Does Leviticus 27:29 imply human sacrifices?

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the man thus banned by a vow comes irretrievably under the class of “most holy unto the Lord,” or one irrevocably withdrawn from the power of man.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).

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Θυσίασε πράγματι ο Ιεφθάε την κόρη του; Μια ανάλυση του Κριτές 11:31 / Did Jephthah really sacrifice his daughter? An analysis of Judges 11:31

Υπάρχουν ορισμένοι άνθρωποι, οι οποίοι ισχυρίζονται ότι ο Ιεφθάε πρόσφερε την κόρη του ως ανθρωποθυσία στον Θεό. Κατά συνέπεια, κατηγορούν τον Θεό ως τέρας, έναν αιμοβόρο Θεό που αντλεί ηδονή από τον πόνο, το αίμα και το θάνατο. Για παράδειγμα, ο καθηγητής Richard Dawkins στο βιβλίο του The God Delusion (σελ. 243) γράφει:

In Judges, chapter 11, the military leader Jephthah made a bargain with God that, if God would guarantee Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites, Jephthah would, without fail, sacrifice as a burnt offering ‘whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return’. Jephthah did indeed defeat the Ammonites (‘with a very great slaughter’, as is par for the course in the book of Judges) and he returned home victorious. Not surprisingly, his daughter, his only child, came out of the house to greet him (with timbrels and dances) and – alas – she was the first living thing to do so. Understandably Jephthah rent his clothes, but there was nothing he could do about it. God was obviously looking forward to the promised burnt offering, and in the circumstances the daughter very decently agreed to be sacrificed. She asked only that she should be allowed to go into the mountains for two months to bewail her virginity. At the end of this time she meekly returned, and Jephthah cooked her. God did not see fit to intervene on this occasion.

Είναι τα πράγματα όντως έτσι; Σας παρακαλώ διαβάστε την παρακάτω ανάλυση του καθηγητή E. W. Bullinger.

 Jephthah is introduced to us under the same title as Gideon, «a mighty man of valour» (Judges 11:1). Again, we have not to consider his history as a man, but his faith, which was of God. 

He was one who feared Jehovah. In his earliest words he calls Jehovah to witness; and he afterwards went and “uttered all his words before Jehovah, in Mizpeh” (v. 11)

His message to the king of Ammon (vv. 14-27) shows that he was well versed in the history of His people, as recorded in “the book of the Law”. He must have studied it closely and to some purpose; for he not only knew the historical events as facts, but he recognized them as being ordered by Jehovah.

He traced all to Jehovah. It was He Who had “delivered Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel” (v.21). It was Jehovah, God of Israel, who had disposed the Amorites before His people (v.23). What Jephthah and Israel would now posses was what God had given to them (v. 24). And it was Jehovah, the Judge, Whom he called on to judge between Israel and Ammon (v. 27).

Jephthah had heard the words of Jehovah as written down in the Scriptures of truth; and he believed them.

This is exactly an instance of what the Apostle refers to in Hebrews xi. He, too, knew the history which Jephthah believed, and the faith which conquered through God. This it is that gives Jephthah his place in this great “cloud of witnesses.”

When he had thus called on God to judge, we read: “Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah,” and we again note the words which this describe the action of the Holy Spirit in that dispensation (v.29).

In the power of that Holy spirit, Jephthah undertook the war with Ammon, and Jehovah crowned his faith by delivering the Ammonites into his hand (v.32).

This is the exceedingly simple account of Jephthah’s overcoming faith; and there is little to be added to it. He had simply read what Jehovah had done; and thus heard what He had said. He believed what he had thus read and heard, and this is quite sufficient to cause him to be placed among the “elders who received a good report” on account of their faith.

But in the case of Jephthah, as in no other, we feel compelled to go out of our way to vindicate (απαλλάσσω) him from what we shall show to be the unjust judgement of men.

His God-wrought faith must not be tarnished (αμαυρώνω) without the sure and certain warrant of the word of God itself.

Like Moses, Jephthah “spake unadvisedly with his lips,” but this does not touch his faith in what he had heard from God; his vow was made according to his zeal, but not according to knowledge. That he would sacrifice his daughter, and that God would not reprobate (αποδοκιμάζω) by one word of disapproval a human sacrifice is a theory incredible. It is only a human interpretation, on which Theologians have differed in all ages, and which has been reached without a careful examination of the text.

It is important to remember that the ancient Jewish Commentator Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1232) renders the words of the vow (Judges 11:31) very differently from the A.V (editor’s note: A.V. = Authorised version, KJV) and R.V. (editor’s note: R.V. = Revised version), and he tells us that his father Rabbi Joseph Kimchi (died 1180) held the same view. Both father and son, together with Rabi Levi ben Gerson (born 1288), all of them among the most eminent of Hebrew grammarians and commentators, who ought to know better than any Gentile commentator, gave their unqualified approval to the rendering of the words of the vow which, instead of making it relate to one object, translate and interpret it as consisting of two distinct parts.

This is done by observing the well known rule that the connective particle ו (vau, our English v) is often used as a disjunctive, (διαζευκτικό) and means “or”, when there is a second proposition. Indeed this rendering is suggested in the margin of the A.V.

The following passages may be consulted:

Genesis 41:44

“Pharaoh said unto Joseph, I am Pharaoh, and without thee shall no man lift up his hand OR foot in all the land of Egypt.”

Exodus 20:4

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, OR any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, OR that is in the earth beneath, OR that is in the water under the earth”

Exodus 21:15

“He that smiteth his father, OR his mother, shall be surely put to death.”

Exodus 21:17

“He that curseth his father, OR his mother, shall surely be put to death.”

Exodus 21:18

“if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, OR with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed”

Numbers 16:14

“Moreover thou hast not brought us into a land that floweth with milk and honey, OR given us inheritance of fields and vineyards: wilt thou put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up.”

Numbers 22:26

“And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand OR to the left.”

Deuteronomy 3:24

“what God is there in heaven OR in earth.”

2 Samuel 3:29

“Let it rest on the head of Joab, and on all his father’s house; and let there not fail from the house of Joab one that hath an issue, OR that is a leper, OR that leaneth on a staff, OR that falleth on the sword, OR that lacketh bread.”

1 Kings 18:10

“there is no nation OR kingdom, whither my lord hath not sent to seek thee.”

1 Kings 18:27

“And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, OR he is pursuing, OR he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.”

With a negative, the rendering “NOR” is equally correct and conclusive:

Exodus 20:17

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, NOR his manservant, NOR his maidservant, NOR his ox, NOR his ass, NOR any thing that is thy neighbour’s.”

Deuteronomy 7:25

The graven images of their gods shall ye burn with fire: thou shalt not desire the silver OR gold that is on them, NOR take it unto thee, lest thou be snared therein: for it is an abomination to the LORD thy God.”

2 Samuel 1:21

“neither let there be rain, upon you, NOR fields of offerings”

Psalms 26:9

“Gather not my soul with sinners, NOR my life with bloody men:”

Proverbs 6:4

Give not sleep to thine eyes, NOR slumber to thine eyelids.”

Proverbs 30:3

“I neither learned wisdom, NOR have the knowledge of the holy.”

We are now in a position to read and understand the word of Jephthah’s vow, where we have the same word, or rather the letter which represents it, in Hebrew.

“Jephthah vowed a vow (i.e., made a solemn vow) unto Jehovah,” which he had a perfect right to do. Such a vow was provided for in the Law which prescribed exactly what was to be done in such cases; and even when the vow affected a person (as it did here) that person could be redeemed if it were so desired. See Lev. 27 where in verses 1-8 it affected “persons,” and verses 9-13 it affects “beasts”; and verses 14-15 a house.

It thus seems clear that Jephthah’s vow consisted of two parts; one alternative to the other. He would either dedicate it to Jehovah (according to Lev. 27), or, if unsuitable for this, he would offer it as a burnt offering.

It should be noted also that, when he said “whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me,” the word “whatsoever” is Masculine. But the issuer from his house was Feminine, and therefore could not come, properly, within the sphere of his vow certainly not according to the literal meaning of his words.

In any case, it should have been unlawful, and repugnant to Jehovah, to offer a human being to Him as a burnt-offering, for His acceptance.

Such offerings were common to heathen nations at that time, but it is noteworthy that Israel stands out among them with this great peculiarity, that human sacrifices were unknown in Israel.

It is recorded that Jephthah “did with her according to his vow which he had vowed, and she knew no man” (v. 39). What has this to do with a burnt offering, one way or the other? But it has everything to do with the former part of his vow, in dedicating her to Jehovah. This seems to be conclusive. It has nothing to do with a sacrificial death, but it has to do with a dedicated life. She was dedicated to a perpetual (συνεχή) virginity.

To what else can the “custom of Israel” refer (v. 39, 40) when “the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite, four day in a year” (v.40).

The word rendered “lament” occurs only in one other passage in the Hebrew Bible, and that happens to be in this very book. So that we could not possibly have a surer guide to its meaning.

The passage is in Judges 5:11, “There shall they rehearse the righteous acts of Jehovah.” It means to talk with others hence to rehearse together.

This being done annually, the friends of Jephthah’s daughter went to rehears with her, this continued virginity of her life, and not to mourn over the past fact of her death.

We may conclude from the whole tenor of scripture, as well as from Psalms 106: 35-38, Isaiah 57:5 etc., that human sacrifices were abomination in the sight of God; and we cannot imagine that God would accept, or that Jephthah would offer, human blood.

To uphold this idea is a libel on Jehovah as well as on Jephthah.

We can understand Voltaire and other infidels doing this, though they reason in a circle, and depend on the two cases of Isaac and Jephthah’s daughter (which we dispute) to support their contention. Their object is clear. But what are we to say of the “higher” critics, most of whose conclusions are to be found in some shape or another, in the writings of French and English Atheists and Deists of the last century? On the other hand, it is worthy of note to remark how the enemy of God’s word has used even innocent persons to perpetuate traditions which bring a slur (όνειδος) on Jehovah’s works and words.

Milton’s words combined with Haydn’s music (The Oratorio of “The Creation”) have riveted the tradition on the minds of all that God created “chaos,” whereas “all His works are perfect” in beauty and in order.

Milton’s words, again, combined with Handel’s music (the Oratorio of “Jephthah”) have perpetuated the tradition that an Israelite father offered his daughter as a burnt-offering to Jehovah.

It is too much to hope that these words of ours can do much to break the tether of tradition with regard to either of the above important subjects.

There is Rutualism to contend with on one hand, but there Ritualism on the other; and so deep are the ruts, that only the strongest faith (like the strongest axles) can get out of them with success.

We need something of Jephthah’s faith in the inspired records of God’s Word and works. He believed what Jehovah had caused to be written in “the book of the Law.” He had read and pondered over those records of Jehovah’s words and works, or he could not have spoken so strongly and so truly of what had been written for his learning.

May it be ours to have a like faith, so that when we have to contend with those who oppose us, we may not depend on our own arguments or our own wisdom, but quote God’s Word written, and use “the sword of the Spirit” – the God-breathed words which are so profitable to equip the man of God, and all who would speak for Him, when we meet with those who “resist the truth.”

Jephthah had heard, Jephthah had believed, and Jephthah was one of that group of overcomers who conquered through God.

 

Τα παραπάνω είναι ένα κεφάλαιο του βιβλίου του E. W. Bullinger : Great Cloud of Witnesses: A Series of Papers on Hebrews XI, σελ. 324-331.