9 deaths per 1,000. Children die as the result of economic and policy decisions made at the highest levels of our government. 16% of all children in the United States are living in poverty. In 2020, 11.6 million children were impoverished, an increase of more than a million children over the previous year.

We continue to sacrifice our children.

Over the past twenty years my denomination, the United Church of Christ, has faced declines in membership that have resulted in financial shortfalls in the Conference and national settings of our church. In pursuit of balanced budgets, staff dedicated to Christian Education and faith formation have been decimated. There no longer is even one person working in the national setting of our church whose sole responsibility is programs for children. Conference staffs have laid off educators. The denomination is in the process of eliminating the status of Commissioned Minister, a credential held by many educators within the church. The entire Western Region of the United Church of Christ consists of our churches in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and Hawaii. In that region there are currently only 5 members of the Association of United Church Educators. Three of them are in Washington. Two of them are my wife and I.

We continue to sacrifice our children.

It is the same idolatry that was named in the books of Kings. The pursuit of money and power has taken precedence over the care and nurture of children. Children are seen as commodities. When it comes to balancing budgets, programs for children are among the first items to be eliminated.

Not all of the stories in the Bible are there to make us feel good. Some are there to help us recognize the need for change. The story of the near sacrifice of Isaac continues to haunt me precisely because it informs the culture in which I live. With children going to bed hungry and without adequate shelter in my own community, I don’t need comfort from the Bible. I need challenge.

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