Friday, August 26, 2016

Does God Want Human Sacrifice?

I was asked a question in conversation recently, and I have to admit, it’s a tough one. It is also the sort of thing that is hard to give an application, because it comes out of the minutiae of the Old Testament Law. If you know this ministry, though, you know my attitude. If it is in the Bible, it can be discussed and understanding can be pursued. That is part of the “quest” in Quest Forums.

Human Sacrifice

So the question was, what is the meaning of Leviticus 27:28, 29, which reads, “no devoted offering that a man may devote to the Lord of all that he has, both man and beast, or the field of his possession, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted offering is most holy to the Lord. No person under the ban, who may become doomed to destruction among men, shall be redeemed, but shall surely be put to death.”

When you read that, what does it seem to say? Does it perhaps suggest human sacrifice? Because it did to me. I looked it up in every commentary I could get my hands on, but I could not find an immediately satisfactory answer. Unfortunately, that means I probably will not be able to give one, either. But I am going to try, in the same spirit they all did.

That is an important point. Every source I read said essentially the same thing, even though it does not seem like the most obvious answer. Also, I agree with them even though I am still a bit uncomfortable with breaking away from the apparent meaning. No one is prepared to read this as a command for human sacrifice. Why not? Because that would be out of keeping with the revealed character of God.

Seeing the Forest in the Trees

This comes down to an important principle of Biblical interpretation. The Bible should be viewed as a whole. Often, evangelical Christians are accused of having too literal an understanding of the Bible. Partly that is because critics refuse to consider the possibility of the miraculous things the Bible describes, but it is also partly because of an overly simplistic understanding of what we do. A distinction needs to be made between a literal, and a literalistic interpretation. A literalistic reading is divorced from context. It cannot recognize literary conventions like metaphor or hyperbole, and it does not take related passages into account. A literal reading is different. To read literally is to understand the text as it was meant to be understood, and to see its place in the larger context of all Scripture.

That is what we do with Leviticus 27:28, 29. The literalistic reading says that God made allowance for human sacrifice. The literal reading looks for more information elsewhere in the Bible, and finds it. The pagan neighbors of the Israelites did conduct human sacrifices. And what was God’s opinion of them? He called them “abominations” (Deuteronomy 12:31; Deuteronomy 18:9–12). In fact, in Jeremiah 32:35, He said that it never came “into My mind that they should do this abomination.” Humans condemning other humans to death in an effort to please God is a concept foreign to His desire and disgusting to His mind.

This consistent and repeated biblical truth is the lens through which our passage must be read, in spite of the first-blush meaning we may have inferred. With that in mind, we can go back and try to dig a little deeper in the confidence that a consistent answer can be found.

Vocabulary Matters

One of the most important things to do is to read these two verses in comparison with the rest of Leviticus 27. If you go ahead and read it, you might think I am being obtuse. It could seem, rather than opposing the idea of human sacrifice, the whole chapter actually strengthens the case for it. That is because it is actually a list of regulations for sacrifices given to God. But you have to look closely.

In all the verses before v. 28, the verb used for something given to God is “dedicate.” It occurs in vv. 14–19, 22, and 26. That word translates a Hebrew term meaning, “to make holy.” Therefore, a dedicated thing was set apart to God’s use. That did not necessarily mean it had to be destroyed. It could also be bought back with money, or “redeemed.” In fact, dedicated humans had to be redeemed.

Importantly, a shift occurs in v. 28. God’s commandment is no longer talking about dedicated things. A distinction is made, set up with that first word “nevertheless.” So, the Lord is saying, what has preceded will not apply to what follows. And what follows is no longer a discussion of “dedication,” but of “devotion.” Devoted things are sharply contrasted with the earlier sacrifices. In fact, “devote” might not be the best translation of the Hebrew concept presented here, even though most English translations use some form of it.

It might be clearer to modern readers if it said “banned things” instead of "devoted offerings", because that is the more common concept where it appears in the rest of Scripture. In other words, these things were cursed. For one example, look at Joshua 6:21 in the New International Version (since the New King James Version I usually cite inexplicably obscures the original meaning here). It is part of the story of Jericho, and describes the outcome of the battle against God’s enemies. Our word is once again translated “devoted,” but the meaning is much clearer. The Canaanites in the city, and all their possessions, had been condemned. They were to be utterly destroyed. That had been God’s command, and the Israelites followed through on it (well, almost, but that’s another story). They obeyed the commandment of Leviticus 27:28, 29.

The devoted things, the banned things, the cursed things, could not be kept. That was the purpose of this command. They, in their own way, were also holy. But not in their usefulness. Instead, they were holy in the sense that they could belong to no one but God, and were reserved for His judgment. There could be no commutation of the death penalty. No one could buy his way out, and anyone who tried to keep such livestock, land, booty, or convicts, would come under the same condemnation for trying to preserve what God had commanded to be destroyed. So the point was not human sacrifice. It was that no man could pay the price for the crimes of another.

Beating the Ban

There is one exception, however. Scripture makes it clear that not every person is to be executed, but we are all under the condemnation of death for our sins. We cannot buy our way out. We cannot do enough to earn forgiveness of the debt. We sin against an eternal God, which earns eternal condemnation. No one else can give enough for us to be freed, either. They have their own sins for which they must account. But what if someone sinless and eternal were to sacrifice Himself? That would then be acceptable. That would remove the ban we are under.

And that is precisely what has happened. The Bible does contain one positively-mentioned human sacrifice, under the most special of circumstances. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, was able to offer Himself up to pay the redemption price of mankind. No one handed Him over. Rather, He gave Himself to be condemned. It was precisely because He did not deserve it that He was able to satisfy the justice of the Father. And because Jesus took this on, rather than having it forced on Him, it was glorious rather than abominable. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13, 14).

The Bible condemns human sacrifice as the ancients practiced it because it could do no good. It was only one fallen person trying to make another into a payment for his faults. What Christ did is of a completely different nature, and gives us the only possible way out from the ban we are under. So Leviticus 27:28, 29 is not about God calling for human sacrifice. It is a reminder that there is no way to escape punishment, except for the one He provided by taking that punishment on Himself. When you consider how total that ban is otherwise, I hope it will inspire you to accept what Jesus did for you. And if you have, be grateful. Remember how much it cost.

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