Exodus 22:29 represents the ancient Israelite practice of human sacrifice quite plainly: “Your firstborn sons you shall give to me.”
According to Christian biblical scholar Stark “The demand is unequivocal. The traditional solution is to read the provision for the redemption of the firstborn sons found in Exodus 34:20 back onto the unqualified command in 22:29. This provision reads: “All your firstborn sons you shall ransom. You shall not come before me empty-handed.” In other words, Yahweh demands the blood of the firstborn sons of Israel as satiation, but allows Israel to sacrifice an animal instead of their sons” (1).
That Yahweh demands Israel to sacrifice an animal instead of their sons seems, for some, to negate the practice of child sacrifice. However, several considerations prove difficult for such an interpretation.
First, nowhere is the requirement of firstborn sacrifice repudiated in 34:20. In fact, Yahweh still demands the blood of the firstborn but is willing to accept an animal as a substitution. This is more significant that we might think, as Stark notes:
“If human sacrifice is abhorrent to Yahweh, why does Yahweh not simply says so. Yahweh does not say, “I am not like other gods. I do not demand the blood of your firstborn sons.” On the contrary, Yahweh does indeed demand their blood, but is willing to accept a lesser sacrifice in their stead. The logic of human sacrifice is not repudiated here but sustained” (2).
Secondly, the archaeology indicates that other ancient cultures that practiced child sacrifice also allowed for the substitution of animals in a child’s place. Archaeological digs in the Ancient Near East have discovered the remains of children who had been the subjects of sacrifice, buried in the same fashion and on the same site as the remains of animals that had been sacrificed. According to Stark “child sacrifice was considered a nobler scarce than mere animal sacrifice for the obvious reason that one’s children were more valuable than one’s livestock. Thus it is clear that the provision for the redemption of the firstborn in Exodus 34:20 is not evidence that the child sacrifice was forbidden” (3).
Thirdly, Exodus 34:20 indicates very plainly that the motivation for the redemption of sacrifice is not moral in nature, but utilitarian. The full verse reads, “The firstborn of a donkey shall be ransomed with a lamb, or if you will not ransom it, break its neck. All your firstborn sons you shall ransom. You shall not come before me empty-handed.”
“In the first case, the firstborn of a donkey is demanded to satiate the deity, but it is to be substituted with a lamb. Is this because a donkey’s life is intrinsically more valuable, in a moral sense, than that of a lamb? Not exactly. A donkey is a more useful animal in an agrarian society, and thus its substitution serves a clear utilitarian function. In the same way, a child labourer is more valuable in an agrarian society than any animal. This utilitarian logic prevails here as well. No moral motivation is offered for the redemption of the firstborn sons” (4).
1. Stark, T. 2011. The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals when it Gets God Wrong (and why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It). p. 88.
2. Stark, T. 2011. Ibid.
3. Stark, T. 2011. Ibid.
4. Stark, T. 2011. Ibid. p. 89.