1. Escape From the Cannibal God
by John Wijngaards, Millhilliana 36 (1984) 2, pp.69-74
The Old Testament recounts quite a number of atrocities. For me, one of the most horrible incidents is narrated as part of a war between Israel, Judah and Edom on the one side, and Moab on the other. The three armies had invaded Moab, had driven the Moabites back to their capital Kir Heres and were laying a siege round that city. The king of Moab was desperate. He tried to break out with the pick of his troops, but failed. Finally he made a vow to Chemosh, promising the god his eldest son in return for victory.
“So he took his oldest son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him on the city wall as a sacrifice to the god of Moab (2 Kgs 3:27). ”
What a terrifying picture! A father killing his own child in the belief that this would please his god! A cruel god, he must have considered him, a god who would only be satisfied by blood, by the life of his own child. An ugly story, which we might want to read over in a hurry, or simply forget. But I believe it is worth a lot of reflection. And reflecting on its implications we may also discover that the so-called “ugly traits”of the Old Testament may have more meaning than we suspected.
The king of Moab sacrificed his son. That is bad enough. But far worse – I would almost say incomprehensible – is the fact that child sacrifice was a common practice among the Israelites too. When Jericho was rebuilt in 860 B.C., Hiel, its mayor, offered his eldest son, Abiram, for the laying of the foundations and his youngest son, Segub, when building the gates. Excavations at Shechem have shown the remains of small children under the city gates. Jephthah of Gilead killed his only daughter in fulfilment of a vow. Outside Jerusalem, in the valley of Hinnom, sacrificing children was done on a regular basis.
It is difficult to reconstruct exactly how frequently sacrifices were conducted. But from the available evidence, we may piece the parts together in the following scene. In the valley of Hinnom, hardly 15 minutes’ walk from the Temple precinct, was a sanctuary to Melek on a small hill called Topheth. We may presume that people would vow to sacrifice their children to obtain certain favors. When the time for the sacrifice came, people would gather in the open compound of the sanctuary, where they would face the statue of the god. From ancient writers we know that it must have looked like a standing bronze figure. Inside, the figure was hollow, so that it could serve as a furnace. There was probably a hole at the back of the pedestal so that a fire could be lit that would make the whole statue red hot. People would dance and sing. Then the child would be taken from its mother’s arms. Sometimes it may have been stabbed to death; at other times it may have been offered alive. In both cases the body of the child was put on the outstretched arms of the idol, arms that were red hot. Possibly there was a hole in the belly of the idol, too, so that the child would slide or roll down along the arms to disappear into the fire inside. We may well imagine hearing the screams of the child – and its mother!
This practice endured for at least four centuries. When Solomon turned to the worship of foreign gods he built the shrine to Melek at Topheth (950 B.C.). A hundred years later the deuteronomistic lawgivers complain:
“Do not worship the LORD your God in the way they worship their gods, for in the worship of their gods they do all the disgusting things that the Lord hates. They even sacrifice their children in the fires on their altars (Dt 12:31).”
Again, a hundred years later, we read how King Ahaz (736-716 B.C.) also followed this practice:
“He even sacrificed his own son as a burnt offering to idols, imitating the disgusting practice of the people whom the LORD had driven out of the land as the Israelites advanced (2 Kgs 16:3). ”
Of King Manasseh (687-642 B.C.) the same is said (2 Kgs 21:6). Fifty years later the prophet Jeremiah has this to say:
“In Hinnom Valley they have built an altar called Topheth, so that they can sacrifice their sons and daughters in the fire (Jer 7:31).
They have built altars to Baal in Hinnom Valley, to sacrifice their sons and daughters to the god Molech (Jer 32:35). ”
The sanctuary was destroyed by King Josiah (640-609 B.C.) in his sweeping reforms:
“King Josiah also desecrated Topheth, the pagan place of worship in Hinnom Valley, so that no one could sacrifice his son or daughter as a burnt offering to the god Molech (2 Kes 23:10). ”
Yet 50 years later Ezekiel still speaks about it:
“You took the sons and daughters you had borne me and offered them as sacrifices to idols. Wasn’t it bad enough to be unfaithful to me, without taking my children and sacrificing them to idols?” (Ez 16:20-21). ”
The abominable practice at Topheth was like an incurable disease.
The Cruel God
Why? I have often asked myself. Why this unbelievable cruelty? Did parents not love their children? They did, as much as parents today love theirs. Jephthah’s heart was broken when he offered his daughter. Yet he killed her! What was stronger than his pity and his sorrow? What was it that made generation after generation go to Topheth to see their children’s flesh singe in the arms of Melek? What power did Melek, that flaming monster, hold over people?
Perhaps I saw the answer in Tirupathi in the south of India. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims go there every year to redeem vows made to Venkateshwara. They go the last miles up into the Tirumala hills on foot. They take a bath in the holy pond, then pay a visit to the idol itself. Ten feet high it stands, with its dark and ugly face, that mask of cruelty and silent anger. Looking at the idol I shuddered. I felt I stood face to face not with God, but with a parody of divinity, with the cruel, relentless, heartless avenger-god we have made of him. Outside the temple in the barbers’ hall I watched in horror and fascination as women had their beautiful hair cut off. I remembered that offering one’s hair became a substitute for human sacrifice; an improvement, no doubt, but retaining the same cruel streak of destroying something beautiful belonging to oneself.
The child-sacrifices to Melek, the pilgrimages to Lord Venkateshwara, the worship of the goddess Kali, are like a bad dream to me. They bring out something very deep from my subconscious. How shall I give expression to it in words? I believe God is good, yet deep down inside me is an unspoken, unreasonable fear of him. The fear is this: One day or another he will extract a terrible price for his goodness. One day or another he will make me suffer, make me lose something I hold precious. He is, after all, God, and I am nothing. If I am lucky, he will not take everything; he will leave me at least part of what I treasure. That is why, if I am a woman, I may offer him my flowing tresses, so that he may allow me to keep the health of my children. If I were an Israelite, I might be prepared to sacrifice my beloved child to him to preserve the lives of the rest of the family. But if I am enjoying life and the good things he has given me, I feel an unease deep within myself, in the pit of my stomach, for I know he has not yet struck and made me pay the price.
This human fear, which I am sure every religious person has to face, was present in Israel too. With them, it was a collective fear. It was a fear that naturally arose from paternalistic authority structures and from the ancient covenant’s stress on curse and punishment. The god Melek, that cruel brass monster that stretched out its arms to grab children and swallow them in its fiery belly – what else is it but an archetype of the hardness projected onto God? And archetypes, we know from Jung, crop up in our dreams and may have a healing function.
God is not a monster. He did not want human sacrifice, as prophets and lawgivers pointed out time and again:
“Don’t sacrifice your children in the fires on your altars….The LORD your God hates people who do these disgusting things” (Dt 18:10,12).
“They have built altars for Baal in order to burn their children in the fire as sacrifices. I never commanded them to do this; it never even entered my mind” (Jer 19:5).
“If anyone gives one of his children to Molech and makes my sacred Tent unclean and disgraces my holy name, I will turn against him and will no longer consider him one of my people” (LV 20:3). ”
The language is unusually emotional in all these texts. The practice is disgusting; it makes God’s sanctuary unclean; it disgraces God’s name. God hates people who act thus. The thought of wanting human sacrifice never even entered God’s mind! In other words, the practice springs from humankind itself, from confused thinking, from distorted ideas of what God wants. The practice could not be uprooted by threats and punishments – as history bears out – it could only be uprooted by a healing in people’s minds.
Psychology tells us that dreams can heal, if they are properly understood and if their contents are faced with honesty. The monster Melek should not be suppressed in our dreams; it should be faced and confronted. Is Melek my God? Is it he I fear and worship in the hidden anxiety of my subconscious? Why does he have a hold on me? What is the cause of my fear, or my distorted vision of God? Am I projecting onto him my experiences of unexpected loss and suffering? Am I attributing to God traits of cruelty and vindictiveness I have seen in my parents or other authority figures of my childhood? What are the bits and pieces of my early experiences that have helped to build up my concept of God? Are there feelings, perhaps, that need to be adjusted in the light of my later understanding of God? If we examine these questions sincerely, they will gradually reveal aspects of our religious life we may never have been aware of. As we begin to recognize the place of Melek in our emotions and our subconscious mind, we can extricate ourselves in stages from his stranglehold.
The process of healing may also involve a better understanding of Christian theology. There have been theologians in the past who have constructed a theory of redemption which is not much better than a baptized version of Melek doctrine. Their presentation of the history of salvation could be expressed in terms such as these: Mankind had sinned. God was looking for a way to redeem us from this sin, but his strict sense of justice had to be satisfied first. In other words, God could not simply forgive sins through an act of mercy; satisfaction had to be offered to his justice. God decided to solve the problem by making his own Son assume human nature and die a violent death. Through his bloody sacrifice Christ paid the price on behalf of all. Only then could God forgive sins and receive us back as his children.
The origins of this theology lie in the Middle Ages. The word justice – used in St. Paul’s letters – was understood in legal terms, not in the sense of “making holy” intended by Paul (see Rom 3:21-26). It misunderstood the notion of vicarious suffering expressed in Deutero-Isaiah and applied to Jesus (Is 52:13 – 53:12). It gave a wrong meaning to the way in which Jesus’ death is said to be the will of the Father (Mt 26:3643) and misrepresented what Peter said about Jesus “having paid the price” (1 Pt 1:18-19). It is not difficult to see how all these texts, if not properly understood, could lead to the theory mentioned above. All the more so if the unconscious concept of God accepted by these theologians was somewhat tainted by the “Melek” syndrome!
Grace and Free Gift
The theological construction above is wrong, first of all, because the idea of human sacrifice giving God satisfaction goes contrary to what scripture teaches about God. “Such an idea never entered my mind!” we read in Jeremiah three times. How could we expect God the Father to do to his beloved Son what he abhorred in the parents of Israel? Secondly, redemption would become a deal instead of being a free act of mercy. The point of the salvation brought through Jesus is precisely that it is a free gift of God the Father, not based on wages of any sort. Thirdly, if Jesus’ death on Calvary were the price which he paid to satisfy his Father’s justice, why was his resurrection equally important for redemption? If Jesus’ death were the sacrifice that satisfied his Father’s anger, we would have been saved also without the resurrection. Yet without the resurrection, St. Paul tells us, “your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17).
How then should redemption be understood? Jesus, the only-begotten Son, the Word of God, became a human being. He brought us grace and truth, because no one had ever seen God, but he had. He made the Father known. And to those who believed in him, he gave the right to become God’s children. From an analysis of John 1:1-18 it is clear that Jesus saved us by a gift of his life. He saved us by becoming man and by extending his own life to those who joined him in faith. A similar picture emerges from reading that other summary of Jesus’ salvific function in the high-priestly prayer of John 17.
Not My Will But Yours Be Done
What then about Jesus’ death and resurrection? Jesus’ crucifixion was a crime. Jesus calls it a sin and repeatedly protests his innocence. In that sense it was not willed by God and could not be willed. But for Jesus to be true to his mission, he had to stand by his disciples to the end. He was not like the hired shepherd who runs away in the face of danger. He was ready to die for his sheep. This readiness of Jesus to die was pleasing to his Father; in that sense it was the Father’s will.
“The Father loves me because I am willing to give up my life, in order that I may receive it back again” (Jn 10:17). ”
Jesus’ death, which resulted from hatred and sin, became, in fact, the highest expression of his human love. The greatest love a person can show is to give up life itself for another. That is why God chose it to become the turning point in Jesus’ redemptive life. Just as the passover sacrifice marked the Exodus and the old covenant, so Jesus’ death was seen as the sacrifice marking our exodus from sin and the conclusion of the new covenant. Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated our new existence under direction of the Spirit (Jn 14:15-31).
The song of the “suffering servant,” Is 52:13 – 53:12, which was so important for Jesus and the early church in explaining his death and resurrection, confirms this interpretation. An innocent man is condemned to death. He suffers terribly. But he is a special person because he lives and prays for others. That is why God decides to use this suffering to bring forgiveness:
“It was my will that he should suffer; his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness….
After a life of suffering he will again have joy;
he will know that he did not suffer in vain…. He willingly gave his life
and shared the fate of evil men.
He took the place of many sinners
and prayed that they might be forgiven” (Is 53:10,11,12). ”
But Jesus’ suffering was preordained by God, you may object. Isaiah 53:10 states: “It was my will that he should suffer!” And in Gethsemane Jesus clearly accepts suffering and death only because it is his Father’s will. Thus the Father wanted Jesus to die in order to make his death the sacrifice for all.
Yes, it was the Father’s will, and yet, it wasn’t! How is this explained? It was not the Father’s will in the sense that he wanted that death itself, as something determined by his absolute will. As we have seen, he could not want it like that because it involved a sin. And God cannot contradict himself by wanting an evil thing. But when the option of death faced Jesus as a consequence of being faithful to his mission, then the Father wanted it. Because he wanted Jesus to be faithful.
Suppose a young man joins the army. He attains the rank of lieutenant. War breaks out. He hears that he may be sent to the front line in the near future. In those circumstances he writes his father this letter:
“Dear Dad: When I left home both you and Mother asked me to look after myself and not to risk my life without need. I know they will ask for volunteers from among the officers to lead the next infantry attack. I feel it may be my duty to volunteer, even though it will expose me to enemy fire. What do you want me to do? Should I die for my country?”
I imagine that the father would send this reply:
“My Dear Son: You know that your mother and I love you dearly. Every day we pray for your safe return. Nothing would shock and sadden us more than losing you. But if your duty, if the freedom of our country requires it, we want you not to be afraid. Dying with a good conscience is better than living as a coward. We want you to be faithful to your task, even if it means death.”
“This is exactly what the scriptural texts are saying about the Father and Jesus. “I am the good shepherd….The Father loves me because I am willing to give up my life” (Jn 10:11,17). ”
I don’t want to turn this chapter into a treatise on New Testament theology. A study of Pauline theology will confirm what we have seen from the Johannine writings. Jesus saved us by his whole life. His rising to life is just as important as his dying; we share in both. Jesus’ entire life expressed his self-gift of emptying and obedience. The letter to the Hebrews explains how Jesus is our new high priest. The sacrifice he offered on our behalf was: “Here I am to do your will, O God” (Heb 10:7). The gift of himself, resulting in his death, became the supreme sacrifice of reconciliation that fulfilled and replaced all other sacrifices.
“So God does away with all the old sacrifices and puts the sacrifice of Christ in their place. Because Jesus Christ did what God wanted him to do, we are all purified from sin by the offering that he made of his own body once for all (Heb 10:9-10). ”
It is obvious that, once we have the fundamental picture right, we may then speak of Jesus’ meriting redemption for us, of “paying the price with his blood,” and so on. But such expressions are only valid if they presuppose the biblical teaching that Jesus saved us through his whole life and that his death was the culmination of his gift of self. God is not a Melek!
God of Mercy and Compassion
There is good reason for us to remind ourselves of the fact. Church history provides many sorry episodes which demonstrate cruelty and hardness among Christian leaders. There have been times when thousands of so-called witches were burned at the stake – among them children of eight or nine! These killings were condoned by priests, theologians, bishops, even some popes. We know now it was all a terrible mistake, that practically all these people died innocently; and that, in any case, the penalty inflicted on them was barbarous. How could such a thing happen among Jesus’ own followers? I am convinced that one factor is a misguided concept of God. The blindness of heart and lack of mercy derive ultimately from the subconscious conviction that God has such a hard streak himself. Is he not the God who could even send his own Son to die on the cross? they would think. He may be a God of love on the surface, but underneath and in reality he is a hard God, a God who demands full payment, a God who wants to see blood! Without knowing it, they were worshipping Melek!
When we read the Old Testament with such dimensions in mind, it becomes extremely relevant. Our concept of God is so basic to our whole life, our faith, our service, our religious commitment, that we always need to purify and perfect it. Our concept of God will also determine the sickness or health of our Christian togetherness as a community. Even a simple – or seemingly simple – story like the one of Abraham’s sacrifice opens up far-reaching perspectives.
“Take your son,” God said, “your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much, and go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you, offer him as a sacrifice to me” (Gn 22:2). ”
For me here the dream takes over again. I feel in myself Abraham’s tension as he goes on his way to execute the command. He is prepared to do whatever God wants him to do – as I would like to be prepared. But he wrestles with the contradiction of a loving God, who himself promised a numerous offspring through Isaac, making this impossible demand – as I fear deep down in me that God might be like Melek, demanding a price. And then the resolution. God is not a Melek. “Don’t hurt the boy!” However God does appreciate the willingness to give what he will never demand: “You have not kept back your only son from me” (Gn 22:12). What seemed a contradiction, loving his son and loving God at the same time, proves not to be contradictory at all. What a healing in Abraham’s love; what a healing it can be for me, for my love.
When Abraham was preparing to offer Isaac, he was confused. But whatever he did was out of love. Perhaps – putting it in a very human way – God, too, was “confused” when his Son had to face death. But he was prepared to let it go through because he could make it the greatest gift of love.
“If God is for us, who can be against us? Certainly not God, who did not even keep back his own Son, but offered him for us all! He gave us his Son – will he not also freely give us all things? (Rom 8:31-32). ”
This is not a cruel God demanding satisfaction. It is a loving Father who revealed to us, through the love of his Son, that he is pure love. “God is light, and there is no darkness at all in him” (l Jn 1:5).