Human Sacrifice in the Bible
By Steven Newcomb
Some Indian people these days disparage what they call a “victim mentality.” This is aimed at those of us who spend a great deal of time obsessing over all the destruction that our originally free nations and peoples have been subjected to during the past five centuries. Recently, it dawned on me that I have never examined the word “victim” in the dictionary.
In Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1965) we find:
victim [L. victima; akin to OHG wīh holy, Skt vinakti he sets apart] 1 : A living being sacrificed to a deity or in the performance of a religious rite. 2 : someone injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions. 3 : someone tricked or duped.
To help us make sense of this connection between the idea of a victim and the sacrificing of a living being to a deity, we can turn to the Bible. In The Holy Bible, New International Version, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan) we find the following in Deuteronomy 20: 16: “…in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.” A footnote at the phrase “completely destroy” reads: “The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.”
In this case, “persons” that have been “given over” to “the Lord” are those peoples listed above—the Canaanites and other peoples of the so-called “Promised Land”—that, according to the narrative, the deity of the Old Testament had “given” to his “chosen people” as an “inheritance.” To understand why those peoples had to be exterminated and were not to be ransomed or sold into slavery we must turn to Leviticus 27: 29: “No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; he must be put to death.” At the phrase “devoted to destruction” an accompanying footnote reads: “The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord” [for destruction].
The mention of those who were “devoted to destruction” takes us back to the word “victim”: “a living being sacrificed to a deity.” To devote the Canaanites and other peoples to destruction means that they were “dedicated” to ‘the Lord’ “by a solemn act.” A synonym for devote is “to consecrate,” which means “to devote irrevocably to the worship of God by a solemn act.” And “solemn” means, “marked by the invocation of a religious sanction,” which is “a formal decree; esp an ecclesiastical [church] decree.”
What this all adds up to is this: The Canaanites and other peoples of the so-called ‘Promised Land’ were considered to have been “irrevocably” given over or “devoted” to what the Bible terms “the Lord your God.” Anytime you dedicate a living being to a deity and then kill it, that living being becomes a sacrificial victim to that deity. Anytime you dedicate or devote human beings, including entire peoples, to a deity and then kill them, the human beings killed become victims of human sacrifice to that deity.
Consistent with the pattern in the Old Testament, the late biblical scholar Rousas John Rooshdoony, in his book The Institutes of Biblical Law stated: “The Bible does not condemn human sacrifice in principle.” He then quotes another scholar: “All Biblical sacrifice rests on the idea that the gift of life to God, either in consecration or in expiation, is necessary to the action or the restoration of religion.” Elsewhere, Rooshdoony says: “…the law required the extermination of the Canaanites.”
Defenders of the biblical narrative will no doubt say that the sacrificial extermination of the Canaanites and other peoples of the so-called Promised Land was “God’s” punishment for their ‘fertility cults’ and ‘religious prostitution,’ two slurs designed to rationalize human sacrifice by imposing a foreign judgment on those free peoples. As Rooshdoony put it, “The purpose of the [biblical] law is a land purged of all these evils.”
When the peoples of Christendom came to this hemisphere, their leaders looked to the Bible for guidance; it became their how-to book for colonization and domination. They considered themselves to be the new “chosen people,” and our Indigenous lands and territories to be their “Promised Land.” In keeping with the biblical analogy, they saw our originally free and independent nations and peoples as the Canaanites and other peoples of the ‘Promised Land’ who were, by further extension of the analogy, devoted and dedicated to their deity for sacrifice and destruction.
Steven Newcomb (Shawneee /Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.
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