The tenth plague in the Exodus story, the killing of all the firstborn children by the angel of death, has always been the most perplexing. It’s widely believed that the first 9 plagues were caused by some kind of natural disaster, which might have been the eruption of the volcano on Thera around 1626 BC. This could correspond roughly with the Exodus account, assuming that the Exodus comes on the heels of the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt ~1500 BC. If we assume that the Hyksos, who were Semitic, were more welcoming of a Semitic foreigner entering their ranks (Joseph), then perhaps this is the era under consideration.
Additionally the Ipuwar Parchment tells of a natural disaster which might correspond with the eruption of Thera, which covered the sky with grey ash and would have led to all kinds of ecological changes: frogs multiplying, additional pests, crops failing, etc. The parchment reads (taken from Shlain, 2009):
2:8 Forsooth, the land turns round as does a potter’s wheel.
3:13 All is ruin!
7:14 The residence is overturned in a minute.
2:5-6 Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere.
2:10 The river is blood.
6:1 No fruit nor herbs are found…
6:3 Forsooth grain has perished on every side.
5:5 All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan…
4:4, and 5:6 Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls.
All these correspond to the plagues, but the last one about the death of children of princes seems to have no natural cause. Shlain in Alphabet vs. The Goddess hints that this was due to stone structures falling down, but why only those of the children of princes? Why not the princes themselves?
I’ve always suspected that the 10th plague was an act of national child sacrifice in Egypt. Why would the nation do this en masse to their children? Or why would elites do it anyway? And why would it also affect the Hebrews, who prevent slaughted by performing the Passover sacrifice and putting blood on their doors?
It’s important first to describe exactly what “pass over” means in Hebrew. It has two translations. 1) “Avar”, used a thousand times in the Bible, meaning to cross over, as in the “Ivri” or “Hebrew” who “crosses over” (the Jordan river to the promised land, into a new life, etc.), as in the “angel of death ‘avars’ the Hebrews’ homes” sparing the children, and 2) “Pasach”, a little-used term that connotes moving across a threshold. Exodus 12:23 KJV reads:
EXO 12:23 KJV: For the LORD will pass through (וְעָבַר יְהוָה לִנְגֹּף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם – note the first verb root is “avar”) to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the LORD will pass over (וּפָסַח – note the verb is “pasach”) the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.
12:23 וְעָבַר יְהוָה לִנְגֹּף אֶת־מִצְרַיִם וְרָאָה אֶת־הַדָּם עַל־הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְעַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וּפָסַח יְהוָה עַל־הַפֶּתַח וְלֹא יִתֵּן הַמַּשְׁחִית לָבֹא אֶל־בָּתֵּיכֶם לִנְגֹּף׃
So the idea of the “angel of death passing over/’avar’-ing the houses” is mixed up with “YHWH passing over/’pasach’-ing the doorway”. The two are totally opposed. The angel of death avoids the houses, YHWH enters them. The passover is not to dodge death, otherwise the Jewish holiday would be called “Avar” or some cognate. Rather, the Passover is a threshold covenant meal with YHWH who “passes over” the threshold, hence the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach.” How exactly we came to this sad translation is beyond the scope here but it should give the Bible reader some incentive to study Hebrew. [Trumbull, Threshold Covenant]
What then is the purpose of the Pesach in the context of the volcanic eruption on Thera? If the Egyptians were like any other ancient society, they would have offered child sacrifices in the midst of a crisis, no different than Canaanites offering children to Molech, or Aztecs offering children to stop a temple from burning. Child sacrifice en masse is the ultimate offering to the gods, done out of sheer desperation, in order to mitigate a crisis. We might imagine that the Ipuwar Parchment’s “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls” is an allusion to the sacrificial killing of children, possibly the firstborn on exiting the womb.
The Hebrews were ordered by the monotheistic YHWH to offer the Pesach. The lamb might have been their first substitute for firstborn sacrifice. We see this with Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of Isaac who is replaced with a ram (though Tzemah Yoreh makes a compelling case that this story was, err, modified a bit…). The yearly Pesach is a reenactment of the replacement of child sacrifice with an animal sacrifice.
We see this trend continue in the Levitical law demanding a payment to “redeem” one’s firstborn, which is a monetary payment one makes BECAUSE child sacrifice is no longer allowed. Israel is literally paying its way out of the gross legacy of child sacrifice.
It’s difficult to know what exactly is factual about the Exodus account. My hunch is it’s a polemic written during the 2nd Temple era, when Jeremiah warns Israel not to make an alliance with Egypt, whose army is being destroyed in the Levant by the Assyrians (Egypt’s army was never any good back then). In short Jeremiah is saying, “The Egyptians are bad allies, stick with the Babylonian and marry into them and assimilate, and eventually good things will come.” Indeed good things come: the Persians beat the Babylonians and allow Israel to build the Second Temple, arguably the most important moment in Biblical and Jewish history. If Jeremiah was written after the fact, then that doesn’t change the import of the command. People who read the Bible need to read the Exile and 2nd Temple accounts, especially right now, with everything going on in Israel. (I’m always surprised at how little devout Christians know of the Bible. Atheists know it better than they do.)
We see other anti-Egyptian polemics in Solomon’s marrying an Egyptian who leads him astray, and Abraham cheating Pharaoh in the Genesis account. These might have been additional, later glosses done under Ezra’s authority.
As for human sacrifice, the Bible isn’t entirely against it, though it’s unfair to treat the Bible as a thing that can be against anything. Its books have many authors, and most of them are against human sacrifice, but it still crops up in a few ugly forms like Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter, or the king of Moab in 2 Kings 3:26 burning his son on the wall and the Israelites leaving in disgust (rather than, like, ignoring it and continuing the attack). There’s also the massacre of Saul’s sons in 2 Samuel 21, more an act of retribution, but their being “hanged before the Lord” demonstrates that they were some kind of votive offering. Of course, Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice Isaac is not evidence of a pro-human sacrifice stance, but if Yoreh is right and the story comes from an old Elohist fragment where Abraham DID sacrifice Isaac, the Yahwist redactor (likely Ezra) wanted to eliminate this for some reason, likely to push an anti-human sacrifice angle.
The anti-human sacrifice legacy doesn’t end with the Exodus. We see it in the rewriting of the Jonah story, which probably began as a “successful” sacrifice to prevent a sinking ship, but was rewritten clumsily to make Jonah pop back up onto land. For some reason the editors left in the original claim that Jonah’s being sacrificed to the water gods would quell the storm. Indeed, it works. Someone then attempted to further lighten the story by having Jonah actually ASK them to throw him into the water. This is a very typical retcon feature of human sacrifice literature: in the original story they murder a victim to mitigate a crisis, but in the rewrite the victim asks to be killed. The Greeks were guilty of this too. In Euripides’s 418 BC play we see Macaria, Heracles’ daughter, sacrifice herself to Demeter so the Argives can be defeated. Arguably, she would not have consented to this, at least not without some additional “substances” being offered, much how Aztecs entranced their victims to be less melancholic in the days leading up to being sacrificed. In another story, Iphigenia consented to being sacrificed to help the Greek fleet at Aulis, but at the last moment a deer was substituted by Artemis. And Jephtah’s daughter indeed consents to being murdered, but we shouldn’t believe this.
Murder retconning probably won’t go away. Certainly many of today’s stories of the deaths of innocent victims preceding advancements in technology will be retold in the future as stories of heroes asking to be immolated for the good of the world, science, etc. Many scientific experiments of the past, supposedly taken on by “willing” participants, should be suspect.
The Bible in its current form is a compendium of attempts to tell the truth about victims’ deaths. In the Biblical Jonah, the ship is saved, and the victim survives. If we were to give it another update, we would let the ship wreck after Jonah was thrown overboard, just to show how dumb the idea was to begin with.
We also see the debunking of human sacrifice in the Samson account too in Judges. Samson is conned by a woman into telling her how he derives his power. After 3 tries, she succeeds at learning his power comes from his long hair, and she has his hair cut off, which removes his power. He’s captured, blinded, but then breaks a column, sacrificing himself to bring down the building onto his enemies. This story structure is the same traditional structure as many fairy tales, except told in reverse. Traditionally, the Samson archetype is an evil wizard who is conned by the hero into revealing the source of his power, located under a tree in a box under a duck or whatever. The protagonist finds it, breaks it, removing the wizard’s power, ultimately allowing him to rescue the Princess, and kills the wizard. Samson is the first time we see the story told from the wizard’s perspective. Samson might indeed have been a wizard, since he kills 1000 people with a jawbone, certainly not an act of olfactory warfare but one of magic, as the dead’s jawbone contained the powers of the soul as we see in Ugandan and much African lore. The original Samson might have instead been a Semitic wizard-warrior, with a mystical jawbone at his disposal, whose power was in his long hair, and the woman was originally the hero/heroine who discovered the source of his power, and ultimately had him killed, likely via stoning. Samson was then rewritten by empathetic Semites who saw in him an ancestral hero, undermining the enemy archetype in the fable, and turning his stoning into his wrecking a building to kill his enemies.
In these stories, the victims might not have actually survived. But their legacies are renewed as those of heroes. This speaks to the Hebraic mode of literary criticism. The Bible overall is the first book of lit crit.
Why would the Hebrews have tried to undermine human sacrificial narratives? I suspect that the dispersion of the northern tribes followed by the destruction of the First Temple sowed the seed. The Judean, Benjamite, and Levitical exile in Babylon fostered a sense of sympathy with the fallen, and their monotheistic cosmology was heightened under these circumstances, whereas the Babylonians likely assumed they would just assimilate with the rest of the polytheists there. The monotheistic YHWH took an ultimate form under these circumstances, with His preferred people, who lease a land under His covenant that is permanently protected. And it turned out to be true: Yahwism is alive and well, while the Babylonian Ishtar has become a cute “Easter” bunny that hides eggs.
There’s no better time than now to break open the Bible and read these stories. You don’t have to take them literally. You shouldn’t take them literally. In fact, you should bask in the inconsistencies, because for some reason, Ezra decided to leave the inconsistencies there. For example, the story of Abraham whoring his sister-turned-wife to Pharaoh to get his favor is one of the most bewildering stories in human history. It’s a story that can only be produced from a patchwork of different accounts, pieced together for SOME political end. What exactly it was, only Ezra knew, but I think some kinship studies can give us the answer to this.
Don’t listen to the hardline theologians. You should approach reading the Bible with an entire library of knowledge to plumb the depths of all its inconsistencies. As with me, you will come away astonished that these holes were allowed to exist to begin with.
And I’ll throw this in the mix real quick too: antisemites love quoting the Talmud laws that purportedly “allow” passing children through the fire to Molech.
“He who gives of his seed to Molech incurs no punishment unless he delivers it to Molech and causes it to pass through the fire. If he gave it to Molech but did not cause it to pass through the fire, or the reverse, he incurs no penalty, unless he does both. “Sanhedrin 64a (Soncino 1961 ed p. 437)
Following this is commentary from the 11th century French rabbi Rashi:
GEMARA. R. Ashi propounded: What if one caused his blind or sleeping son to pass through, (3) or if he caused his grandson by his son or daughter to pass through? — One at least of these you may solve. For it has been taught: [Any men … that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall he put to death … And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people;] because he hath given of his seed unto Molech. Why is this stated? — Because it is said, there shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire. From this I know it only of his son or daughter. Whence do I know that it applies to his son’s son or daughter’s son too? From the verse, [And if the people of the land do any ways hide their eyes from the man] when he giveth of his seed unto Molech[and kill him not: Then I will … cut him off.]Sanhedrin 64b, Soncino 1961 Edition, page 439
While Rashi appears to “approve” of “passing children through the fire”, this does not necessarily mean the child was killed. One look at Frazer’s Golden Bough section on the Needfire in Scotland is enough to convince you: passing cattle “through the fire” was not to kill them but to “decontaminate” them from diseases. It didn’t work, obviously, and such an act would still be seen as idolatrous since it connotes deference to a different god, but this act didn’t kill them. Walking across coals is the modern equivalent, a vestige of when people were killed in these things, an act that might have disappeared long ago, and in this case likely before the Talmud was written. And Rashi would also have known that “passing through the fire” wasn’t tantamount to child sacrifice anymore. So Jews who agreed to “pass their children through the fire” would likely have done so like running one’s hand over a lit candle, a physically harmless act that would have satisfied the Babylonian, Greek, or Roman authorities that their Jewish subjects were doing their religious duties.
So no, Jews don’t sacrifice children.
Read the Babylonian Exile account. It’ll all make sense.
And for those who think that any English translation of the Old Testament represents the literal meaning and historicity of the text, please learn some Hebrew.