Children in the Ancient World

Dear Folks,
This week we talk about the testing of Abraham, in which God tells him to sacrifice his son,
his only son, the son whom he loves. There is a lot to be said about this, but many people
ask how could Abraham do this? Why would he believe that God wanted him to do such a
terrible thing? It is important to remember that in Abraham’s time, what God was asking
was not at all unusual. It was very common for people to sacrifice their first-born sons to
Moloch, presumably in the hopes that they would get more children. What was remarkable
at the time was not that God demanded such a thing, but that He stopped it. What was
remarkable at the time about Abraham’s response was that Isaac was the son of his old age,
and it was a miracle (literally) that he was there at all. It was an incredible act of faith.
We tend to think that moral principles that seem obvious to us have always been obvious to
everyone, but much of what we take for granted had to be learned and developed over
time. In the Old Testament we see gradual development of thought. The Hebrews started
out being very like the people around them (as could be expected), and God lead them
along with more refined principles. It is easy now to look down on the notion of an eye for
an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but we remember it was a big step up. In Genesis 4:24,
Lamech says he will be avenged “seventy-seven times.”
God had to include in the Law of Moses “You shall not offer any of your offspring for
immolation to Molech, thus profaning the name of your God. I am the Lord (Leviticus
18:21).” It was not something that could be taken for granted. And it was not always
followed (2 Kings 3:27, 16:3, 17:17, 21:6. See Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 7:31; Jeremiah 32:35;
Ezekiel 20:26,31; Ezekiel 23:37). It is amazing how often that comes up.
Offering the first fruits of one’s produce to God is a Biblical concept (e.g. Exodus
34:26). The first-male of the livestock were to be offered, and the first-born sons were to be
consecrated and redeemed (Exodus 13:1-16). The presentation of Jesus in the Temple
(Luke 2:22-39) was in fulfillment of this command. The problem is when people see their
children more like products or possessions than people.
I once had a conversation with a woman in which we were discussing the ancient Aztec
practice of offering human sacrifice, cutting their still beating hearts out of their chests and
offering them to their god. She said that she couldn’t understand how people could do that,
that there would be something inside them that would say no. I said that we humans have
quite an ability to accept all sorts of things and mentioned how many abortions there were
every year. She said, “Oh, you’re against abortion? I’m not. We won’t talk about it.” I
didn’t push it, but I figured that she had definitively refuted her idea. We can be led to
accept anything if we are not careful (and perhaps even if we are).
Looking at history, there have been many times societies have set apart groups of human
beings as not worthy of respect, dignity, or empathy. The danger of this can hardly be
overstated. During our journey of Lent, perhaps we should be reflecting on how that works,
and how that might be happening now.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

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