BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Did the Ancient Israelites Think Children Were People?

Personhood in the Hebrew Bible

A few years ago, I was teaching a course on the first five books of the Bible. When the class session on the 10 plagues in Exodus came around, an interesting discussion ensued among the students about the plague of the firstborn and whether or not the Israelite deity was morally justified in killing Egyptian babies. After some handwringing, one student in the class chimed in: “Since they were babies, they were innocent, so they went straight to heaven.” His friend then replied flatly, “By that logic, abortion is the best thing ever invented.”

pozo-moro-relief

This fifth-century B.C.E. relief on a Phoenician funerary monument from Pozo Moro, Spain, is commonly interpreted as a scene of child sacrifice in an underworld banquet. A seemingly two-headed monster, who may well be a Phoenician deity, holds in his right hand a bowl containing a child and grasps with his left hand the leg of a piglet. Photo: Rafael dP. Iberia-Hispania licensed by CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

My students were getting at something important in this awkward exchange. The Book of Exodus presumably reflects the views of its Israelite authors on their deity, morality, and the like. Why, we then have to ask, would the Israelites have imagined their deity Yahweh slaughtering children for sins the children themselves had not committed? If they thought children could be killed for the transgressions of others, did they even think children were persons with any type of rights?

What do I mean by “persons” exactly? A person, in my usage and that of many anthropologists, is a human being accorded status and recognition in their society. A person is an individual who is seen as having value—not economic value like a sheep or a llama, but social value, value in relationships with others. A person is typically seen as having agency and afforded certain rights, such as the right to seek redress in cases of harm. Personhood is an abstract concept. One might say it is too abstract to be useful. But discussions of personhood arise generally only in the most pressing situations—when we are discussing what we can do to human beings and their bodies. Can we terminate human bodies, execute them, torture them, commit mass killings against them? These are the situations in which personhood comes up, and if you are someone who is undergoing torture because you are seen as subhuman by the individual torturing you, personhood is anything but an abstraction to you.

When read with an eye to matters of personhood, the Exodus narrative is a rather chilling one, as my students’ comments demonstrate. And this narrative is not alone among texts in the Hebrew Bible in leading readers to call into question whether or not the Israelites saw children as persons. We even read in the storied 10 Commandments: “I, Yahweh, your god, am a jealous god, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5 in English versification; Deuteronomy 5:9). Either the Israelites who wrote this did not see children as persons, or their conception of personhood was a collective one that allowed children to be punished for the sins of parents. We see this type of collective punishment at play in, for example, Numbers 16 and Joshua 7.


The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.

What about child sacrifice? There are many Biblical texts that condemn this practice; doesn’t that tell us that the Israelites did see children as persons worthy of protection? Unfortunately, the matter is more complicated than this, as we also find Biblical texts such as Ezekiel 20 and Exodus 13:1–2 and 22:29–30 (in the English) that suggest that some Biblical writers thought that Yahweh actually demanded child sacrifice. In 2 Kings 3, a king sacrifices his son to avert disaster, and the sacrifice actually works!

Some Biblical scholars would counter that child sacrifice was a foreign practice. The origins of child sacrifice seem beside the point, however. If the Israelites, or some Israelites, thought children should be sacrificed, this seems indicative that children lacked personhood in their eyes. Other indications of this can be found in the fact that parents could sell off children to pay off debts the parents themselves had incurred (Exodus 21:7–11; Nehemiah 5) and that parents could control whether daughters who had been raped had to marry their rapists (Exodus 22:16–17, English) and whether drunkard sons should be executed for being drunks (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). Some Biblical texts describe children getting eaten—eaten!—in times of crisis (e.g., 2 Kings 6:28-29; Ezekiel 5:6-10; Lamentations 2:20, 4:10), and a text or two even portrays Yahweh as threatening the Israelites with catastrophes so severe that they would devour their own children (Leviticus 26:27-29; Deuteronomy 28:53-57).

Child killing, child selling, child eating—the picture that emerges is a bleak one. However, before the savvy reader gets exasperated, let me state that, yes, there are Biblical passages that paint a quite different portrait of children’s status. The Book of Genesis is filled with passages implying that the Israelites were really, really interested in having children. Other books contain examples of the same thing—a desire for and valuation placed on having progeny. Parents make vows to secure progeny and to keep progeny, they feel content in having progeny, and they mourn lost progeny.

But is this longing for progeny the same as assigning personhood to children? We could answer this question more easily if we could speak and interact with real Israelites. Since we can’t do this and since the Israelites revealed their views of personhood indirectly rather than through philosophical treatises on the subject, we are left having to read through the lines. At best, the Israelites held a view of personhood that allowed for collective punishment and saw children as low-level subordinates subject to the wishes and whims of parents—usually fathers. At worst, they were not seen as persons. We seem to see a sort of graduated personhood in some Biblical texts, with older children having more claim to personhood than infants. (Fetuses, as we see in Exodus 21:22–25, where the unborn are assigned only financial value, are out of luck.) This may be why it appears that it was infants rather than older children who were sacrificed.

We also see in the Bible disagreements between Israelites over the personhood of children. The fact that so many Biblical texts discuss child sacrifice tells us that some Israelites thought this practice was necessary or at least advantageous. This seems a particularly apt conclusion when these texts are read alongside archaeological and other evidence from elsewhere in the ancient world showing that child sacrifice really was practiced in certain locales. However, the fact that so many Biblical texts decry child sacrifice also tells us that many Israelites thought this practice was unacceptable. One can see in this disparity a disagreement over the personhood of children, or perhaps of infants in particular.

A final point is that status in Israelite society was not attached to particular ages as is the case in our society. There were no Israelite quinceañera parties where teenagers danced the night away celebrating their newly achieved personhood. Eighteen-year-old Israelites couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief knowing their parents would no longer be able to have them killed for drinking too much undiluted wine or leaving their sandals in the entryway for the umpteenth time. No, Israelite personhood was based on social role and physical maturity, not chronological age. It was also mutable and in some cases highly ambiguous to us as modern readers. Despite the desire of students of the Bible to find certitude within its pages, the Biblical corpus refuses to satisfy us on this score. More vexing, still, since the clearest statements on the status of children are some of the most troubling, the certitude offered is not always helpful. In other words, today’s teenagers had better hope that their parents look somewhere other than the Good Book for guidance on what to do with them when they find that cheap bottle of vodka stowed away under the piles of dirty laundry.


The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.

tm-lemos-profileT. M. Lemos is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Huron University College and a member of the graduate school faculty at the University of Western Ontario. Her most recent book is Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017); it discusses the personhood of children in much greater detail, as well as the personhood of other groups in ancient Israel, ancient West Asia, and contemporary America.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

What Does the Bible Say About Children—and What Does Archaeology Say?

Understanding Israel’s 10 Commandments by Shawna Dolansky

Love Your Neighbor: Only Israelites or Everyone? by Richard Elliott Friedman

Misogyny in the Bible by Hershel Shanks

Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Infant Sacrifice?


 

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24 Responses

  1. Sandra P says:

    About this article and in regards to the story of 2 Kings 3, many Christian commentators appear to agree with the author; however, I do not. In this case it is the king of MOAB that sacrifices his eldest son who was to rule after him to his heathen god, Chemesh. After unsuccessfully doing his best to win against Israel, he then offers his son as a burnt offering on the wall to the god of Moab, Chemosh (according to archeological records), to whom that horrific and evil ritual was performed. The author states that “In 2 Kings 3 (KJV), a king sacrifices his son to avert disaster, and the sacrifice actually works!”. This is an appalling claim. First of all no where does the Scripture say that this was done to “avert disaster or that because he did this, it worked (to avert disaster). Instead what it says is that they inquired after God’s prophet, who told them (after God’s Spirit came upon him), that the Lord would supply all the water they needed and that this was a light thing for the Lord to do “18 And this is but a light thing in the sight of the Lord: he will deliver the Moabites also into your hand.” Oh, and by the way, the Lord will also deliver the Moabites into your hand. This must have been a great faith builder to this 3 kingdom army; who sought and got the approval of the Lord for their putting down of Moab’s rebellion. However, they were given instructions by the Lord with the following things they were to do: “19 And ye shall smite every fenced city, and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree, and stop all wells of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones.” Meanwhile the Moabites made a serious judgement error when they decided that the water they saw was the blood of the kings and went to the camp of the Israelites who surprise, surprise, rose up against them smitting them and chasing them into their land where they did what the Lord told them to do, namely “25 And they beat down the cities, and on every good piece of land cast every man his stone, and filled it; and they stopped all the wells of water, and felled all the good trees: only in Kirharaseth left they the stones thereof; howbeit the slingers went about it, and smote it.

    The author’s assertion that the Moabite king averted disaster by sacrificing his eldest son as a burnt offering is a blatant affront to the God of Israel who told them what they were to do to the Moabites and their land, which they actually did according to what the Lord had told them to do. For this reason, they had no further reason to stick around, as they had already done what they came to do (see verses 24 – 26)! Therefore, I do not believe the timing of the 3 kings leaving had anything to do with the sacrifice of the Moabite King’s son averting disaster, as the author claims. The disaster for Moab had already happened. Thus, there was no need for the 3 kings to stick around any longer. Her conclusion would seem to imply that she did not actually read or understand the story. Verse 26 seems to indicate that the decimation of the Moabite’s kingdom had already occured when he made one last stand with 700 men against the king of Edom. Alas, he failed here too. It was following this that he sacrificed his son.
    26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew swords, to break through even unto the king of Edom: but they could not. Then when the king of Moab could not break through, he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead and offered him as a burnt offering. In other words the king knew he was done. There was no disaster to avert. The disaster had already occurred.
    “27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.”
    In light of the above, why would the king or anyone do such a terrible, horrific thing like that? I can think of several reasons why he might, but Scripture doesn’t tell us, so any answer would just be conjecture.. What it does say next is that two things happened. 1. They were really angry at Israel. I believe “they” would refer to the people of Moab. If there was any anger to be had, it certainly would be the Moabites who had just gotten “smitted” and their cities “beaten down”. They had just gotten “wholloped” big time by Israel to whom they were providing lambs and rams, a lot of them. They were the ones rebelling after King Ahab died. 2. They departed from him and returned to their own land. “27b And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.” There is no mystery here. Israel and his accompanying 2 kings with their armies came to do what a ruling king had to do to put down rebellion and keep peace in his kingdom and had the Lord’s backing, so when Israel did what they were to do according to the Lord, He did what He said He would do and gave them back the Moabites, so the 3 king army went home. Why not, it was over, the war was won, they did what they came to do according to the word of the Lord’s instructions to the, and it was time to go home. Yes, they may have been appalled at what that evil king did to his son, but that is not stated in the story. It is conjecture and it, the sacrificing of children to heathen gods at that time in history, was a common thing that was done in the nations surrounding God’s people, so would not be surprising to them. How they (the 3 kings) actually felt about it, it does not say. But to attribute the timing of their leaving to the sacrifice of the son, as what averted disaster is too far of a reach In my opinion. That would be giving Chemesh the glory, when it is the Lord (God Almighty) who gets the glory. Chemosh or the King of Moab was not the winner here. The Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel and His people were.

  2. Deborah Hurn says:

    The author seems determined to get to her preferred conclusion by any means except proper scholarship. My goodness, some university *pays* for this kind of exegesis?

  3. Rabbi Adele says:

    This piece is quite limited and amateurish. There is a huge body of commentary and interpretations that the author has totally ignored. Just because it was written one way does not excuse slovenliness in researching how the various statements were actually carried out and how that changed over time and generations. Imposing one’s own interpretation based on modern interpretations of mistranslations or worse yet not understanding the biblical language in context and in literary styles of the time only leads to the publishing of pieces like this one which should not be published in any serious venue. almost Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Adele

  4. Don says:

    Wow: “Child killing, child selling, child eating—the picture that emerges is a bleak one.”
    Never mind that the “child killing” refers to “children”/descendants of the “third or fourth generation.” Don’t consider that the “child selling” probably referred to a form of indentured servanthood in circumstances of extreme poverty. “Child eating” during sieges, perhaps of carcasses, by some of a starving populace, is reported as part of a devastating judgment on a sinful people. For good measure, toss in child sacrifice too, and brush aside foreign origins as insignificant.
    This is what passes as scholarship today?

  5. Shirley Reed says:

    The article talks about visiting the sins of the fathers on the children for several generations. I heard a story today about a family where the parents have sinned and 3 of their 4 children live miserable lives because they followed their parents in their sin. This is the natural consequence–that children act like their parents and teach their children also to disobey God.
    I read several of the Bible verses about child sacrifice. They all stated that the people were not following God and followed the idolatrous habits of the their neighbors. God told what people would do to themselves if they forsook Him and lived a sinful life.
    The reference to eating their children happened when the enemy surrounded the city and didn’t allow food to be brought in. The people had disobeyed God and He didn’t perform a miracle to save them. They continued in their sin by eating their own children to save their own lives.
    God has given us the freedom to follow Him or to sin against Him. We are responsible for the results of that choice.

  6. Edward Morse says:

    I agree that “visiting punishment on the children” of unbelievers doesn’t just mean until bar mitzvah, but on the descendants.

    Also, it would be helpful to read the Talmudic rules on stoning “willful sons”. There are very complicated circumstances which would be known to all people back then, and which were so difficult that it was never carried out, but served as a warning.

  7. Lena says:

    Also the almost-sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac would not have been a test if Abraham did not value his son. The entire story if Abraham and Sarah is about their longing for children. One does not “sacrifice” something one does not value. That is why only unblemished perfect animals could be sacrificed. Sacrifice does not correlate with low value.

  8. Lena says:

    God punished King David by taking the life of his infant son with Bathsheba. David demonstrated his value of his son’s life by fasting, prayer and penance. If he had NOT valued his son’s life the punishment would be moot. If All creation is in God’s hands, that includes children and infants. God controls the end of all life; It is hardly immoral that infants, children and innocent are included. Weak logic here unless you assume children are exempt from divine power for some reason. You confuse liking the outcome with morality.

  9. Peter says:

    It was unfortunate that the article didn’t view this topic from a Covenant perspective; that it missed the profound value of children in the patriarch and other stories; and that it did not interact with the didactic dynamic of Proverbs in its emphasis on teaching the next generation.
    Not to mention that it did not qualify its restricted use of the term ‘Bible’ to the Old Testament without allowing for the major valuation of children in Jesus and throughout the New Testament.
    Overall, this does not help the credibility of your publication.

  10. Ethan says:

    First born males of any age were killed and not just humans but cattle as well. Not even pharaoh’s own family was spared. It was a just punishment for all the male Hebrew children killed when Moses was a baby (saved by being hid in a basket and later raised by pharaoh’s daughter).

    Professor Lemos,

    You write the following

    “I, Yahweh, your god, am a jealous god, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5 in English versification; Deuteronomy 5:9). Either the Israelites who wrote this did not see children as persons, or their conception of personhood was a collective one that allowed children to be punished for the sins of parents.

    You need to pay closer attention to who made that statement as the author is clearly stated: Yahweh (God), not any Israelite – Moses simply transcribed the Voice spoken from Sinai. Reading the Bible as a whole and putting that statement in context, you will find that it is no arbitrary decree whereby God literally punishes children for their parent’s sins. The family of Achan as a whole was killed because they all knew the sin of their father and helped cover it up when he was burying the forbidden treasures from Jericho under his tent.

    Elsewhere you will see that Korah was killed for his rebellion against Moses. Moses noted that God spared the children of Korah. These children were righteous before God and their descendents can be seen praising God in other parts of Scripture.

    Note Ezekiel 18:20 which says, “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”

    So how are the children punished for their parents’ sins? “Children are not punished for parents guilt, except there’s they participate in their sins. It is usually the case, however, that by inheritance and example the sons become partakers of the father’s sin. Wrong tendencies, perverted appetites, and the base morals, as well as physical disease and degeneracy, are transmitted from father to son, to the 3rd and 4th generation.” We see this played out again and again throughout Scripture. A wicked king will beget a wicked king and several generations will pass until one follows the Lord.

    Professor, why did you choose your field of study when it is readily apparent that you do not see Scripture as being inspired but rather no different than any other ancient text?

  11. alfredoa7 says:

    Do not be fooled GOD cannot be mocked.

    GOD looks into ones soul SAFETY.

    SPIRIT LIFE COMES FIRST..
    PHYSICAL is temporary..

    Deem assure all the children or person sacrificed or generation s visited by GODS justice Cuz of their parents hatred towards GOD..because of human Weakness..GOD has a special JUSTICE THAT REDEEMES THEM.

    JESUS…

    PS
    ITS NOT WHAT WE KNOW THAT PLEASES GOD…

    ITS THRU OBEDIENCE

  12. lawrencem40 says:

    I was under the impression that all the first born of any age were killed in Egypt and not just the children. If that is correct, it seems that the basis of the discussion is kind of mute. Also, I would think that there is a distinction between God taking lives (plague) and humans taking lives (abortion).

  13. Chris McReynolds says:

    You state “In 2 Kings 3, a king sacrifices his son to avert disaster, and the sacrifice actually works!” This is not a sacrifice to Yahweh, as you claim, but to the Moabite god Chemosh.

  14. Duane says:

    Jesus lifted up children as He blessed them, used them as examples of true faith.

  15. Mary says:

    In the Bible all lives ultimately belong to God who created them. If God took a life back, he alone had that right, it is irrelevant whether child or adult. He has taken either at various times. This has nothing to do with thinking that children were not persons.

  16. Terry Merrill says:

    It seems that only if the reality of God’s perspective (not that I can even begin to lay absolute claim to it, of course) within the context of collective humanity is discounted, and if we are to view Semitic thought and practice only through a 21st century lens – only then can we conclude that personhood was a developmental process among the Israelis. On the other hand, the whole corpus of scripture, both Old and New Testament history, compels us to conclude that personhood exists within the context of the community, i.e., to belong to the community is to possess personhood. Why else would the despicable sacrifice of children have had any positive value whatsoever in swaying the “gods”? It was because they were persons that their sacrifice was thought to benefit the whole community. The idea that personhood is a developing process is relatively new. Personhood had to be legislatively stripped from Blacks and Native Americans; and misled abortion advocates today have done the same with the unborn infant to accommodate their selfish whims.

    Ramifications of one’s actions vibrate throughout and belong to the whole human community. St. Paul, an Israelite’s Israelite appears to have had some awareness of this when he compares the sin of Adam, the consequences of which has been inherited by all humanity, with the rescue and restoration of the entire human community through the one sacrifice of the resurrected Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man.

  17. Den Hall says:

    I read some of the reference scripture and immediately felt that this writer is playing fast and loose with scripture. Perhaps she is playing the devils advocate for a purpose. As Mrs Jim says, for one thing, ‘children’ does not always mean young people, but even the grown-up progeny.

    I continued thru some of her references only to see carelessly selected phrases with which most thoughtful readers would have no problem. I am no educated theologian, but I’m not sure the quality of this article belongs in Biblical Archaeology.

  18. Ben says:

    The Egyptian people are the ones that targeted babies, male Hebrew babies.

    The plague – not Israelite people – targeted all Egyptian firstborns, regardless of age, regardless of species, perhaps regardless of gender, as a result of the Egyptian peoples’ actions against Hebrew babies.

    Perhaps if you had corrected your students you could have had a discussion on what is actually in the Hebrew Bible, rather than one built on a common misconception.

    And then, the idea of national responsibility does not just spring up our of nowhere in Exodus. We see it in the expulsion from Eden, the cursing of the ground, the Flood, the dispersion from Shinar, the decrees against the descendants of Kenaan, the plague against Pharaoh and his house, Sedom and Amora, etc.

    1. Helen Spalding says:

      Well reasoned.

      There is a push-pull relationship in the Scriptures betw individual identity and corporate identity. Prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel bring out the individual — the soul that sins is the soul that dies — while the back and forth of curses and blessings before entering the Promised Land bring out the corporate nature of the God and Israel relationship. Even Abraham tugs at that thread when he asks God if He will sweep away the good with the bad in Sodom.

  19. MRS JIM JESS says:

    The word “children” didn’t always mean young people or the “children of Israel” would all be
    just kids.
    In all cultures, children are taught beliefs from an early age, even evil beliefs. And bloodline is important. Lev. 17:11 states, “The life of the flesh is in the blood.”God knew they would continue these beliefs/practices if left alive. God had to protect the Christline.

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24 Responses

  1. Sandra P says:

    About this article and in regards to the story of 2 Kings 3, many Christian commentators appear to agree with the author; however, I do not. In this case it is the king of MOAB that sacrifices his eldest son who was to rule after him to his heathen god, Chemesh. After unsuccessfully doing his best to win against Israel, he then offers his son as a burnt offering on the wall to the god of Moab, Chemosh (according to archeological records), to whom that horrific and evil ritual was performed. The author states that “In 2 Kings 3 (KJV), a king sacrifices his son to avert disaster, and the sacrifice actually works!”. This is an appalling claim. First of all no where does the Scripture say that this was done to “avert disaster or that because he did this, it worked (to avert disaster). Instead what it says is that they inquired after God’s prophet, who told them (after God’s Spirit came upon him), that the Lord would supply all the water they needed and that this was a light thing for the Lord to do “18 And this is but a light thing in the sight of the Lord: he will deliver the Moabites also into your hand.” Oh, and by the way, the Lord will also deliver the Moabites into your hand. This must have been a great faith builder to this 3 kingdom army; who sought and got the approval of the Lord for their putting down of Moab’s rebellion. However, they were given instructions by the Lord with the following things they were to do: “19 And ye shall smite every fenced city, and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree, and stop all wells of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones.” Meanwhile the Moabites made a serious judgement error when they decided that the water they saw was the blood of the kings and went to the camp of the Israelites who surprise, surprise, rose up against them smitting them and chasing them into their land where they did what the Lord told them to do, namely “25 And they beat down the cities, and on every good piece of land cast every man his stone, and filled it; and they stopped all the wells of water, and felled all the good trees: only in Kirharaseth left they the stones thereof; howbeit the slingers went about it, and smote it.

    The author’s assertion that the Moabite king averted disaster by sacrificing his eldest son as a burnt offering is a blatant affront to the God of Israel who told them what they were to do to the Moabites and their land, which they actually did according to what the Lord had told them to do. For this reason, they had no further reason to stick around, as they had already done what they came to do (see verses 24 – 26)! Therefore, I do not believe the timing of the 3 kings leaving had anything to do with the sacrifice of the Moabite King’s son averting disaster, as the author claims. The disaster for Moab had already happened. Thus, there was no need for the 3 kings to stick around any longer. Her conclusion would seem to imply that she did not actually read or understand the story. Verse 26 seems to indicate that the decimation of the Moabite’s kingdom had already occured when he made one last stand with 700 men against the king of Edom. Alas, he failed here too. It was following this that he sacrificed his son.
    26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew swords, to break through even unto the king of Edom: but they could not. Then when the king of Moab could not break through, he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead and offered him as a burnt offering. In other words the king knew he was done. There was no disaster to avert. The disaster had already occurred.
    “27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.”
    In light of the above, why would the king or anyone do such a terrible, horrific thing like that? I can think of several reasons why he might, but Scripture doesn’t tell us, so any answer would just be conjecture.. What it does say next is that two things happened. 1. They were really angry at Israel. I believe “they” would refer to the people of Moab. If there was any anger to be had, it certainly would be the Moabites who had just gotten “smitted” and their cities “beaten down”. They had just gotten “wholloped” big time by Israel to whom they were providing lambs and rams, a lot of them. They were the ones rebelling after King Ahab died. 2. They departed from him and returned to their own land. “27b And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.” There is no mystery here. Israel and his accompanying 2 kings with their armies came to do what a ruling king had to do to put down rebellion and keep peace in his kingdom and had the Lord’s backing, so when Israel did what they were to do according to the Lord, He did what He said He would do and gave them back the Moabites, so the 3 king army went home. Why not, it was over, the war was won, they did what they came to do according to the word of the Lord’s instructions to the, and it was time to go home. Yes, they may have been appalled at what that evil king did to his son, but that is not stated in the story. It is conjecture and it, the sacrificing of children to heathen gods at that time in history, was a common thing that was done in the nations surrounding God’s people, so would not be surprising to them. How they (the 3 kings) actually felt about it, it does not say. But to attribute the timing of their leaving to the sacrifice of the son, as what averted disaster is too far of a reach In my opinion. That would be giving Chemesh the glory, when it is the Lord (God Almighty) who gets the glory. Chemosh or the King of Moab was not the winner here. The Lord God Almighty, the God of Israel and His people were.

  2. Deborah Hurn says:

    The author seems determined to get to her preferred conclusion by any means except proper scholarship. My goodness, some university *pays* for this kind of exegesis?

  3. Rabbi Adele says:

    This piece is quite limited and amateurish. There is a huge body of commentary and interpretations that the author has totally ignored. Just because it was written one way does not excuse slovenliness in researching how the various statements were actually carried out and how that changed over time and generations. Imposing one’s own interpretation based on modern interpretations of mistranslations or worse yet not understanding the biblical language in context and in literary styles of the time only leads to the publishing of pieces like this one which should not be published in any serious venue. almost Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Adele

  4. Don says:

    Wow: “Child killing, child selling, child eating—the picture that emerges is a bleak one.”
    Never mind that the “child killing” refers to “children”/descendants of the “third or fourth generation.” Don’t consider that the “child selling” probably referred to a form of indentured servanthood in circumstances of extreme poverty. “Child eating” during sieges, perhaps of carcasses, by some of a starving populace, is reported as part of a devastating judgment on a sinful people. For good measure, toss in child sacrifice too, and brush aside foreign origins as insignificant.
    This is what passes as scholarship today?

  5. Shirley Reed says:

    The article talks about visiting the sins of the fathers on the children for several generations. I heard a story today about a family where the parents have sinned and 3 of their 4 children live miserable lives because they followed their parents in their sin. This is the natural consequence–that children act like their parents and teach their children also to disobey God.
    I read several of the Bible verses about child sacrifice. They all stated that the people were not following God and followed the idolatrous habits of the their neighbors. God told what people would do to themselves if they forsook Him and lived a sinful life.
    The reference to eating their children happened when the enemy surrounded the city and didn’t allow food to be brought in. The people had disobeyed God and He didn’t perform a miracle to save them. They continued in their sin by eating their own children to save their own lives.
    God has given us the freedom to follow Him or to sin against Him. We are responsible for the results of that choice.

  6. Edward Morse says:

    I agree that “visiting punishment on the children” of unbelievers doesn’t just mean until bar mitzvah, but on the descendants.

    Also, it would be helpful to read the Talmudic rules on stoning “willful sons”. There are very complicated circumstances which would be known to all people back then, and which were so difficult that it was never carried out, but served as a warning.

  7. Lena says:

    Also the almost-sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac would not have been a test if Abraham did not value his son. The entire story if Abraham and Sarah is about their longing for children. One does not “sacrifice” something one does not value. That is why only unblemished perfect animals could be sacrificed. Sacrifice does not correlate with low value.

  8. Lena says:

    God punished King David by taking the life of his infant son with Bathsheba. David demonstrated his value of his son’s life by fasting, prayer and penance. If he had NOT valued his son’s life the punishment would be moot. If All creation is in God’s hands, that includes children and infants. God controls the end of all life; It is hardly immoral that infants, children and innocent are included. Weak logic here unless you assume children are exempt from divine power for some reason. You confuse liking the outcome with morality.

  9. Peter says:

    It was unfortunate that the article didn’t view this topic from a Covenant perspective; that it missed the profound value of children in the patriarch and other stories; and that it did not interact with the didactic dynamic of Proverbs in its emphasis on teaching the next generation.
    Not to mention that it did not qualify its restricted use of the term ‘Bible’ to the Old Testament without allowing for the major valuation of children in Jesus and throughout the New Testament.
    Overall, this does not help the credibility of your publication.

  10. Ethan says:

    First born males of any age were killed and not just humans but cattle as well. Not even pharaoh’s own family was spared. It was a just punishment for all the male Hebrew children killed when Moses was a baby (saved by being hid in a basket and later raised by pharaoh’s daughter).

    Professor Lemos,

    You write the following

    “I, Yahweh, your god, am a jealous god, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exodus 20:5 in English versification; Deuteronomy 5:9). Either the Israelites who wrote this did not see children as persons, or their conception of personhood was a collective one that allowed children to be punished for the sins of parents.

    You need to pay closer attention to who made that statement as the author is clearly stated: Yahweh (God), not any Israelite – Moses simply transcribed the Voice spoken from Sinai. Reading the Bible as a whole and putting that statement in context, you will find that it is no arbitrary decree whereby God literally punishes children for their parent’s sins. The family of Achan as a whole was killed because they all knew the sin of their father and helped cover it up when he was burying the forbidden treasures from Jericho under his tent.

    Elsewhere you will see that Korah was killed for his rebellion against Moses. Moses noted that God spared the children of Korah. These children were righteous before God and their descendents can be seen praising God in other parts of Scripture.

    Note Ezekiel 18:20 which says, “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them.”

    So how are the children punished for their parents’ sins? “Children are not punished for parents guilt, except there’s they participate in their sins. It is usually the case, however, that by inheritance and example the sons become partakers of the father’s sin. Wrong tendencies, perverted appetites, and the base morals, as well as physical disease and degeneracy, are transmitted from father to son, to the 3rd and 4th generation.” We see this played out again and again throughout Scripture. A wicked king will beget a wicked king and several generations will pass until one follows the Lord.

    Professor, why did you choose your field of study when it is readily apparent that you do not see Scripture as being inspired but rather no different than any other ancient text?

  11. alfredoa7 says:

    Do not be fooled GOD cannot be mocked.

    GOD looks into ones soul SAFETY.

    SPIRIT LIFE COMES FIRST..
    PHYSICAL is temporary..

    Deem assure all the children or person sacrificed or generation s visited by GODS justice Cuz of their parents hatred towards GOD..because of human Weakness..GOD has a special JUSTICE THAT REDEEMES THEM.

    JESUS…

    PS
    ITS NOT WHAT WE KNOW THAT PLEASES GOD…

    ITS THRU OBEDIENCE

  12. lawrencem40 says:

    I was under the impression that all the first born of any age were killed in Egypt and not just the children. If that is correct, it seems that the basis of the discussion is kind of mute. Also, I would think that there is a distinction between God taking lives (plague) and humans taking lives (abortion).

  13. Chris McReynolds says:

    You state “In 2 Kings 3, a king sacrifices his son to avert disaster, and the sacrifice actually works!” This is not a sacrifice to Yahweh, as you claim, but to the Moabite god Chemosh.

  14. Duane says:

    Jesus lifted up children as He blessed them, used them as examples of true faith.

  15. Mary says:

    In the Bible all lives ultimately belong to God who created them. If God took a life back, he alone had that right, it is irrelevant whether child or adult. He has taken either at various times. This has nothing to do with thinking that children were not persons.

  16. Terry Merrill says:

    It seems that only if the reality of God’s perspective (not that I can even begin to lay absolute claim to it, of course) within the context of collective humanity is discounted, and if we are to view Semitic thought and practice only through a 21st century lens – only then can we conclude that personhood was a developmental process among the Israelis. On the other hand, the whole corpus of scripture, both Old and New Testament history, compels us to conclude that personhood exists within the context of the community, i.e., to belong to the community is to possess personhood. Why else would the despicable sacrifice of children have had any positive value whatsoever in swaying the “gods”? It was because they were persons that their sacrifice was thought to benefit the whole community. The idea that personhood is a developing process is relatively new. Personhood had to be legislatively stripped from Blacks and Native Americans; and misled abortion advocates today have done the same with the unborn infant to accommodate their selfish whims.

    Ramifications of one’s actions vibrate throughout and belong to the whole human community. St. Paul, an Israelite’s Israelite appears to have had some awareness of this when he compares the sin of Adam, the consequences of which has been inherited by all humanity, with the rescue and restoration of the entire human community through the one sacrifice of the resurrected Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man.

  17. Den Hall says:

    I read some of the reference scripture and immediately felt that this writer is playing fast and loose with scripture. Perhaps she is playing the devils advocate for a purpose. As Mrs Jim says, for one thing, ‘children’ does not always mean young people, but even the grown-up progeny.

    I continued thru some of her references only to see carelessly selected phrases with which most thoughtful readers would have no problem. I am no educated theologian, but I’m not sure the quality of this article belongs in Biblical Archaeology.

  18. Ben says:

    The Egyptian people are the ones that targeted babies, male Hebrew babies.

    The plague – not Israelite people – targeted all Egyptian firstborns, regardless of age, regardless of species, perhaps regardless of gender, as a result of the Egyptian peoples’ actions against Hebrew babies.

    Perhaps if you had corrected your students you could have had a discussion on what is actually in the Hebrew Bible, rather than one built on a common misconception.

    And then, the idea of national responsibility does not just spring up our of nowhere in Exodus. We see it in the expulsion from Eden, the cursing of the ground, the Flood, the dispersion from Shinar, the decrees against the descendants of Kenaan, the plague against Pharaoh and his house, Sedom and Amora, etc.

    1. Helen Spalding says:

      Well reasoned.

      There is a push-pull relationship in the Scriptures betw individual identity and corporate identity. Prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel bring out the individual — the soul that sins is the soul that dies — while the back and forth of curses and blessings before entering the Promised Land bring out the corporate nature of the God and Israel relationship. Even Abraham tugs at that thread when he asks God if He will sweep away the good with the bad in Sodom.

  19. MRS JIM JESS says:

    The word “children” didn’t always mean young people or the “children of Israel” would all be
    just kids.
    In all cultures, children are taught beliefs from an early age, even evil beliefs. And bloodline is important. Lev. 17:11 states, “The life of the flesh is in the blood.”God knew they would continue these beliefs/practices if left alive. God had to protect the Christline.

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