Sunday, April 01, 2007

Not Your Promises, But Mine

So I don't think that the great Muse Lucidity was with me when I wrote this, but I'd had the idea for a while and finally punched out a little essay for my Bible as Lit class. If you're familiar with the stories, just read the last two paragraphs for the meat of the essay.

Not Your Promises, But Mine

Seeing as how our text takes the time to point out specific instances of child sacrifice in the Old Testament, I thought I’d offer my take on what God may be trying to convey here. In order to do so, I’d like to first lay out the three instances of paedo-sacrifice we’ll be working with by briefly summarizing and highlighting relevant aspects of each.

Abraham and Isaac

Undoubtedly the most well known occurrence of child sacrifice in the Old Testament, the story goes that God told Abraham to “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” Abraham took two of his servants along with Isaac on a three day journey to the place God told him. When he could see the mountain, he left the two men and gave Isaac the wood to carry for the burnt offering, telling them to stay with the donkey and that “I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you.” As father and son trekked onward, Isaac became aware of something missing, namely the lamb to be sacrificed. When he asked Abraham, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son,” was the reply. When they reached the place, Abraham built an altar, arranged the wood, and bound Isaac atop the whole structure. As he drew his knife to slay his son, an angel of the Lord called to him saying “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Abraham then saw a ram caught in a thicket, and offered the beast up as a burnt offering in place of his son. (Genesis 22:2-13)

On the surface, this story seems to be nothing more than a testing Abraham’s faith. God asked for the thing most precious to Abraham to be killed by his own hand for Him. If we look back a few chapters to Genesis 15 however, we find some important context for this scene. Abraham seemed distressed that he was unable to have a child with his wife Sarah, and that his heir would end up being one of his servants. God assured him that “this man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” As He led him outside, God promised Abraham “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendents be.” What I’d like to focus on here is the initiation of a promise being on God’s side. He approached Abraham and made an unconditional covenant with him. This will be further explored after introducing the next two stories.


Mesha, king of Moab in the 9th century BC, provides us with another account of child sacrifice, one that doesn’t end so merrily. Once Israel’s supplier of sheep, Mesha later rebelled against King Jehoram, inviting the army of the northern kingdom to lay siege to Moab. Surrounded in the chief Moabite city of Kir-hareseth as a final refuge, Mesha made one last military push through the Israelite army to Edom, but was forced back. As a last resort he takes his eldest son who would inherit his kingdom, and “offered him as a burnt offering on the wall.” While the text isn’t clear as to who Mesha offered his son to, the Moabite Stone has an inscription attributed to Mesha reading, “Chemosh drove him before my sight,” apparently referring to Jehoram at this battle.

Here, the emphasis seems to be on the weightiness of child sacrifice. A son offered to a foreign god still has enough magic, oomph, whatever you call it to drive back the Israelites. The text is a bit cryptic in describing their reaction, saying only that “there came great wrath against Israel, and they departed from him and returned to their own land.” Yahweh or Chemosh (or both) was impressed with this action to the point of preserving Moab. (2 Kings 3: 4-27)

Jephthah and his Daughter

The last tale of a child being offered to a god comes to us from the book of Judges. Before going to war against the Ammonites, Jephthah the Gileadite made a vow to the Lord saying “If Thou wilt indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall be the Lord’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering.” The text follows that the Lord gave the Ammonites into Jephthah’s hand, and he returned home. Ironically, the first thing to come through Jephthah’s door was his daughter, his only child. He tore his clothes grieving that “I have given my word to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.” His daughter, seemingly wise and calm beyond her years or circumstance, replied in the affirmative, saying “My father, you have given your word to the Lord; do to me as you have said, since the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the sons of Ammon.” She asked only for two months to “bewail her virginity” upon the mountains, after which Jephthah “did to her according to the vow which he had made.”

(Judges 11)

In this instance I’d like to again point out the origin of the promise. This time it was Jephthah who proposed the covenant to God and constructed the agreements for both sides.

My point is two-fold: first, that God seems to be very interested in promises being kept. In His dealings with Abraham, He initiated a covenant between the two, one that required His direct influence in keeping by making Sarah fertile to bear Isaac. When Abraham was commanded to offer Isaac on the altar, he knew that if Isaac died, his line would die with him, nullifying God’s promise of descendents. The test was certainly one of faith, but more so the faith of God’s word. In Jephthah’s case, he, a man, made a deal with God on Man’s terms with Man’s foresight. Both parties kept their ends of the deal, but Jephthah’s honor came a much higher price.

To put it more clearly, while God is interested in keeping vows and promises, these stories seem to be here for the purpose of showing us whose promises are worth keeping. Or better, who should be deciding the terms of an agreement between the Divine and Man. Abraham and his descendents are a picture of a kept promise on God’s terms. Jephthah’s misery is the folly of Man striking up his own deal with God.

The second point I’d like to discuss briefly relates more to the story of Mesha. As I said earlier, the gravity of a child sacrificed seems to the overwhelming theme. While I still hold firmly to that, I don’t think that the idea can be fully appreciated without a look towards Christ, and mention of my previous point concerning promises. Taking the Old Testament’s prophets as God’s promise to Man for a Savior, we have a union of the weightiness of child sacrifice with the perfection of God’s vow. There is no doubt that the offering of a child is a powerful thing, as demonstrated by Mesha. At the same time, God has proven that not only will he keep his word, but that his word kept will result in unimaginable good.

I’d like to end with Solomon’s thoughts on vows from Ecclesiastes:

Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. For the dream comes through much effort, and the voice of a fool through many words. When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.

Ecclesiastes 5:2-5

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