Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel?

I have occasionally come across the claim that ancient Israelites practiced child sacrifice. This is a popular idea on atheist websites - not surprisingly - but I have also encountered it in the scholarly literature. I've been skeptical about about it, but haven't taken the time to look into the evidence in detail. There is at least some evidence of it in the Bible: Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac can be interpreted as a story explaining why child sacrifice is no longer to be practiced.

Apparently the idea is still controversial among scholars and archaeologists. Here's a summary of a recent article that overviews the evidence (via Edward T. Babinski) and comes to a positive conclusion:

DANIEL VAINSTUB, "Human Sacrifices in Canaan and Israel," Beer-sheva 19 (2010), 117-204 (in Hebrew).
"The existence of infant sacrifices in biblical times both in the Canaanite culture and in Israel has been a matter of intense controversy in the scholarship of the last eight decades. Paradoxically, the more relevant data emerges, the wider the scholarly discensus grows. Some hold that the practice never existed among the Canaanites or the Israelites, while others aver that it was a deeply rooted practice both in the Canaanite homeland and the Punic cities of the West. Vainstub's comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of the issue includes an up-to-date survey of the divergent opinions concerning it and offers new insights based on an array of evidence, epigraphic, linguistic, artistic, and literary. The study highlights the significant degree of parallelism among the various sources, and comes to the conclusion that infant sacrifices to Baal by parents were indeed a strongly rooted custom in Bronze and Iron Age Canaan. The practice was taken over by the Israelites, and persisted until its abolition by Josiah. Later on, the practice was limited to the Phoenician coastal area until it was completely eradicated by the Persians there during the 5th century. B.C. Such sacrifices continued in the Phoenician colonies in the West for another 400 years."

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