Friday, February 25, 2011

Religious Logic and Child Sacrifice

This week a woman in Illinois was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for stabbing her six year old daughter to death. When the authorities showed up they found the body in a room with a butcher knife and a picture of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The little girl had been stabbed eleven times in the neck and chest.

Eleven times.

After the mother did this she attempted suicide by slitting her wrists but a neighbor called the cops before she could bleed out. At first her story was that she murdered her daughter in self-defense. However, she later admitted that the real reason was because she feared the little girl was possessed by demons. Allegedly the only evidence for this was a case of sleep walking, an entirely common phenomenon especially in children.

I've written about this elsewhere in an essay called "Religion and Mental Illness" but I feel compelled to reiterate this point because, unfortunately, crazy people are still killing their children because of unfounded beliefs in demons, possession, spirits and gods.

What I simply do not understand is why religious people can call the story of Abraham and Issac a tale of heroic faith and yet share my disgust when a woman stabs her poor child to death. How can these people claim to get their absolute morality from a book containing a story of premeditated child sacrifice and then have any logical coherence when condemning this sort of thing in the modern world.

We both likely agree that this woman is, at best, mentally ill and unfit for society. My question to the Christian is: why do you believe this?


Gray said...

Hello Clint,

I'll take a stab at this...(going too far?)

You have to remember that Abraham didn't write that story, nor did Isaac. If you want to be conservative Moses wrote it. If not, then you could say an "editor" wrote it later in Israel's history.

Whoever wrote it, it was written later in Israel's history. The pentateuch was written for the people of Israel who had just come out of Egypt and were wandering in the desert. These people have already received God's law to not murder (Ex. 20, Deut. 5) and also, more explicity, they have been commanded NOT to sacrifice their children (Lev. 18:21).

So, when an Israelite is hearing this for the first time, we can reasonably assume that they were thinking "There is no way that this is going to end in a child sacrifice because we know this is not God's character." Or something like that...

From Abraham's perspective, he has not been following YHWH for very long. For all he knows, this YHWH is a god who demands sacrifice of children. After all, other gods in Canaan like Molech do require sacrifice of children.

So the climax of the story illustrates to Abraham that this is not who YHWH is. He is not a God who requires child sacrifice. In fact he abhors it and makes a law against it.

How much more, then, does it serve as a polemic against child sacrifice for the original hearers (later Israelites) who are about to enter the promised land.

Does that make any sense to you?

Robert said...

...I'll bite.

First of all, we should agree that this event is not normative. It's a "man bites dog" story.

Secondly, we're not given hard evidence that she was mentally ill (I'm not ruling it out). This is deductive conjecture. Your conclusion (unfit for society) suggests that the authorities did society ill by stopping the suicide btw.

Thirdly, obedience to God through sacrifice and capital punishment are not murder. Murder, in the biblical sense, contains a prerequisite of disobedience. But, how do we know this person was not "called" to do this? B/c there are specific mandates for these types of calling. In the case of the capital punishment, it is the state (king/judge) authority to execute this mandate through due process. In the other case (sacrifice), God has only (arguably) mandated the sacrifice of one human in biblical history. In short, there is a substantial biblical argument that God doesn't use special revelation to call people to kill their kids.

Historical evidence suggests child sacrifice, suicide and desecration of religious objects are consistent with the liturgical tradition of black mass (usually an inversion of catholic mass).

There is also a tradition of the use of magic in Hispanic Catholicism (Curanderismo) and African (Loa) as well.

So, given the non normative nature, the few details of the police report made public, plus the likelihood of a history of ritual magic, I'd say there's definitely smoke indicating demonic involvement (with the mom). Likewise, there is likelihood of illness as well.

Clint Wells said...

Gray - I'm not even sure that Abraham, Issac or Moses even existed, let alone wrote any books. I understand your points and have some criticisms.

1. Abraham may have been stopped at the last minute by the angel. However, my fundamental point about mental illness stands. If your friend, for example, did the exact thing that Abraham did (including relenting at the last minute) you would still likely consider that person mentally deranged. There is a logical dissonance between accepting Abraham and rejecting his modern equivalent.

2. As you very well know, the story of Abraham is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus. And what was the sacrifice of Christ? Depending on your particular tradition, it was an eternally premeditated act of ritualistic child sacrifice.

3. The story of Jephthah in Judges 11 tells us that while overtaken with the holy Spirit Jephthah made a vow to offer as a burnt offering the first thing that came through his doors to greet him. That first thing was his daughter. She is quoted as saying:

"My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon."

And then, of course, it is done without a word from god who allegedly "abhors" child sacrifice.

Psalm 137:9 even tells us, "happy is the man who dashes the infants of Babylon against the rocks." This isn't ritual child sacrifice, but it is surely an instance of condoned child murdering. The conquests of Moses and Joshua often boast of the mass genocide of children.

I think these points illustrate that not only did you fail to answer my initial question, but your answer only makes the Bible seem that more self-contradictory and ridiculous.

Clint Wells said...

Robert -

1. While it is true that most mothers do not kill their children with variable religious correlations, the fact remains that it happens enough to warrant this discussion.

2. The authorities didn't necessarily stop her suicide attempt. Her suicide attempt failed. Further, many criminals who are unfit for society are systematically killed via capital punishment, which is okay with me. I'm not sure what your point is.

3. I understand this point. However, once you admit that (although rare) this kind of thing is not out of the question with god it becomes a slippery slope when deciding colloquially the appropriate parameters for divine justification. Perhaps God only intends to command the killing of two people in all of history and this little girl was one of them. How can you prove that this is not true? Again, this point is logical incoherence.

Regarding your final comments about demon possession, it is precisely this kind of talk that I'm criticizing whether its for or against a particular religion.

Positive beliefs matter and, in this case, there is a strong correlation between a positive belief in demons and possession with the murder of an innocent girl.

Gray said...


Thanks for your thoughtful response.

In answer to your question about my friend who might set up a mock sacrifice, I totally agree. If someone were to act this out I would do more than question their mental stability. BUT, I would also question their mental stability if they insisted on pre-arranged marriages of their children, or if they decided to build a series of altars, or any number of things in the Old Testament. Modern equivalents to biblical stories must account for cultural differences.

Like anything else, the OT is a culturally based document. Abraham didn't live in a time where child sacrifice was abnormal. He came from pagan, pantheistic stock. I think that is the point of the story. God saying, "you expect me to demand this ultimate act of obedience, but I am not like these other gods."

As to the biblical accounts you mentioned, I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I have wrestled with some of them so here are my thoughts.

1. I do not think that the story of Abraham and Isaac is foreshadowing of Jesus' death on the cross. I think this is a popular Christian myth that has been talked about for centuries. To me, it is reminiscent of horrible allegorical preaching that seeks to find Christ under every rock and mountain in the OT. Other examples of these include David's choosing of 5 stones when he is about to meet goliath. The first stone was for courage, the second one for fortitude...the last for redemption etc etc. Or the story of Rahab's red cord that is symbolic of Christ's atoning blood. To all of these I say "blah." They do not do justice to the current text and there is no biblical warrant for making these connections. Speculation.

In the current case, I've heard this argument before that God is guilty of "cosmic child abuse." But this ignores the fact that Jesus offered himself willingly.

Gray said...

2. The case of Jephtha. You have to remember that the Bible does not condone everything that it reports. Also, God does not always intervene. Everything in the story of Jephtha demonstrates that he was a rash and idiotic man who was given to impetuous action. The story ends with the yearly memorial of Jephthah's daughter. All of Israel was saddened and shamed by his actions.

You might ask at this point, "If it was shameful and wrong, why didn't God intervene." I don't know the answer and I don't know why He didn't intervene with this woman who just recently killed her "demon possessed child."

But to ask that question is something entirely different than to ask, "Did God approve of this?" I don't think he did. He had laws against it.

3. Psalm 137. This psalm is a lament of being in slavery. The people of God are experiencing horrors. This is a poetic cry for God to look on their affliction and remember it. Its like a child wanting their Father to stick up for them.

The "baby dashing" bit, I believe is heightened poetic language of grief. I don't believe that it should be read literalistically any more than I believe the psalmists enemies' eyes are "bulging with fatness" (from a previous psalm) or that Solomon's "beloved" really had "breasts like a gazelle."

I hope you realize that these are answers I'm giving while backed in a corner, so to speak. These are tough issues and I don't claim to have simple answers to them. To me, these questions seem to have more blunt force because they are listed all together.

These are hard things to understand, but I think that the Bible builds a much stronger positive case for the importance of life, the value of familial love, and the importance of treating your children with respect and dignity. Sacrifice of children undoubtedly comes up in the bible; it was part of the culture. Yet I think it is more fair to understand the weight of evidence toward a positive view of life/children, than to pull up some unclear texts as normative.



Clint Wells said...

Gray - these are some very interesting points. I'm moving to Nashville today but I'll try and respond soon. Thanks.

Robert said...

Just for the record, I do believe that the stories Abraham, Moses and even Jephthah and the genealogies are all archetypical (illustrative of the new covenant). That is not to say they are purely allegorical.

I understand your frustration with the "mythology" of the spiritual realm. If I make no other point that this its: our epistemology of the unseen should be subject to our obedience to God's law and the authority of his church counsel.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The account in Genesis 22 of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son has been interpreted as God’s correction of the practice of human sacrifice among Abraham’s Horite people. The problem with this interpretation is that there is no evidence that the Horites practiced human sacrifice.

Jacques Kinnaer reports, "The earliest known example of human sacrifice may perhaps be found in Predynastic burials in the south of Egypt, dated to the Naqada II Period. One of the discovered bodies showed marks of the throat from having been cut before having been decapitated."-- Human Sacrifice, Jacques Kinnaer

Kinnaer also provides two definitions of human sacrifice:

"The ritual killing of human beings as part of the offerings presented to the gods on a regular basis, or on special occasions."

"Retainer sacrifice, or the killing of domestic servants to bury them along with their master."

For the first definition there is no evidence among Abraham's ancestors. Regarding the second definition, there is dispute among Egyptologists. Caroline Seawright has written, "Human sacrifice is not generally connected with ancient Egypt. There is little evidence of human sacrifice during most of the dynastic period of ancient Egypt... but there is some evidence that it may have been practiced in the Nile Valley during the 1st Dynasty and possibly also Predynastic Egypt.

Seawright is referring to subsidiary graves at Abydos, the burial place for the first kings of a unified Egypt. These were Kushite rulers. However, these were the graves of domestics and officials who probably died naturally, not the graves of servants who were sacrificed to serve the ruler in the afterlife. Even the most provocative National Geographic report has to admit that this is probable, lacking hard evidence that the ancient Nilotic peoples sacrificed humans.

Lacking evidence that Abraham's people (long before there were Jews) practiced human sacrifice, the account of the "binding of Isaac" must originally have had quite a different interpretation.

Abraham’s Horite people believed that a woman of their ruler-priest lines would bring forth the son of God. This was the promise mad eto Abraham's ancestors in Eden (Gen. 3:15). They called the promised Son “Hor” (Horus in Greek). The Horites were a caste of ruler-priests who were devotees of Hor. He was said to rise with the morning sun as a lamb and to set in the evening as a ram, mature and of full strength.

Isaac asked his father, "Here is the wood for the fire, but where is the lamb?" Abraham responded that God Himself would provide the lamb, but as the story goes, God provided a ram. The sacrifice of Isaac looked forward to a greater sacrifice, and is a prophetic foreshadowing of the eschatological event of Christ, and event that Abraham believed. This is why Jesus said to the rulers of Israel, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”

What did the ram’s appearing mean to Abraham the Horite in the context of Horite cosmology? He would have recognized this as a message about a future event. He would have understood that his son, though miraculously born and of the Horite lines, was not the one the Horites anticipated. That Son was yet to come.

Clint Wells said...

Alice - thanks for all of that information. I appreciate really do appreciate it.

The point remains, however, that binding your son and putting him on an altar to be mock sacrificed is a deplorable act. It is not a story of faith. It is a story of divine child abuse.

Alice C. Linsley said...

Yes, I agree it would be a deplorable act. But that is not what this story is about.