Last Saturday, in response to a controversial ad that ran in American and British newspapers earlier this month, a group of Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors placed an ad in The New York Times excoriating Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel.
Besides harshly condemning Israel for war crimes, they accused Wiesel of what they called “an abuse of our history,” for his ad, which featured the provocative headline:
Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago.
Now it’s Hamas’ turn.
All modern military and human rights issues aside, Wiesel’s ad is founded on claims about the Bible and Jewish tradition. And here it makes serious scholarly errors in the course of telling a story of Jewish exceptionalism, one in which Jews have outgrown savage ancient roots. But the story he tells and the conclusions he draws are in conflict with the scripture he draws from.
“[O]rganized and produced” by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s This World organization, the Wiesel ad retells the origins of both the Jewish and Arab peoples as the rejection of child sacrifice:
More than three thousand years ago, Abraham had two children. One son had been sent into the wilderness and was in danger of dying. God saved him with water from a spring.
The other son was bound, his throat about to be cut by his own father. But God stayed the knife. Both sons – Ishmael and Isaac – received promises that they would father great nations.
With these narratives, monotheism and western civilization begin. And the Canaanite practices of child sacrifice to Moloch are forever left behind by the descendants of Abraham.
Except they are not.
What does Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac have to do with accusations of child sacrifice and the anti-Jewish “blood libel”? Is this tactic, so long used to demonize Jews, now being turned against Arabs? And does Mr.Wiesel resort to it to make this statement against Hamas?
Wiesel’s story does offer a welcome embrace of both peoples as the children of two brothers, but it also implies that only the Jews learned God’s lesson to not kill children.
In my own lifetime, I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire. And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults indistinguishable from that of the Molochites.
As political “messaging,” Wiesel’s ad need not be scrupulous with texts as long as it makes its point. He accuses Arabs (“the descendants of Abraham”) of child sacrifice, while softening that unattractive and less-than-ecumenical accusation by implying that Hamas members aren’t “true Muslims,” but members of a “death cult” equivalent to the ancient worshipers of Moloch.
A reader familiar with ancient Hebrew texts might already detect a whiff of irony here. While in popular culture Moloch1 is a pagan death-god, in the Bible the only ones accused of killing children for Moloch are the Israelites themselves. Indeed, God’s rage at the Judahites’ child sacrifice is one of the reasons He destroys Jerusalem:
Because of all the evil of the children of Israel and of the children of Judah, which they have done to provoke me to anger… they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, where they offered up their sons and daughters to Molech — which I never commanded, or even thought of! [Jeremiah 32:32-35; compare Solomon’s shrine to Molech in 1 Kings 11:7 and later Judahites’ child sacrifice-sanctuary in 2 Kings 23:10].
To be sure, there is a tradition, far older than the Bible, of making food and drink-offerings to dead kings who are referred to as the malakūma (cognate with Molech), known from the second-millennium BCE Syrian sites of Mari and Ugarit, and there may be a connection with the late Phoenician term for human sacrifice, mulk. (While this is probably not what Wiesel was thinking of, it does put Alan Ginsberg on his side.)
But Wiesel goes much further in rewriting both the Bible and its theological meaning, which is what makes the ad truly memorable. Like many—perhaps all—powerful storytellers, Wiesel is ruthless with his source material. Part of fiction is taking what’s useful from old stories and experiences, and transforming them to serve a new purpose. For the price of losing some component of the past, it gains new relevance.
Here, however, one could say that the ad has sacrificed both Torah and Jewish tradition for its goal. In order to see why, it’s necessary to linger on the actual Biblical text.
What if child sacrifice was also Israelite?
According to Wiesel, at the beginning of their history, a monstrous force threatened the lives of both Jewish and Arab civilizations’ founders. So too in modern times, the parallel evils of the Nazi Holocaust and Hamas military tactics2 threaten the founders’ children.
In Wiesel’s telling the monster was the foreign Canaanite god Moloch, but according to the Torah, it was God himself:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ – Genesis 22:1-2, NRSV
2,000 years of responses, from the Epistle to the Hebrews to Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” expressed astonishment that God should demand the sacrifice of the son on whom His promise to Abraham depended.
Until Wiesel, that is, who avoids the beginning—and therefore what has always seemed to both Jews and Christians to be the point—of the story.
The second source of astonishment has been that Abraham would be courageous, passive, or nihilistic enough to actually follow such a terrible and apparently immoral order (scripture is silent on his motives and mental state). It’s Abraham’s uncomplaining acceptance of the grisly task of slitting his own precious son’s throat at God’s command that made him the prototype of the Jewish martyr and of Kierkegaard’s paradoxical Christian “Knight of Faith.”
But what if this was because the idea of child sacrifice was actually also Israelite, a concept they shared with their neighbors?
“The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep…” Exodus 22:29-30
As it turns out, the Hebrew Bible interweaves violently opposing threads on human sacrifice. Genesis 22 depicts Abraham as what we would call a religious fanatic. The story terrifies us at his willingness to do this awful thing, even as it stirs our sympathy for him (and, of course, for Isaac).
The plain fact is that some narratives in the Hebrew Bible assume that child sacrifice actually works, and one law in the Torah even requires it. Worse, other narratives depict God as commanding genocide during a war of conquest, and actually punish characters for not destroying every living thing in a city that has been “ritually committed to destruction” (ḥrm in the causative). Strikingly, this military-ritual concept was an actual piece of Iron Age West Semitic war ideology, and perhaps practice, since it appears in both the 9th-c BCE victory inscription of Mesha, king of Moab (Jordan), and the ~7th-c BCE victory inscription of Karrib-Ilu, king of Saba’ (Yemen).
More strikingly, Jews who were threatened with violence by empires, such as Rome, which they viewed as occupying powers, continued to ambivalently praise Abraham’s willingness to perform child sacrifice. A legend that first appears in 2 Maccabees 7 praises a mother and her seven sons for dying in order not to eat pork.
“Abraham, don’t let your thoughts grow proud! You bound one offering on one altar, but I bound offerings on seven!” – the mother in Yalkut Shimoni to Lamentations
In the middle ages, Jews threatened with conversion or death were said to kill their children and themselves instead, “sanctifying the name” of God with their sacrifice. The great scholar of medieval Hebrew literature Shalom Spiegel’s monumental The Last Trial shows how, by the time of the Midrashic collection Yalkut Shimoni, the mother’s sacrifice of her children has grown in stature to challenge Abraham’s own. Today, prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur still recall the terrible merit accumulated by Abraham.
This is why Wiesel’s reading is both irresponsible and unsound scholarship—an instance of a scholarly folk-theory about the evolution of Israel from its savage Near Eastern roots, rather than a legitimate scholarly interpretation informed by a full consideration of the sources.
Turning the Blood Libel on your opponent
In fact, not only does Genesis 22 not forbid child sacrifice in general, but one law in Exodus explicitly commands Israelites to sacrifice their firstborn, while many others throughout the Bible forbid it. Other cultures are clearer.
The ancient Indian Brahma Purana tells a different story about the same problem, which some Hindus remember as a childhood fairytale.
The great king Harishchandra was childless, so he went to the sacred Ganges river and prayed to Varuna to give him a child. Varuna agreed, but demanded that the boy must then be offered to him as a sacrifice.
Harishchandra managed to put Varuna off until the boy turned 16, after which the boy went off on his own and saved himself by finding a poor Brahmin willing to accept a thousand cows for his own son as a sacrifice. When the king realized he had to sacrifice the Brahmin’s son as a substitute, he was horrified, because his duty was to protect Brahmins.
After this a voice from heaven rang out, saying “There is no need for anyone to die” and explained that the power of the Ganges is such that no human sacrifices are needed if the sacrifice is performed there. It was then said that human sacrifice was banned. (There’s a darker version in the Aitareya Brahmana 7.13-18, where the sacrifice is the king’s own idea).
What’s amazing about the Hindu version in comparison to the Bible’s is that it makes the point that Genesis 22 very glaringly does not: namely, that “this is why we don’t sacrifice humans.” The narrators of Genesis were perfectly capable of giving ritual morals to their stories as demonstrated by the conclusion of Jacob’s brutal MMA bout with God:
That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle. (Gen 32:33)
The problem with Wiesel’s evolutionist moral, then, is not so much that it’s weakly supported (it’s still enshrined in out-of-date textbooks) but that he uses it in the course of turning the Blood Libel against a new opponent.
In fact, the Bible and ancient Indian scriptures are both torn and contradictory: while the Hindu story is clearer than Genesis about banning it, the Indian Dharmasutras do contain ancient, and perhaps mythic, rules for human sacrifice. The Prophets, meanwhile, look on it with horror, often as something that the Israelites learned to do from others; sometimes as something God himself, unbelievably, commanded them to do.
But the stories and laws in Genesis and Exodus are hardest for us because they don’t present a flattering picture. The real message of each cannot be that we’ve simply evolved beyond child sacrifice, because they mix commands in favor of it with those forbidding it. Rather, the message is in the tension between scripture’s contradictory contents: that we struggle with the desire to make others pay the ultimate price, but simultaneously capitalize on our horror of that desire by accusing others of harboring it themselves.
Wiesel once said that the Holocaust—which he witnessed and from which he brings such important testimony—is religiously equal to the revelation at Sinai. Cast in the role of the Holocaust’s Moses, it may be natural for Wiesel to bring new versions of scripture.
But for those of us strictly responsible to the text, removing God’s commandment—and thus the element of His responsibility—strips the story of its tension. Once again, the ad’s scholarly errors are emblematic of those who tell new stories of Jewish exceptionalism at the cost of old Jewish texts and traditions. A close look at the plain sense of scripture—which is sometimes terrible and sometimes incoherent—challenges this narcissistic new tale of exceptionalism in which both God and the Jews are inhumanly pure.
The revelation we get from reading our own scriptures deeply and honestly, and from reading other people’s scriptures alongside our own, is the same: the loss of this misleading innocence. The challenge that flows from understanding the original meaning of the biblical stories about child sacrifice is precisely to recognize our ancient desire to mythologize violence (including human sacrifice) while recognizing that violence and its victims are anything but mythic. What stories like Genesis 22 can never do is exonerate us from our own responsibilities toward any victim of that violence.
1 The ad contains a typo here, since the god-name associated with child sacrifice in the Bible is actually Molech, not Moloch, a rarer spelling that probably indicates the same name.
2 There is a lack of parallel in Wiesel’s example here, because he compares the Nazi extermination of Jewish children by means of Nazi death camps to what he describes as the Arab extermination of Arab children by means of Israeli artillery. In one, Nazi forces kill Jews because of their genocidal hatred of Jews. But in the other, Hamas forces do not kill Arab children—rather, they are claimed to be responsible for the Israeli bombings that caused the deaths of these children.