Human Sacrifice in the Bible

Steven Newcomb

Some Indian people these days disparage what they call a “victim mentality.” This is aimed at those of us who spend a great deal of time obsessing over all the destruction that our originally free nations and peoples have been subjected to during the past five centuries. Recently, it dawned on me that I have never examined the word "victim" in the dictionary.

In Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1965) we find:

victim [L. victima; akin to OHG w?h holy, Skt vinakti he sets apart] 1 : A living being sacrificed to a deity or in the performance of a religious rite. 2 : someone injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions. 3 : someone tricked or duped.

To help us make sense of this connection between the idea of a victim and the sacrificing of a living being to a deity, we can turn to the Bible. In The Holy Bible, New International Version, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan) we find the following in Deuteronomy 20: 16: “…in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.” A footnote at the phrase “completely destroy” reads: “The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord, often by totally destroying them.”

In this case, “persons” that have been “given over” to “the Lord” are those peoples listed above—the Canaanites and other peoples of the so-called "Promised Land"—that, according to the narrative, the deity of the Old Testament had "given" to his "chosen people" as an "inheritance." To understand why those peoples had to be exterminated and were not to be ransomed or sold into slavery we must turn to Leviticus 27: 29: “No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; he must be put to death.” At the phrase “devoted to destruction” an accompanying footnote reads: “The Hebrew term refers to the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the Lord” [for destruction].

The mention of those who were “devoted to destruction” takes us back to the word “victim”: “a living being sacrificed to a deity.” To devote the Canaanites and other peoples to destruction means that they were “dedicated” to ‘the Lord’ “by a solemn act.” A synonym for devote is “to consecrate,” which means “to devote irrevocably to the worship of God by a solemn act.” And “solemn” means, “marked by the invocation of a religious sanction,” which is “a formal decree; esp an ecclesiastical [church] decree.”

What this all adds up to is this: The Canaanites and other peoples of the so-called ‘Promised Land’ were considered to have been “irrevocably” given over or “devoted” to what the Bible terms “the Lord your God.” Anytime you dedicate a living being to a deity and then kill it, that living being becomes a sacrificial victim to that deity. Anytime you dedicate or devote human beings, including entire peoples, to a deity and then kill them, the human beings killed become victims of human sacrifice to that deity.

Consistent with the pattern in the Old Testament, the late biblical scholar Rousas John Rooshdoony, in his book The Institutes of Biblical Law stated: “The Bible does not condemn human sacrifice in principle.” He then quotes another scholar: “All Biblical sacrifice rests on the idea that the gift of life to God, either in consecration or in expiation, is necessary to the action or the restoration of religion.” Elsewhere, Rooshdoony says: “…the law required the extermination of the Canaanites.”

Defenders of the biblical narrative will no doubt say that the sacrificial extermination of the Canaanites and other peoples of the so-called Promised Land was "God’s" punishment for their ‘fertility cults’ and ‘religious prostitution,’ two slurs designed to rationalize human sacrifice by imposing a foreign judgment on those free peoples. As Rooshdoony put it, “The purpose of the [biblical] law is a land purged of all these evils.”

When the peoples of Christendom came to this hemisphere, their leaders looked to the Bible for guidance; it became their how-to book for colonization and domination. They considered themselves to be the new "chosen people," and our Indigenous lands and territories to be their "Promised Land." In keeping with the biblical analogy, they saw our originally free and independent nations and peoples as the Canaanites and other peoples of the ‘Promised Land’ who were, by further extension of the analogy, devoted and dedicated to their deity for sacrifice and destruction.

Steven Newcomb (Shawneee /Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

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michaelmack's picture
Thank you for this topic Steven because it touches upon the core issue that Euro-American colonists used to justify conquest, namely, their use of the Old Testament of the Bible as their "moral authority" for conquest. This usage reveals their failure - their disobedience (in New Testament terms) - to adhere to the teachings of Christ, which NEVER justified the aggressive actions of conquest or colonialism. Indeed, the New Testament tells Christians to "preach the gospel" ONLY. In other words, their Christian assignment was to, like Christian missionaries today, to visit non-Christians, teach them about Jesus, and then GO HOME! Nowhere does the New Testament allow Christians to move in, take over, and remake the people they mission to. But this is not what the Pilgrims and the other colonists did - rather, they had their sights on the land and resources - which is a DIRECT VIOLATION of what Jesus Christ tells Christians to do. In other words, the permanent settling of Euro-Americans who claimed to be Christians, was in direct disobedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and therefore, as practicing Christians, their disobedience removed from them any Christian moral authority. Unfortunately, this core moral issue has been left out of subsequent religious and legal discussions since the founding of the U.S. until today. In the 1823 Johnston v. McIntosh decision, which decided that the U.S. had power of American Indians, in which Chief Justice Marshall stated ... "[h]owever extravagant the pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest may appear, if the principle has been asserted in the first instance ... if a country has been acquired and held under it; ... it becomes the law of the land, and cannot be questioned." To me his "admission" of the pretense of legal justification for conquest, was an invitation to challenge it - unfortunately, Indian Country has never truly taken up the challenge to address this core issue. Unfortunately, Indian Country still acts as if Johnson v. McIntosh is above reproach - it ISN'T.
sierra's picture
It's a shame that those who live in the bible belt areas fail to realize that their written hand-held temples are but man-made written text which only a few short centuries ago, had only their clergymen with the skills to read and write. Perhaps, when European women came to realize how this kept the peasantry/masses down, downtrodden/subjected, and they tried to change their circumstances, that is in part why they were accused of being witches and were burned at the stake.
sierra's picture
Oh and hey Brian G, ya gotta fag?
abitibibob's picture
Hopefully, you're not trying to blame the Bible or Christianity. If the pilgrims thought it was their right to exterminate the Natives it wasn't because the God of the Bible told them to do so. Some may have THOUGHT that, but if so, they were mistaken.
briangwinn's picture
I had a dream, where God was a giant set of those wind up teeth. As the huge mouth opened and closed, a voice asked, "Come now, don't you want to be at one with God?" "What is the big set of teeth about?", I askeed. "Those are The Pearly Gates.", was the answer... So, all these genocidal massacres though-out history, perpetrated by the Empire Builders on the Tribal Peoples of the world, were actually done to do us a favour--- and make us be at one with God?.. Hmmm... As te Church Lady, on SNL used to say, "How convenient."
tebira's picture
What are you saying? That it's okay to victimize people? According to the New Testament, the crucifiction of Jesus was supposed to eliminate the need for further animal sacrifice.