I am afraid Jon Levenson’s Death an Resurrection of the Beloved Son starts out discussing something that is really gross. My youth groups used to react to me telling stories from the Book of Judges by saying, “Oh gross.” They were really interested in the stories, though.
Jon Levenson believes that Israel’s northern neighbor, Phoenicia, practiced the ritual sacrifice of children. This is hotly disputed among historians. Ancient Israelite, Greek, and Roman writers claimed that the Phoenicians often burned their children as part of a hideous ritual. But the Israelites, Greeks, and Romans were enemies of the Phoenicians, so maybe these were just made-up atrocity stories.
There is archeological evidence, especially a burial site at Carthage (Carthage was a colony of Phoenicia) where hundreds of burned remains of children and animals have been found together. Above the jars containing these remains are stelae with inscriptions like “To our lady, to Tanit [a goddess]… and to our lord, to Ba’al Hammon, that which was vowed.” Deconstructionist historians have offered a plausible explanation for this as a cemetery for children who died of natural causes and were cremated. But what about the animal remains? Were they from a pet cemetery? (p. 21).
I think we have a reluctance to think that the same people who gave us the alphabet could have been so barbaric. But ritual child sacrifice has been practiced pretty widely in human history. Did you know that it remains a problem today?
Levenson thinks Israel participated fully in Phoenician-style ritual sacrifice of children. Of course, this is no more than what Jeremiah charges:
“They have built shrines of Topheth in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which is something I didn’t command. In fact, it never entered my mind” (Jeremiah 7:31).
The real scandal of Levenon’s position is that he thinks Jeremiah protests too much. Why assert that God never commanded child sacrifice unless people thought that he had?
So Levenson takes this old law from the Covenant Code literally:
“You shall not delay to offer from your harvest and from the juice of your presses. You shall give the firstborn of your sons to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep. Seven days it shall be with its mother, then on the eighth day you shall give it me” (Exodus 22:29-30).
Now it is clear that oxen and sheep really got sacrificed. Later Israelite law allowed the substitution of a lamb for the first-born son, but this passage literally calls for the sacrifice of children. It was not that the Israelites were practicing paganism–these sacrifices were for YHWH. This come out in Abraham’s belief that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac and in Jephthah’s actual sacrifice of his only child (Judges 11:34-40).
This is shocking and Levenson plays up the shock value some. So it is helpful to re-read in his preface what his actual point is: “though the practice was at some point eradicated, the religious idea associated with one particular form of it–the donation of the first-born son–remained potent and productive (p. ix emphasis his).
The Israelites eliminated and strongly renounced the practice of child sacrifice, but the notion that your obligation to God was such that you owed your first-born child to God remained.