Question: Does the Bible endorse human sacrifice?

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Question: Does the Bible endorse human sacrifice?

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The Bible condemns, multiple times, any practice of human sacrifice or similar practices

Some have claimed that the Bible promotes human and infant sacrifice. This is contradicted by several passages in the Bible (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 12:31; 18:10). Additionally, this is seen in a negative light in the Book of Mormon (Mormon 4:14). The carrying out of the sacrifice by Abraham was difficult for him and God and it can be seen that God had a different purpose for it.

The Challenging Texts

Passages that claim to be endorsing human sacrifice come from 2 Kings 3:27; Judges 11:30-40, and Exodus 22:29. Some of these have been addressed by Evangelical scholar and Christian apologist Paul Copan whom we quote below.

Paul Copan: “Infant sacrifice in Israel?”

Infant Sacrifice in Israel?

Not a few critics will point out that the Old Testament assumes that infant sacrifice was acceptable in Israelite society and demanded as an act of worship by the God of Israel. Some will showcase Abraham and Isaac (though hardly an infant) as one such example. Such criticisms are off the mark, however.

For one thing, the Mosaic law clearly condemns child sacrifice as morally abhorrent (Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5; Deut 12:31; 18:10). As Susan Niditch points out in War in the Hebrew Bible, the “dominant voice” in the Old Testament “condemns child sacrifice” since it opposes God’s purposes and undermines Israelite society.

Let's look at a couple of passages that allegedly suggest that human sacrifice was acceptable.

Mesha, King of Moab: 2 Kings 3:27

Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel, and they departed from him and returned to their own land (2 Kings 3:27)

Here, Mesha, king of Moab, sacrifices his firstborn son on the wall of Kir Hareseth (in Moab). After this, the Israelite army withdrew because of “wrath.” Some think this is God’s wrath and that God is showing his approval of Mesha’s sacrifice of his son by responding in wrath against Israel. This view, however, has its problems:

  • This notion is at odds with clear condemnation of child sacrifice earlier in the Pentateuch (Deut 12: 31; 18:10) as well as repudiation of it within Kings itself (2 Kings 16:3; 17:7; 21:6).
  • The word fury or wrath (qetseph) isn’t divine wrath[1] Elsewhere in 2 Kings, a cognate word (coming from the same root as qetseph) clearly refers to human fury (5:11; 13:19).
  • Typically, commentators suggest several plausible interpretations: (1) This was Moab’s fury against Israel because their king, Mesha, forced by desperation, sacrificed his son; Mesha’s goal was to prompt Moab’s renewed determination to fight. (2) The Israelites were filled with horror or superstitious dread when they saw this human sacrifice, causing them to abandon the entire venture. (3) Even though Mesha, had failed in his attempt to break through the siege (perhaps to head north for reinforcements), he was still able to capture the king of Edom’s firstborn son, whom he sacrificed on the wall, which demoralized Edom’s army. The wrath of Edom’s army ended the war because they withdrew from the military coalition of Israel, Judah, and Edom.[2]

Jephthah’s Daughter: Judges 11:30-40

Israel’s judge Jephthah made a rash vow: “Whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon [who were oppressing Israel], it shall be the Lord’s and I will offer it up a burnt offering” (Judg. 11:31). Perhaps he was thinking it might be one of his servants, who would most likely come out to attend him. Yet he was horrified to see that “his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing” (v. 34).

Some Old Testament scholars argue that Jephthah didn’t literally sacrifice his daughter. Most, however, are convinced that the text asserts this. So let’s take for granted the worst-case scenario. Then come the inevitable questions: Wouldn’t Jephthah have clearly known that child sacrifice was immoral and that God judged the Canaanites for such practices? Why then did he go ahead with this sacrifice? Was it because God really did approve of child sacrifice after all?

We’ve already affirmed that is doesn’t mean ought in the Old Testament; just because something is described doesn’t mean it’s prescribed as a standard to follow. Certain behaviors are just bad examples that we shouldn’t follow (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-12). So let’s make the necessary changes and apply our questioner’s reasoning to another judge—Samson. As a judge of Israel, wouldn’t he have clearly known that touching unclean corpses was forbidden (Judg. 14: 8-9), especially given his (permanent) Nazarite vow (Num 6)? Wasn’t he fully aware that consorting with prostitutes was prohibited (Judg. 16:1)? You get the idea. Keep in mind that we’re talking about the era of Israel’s judges. To borrow from Charles Dickens, this was in large part the worst of times, an age of foolishness, the season of darkness, and the winter of despair. So critics should be careful about assuming Jephthah (or Samson) was in peak moral condition.

Some might wonder, “Didn’t the Spirit of the Lord’ come on Jephthah?” (Judg. 11:29). Yes, but we shouldn’t take this as a wholesale divine endorsement of all Jephthah did—no more so than the Spirit’s coming on Gideon (Judg. 11:29) was a seal of approval on his dabbling with idolatry (Judg. 8:24-27), or of Ehud’s, for that matter (Judg 3:26). Yes, these judges of Israel would surely have known idolatry was wrong. Likewise, “the Spirit of the Lord” came upon Samson to help Israel keep the Philistines at bay (Judg. 14:6, 19; 15:14). Yet his plans to marry a Philistine woman, cavorting with a prostitute, and getting mixed up with Delilah all reveal a judge with exceedingly poor judgement! We can surely find a lesson in here somewhere about how God works despite human sin and failure.

The theology of Judges emphasizes a remarkable low point of Israelite morality and religion, with two vivid narratives at the book’s end to illustrate this (chaps. 17-21). Israel continually allowed itself to be “Canaanized.” And in light of Judges’ repeated theme, “every man did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25; cf. 2:10-23), we shouldn’t be surprised that Israel’s leaders were also morally compromised. We don’t have to look hard for negative role models in Judges, when Israel was in the moral basement. The Jephthah story needs no explicit statement of God’s obvious disapproval.

Some might press the point: doesn’t the Old Testament refer to offering the firstborn to God (Exod. 22:29-30)? Following Ezekiel 20:25-26, they claim that God literally gave harmful (“not good”) statutes by which Israel could not “live”—commands involving sacrificing the firstborn child in the fire. They assert that Yahweh just didn’t like it when Israel sacrificed children to other gods! However, no such distinction is made; infant sacrifice—whether to Yahweh or to Baal or Molech—is still detestable. Yes, this was a common practice in Israel and Judah (e.g. 2 Kings 17:17; 23:10), and kings Ahaz, Manasseh, and others made their sons and daughters “pass through the fire” (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chron 33:6). But commonality here doesn’t imply acceptability. Exodus does refer to the “redemption”—not sacrifice—of the womb-opening first-born child; God himself redeemed his firstborn Israel by bringing them up from Egypt (Exod 13:13; cf. 4:23).

What then is Ezekiel talking about? The text clearly indicates that God gave the Sinai generation “statutes” (chuqqot) (e.g. Sabbath commands) by which an Israelite might “live” (20:12-13). Israel rejected these laws given at Sinai; they refused to follow them (v. 21). So God “withdrew [His] hand.” God responded to the second (or wilderness) generation as he does in Romans 1: he “gave them over to statues that were not good and laws they could not live by” (Ezek. 20:25 NIV). Ezekiel not only distinguishes this word statutes (the masculine plural chuqqim) from statutes elsewhere in the context (the feminine noun chuqqot). The text also involves quite a bit of irony. God sarcastically tells Israel to “go, serve everyone his idols” (Ezek 20:39); to put it another way, “go, sacrifice your children.” This ironic “statute” to stubborn Israel to continue in idolatry and infant sacrifice is comparable to God’s sarcasm in Amos 4:4: “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more” (NIV). The same is true of the prophet Micaiah, who tells the disobedient, Yahweh-ignoring king of Israel, “Go up and succeed, and the Lord will give it unto the hand of the king” (1 Kings 22:15). These are the sorts of sarcastic “commands” that aren’t “good” and by which Israel can’t “live”.[3]

The Value of Unborn Life

One of the big differences between Old Testament laws and their ancient Near Eastern counterparts is the value of human life. Despite this, it’s not unusual to hear that in ancient Israel unborn life wasn’t as valuable as life outside the womb. Indeed, certain proabortion advocates have sought theological justification for permitting abortion in the following passage:

If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely [some advocate an alternate reading: “she has a miscarriage”] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is a serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise (Exod 21:22-25 NIV).

The key issue is this: should the Hebrew word yalad be translated “give birth prematurely” or “have a miscarriage”? If the mother miscarries, then the offender only has to pay a fine; the implication in this case is that the unborn child isn’t as valuable and therefore isn’t deserving of care normally given to a person outside the womb. Apparently, this Old Testament passage shows a low(er) regard for unborn life.

Let’s skip to another passage, Psalm 139, which strongly supports the value of the unborn:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My fame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. (vv. 13-16 NIV)

Keep this text in mind as we go back to the Exodus 21 passage. Contrary to the above claims, Exodus 21 actually supports the value of unborn human life. The word yalad means “go forth” or “give birth,” describing a normal birth (Gen. 25:26; 38:28-30; Job 3:11; 10:18; Jer 1:5; 20:18). It’s always used of giving birth, not of a miscarriage. If the biblical text intended to refer to a miscarriage, the typical word for “miscarry/miscarriage” (shakal/shekol) was available (e.g., Gen 31;38; Exod 23:26; Job 21:10; Hosea 9:14). Miscarry isn’t used here.

Furthermore, yalad (“give birth”) is always used of a child that has recognizable human form or is capable of surviving outside the womb. The Hebrew word nepel is the typical word used of an unborn child, and the word golem, which means “fetus,” is used only once in the Old Testament in Psalm 139:16, which we just noted: God knew the psalmist’s “unformed body” or “unformed substance.”

This brings us to another question: Who is injured? The baby or the mother? The text is silent. It could be either, since the feminine pronoun is missing. The gist of the passage seems to be this:

If two men fight and hit a pregnant woman and the baby is born prematurely, but there is no serious injury [to the child or the mother], then the offender must be fined whatever the husband demands and the court allows. But if there is a serious injury [to the baby or the mother], you are to take life for life, eye for eye.

These verses then actually imply the intrinsic value of the unborn child—that the life of the offender may be taken if the mother’s or the child’s life is lost. The unborn child is given the same rights as an adult (Gen 9:6).

New Atheists and other critics often resort to caricatures or misrepresentations of the Old Testament laws. While Mosaic laws do not always reflect the ultimate or the ideal (which the Old Testament itself acknowledges), these laws and the mind-set they exhibit reveal a dramatic moral improvement and greater moral sensitivity than their ancient Near Eastern counterparts.[4]


  1. Iain W. Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, New International Bible Commentary 7 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson; Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1995), 186.
  2. See Baruc Maralit, “Why King Mesha Sacrificed his Oldest Son,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12 (Nov/Dec 1986): 62–63; John J. Bimson, “1 and 2 Kings,” in The New Bible Commentary, 4th ed., ed. Gordon Wenham (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 365; and Anson Rainey, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World, eds. Anson Rainey and R. Steven Notley (Jerusalem: Carta, 2006), 205.
  3. John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life, 3 vols. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 3:796. For a good discussion of the Ezekiel text, see Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel: Chapters 1-24 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 636–41.
  4. Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011) 96–100.