Saturday, January 9, 2010

To the Jew First: No Human Sacrifice

Another common Jewish objection to the claims of Christianity is that the Mosaic Law prohibits human sacrifice. Thus, Jesus' death on the cross cannot be the sacrifice Christians claim it is. In order to qualify as the atonement for mankind's sins, Jesus must have perfectly upheld the Law, as New Testament authors readily admit. Yet, sacrificing a human, Jewish unbelievers argue, violates the very Law He is claimed to have perfectly upheld, thus disqualifying Him as the Messiah.

How can the Christian respond to this argument? Is it true that the Law prohibits human sacrifice, and thus that Jesus' death on the cross cannot atone for man's sins? (I would like to point readers to the Jews for Jesus website and the resources it lists under, "Was Jesus' death a violation of the commandment against human sacrifice?" My post below is mostly a repackaging of those resources for consumption by my readers.)


Those who object to Christianity for this reason point to a number of passages from the Tanakh (Old Testament) that are alleged to outlaw human sacrifice:

"You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech" (Leviticus 18:21)

"Any man from the sons of Israel or from the aliens sojourning in Israel who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death" (Leviticus 20:2)

"But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and even made his son pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the nations whom the LORD had driven out from before the sons of Israel." (2 Kings 16:3)

"and the Avvites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech the gods of Sepharvaim" (2 Kings 17:31)

This is a small sampling of the relevant verses. We read similar admonitions in: 2 Kings 23:10; Jeremiah 32:35; 2 Kings 21:6; Jeremiah 7:31; Deuteronomy 12:31; Deuteronomy 18:10; 2 Kings 23:10Ezekiel 20:31; and Ezekiel 23:37. However, what is really being condemned in these passages? The sacrifice of any human? No.

Clearly, the practice condemned by these verses is the sacrficing of one's offspring. At most, then, all one can conclude is that the Law prohibits the sacrificing of one's own sons or daughters. Jesus was not sacrificed by His father; He sacrificed Himself. Consider the following verses:

"Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma." (Ephesians 5:2)

"[Jesus] does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself." (Hebrews 7:27)

"how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" (Hebrews 9:14)


Furthermore, the practice of the worshippers of Molech was not to sacrifice just any of one's offspring, but one's children, more specifically infants. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of child sacrifice throughout the world in a variety of cultures. Ancient Jewish, Greek and Roman historians describe this practice. Rabbi Rashi, in the 12th century, wrote,

Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.

The Israelites were commanded by God not to follow this pagan practice, but the Bible also tells us why they weren't to do so:

"They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons, and shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan" (Psalm 106:37-38)

"Because they have forsaken Me and have made this an alien place and have burned sacrifices in it to other gods, that neither they nor their forefathers nor the kings of Judah had ever known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent" (Jeremiah 19:4)

Notice that the sacrifice of children is linked with the shedding of "innocent blood." It's not that children were innocent in the salvific sense, although many Christians do believe children are saved by default up until an alleged "age of accountability." Rather, the sort of innocence attributed to children is lack of violation of the Law. Consider this passage:

"But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities, then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you." (Deuteronomy 19:11-13)

In this context, the victim of murder is an adult, and yet Israel is commanded to execute his killer in order to "purge the blood of the innocent from Israel." Scripture teaches that all people are guilty of sin, so the innocence referred to here is not innocence from sin, but innocence from violation of Law. In the same way, then, child sacrifice is prohibited because it is murder, the shedding of "innocent blood." Jesus, obviously, was not a child when he sacrificed Himself.


We see, then, that the Law does not prohibit any human sacrifice, it prohibits child sacrifice, and more generally the murder of the innocent. But then, Jesus is claimed to have been innocent, right? So doesn't that fall into this category of unlawful human sacrifice? No, for two reasons. First, though Jesus perfectly upheld the Law and thus met the requirements thereof, He was not innocent at the moment of His death:

"He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Corinthians 5:21)

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us" (Galatians 3:13)

"He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross" (1 Peter 2:24)

On the cross, Jesus became sin. Our sins were placed upon Him. As such, He was, technically speaking, no longer innocent at the time of His sacrifice. This fulfills what was prophesied in the Tanakh (OT): "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried...The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him" (Isaiah 53:4-5). And this leads us to the second reason why Jesus' sacrifice is not the murder of the innocent condemned in the prohibition of child sacrifice: Jesus was not sacrificed by others, He willingly gave Himself; He sacrificed Himself.


But is this a violation of the Law? Is the sacrifice of oneself a violation of the Law? No. Not only does Scripture not contain prohibitions against the practice, it predicts it of the Messiah:

"He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth...But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand...Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, and interceded for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:7,10,12)

It was foretold that Jesus "would render Himself as a guilt offering," that He would "[pour] out Himself to death." Though modern Jewish interpreters view this passage differently, the Jews of Jesus' time did not, applying this self-sacrificing character in Isaiah's prophecy to more than just the Messiah:

"The atonement of suffering and death is not limited to the suffering person. The atoning effect extends to all the generation. This is especially the case with such sufferers as cannot either by reason of their righteous life or by their youth possibly have merited the afflictions which have come upon them. The death of the righteous atones just as well as certain sacrifices.' [Mechilta, 72b]... There are also applied to Moses the Scriptural words, "And he bore the sins of many" (Isa- 53 12), because of his offering himself as an atonement for Israel's sin with the golden calf, being ready to sacrifice his very soul for Israel, when he said, "And if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book (that is, from the Book of the Living), which thou hast written" (Exod- 32 32).' [Sotah, 14a and Berachoth 32a] This readiness to sacrifice oneself for Israel is characteristic of all the great men of Israel, the patriarchs and the Prophets acting in the same way, whilst also some Rabbis would, on certain occasions, exclaim, "Behold, I am the atonement of Israel"" [Mechilta, 2a; Mishnah Negaim 2.1] (Solomon Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology:310)

Additionally, Jewish intertestamental literature shows that willing martyrdom was viewed as righteous:

"When he was now burned to his very bones and about to expire, he lifted up his eyes to God and said,  'You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.'" (4 Maccabees 6:26-29)

"These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated." (4 Maccabees 17:20-22)


The Scriptures condemn the murder of the innocent, but Jesus laid down His own life, of His own volition. He lived in perfect obedience to the Law, and thus met its requirements, allowing Him to be the propitiation for our sins. And at His death, our sins were placed upon Him; the innocent became the guilty, and the guilty became the innocent. As a result, we who trust in His atonement for our sinfulness are adopted into God's household. What a testament to our Lord's great love for us, for as He said in John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."

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