Kraybill: Human sacrifice, then and now

Oct 14, 2019 by

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The Dome of the Rock in Old Jeru­salem enshrines faith stories, including the almost-sacrifice of Isaac. By Jewish and Muslim tradition, the bedrock protruding inside this seventh-century structure is the top of Mount Moriah, to which Abraham took Isaac at God’s command. Isaac carried firewood; Abraham carried fire and knife.

The Dome of the Rock has been called Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark. — J. Nelson Kraybill

The Dome of the Rock has been called Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark. — J. Nelson Kraybill

“The fire and the wood are here,” said Isaac with apparent alarm, “but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22).

Muslims believe Ishmael, not Isaac, climbed Mount Moriah with Abraham. Either way, the story is unsettling. What kind of God would propose child sacrifice? What kind of father would comply?

Perhaps those questions reflect misunderstanding. Genesis 22 indeed is about human sacrifice but makes clear God is against it.

Many ancient Middle Eastern cultures practiced human sacrifice. In Jordan, archaeologists have found an altar with human bone fragments of many youth apparently sacrificed to the god Molech.

In Jer. 32:35, Yahweh charges Israel with building altars “to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter my mind that they should do this abomination.”

When Yahweh established a covenant with Abraham and his descendants, one of the first lessons was: No more human sacrifice. Of course God told Abraham to sacrifice his firstborn son, and Abraham began to act, because that is what ancient peoples expected. But when Abraham raised the knife, Yahweh intervened. No! My people will sacrifice rams, not sons and daughters!

In Tunisia, my wife and I were sobered to visit an ancient Phoenician Tophet (sacred pre­cinct) where 20,000 ceramic jars entomb infants. Some, perhaps all, were victims of sacrifice. Nearby is a field of white crosses marking graves of 2,841 mostly young Americans who died in North Africa in World War II. Whether or not you think that was a righteous cause, that too is a form of human sacrifice.

Many in the United States worship at the altar of individual freedom to the extent that we have few controls on lethal weapons. Annually nearly 40,000 Americans die from gunshots, more than half of those suicide. At El Paso, Dayton and other mass-shooting sites, we sacrifice our citizens to a selfish understanding of personal freedom and an idolatrous attachment to a constitutional amendment. People of conscience should lobby legislators to ban assault weapons and handguns to stop this slaughter.

In addition to associations with human sacrifice, the Dome of the Rock also represents joyful relationship with God. The Talmud says creation itself began at this place. Here stood the temple of Solomon and later the temple that Jesus knew. Muslims believe Muhammad, miraculously transported from Mecca, ascended to heaven from this rock. Some Jews expect the Third Temple to be built here.

I soak in the beauty of this building and thank God for all the ways people of faith have experienced divine presence on this mountaintop. Here God taught Abraham and all generations to preserve human life. What does that mean for how we respond to war, abortion, capital punishment and gun violence?

J. Nelson Kraybill is president of Mennonite World Conference and president emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. See more writing and information about his upcoming tours to Israel-Palestine at peace-pilgrim.com.


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