Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Human Sacrifice and the Christian Carnival

This week's Christian Carnival is up at Rodney Olsen's blog. It includes my post on Literalism and the Ascension along with various and sundry others.

In particular, note Henry Neufeld's post on the many meanings of sacrifice, to which I would add the complication that our understanding of legitimate sacrifice has itself changed (thankfully!), and did so even within the ancient world. For instance, I've lately been enjoying an excellent series of lectures on Ancient Greek Literature. The one I listened to on my drive home last night discussed Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia at the beginning of the Trojan War, described with great pathos (and sickening detail) in the first part of Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy. A similar story, of course, appears in Judges 11, which describes with like pathos (though none of the gory details) Jephthah's sacrifice of his own daughter after a war with the Ammonites.

But the interesting this about both stories is how they indicate a shifting view of human sacrifice from the period described to the one in which the story is told. While Agamemnon and Jephthah apparently considered human sacrifice as an acceptable means of earning the god's favor, those telling their stories saw things quite differently, taking pains to build up sympathy for the victim. These, I think, can provide a model for our own reading of the more gruesome aspects of biblical history. Like Aeschylus and the unnamed author of Judges 11, we must tell these stories, not to excuse or encourage such acts, but precisely to reveal their tragedy. For we still live in a world that is willing to sacrifice its children (whether in the names of various gods, nationalities, or as a "choice"), and too often we are numb to its horror.


Anonymous said...

The nature of sacrifice is pain and loss. Without pain and loss there can be no sacrifice. For believers in the validity and effectiveness of sacrifice, such as God, the greater the pain and loss the greater the effect. The effect seems to be to appease something or to make equal in some way. My concern is knowing the difference between some sacrifice as show, futile sacrifice and necessary sacrifice. In other words, sacrifice as a demonstrative act to a higher power; sacrifice of any kind that is a waste, totally ineffective; sacrifice that is necessary for a desired result, such as the pain and loss of time that comes from working and studying long hours.

Hugh said...

The sacrifice Jesus made was trivial. He leapt up out the tomb, none the worse.

Ken Brown said...

But of course, if he was resurrected, then we can trust his promise that we will be too, in which case he's already done all he asks of us. Indeed, the whole point is that self-sacrifice is not then end of the story, but rather the beginning of a new one.

No one ever said sacrifice must have the last word, but I for one wouldn't take crucifixion lightly.

N T Wrong said...

Hi Ken,

You might also note Ezekiel 20.25-26, which is a criticim of the law Yahweh previously gave, which commanded Israel to sacrifice their firstborn. Which law is that? Exod 22.29-30.

There are other responses in the Bible to Yahweh's previous command to sacrifice children. This is not the only way in which later biblical writers dealt with an earlier god-given law now thought to be immoral. In other places they also denied that child-sacrifice was from Yahweh, and claimed that it was a ‘foreign practice’. And then again, they replaced the required sacrifice with a monetary redemption.

Ken Brown said...

NT Wrong,
You're exactly right. If you (or others around here) haven't read it, Jon Levenson's The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son offers a masterful presentation of the way child sacrifice was reinterpreted through the biblical and post-biblical period. I also discuss a similar case in this post.

N T Wrong said...


Ken Brown said...

Heh, I expected a groan! ;)