A Tale of Two Problems—Human Sacrifice and God’s “Bad Commands”: Jeremiah 7:22 vis-à-vis Ezekiel 20:25-26

Jeremiah and Ezekiel provide us with a glimpse into the theology of meso-exilic[1] Israel. With the Temple on the verge of being sacked and the people either in a foreign land or headed there soon, prophet and priest alike wanted to explain to the people how this had occurred. How could Israel, God’s chosen people, be overcome by a foreign God and foreign power? How could God allow this to a people who sacrificed to him and who allegedly followed his commands? Jeremiah, at first blush, appears to argue that God never did command the people to offer sacrifices; Ezekiel, on the other hand, appears to argue that God did indeed make the command to sacrifice but that He did this to “defile” the people and make them unholy (implying that they were no longer His people).

Jeremiah argues that God made no such command to offer sacrifices. “For when I brought your fathers out of the land of Egypt, I said nothing to them, nor gave them any command regarding burnt offerings and sacrifices.”[2] Bright argues that “It is unlikely…that it is to be taken either as a categorical rejection of the sacrificial system as such, or as a statement that there was no sacrifice in the wilderness.”[3] In other words, the words in this passage should not be taken literally. Craigie et al. argue along similar lines that Jeremiah was really condemning a form of sacrificing to God that was not approved of—namely, the fact that the burnt-offerings were being eaten by the worshippers (v. 21). Again, according to some interpreters, the passage is not to be taken literally.[4] On the other hand, Hyatt argues that scholars who run away from this issue are actually not reading Jeremiah the proper way, that is, literally. “[I]t is best to take Jeremiah’s words here at their face value and see in them his belief that the sacrificial system was man-made and not willed by Yahweh…”[5] According to Hyatt, then, Jeremiah is completely contradicting what Ezekiel has to say about sacrifices and what the Pentateuch has to say about them. This is the uncompromising message of Jeremiah against the Temple cult in Jerusalem.

Ezekiel, on the other hand, argues that all of the evil which befell Israel was bound to happen anyways because Israel chose not to serve God and did not follow all of the commands which he had commanded. Following a long section on rebuking Israel and its forefathers, Ezekiel states, writing in the first person for God, “And I also gave them laws not good and rules by which they could not live, defiling them by their gifts, in that they delivered up every first issue of the womb, so that I might desolate them, so that they might know that I am YHWH.”[6] Greenberg comments that the year is 591 BCE and that Ezekiel is arguing, according to his interpretation, Israel disobeyed God and that God, in his anger, decided to give Israel bad laws instead of good laws. “The shocking idea that God misleads those who anger him into sin, for which he then destroys them, already appeared in 14:9 (the misled prophet)…”[7] He further argues that Israel really did offer up their firstborn son in child sacrifice up to God! “These [bad laws] are then exemplified by child sacrifice, at once a murderous pagan practice and an abomination worthy of severest condemnation…[b]y this anti-gift, God only confirmed the people in their choice of laws countering God’s…”[8] Allen argues that these so-called bad commands were “[n]ot of God, they were given by God! Theologically the divine policy is akin to the role of prophecy in Isa. 6:9-10, where the prophetic word is given to seal the people’s fate by giving them an opportunity to add to their sin by rejecting that word. Judgment had already been passed and the gateway to life was locked by his providential judgment. The covenant goal of recognition of Yahweh, unreached by positive means (vv 5, 7, 12, 19, 20), had finally to be attained by a life-denying encounter with his judgment.”[9] These laws were not “of God” in the sense that they were “godly”; rather, these laws were simply given by God, for He knew beforehand that the people would choose evil instead of the good—thus bringing judgment upon themselves by means of freewill. In more blunt language, E. L. Allen put it this way: “In accordance with Hebrew usage, Ezekiel tends to ascribe to God whatever happens. Here he has in mind the perversion of religion at the entry into Canaan. He describes the evil practices which the newcomers took over from the original inhabitants. Most atrocious of these was the custom of child sacrifice. He carries this back to a definite divine command, though he modifies this by saying that the command was given as a punishment for previous sin.”[10]

It is quite obvious by now that scholars do not know what to do with these passages. In this paper, I will be arguing that there is no contradiction between Jeremiah and Ezekiel—they are both actually saying the same thing. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel acknowledge God as the giver of these allegedly “strange” and unappealing laws regarding sacrifices. Moreover, I will somewhat briefly put forth the argument that the law does not command the sacrifice of human firstborn children,[11] as some scholars have horrendously suggested.

Let us first begin by examining Jeremiah’s strange passage. Jeremiah uses the normal negating adverb לֹֽא  (“not”) followed by the verb דִבַּ֤רְתִּי (“I commanded”), making the normal translation read “I did not command…” However, לֹֽא is not always a negating adverb; it can also be used as a Hebrew idiom which roughly translates into “not-only.” Thus, the following translation would emerge for the introduction of Jeremiah’s words: “Not only have I commanded…” There are many such uses of לֹֽא in the OT where, if taken literally, the adverb would make the verse contradict what the rest of that particular verse demands to be so.[12] For example, in Exodus 16:8 the people along with the entire congregation murmur against Moses and Aaron and wish to stone them both. However, Moses replies that the people have murmured not (לֹֽא) against him and Aaron but against YHWH. The use of the לֹֽא would indicate, if taken literally, that the people did not murmur against Moses and Aaron. However, if it is an idiom—which it really is—then the verse states that the people murmured not-only against Moses and Aaron but also against YHWH. In Joshua 17:17 a very clear-cut example of the use of this particular idiom is given: “You [Joseph] shall have not-merely one portion.”[13] According to Whitney, “Thus did Joshua pronounce a blessing on the house of Joseph. If the ‘merely’ is to be omitted and the verse taken out of context, it could be misunderstood as saying that Joseph would not receive even one portion.”[14] All this goes to say that the use of לֹֽא does not indicate necessarily that the adverb negates any following verbs. Another such use of the Hebrew idiom is found in Ezekiel 16:47. In the passage, Ezekiel writes that Israel had not-only (לֹֽא) walked in the ways of their heathen neighbors but went above and beyond their corruption—so corrupt was Israel. If the לֹֽא is taken literally, the passage would contradict itself. In the crucial interpretive verse of Exodus 6:3, the use of the Hebrew idiom comes into play on a more significant scale. In reading the Pentateuch, one notices that the name of YHWH occurs quite frequently, appearing as early as Genesis 2. However, in Exodus 6:3 we read—literally—“ I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name [YHWH] I did not make myself fully known to them.”[15] This flies in the face of the entire Pentateuchal narrative! If taken literally the verse would imply that God did not reveal himself as YHWH to anyone prior to this incident in Exodus 6:3. However, we know that He did. If this is not the negating use of the adverb לֹֽא then this may be the Hebrew idiom meaning not-only. What further corroborates this is a passage in Genesis 32:29, where God changes Jacob’s name to Israel. God says that Jacob’s name is not (לֹֽא) Jacob but Israel. However, in Genesis 35:10, God[16] allegedly says “Your name is Jacob.” Whitney writes, “The qualification ‘not-only Jacob, but also Israel’ parallels that of ‘not-only Yahweh [YHWH], but also El Shaddai.’”[17] After dissertating somewhat at length about several other examples, Whitney comes to the passage in Jeremiah. He argues that the passage is “the most extreme criticism of the sacrificial system in Scripture.”[18] However, he continues, “This alone should make us cautious of founding too great a structure on it as a base.”[19] He argues that this “tradition of prophetic criticism of sacrifice” is as old as Hosea 6:6 and even 1 Samuel 15:22.[20] Thus, there is no reason for us to suppose, if this argument is to be taken seriously, that Jeremiah contradicts Ezekiel. This brings us to the final question: did God, according to Ezekiel, command the Israelites to offer firstborn children as sacrifices?

Ezekiel 20:25 uses the Hebrew phrase רָ֑חַם כָּל־פֶּ֣טֶר בְּהַעֲבִ֖יר (lit.: “in causing to pass over [i.e., “to sacrifice”][21] all the first issues of the womb”). According to Hahn and Bergsma, the passage does not necessarily refer to sacrifices offered to the god Molech simply because it uses the Hiphil form for עבר (this word is used in Ezekiel in contexts that have nothing to do with Molech). “Ezekiel himself uses the term frequently in contexts having nothing to do with such practices (5:1; 14:15; 20:37; 37:2; 46:21; 47:3-4 [3x]; 48:14).”[22] Moreover, they point out that Molech never required firstborn sacrifices. The Hebrew, if taken extremely literally, means “every opener of the womb.” In Exodus 13:12 we have the same expression followed by אָדָ֛ם בְּכֹ֥ור וְכֹ֨ל (“and all the firstborn of adam/man”), which are to be excluded from the sacrifices. This means that the passage “distinguishes human firstborn from ‘every opener of the womb’ in order to exclude them from being offered” and “the context makes clear that human sacrifice is not the referent.”[23] Lastly, “there is no biblical archaeological evidence for the practice of child sacrifice to the LORD in ancient Israel.”[24] Regarding Ezekiel’s comment that God gave the people “bad commands,” one can merely note that the ancient Israelites attributed virtually all activity to God—be it good or bad; however, it does not appear that the commands flowed out of God Himself, but rather these commands flowed out of the deuteronomic contractual covenant which the Israelites had broken. In breaking the covenant, the Israelites brought upon themselves the “evil commands” of God.[25]

Ezekiel and Jeremiah, it appears, are actually arguing very similar things. The people of Israel have abandoned God and have begun to serve themselves. They no longer follow God and his ethical categorical imperatives. They only “serve” God superficially; their hearts do not reflect God’s laws nor the goodness of God’s nature. Theirs is the “prophetic criticism” of gibberish forms of worship which merely pay lip-service to God and His demands. Isaiah 1 could be seen as a summary of both Jeremiah and Ezekiel’s statements: “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!” (v. 13) and “Stop doing wrong” (v. 16)[26] because what essentially God requires is the commitment to His ethical imperatives.

Such “prophetic criticism” is never too out of date. Even today many of us would fall into the category of the “sinful.” How many of us go to church simply because it is the sociologically complacent thing to do? On the other hand, how many of us actually come to God with an immediate sincerity that asks God to come into direct existential communion with us? The beauty of Jeremiah’s critique lies in what follows the critique itself. “Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you” (7:23).[27] The point of the passage is not to simply criticize, put down, and harshly condemn; no, the point is that God wills people to be His people and He wants them to merely obey His commands. Why? For out of the goodness of Him who offers good commands flows goodness itself. The critiques ends not with a curse, but with a blessing: “that it may go well with you.” The laws of God, as God sees them, are not burdensome or “bad” for people; they are actually good and life-giving.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

Bibliography

Allen, Leslie C. Ezekiel 20-48. Dallas, TX: Word, 1990. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.

Bright, John. Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 21. New York: Doubleday, 1964. Print. The Anchor Bible.

Craigie, Peter C., Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard. Jeremiah 1-25. Vol. 26. Dallas, TX: Word, 1991. Print. Word Biblical Commentary.

Greenberg, Moshe. Ezekiel 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Vol. 22. New York: Doubleday, 1983. Print. The Anchor Bible.

Hahn, Scott, and John S. Bergsma. “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26.” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004), no. 2:201-218.

Whitney, G. E. “Alternative Interpretations of לֹֽא in Exodus 6:3 and Jeremiah 7:22.” Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1, 1986): 151-159.

Footnotes:

[1] Jeremiah’s “Temple Sermon”—in which 7:22 feature—is dated to 608 BCE by many scholars, which is just prior to the Babylonian Captivity. However, the Assyrian dissemination of the Northern Kingdom (Israel/Samaria) had already occurred in 722 BCE. In other words, Jeremiah, here, is probably pre-exilic but his message is already similar to post-exilic messages; namely, why did evil overtake us, the children of Abraham? See Peter C. Craige, Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard, Jr., Jeremiah: 1-25, vol. 26, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1991), 119.

[2] Translation taken from John Bright, Jeremiah: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 21, The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1964), 53.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Craigie, Jeremiah: 1-25, 124.

[5] James Phillip Hyatt “Jeremiah: Exegesis,” in Jeremiah, vol. VI of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1956), 875.

[6] Translation taken from Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 22 of The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1983), 361.

[7] Ibid., 369.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 20-48, vol. 29 of Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 12.

[10]E. L. Allen, “Ezekiel: Exposition,” in Ezekiel, vol. VI of The Interpreter’s Bible (New York: Abingdon, 1956), 172.

[11] This is in reference to Ezekiel’s “first issue of the womb.”

[12] The following examples are taken from G. E. Whitney, Alternative Interpretations of לֹֽא in Exodus 6:3 and Jeremiah 7:22, Westminster Theological Journal 48, no. 1 (March 1, 1986):151-159.

[13]G. E. Whitney, “Alternative Interpretations,” 154.

[14] Ibid.

[15] New International Version (NIV).

[16] The name of God in this passage is elohim.

[17] G. E. Whitney,” Alternative Interpretations,” 156.

[18] Ibid., 157.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] The Hebrew expression הַעֲבִ֖יר  is in the Hiphil (causative) form (with a preposition בְּ) from the root עבר which means “to pass over.” This later became a euphemism for sacrifice.

[22] Scott Hahn and John S. Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good’? A Canonical Approach to the Theological Problem of Ezekiel 20:25-26,” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004), no. 2: 211.

[23] Scott Hahn and John S. Bergsma, “What Laws Were ‘Not Good,’” 212.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 205.

[26] NIV.

[27] NIV.

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