The Human Faces of God: Baal’s blazing babies

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 5: “Making Yahweh Happy”

After coming to terms with the conclusion of the last chapter, viz. that most of the Old Testament texts present Yahweh as a thoroughly typical Ancient Near Eastern deity, the assertion that human sacrifice was originally considered normative for Yahweh worship seems not at all surprising. In fact, although chapter 4 was characterized by more involved argumentation, including some necessary backgrounding in extra-biblical sources and ideas, in this chapter Stark was able to rely more on the biblical texts themselves, many of which I found to be more blatant – or stark, if you will – in support of his claims.

As I have noticed in other chapters, the most ambitious part of Stark’s argument comes first, and it is what this review will focus upon. Stark contends that the ANE practice of child sacrifice underlies certain prescribed rituals within the Law of Moses.

“They have built shrines to Baal, to put their children to the fire as burnt offerings to Baal — which I never commanded, never decreed, and which never came into my mind.” (Jeremiah 19.5)

This will be one of the first verses cited against Stark’s contention. But first let’s look and see what evidence he cites in its favor.

“The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep; seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eight day you shall give it to me.” (Exodus 22:29b-30)

This passage will no doubt be considered to just as easily describe not a slaughter but a mere dedication to God, such as with Samuel, and a way of building up a herd of livestock for the Levites. But further examination makes that possibility seem the less likely.

For one thing, as Stark explains, Exodus 34.19-20 shows that actual death is required when God claimed “all that first opens the womb”, because here the method of giving the unclean animal to God is death in the usual fashion of sacrificing unclean animals, i.e. breaking the neck. As if sensing our discomfort reading that, the writer of Exodus 34 hastens to add that all human sons will be substituted for. But as Stark importantly points out, the logic that accepts human sacrifice is still there: Yahweh, like the other Canaanite gods, actually deserves to bask in the fragrance of burning firstborn children, but could and perhaps should be appeased by sacrificing another animal in their stead.

This is a far cry from Jeremiah’s blatant assertion cited above that the requirement was never in God’s mind. What makes the most sense of these contradictory commands in chs. 22 and 34 is the supposition that 34.20 was written as clarification (for different reasons, scholars have long considered ch 34 to date from a later period), incorporating into the Law what was likely to have been the actual practice for quite some time. That is, we have little enough reason to believe that the sacrifice of the firstborn was ever a thoroughgoing norm in the ANE, but rather a sign of extreme devotion, capable of eliciting either the special honor (as with Abraham, discussed in this chapter) or the intervention (as with Mesha, discussed again in this chapter) of the deity to whom the child was sacrificed. The Exodus 22 passage, then, is likely to have been read as an affirmation that the very lives of the firstborn were considered to have been owed to Yahweh; in forbearance, and in accord with typical ANE practice, the life of an animal was acceptable as substitute. Exodus 34 was later written or edited so as to make substitution, an only theoretical exception that actually functioned as a rule, into the rule proper.

Another reason to believe that Exodus 22’s command to give the firstborn to God was based in ANE practices of human sacrifice is that we have evidence of multiple Old Testament prophets acknowledging it — and trying desperately to change it, by various means.

As we saw above, Jeremiah’s approach was to just flat out deny the authority of that law altogether. The Book of Jeremiah comes from a time late in Israel’s history in which the prophets were trying to do everything possible to distinguish Israelite religion from the religion of the non-Israelites in their midst. Jeremiah, argues Stark, picks up Hosea’s novel practice of relegating the originally generic title baal ‘lord’, hitherto applied as honorific to Yahweh, to foreign gods alone, in contradistinction to Yahweh. Jeremiah then uses that artificial distinction to further alienate the practice of child sacrifice: Stark believes that during Jeremiah’s ministry there was still child sacrifice to the baal we call Yahweh occasionally occurring in Israel, and Jeremiah employed the strategy of having Yahweh essentially complain, “You are sacrificing children to a ‘lord’, but not me. I never wanted that to happen.” The very fact that Jeremiah feels he has to put forth an argument that Yahweh never wanted human sacrifice shows that he is responding to a contrary position among his Yahweh worshiping contemporaries. In other words, Jeremiah seems to be responding to a group that maintained that the practice was indeed acceptable, or even normative, for Yahweh worship; from our reading of Exodus 22, it certainly sounds like Jeremiah is attempting to fix the Law in much the same way that the editor of Exodus 34 did. It’s an attempt to correct Israel’s archaic understanding of God.

Next, Stark shows that Ezekiel goes about criticizing the practice a different way altogether:

“Moreover, I gave them laws1 that were not good and rules by which they could not live; I corrupted them through their very gifts, when they offered up all their firstborn, so that I might make them desolate, so that they might know that I am Yahweh.” (Ezekiel 20.25-26)

Here is even more decisive evidence that there was a ritual of sacrificing firstborn sons, reflected in Exodus 22, construed by devout Israelites like Ezekiel as coming from Yahweh Himself. Ezekiel’s solution, which both Stark and I find unacceptable but well-intentioned, was to argue that God was the source of that practice, but that it was instituted by way of judgment. Ezekiel agrees (with us) that the law was “not good” — thank heaven! — but his solution shows that he thought that God would be vindicated by admitting that it was a bad requirement inflicted as punishment. This reasoning is contradicted in the teaching of Jeremiah 31.29-31 and Deuteronomy 24.16, which both repudiate the idea that the (firstborn) sons should be punished for the sins of their fathers. Here again, Stark illustrates his assertion that Scripture is an argument with itself.

Although he discusses the Abraham and Isaac sacrifice scenario, one angle that he didn’t mention was the possibility that this story was used as a justification for substituting animals for humans. When God Himself stepped in and denied the necessity of Isaac’s death and provided an animal substitute, the pious Israelite was assured that what God really wanted was a resolve to give all to Himself, since even Abraham was relieved of the painful duty of child sacrifice. I know little enough of the literature, but I expect this possibility has been thrown about before.

This is all but a thumbnail sketch of the material in this chapter, and I haven’t even discussed some of his other evidence that helps demonstrate that human sacrifice was not originally so “pagan” as we tend to think. There is valuable commentary on Jephthah’s unfortunately hasty vow, the should-have-been-obvious-but-somehow-completely-escaped-me relation of human sacrifice to the ḥerem (essentially a ritual genocide), and more. If my summary has been especially unconvincing, you owe it to yourself to read his much better and more complete discussion for yourself.

I leave convinced of the basic points of Stark’s argument. But if I had to offer a criticism, it is that Stark sets many good tentpoles but casts a canvas too small to cover them. By this I mean that he evinces many convincing passages within the Old Testament to bolster his claim that human sacrifice was once an official part of Yahweh worship without also offering a satisfyingly complete picture of what this really looked like at any point in time. Thus the reader is left drawing scant conclusions hardly more developed than this: some early Yahweh believers reflected in some parts of the Old Testament believed that human sacrifice was not a bad thing, maybe even a good thing, but they may or may not have regularly gone about practicing it systematically, and later writers seem to be opposed to it, although we don’t know exactly why. These ambiguities are probably not entirely his fault; I imagine that there is considerable scholarly debate over the details, and Stark probably assumed it would dangerously thin out his argument if he were to call attention to this. In deciding not to offer even a conjectural picture, he may have underestimated the strength of one of the primary stipulations of many in his audience: someone with an orderly, airtight system will not suffer their system to just be reduced to shambles, but will insist that it be replaced by a similarly orderly, airtight system. This demand is not deliverable, of course, but I think that even a provisional attempt at sketching out a slightly more complete picture of what “making Yahweh happy” actually looked like throughout OT times would be likelier to convince the skeptical. And my hunch is that Stark is just the man to make such a plausible suggestion.

1 Beware the NIV here: Stark explains that the translators took an unwarranted license in translating this phrase to say, “God gave them [over to] bad statutes…” The bracketed words do not appear in any version of the OT text — they were added in a clearly inaccurate eisegetical move. The text is clear that Ezekiel thought that God gave the statutes to them directly; He did not give them to the statutes. Naughty NIV! But at least they agree with Ezekiel that such statutes were in fact bad, and agree with us that God did not give them!

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