Most of us learned that the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac which we read this week and we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is a turning point in Jewish history. Thirty-eight hundred years ago, an angel stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac, and from then onward, the Israelites abhorred child sacrifice, in contrast with their neighbors.
In reality, the abhorrence of child sacrifice was evolutionary. There are hints of child sacrifice in the Bible, echoes of a time when child sacrifice was conducted, if not condoned or sanctioned. And there are even Biblical stories that describe child sacrifice.
In Exodus 22:28-29, the Torah says that the Israelites should give their first-born sons to God (titen li). Some scholars think that was a first step toward the Levites: the first-born sons were destined to be priests, before the Levites monopolized the priesthood. But the next verse says, “You shall do the same with you cattle and your flocks: seven days [the first-born male cattle and sheep] shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it me.” And there is a similar echo in Exodus 13:1: “Consecrate to Me every first-born (b’chor); man and beast.” Surely, the first-born beasts would not become priests.
My Bible instructor always said, “The first thing to do, take the Torah literally.” The first-born male cattle and sheep were not going to be priests, and the first-born male cattle and sheep were treated equally to the first-born male humans. This is an echo when the first-born sons were routinely sacrificed.
In Exodus 34:20, there is echo of the next step in the evolution of child sacrifice. The Israelites must give to God the first-born male of cattle and sheep, and the first-born male of an ass had to be redeemed with sheep. And the Israelites were obliged to redeem every first-born male humans. The penalty for not redeeming a first-born male ass is to break its neck. The Torah does not specify the penalty for not redeeming a first-born male human.
In the Book of Numbers, there was another evolutionary step. The male Levites substituted for all the first-born males of the Israelites. (That was definitely the creation of a priestly caste.)
In the Torah there a strong condemnations of child sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 18:10), admonitions that would be unnecessary were child sacrifices did not happen occasionally or frequently. In fact, the Bible recounts episodes of child sacrifice with approval.
In the Book of Kings, II Kings 3:27, the king of Moab sacrificed his first-born son to thwart an Israelite attack, and the Book of Kings counts the sacrifice as successful. And the famous episode in the Book of Judges, Jephthah swears a vow to God that if God helps Jephthah defeats the Ammonites, Jephthah will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house when he comes home. His daughter was the first thing that comes out of his house, and the Book of Judges doesn’t condemn Jephthah for fulfilling his vow.
King Manasseh, king of Judah, sacrificed his sons. (II Kings 21:6). He was king 40 years, and his grandson, Josiah, is credited to putting the Kingdom of Judah back on God’s path. Jeremiah proclaimed 20-25 years after Josiah’s death, “They have built shrines to Baal, to put their children in the fire as burnt-offerings unto Baal; which I commanded not, nor spoke it, neither came it into My mind.” (Jer. 19:5). One scholar thinks that the story of the Akedah, an Israelite family tradition, was canonized during these times.
A family legend, a family myth, would teach an example that Jeremiah couldn’t teach. The Akedah, thinks that scholar, was brought to prominence because the people would heed the story and end child sacrifice.