What’s the most precious thing you own? Something you’d die to save if it were in danger? Most people would say their children.
People in the ancient world were no different. Yet it’s said they did something very terrible: in times of great stress, they offered their own children in sacrifice to the gods.
Their child was the greatest gift they could give – so giving a child, especially an eldest male child, was a last desperate plea for help.
The idea fills modern people with horror. But did it actually happen? There is no real archaeological evidence to prove that child sacrifice was practised, but it was feared and talked about by ancient people.
No society ever admitted that they did it. They only ever accused their mortal enemies of the practice. So it’s hard to prove.
For example, there were containers with the ashes of children found in ancient Carthage – so they must have burnt their children as offerings, right? No, probably not. The ashes were probably only the cremated remains of children who had died a natural death.
This horrific tale seems to suggest that Abraham was ready to sacrifice his own son Isaac, cutting him with a knife. But no. Look more closely. The whole point of the story is that God commands Abraham NOT to practice child sacrifice.
On the other hand, you might argue, the Bible only ever forbids something that is already happening…..
Leviticus 18:21: ‘You shall not give any of your children to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.’
Be careful who you trust, what you believe in. You can get taken in. The Bible strongly warns against belief in the power of magic, incantations and even lucky charms.
It also condemns people who promote superstition in any of its forms.
Magic was very popular in the ancient world – then as now it gave people a sense of control over events that were in fact out of their control.
It may seem harmless, something to entertain and amuse, but dabbling in magic means that we hand our decisions and free will over to someone or something else. The commandment against false prophecy tells us to trust in our own ability to make decisions about our lives.
Magic circle with eye at center
Deuteronomy 13:1-5: If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods and let us serve them”, you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you.
Those prophets or those who divine by dreams shall be put to death for having spoken treason against the Lord your God, who brought you of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery.
Blasphemy. ‘Piss Christ’, by Andres Serrano: a small plastic crucifix submerged in the artist’s urine
Blasphemy is not just using the name of God in a contemptuous way – though ‘Jesus Christ’ as an expletive seems to be acceptable now in films and TV. Which tells you something about the sort of people who rule the modern media…
It’s ironic that Jesus’ name is used so flippantly nowadays, because blasphemy was one of the charges brought against Jesus at his trial. At the time, blasphemy was punishable by death.
For example, Stephen, one of the first Christians, was charged with this crime and executed by stoning.
But ‘blasphemy’ has quite another meaning: it is doing something in God’s name that God would never countenance or accept. People who use the mask of religion for their own corrupt ends fall into this category.
Jeremiah 28:16: Thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken perversion against the Lord.
Don’t look at that title and think ‘Oh, I never do that’. There are all kinds of false gods in the modern world – worship of money is one that springs to mind.
But the Bible was talking about something quite different: worship of the agricultural gods of fertility. This was something that was far more common in ancient Israel than the Bible liked.
Why? Because agriculture was the source of people’s survival. In good years they prospered, in bad years (droughts, mice and insect plagues, etc.) people would simply die – first the old and the very young, then mature adults, then the young and strong.
Think of the emaciated faces when there is a famine in Africa, and you will get some idea of why ancient people were anxious about climate cycles.
Ancient threshing floors like this were often the scene of fertility rituals at harvest time
Certainly they laid in stores of grain against bad years – the story of Joseph and his brothers illustrates this point.
But stores do not last forever. So one of their major preoccupations was how to control the weather. The religious rituals they developed were meant to predict the weather (think of Stonehenge and its purpose) and cajole Nature into being kind to them. See Gods & Goddesses
The priests of the Jerusalem Temple tried to overcome the common people’s idea of Divinity as something that was split into many different and competing forces. They proposed instead that God was One.
1 Kings 14:22: Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their ancestors had done. For they built for themselves high places, pillars, and sacred poles (Asherim) on every high hill and under every green tree; there were also male temple prostitutes in the land.
Chronicles 19:7: Jehoshaphat resided at Jerusalem; then he went out again among the people and brought them back to the Lord. He appointed judges in the land in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city, and said to the judges “Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the Lord’s behalf.
Take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes.”
A message to judges: model yourselves on the impartiality and wisdom of God.
Ancient Egyptian wall painting showing two men embracing
Why does the Bible speak out so strongly against homosexuality?
The law forbidding homosexual relations between men or women was written at a time when the Hebrews were in a dangerous situation. They were trying to gain a foothold in the new land of Canaan, which they had entered when they fled from Egypt.
But all the arable land in Canaan was already taken, and the Hebrews could only perch precariously on the arid hillsides. They were constantly harried by the Canaanite soldiers and people, and their survival was very much at risk.
They fought back – heroes like Samson and Deborah are examples of their struggle for survival.
But they also had another strategy – producing as many children as they could. Every man and every woman was expected to put their shoulders to the wheel, so to speak. Every man had to be a father and a soldier; every woman a mother. Children, and lots of them, were essential. Homosexuality could not be tolerated.
Lot and his family flee from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
Leviticus 18:22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination. Romans 1:26-7: God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
The message in Psalm 5:9 pulls no punches: a person who tells lies is like an open grave, full of death and rottenness.
Sins of speech are singled out for special condemnation in the Bible, and are seen as leading directly, and by the providence of God, to destruction.
The sin of telling lies brings its own inevitable results.
Psalms 5:9: For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; Evil will not sojourn with you. The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful…. Make your way straight before me For there is no truth in their mouths; their hearts are destruction; their throats are open graves; they flatter with their tongues.
The plight of the poor and oppressed is a recurring theme in the Bible. This emphasis on social justice has shaped Western civilization more than most people today seem to realize.
Social justice is one of the main preoccupations of Judaism and of Christianity. Jesus’ second Great Commandment ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ reiterates this theme.
Ecclesiastes 5:8: If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and violent perversion of justice and judgment, do not be amazed at the matter; for he that is higher than the highest is watching.
Impoverished man with all his belongings in a shopping trolley: the gap between rich and poor
Bible Study Resource: What sins are the worst?
Lying, belief in magic, social injustice, sex with animals, homosexuality, legal corruption, child sacrifice, blasphemy, incest, worship of false gods