I am a firstborn son. As such I was supposed to inherit the ranch (an old-fashioned, patriarchal idea, I know). But when I was born with collapsed lungs, my grandmother said that she offered me to God’s service if only I would be allowed to live. She got the idea from Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:27 and 28. Life is funny. When I grew up I became a minister, pretty much in spite of my intentions. I never thought my grandmother had the right to do that.
The pre-exilic priests transformed the lethal claim of God upon firstborn sons into something else.
“After this, the Levites will go into do the work of the tent of meeting. So you must cleanse them and offer them like a wave offering. For they are entirely given to me from among the Israelites. I have taken them for myself instead of all who open the womb, the firstborn sons of all the Israelites. For all the firstborn males among the Israelites are mine, both humans and animals; when I destroyed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt I set them apart for myself. So I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn sons among the Israelites” (Numbers 8:16-18, NET Bible).
This idea of the clergy as substitutes for human sacrifice intrigues me. You give your life to God. But in ordination and commissioning the community also offers you up “like a wave offering.” Many of us rebel against this idea. I bet many of the Levites did too.
Levenson in The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son traces the abolition and transformation of child sacrifice in ancient Israel. He has a historical scenario that through the time of Micah and Isaiah, around 700 BCE, Israel still practiced human sacrifice to YHWH. It was about this time, he thinks, that Deuteronomy was written and the condemnation of pagan child sacrifice in 12:31 came to be. It was Jeremiah and Ezekiel a century later who waged verbal war against this rite as practiced on Israel‘s own altars, and got it abolished.
I think the relevant passages, Micah 6:7 and Isaiah 30:33, don’t make it clear that legitimate priests still performed such rituals. Levenson understands this and doesn’t claim certainty, but he still goes with the scenario. That Jeremiah and Ezekiel utterly renounced the practice is certain. It is also clear that child sacrifice was unthinkable in pre-exilic Israel.
Levenson argues, though, that the myth that underlies child sacrifice remained potent and influential even into the Christian era.