Many people are scandalized by the Old Testament. Mr. Richard Dawkins is a very well-known example. They say that it depicts a cruel, monstrous God. Similarly, they say that many atrocities were committed in the name of God and that ancient Israel was a blood thirsty nation.
Similar views can be found all across the internet.
A verse that is frequently quoted to argue that human sacrifices took place in ancient Israel, is Leviticus 27:29. It reads:
No one devoted, who is to be devoted for destruction from mankind, shall be ransomed; he shall surely be put to death. (ESV)
None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be redeemed; but shall surely be put to death. (KJV)
This, plus the Jephthah story are used to backup this claim. Is that correct, though? Is this the right interpretation of this verse?
Let’s see what some commentaries have to say on the subject:
Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers: None devoted, which shall be devoted of men.—Better, Every one banned, which shall be banned of men, that is, every one banned from amongst men, or every human being banned, is not to be redeemed. Like the cattle and the patrimonial estates, when once devoted to God by a vow of banning, the man thus banned by a vow comes irretrievably under the class of “most holy unto the Lord,” or one irrevocably withdrawn from the power of man.
But shall surely be put to death.—Not as a sacrifice to God, but, on the contrary, to be removed out of His sight. This is the apparent import of the passage, and seems to be confirmed by the melancholy narrative of Jephtha and his daughter (Judges 11:30). This seems to have been the interpretation put on the law in question during the second Temple, since it is embodied in the Chaldee Versions, which render the verse as follows: “Every vow that shall be vowed of man, shall not be redeemed with money, but with burnt offerings and with hallowed victims, and with supplications for mercy before the Lord, because such are to be put to death.” It is, however, supposed that this Awful vow of banning could only be exercised on notorious malefactors and idolaters as dangerous to the faith of the Israelites, that it could not be made by any private individual on his own responsibility, and that when such cases occurred the community or the Sanhedrin carried out the ban as an act of judicial necessity, thus showing it to be “most holy unto the Lord.” Accordingly, Leviticus 27:28-29 treat of two different cases. The former regulates objects “banned unto the Lord,” which differs from the vow of dedication discussed in Leviticus 27:2-8 only in so far that it is unredeemable, whilst Leviticus 27:29 regulates the banning enacted by the law itself (Exodus 22:19), or pronounced by the court of justice on a man who is irretrievably to be put to death.
Benson Commentary: Devoted of men — Not by men, as some would elude it, but of men, for it is manifest both from this and the foregoing verses, that men are here not the persons devoting, but devoted to destruction, either by God’s sentence, as idolaters, Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 23:15; the Canaanites, Deuteronomy 20:17; the Amalekites, Leviticus 25:19; 1 Samuel 15:3; 1 Samuel 15:26; Benhadad, 1 Kings 20:42; or by men, in pursuance of such a sentence of God, as Numbers 21:2-3; Numbers 31:17; or for any crime of a high nature, as Jdg 21:5. But this is certainly not to be understood, as some have taken it, as if a Jew might, by virtue of this text, devote his child or his servant to the Lord, and thereby oblige himself to put them to death. For this is expressly limited to all that a man hath or which is his; that is, which he hath a power over. But the Jews had no power over the lives of their children or servants, but were directly forbidden to take them away, by that great command, thou shalt do no murder. And seeing he that killed his servant casually by a blow with a rod was surely to be punished, as is said, Exodus 21:20, it could not be lawful wilfully to take away his life upon pretence of any such vow as this. But for the Canaanites, Amalekites, &c., God, the undoubted Lord of all men’s lives, gave to the Israelites a power over their persons and lives, and a command to put them to death. And this verse may have a special respect to them, or such as them.
Barnes’ Notes on the Bible: Devoted thing – The primary meaning of the Heb. word חרם chērem is something cut off, or shut up. Its specific meaning in the Law is, that which is cut off from common use and given up in some sense to Yahweh, without the right of recal or commutation. It is applied to a field wholly appropriated to the sanctuary Leviticus 27:21, and to whatever was doomed to destruction 1 Samuel 15:21; 1 Kings 20:42. Our translators have often rendered the word by “cursed,” or “a curse,” which in some places may convey the right sense, but it should be remembered that the terms are not identical in their compass of meaning (Deuteronomy 7:26; Joshua 6:17-18; Joshua 7:1; Isaiah 34:5; Isaiah 43:28, etc. Compare Galatians 3:13).
Of man and beast – This passage does not permit human sacrifices. Man is elsewhere clearly recognized as one of the creatures which were not to be offered in sacrifice Exodus 13:13; Exodus 34:20; Numbers 18:15. Therefore the application of the word חרם chērem to man is made exclusively in reference to one rightly doomed to death and, in that sense alone, given up to Yahweh. The man who, in a right spirit, either carries out a sentence of just doom on an offender, or who, with a single eye to duty, slays an enemy in battle, must regard himself as God’s servant rendering up a life to the claim of the divine justice (compare Romans 13:4). It was in this way that Israel was required to destroy the Canaanites at Hormah (Numbers 21:2-3; compare Deuteronomy 13:12-18), and that Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord 1 Samuel 15:33. In all such instances, a moral obligation rests upon him whose office it is to take the life: he has to look upon the object of his stroke as under a ban to the Lord (compare Deuteronomy 20:4; Galatians 3:13). Therefore, there can be neither redemption nor commutation.
It is evident that the righteousness of this law is not involved in the sin of rash or foolish vows, such as Saul’s 1 Samuel 14:24 or Jephthah’s Judges 11:30. And it seems hardly needful to add that sacrifice, as it is represented both in the Law and in the usage of the patriarchs, is something very different from consecration under a ban, though a tiring to be sacrificed might come under the designation of חרם chērem in its wider sense. The sacrifice was always the offering up of the innocent life of a creature chosen, approved, and without spot or blemish.
Matthew Poole’s Commentary: Of men, not by men, as some would elude it; but of men, for it is manifest both from this and the foregoing verses, that men here are not the persons devoting, but devoted.
Quest. Was it then lawful for any man or men thus to devote another person to the Lord, and in pursuance of such vow to put him to death?
Answ. This was unquestionably lawful, and a duty in some cases, when persons have been devoted to destruction either by God’s sentence, as idolaters, Exodus 22:20 Deu 13:15, the Canaanites, Deu 20:17, the Amalekites, Deu 25:19 1 Samuel 15:3,26, Benhadad, 1 Kings 20:42; or by men, in pursuance of such a sentence of God, as Numbers 21:2,3 31:17; or for any crime of a high nature, as Judges 21:5 Joshua 7:15. But this is not to be generally understood, as some have taken it, as if a Jew might by virtue of this text devote his child or his servant to the Lord, and thereby oblige himself to put them to death, which peradventure was Jephthah’s error. For this is expressly limited to all that a man hath, or which is his, i.e. which he hath a power over. But the Jews had no power over the lives of their children or servants, but were directly forbidden to take them away, by that great command, Thou shalt do no murder. And seeing he that killed his servant casually by a blow with a rod was surely to be punished, as is said Exodus 21:20, it could not be lawful wilfully and intentionally to take away his life upon pretence of any such vow as this. But for the Canaanites, Amalekites, &c., God, the undoubted Lord of all men’s lives, gave to the Israelites a power over their persons and lives, and a command to put them to death. And this verse may have a special respect to them, or such as them. And although the general subject of this and the former verse be one and the same, yet there are two remarkable differences to this purpose:
1. The verb is active Leviticus 27:28, and the agent there expressed, that a man shall devote; but it is passive Leviticus 27:29, and the agent undetermined, which shall be devoted, to wit, by God, or men in conformity to God’s revealed will.
2. The devoted person or thing is only to be sold or redeemed, and said to be most holy, Leviticus 27:28; but here it is to be put to death, and this belongs only to men, and those such as either were or should be devoted in manner now expressed.
Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible: None devoted, which shall be devoted of men, shall be redeemed—This is said, not of such men as are devoted to the Lord, as in the preceding verse; for it is not said here as there, “none devoted unto the Lord”, but of such as are devoted to ruin and destruction, for whom there was no redemption, but they must die; nor is it said, “which is devoted by men, but of men”, or from among men; whether they be devoted by God himself, as all idolaters, and particularly the seven nations of the land of Canaan, and especially the Amalekites, who therefore were not to be spared on any account, but to be put to death, Exodus 22:20. So in the Talmud (o), this is interpreted of Canaanitish servants and handmaids; or whether devoted by men to destruction, either by the people of Israel, as their avowed enemies they should take in war, whom, and their cities, they vowed to the Lord they would utterly destroy, Numbers 21:2; and of such Aben Ezra interprets the words of the text; or such as were doomed by the civil magistrates to die for capital crimes, by stoning, burning, strangling, and slaying with the sword. And this sense is given into by many; because the judges kill with many kinds of death, therefore, says Chaskuni, it is said “every devoted thing”, as if he should say, with whatsoever of the four kinds of death the judges pass sentence of destruction on a man, he must die that death; so Jarchi and Ben Melech interpret it of such as go out to be slain, i.e. by the decree of the judges; and if one says, his estimation, or the price of him be upon me, he says nothing, it is of no avail.
but shall surely be put to death—As the same writer observes, he goes forth to die, he shall not be redeemed, neither by price nor estimation. The Targum of Jonathan is,”he shall not he redeemed with silver, but with burnt offerings, and holy sacrifices, and petitions of mercy, because he is condemned by a sentence to be slain. “And of either, or of all of these, may the words be understood, and not as they are by some, as if Jewish parents and masters had such a power over their children and servants to devote them to death, or in such a manner devote them, that they were obliged to put them to death; for though they had power in some cases to sell, yet had no power over their lives to take them away, or to devote them to death, which would be a breach of the sixth command, and punishable with death; even a master that accidentally killed his servant did not escape punishment; nay, if he did him any injury, by smiting out an eye, or a tooth, he was obliged to give him his freedom, and much less had he power to take away his life, or devote him to destruction. Some have thought, that it was through a mistaken sense of this law, that Jephthah having made a rash vow sacrificed his daughter, Judges 11:30; but it is a question whether he did or not.
Taking into account all the available information we can gather from the Old Testament about human conduct, it hardly seems probable that this verse justifies human sacrifices. Such an interpretation is a gross misinterpretation of the facts. This must not cause any surprise, since the same thing has been done for centuries. Even apostle Peter commented on the same thing when he wrote: “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16). Plus, let’s not forget that this fact (the lack of understanding) was also prophesized for all those that do not have the right kind of heart, and our Lord Christ Jesus acknowledged it when he said: “Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive”. For this peoples heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (Mat. 13:15).
So, we do what we have to do, that is “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15) and let God do his part, that is, “give the growth” (1 Cor. 3:5).