21 God Loves the Smell of Burning Flesh: Human Sacrifice in the Bible

God demanded that Abraham sacrifice his only son Isaac, but he stopped Abraham just before he went through with the sacrifice. One lesson of this story is that God rejects human sacrifice. Like a cheerful fairy tale that comes from a darker original, however, this story may not initially have ended with this message.

A popular theory called the Documentary Hypothesis argues that the first five books of the Bible are a mixture of four sources with differing agendas. The Abraham and Isaac story we read today may hold fragments from a different story. For example, Abraham and Isaac set out together, but the story concludes with, “Then Abraham returned to his servants.” Alone.

There are also two names used for God in this story—Elohim six times and Yahweh five times. This makes it clear that this was originally two separate stories, one of which might have seen the sacrifice through. There’s obviously scant condemnation of human sacrifice in a story that rewards a man for his willingness to perform it.

The Old Testament came from an Iron Age Mesopotamian culture, and it tells us forty times that God is pleased by the aroma of burning flesh. These sacrifices weren’t like incense but were food offerings—offerings of food for God to consume, and burning was the way to convey the food up to heaven. And he had a big appetite: “The first offspring of every womb belongs to me, including all the firstborn males of your livestock.” But God clarifies one verse later: “Redeem all your firstborn sons”—that is, replace your sons with an animal for sacrifice. Notice, however, that the command is to redeem firstborn sons, not daughters.

Nevertheless, God seems unclear on the human sacrifice issue. Earlier in the same book of the Bible, we read, “You must give me the firstborn of your sons,” with no option to redeem with an animal.

The contradiction can be explained if these two Bible passages came from different sources—the verse that demanded firstborn sons came from the E (Elohim) source, and the verse that demanded daughters only from the J (Yahweh) source.

God even used human sacrifice as a humiliating punishment. To teach the obstinate Israelites who’s boss, God said, “So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live; I defiled them through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am Yahweh.”

In another story, the Bible admits human sacrifice is powerful magic because that’s how the Moabite god Chemosh beat Israel’s God. The combined forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom were about to defeat Moab when the Moabite king sacrificed his son to his god Chemosh. The result: “There was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack and returned to their homeland.”

Christians contrast the child-sacrificing Canaanite tribes with God’s chosen people, but according to the Bible, both cultures—and both their gods—were guilty on this point.

Continue to chapter 22.

Image credit: Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)


Documentary hypothesis: The disjointed material in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, is best explained by hypothesizing four separate documents that were merged. The four documents are called J (written in 900s BCE in Judah, where God is “Yahweh”), E (written in 700s in Israel; God is “Elohim”), P (written in 500s; the “Priestly” source), and D (600s; “Deuteronomic” source).

God Loves the Smell of Burning Flesh: Search the NIV Bible for “pleasing aroma” and “aroma pleasing.”

“Then Abraham returned to his servants”: The Isaac sacrifice story is told in Genesis 22:1–19.

“The first offspring of every womb belongs to me”: Exodus 34:19.

“Redeem all your firstborn sons”: Exodus 34:20.

“You must give me the firstborn of your sons”: Exodus 22:29.

“So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live”: Ezekiel 20:25–6.

“There was an outburst of divine anger against Israel”: 2 Kings 3:27 (NET Bible).

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