“For every abominable thing which the Lord hates they have done for their gods; for they even burn their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.”
King Minos of the once powerful Minoan civilization was a very unhappy man. He had been given a beautiful white bull to serve as seed stock to his treasured herd of cattle. He was very proud of his acquisition and loved to show it off to others. The only fly in the ointment was that Poseidon, god of the sea and the source of the gift, demanded that he sacrifice the exquisite creature to him. Not realizing that cheating the gods would have terrible consequences, Minos kept the bull for himself and sacrificed a second-rate animal to the sea god.
In retribution, Poseidon caused Pasiphae, the wife of Minos, to become overwhelmed with lust for the great animal. The result was the terrifying Minotaur, a fire-breathing monster half man and half bull. Minos sequestered the beast in a vast maze called a labyrinth, constructed by the master inventor Daedalus. Every ninth year, a group of seven young men and seven young women were sacrificed to the Minotaur, until finally the great hero Theseus, ended the creature’s bloody career by impaling it with a sword. Subsequently, Theseus made off with Minos’s beautiful daughter. Presumably, they lived happily ever after.
The Minotaur lives on in the annals of Greek myth, but human sacrifice has endured down through the ages in multiple cultures. Ancient Anglo-Saxons, for instance, apparently strangled their sacrificial victims to death before tossing them into the peat bogs of Denmark. The Incas seem to have also practiced human sacrifice. The impetus has generally been to propitiate one or another of a given people’s deities. If one sacrificed their very finest, then the gods would smile upon that culture and show gratitude in the form of peace, prosperity and power.
The Maya people of Meso-America indulged in a form of basketball called Pok-a-Tok. A hard rubber ball was used, and the goal was for the opposing teams to pass it through one of two vertical stone hoops, using only head, shoulders and hips, not hands or feet. In many cases, the losing team was sacrificed to the rain gods. Not wishing to offend the gods by passing off a team less than their best, the winners were sometimes sacrificed. On other occasions, the Maya sacrificed children by drowning them in water tanks in caves. In this manner, the Maya petitioned the gods for rain and fertility. After centuries of such offerings, it seems that the rain gods grew dissatisfied with it all and permitted a great drought to bedevil the Maya. It seems that in a snit, the Maya smashed the stone heads that represented the rain gods and went storming off into the hinterland.
The Aztecs performed their own sacrificial rites atop the pyramids constructed in their central city Tenochtitlan. Their victims, many of them POWs, were dragged to the top where their hearts were excised from their living chests and held up while still pulsing as an offer to the sun god Huizilopochtli or the goddess of wisdom, Quetzalcoatl. The invading Spaniards were supposedly so outraged by the practice that they used it as a pretext for razing the city and looting it of all valuables. Meanwhile, back in Iberia other sacrificial victims were treated to the flames and torture chambers of the Inquisition, in service to the false gods of a contaminated and contorted version of Christianity. There are those among us to this day who promote a militarized and weaponized form of Christianity, which is not Christianity at all.
Outside the ancient city of Jerusalem lies the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, referred to as Gehinnon or Gehenna in the Old Testament. The Valley was the site of the place of the Topheth, where living Canaanite children were burned alive as sacrifices to the god Moloch. In the Hebrew alphabet, Moloch refers to a dirty or filthy god. The location was named Topheth, which means drum, because drums were beaten during the rite so that a child’s parents could not hear the screams as it was consumed by the flames. This practice accounts for one of the reasons the Canaanites were so despised by the conquering Hebrews. Not the only reason, of course. They were also motivated by a lust for the land that had been occupied by the Canaanites for perhaps centuries.
The practice of child immolation was condemned by the Israelites because of their understanding that children belong not to parents or any other mortal as a sort of chattel but to Yahweh alone. As the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran states in his much beloved volume of poetry The Prophet, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of life longing for itself.”
The prophets of the Old Testament thundered against the practice of child immolation. Their audiences assumed that a prophet was the ambassador of Yahweh himself and that when he spoke they were hearing the words of God. As an example, when King David heard the words of the prophet Nathan condemning him for orchestrating the death in battle of his loyal officer Uriah the Hittite in order to steal his lovely wife Bathsheba, he recoiled in horror. The words “Thou art the man” filled his heart with dread.
When the prophets railed against child sacrifice, the audiences took their warnings seriously. The Israelites were told repeatedly not to be tempted into experimenting with the bloody rituals of their Canaanite neighbors, lest catastrophe be brought down upon their craven heads by God himself.
The prophet Ezekiel warns, “For when they had slaughtered their children in sacrifice to their idols, on the same day they came into my sanctuary to profane it.”
The prophet Jeremiah is even more graphic in his denunciation of the horrors of the Topheth. “Because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons and daughters in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command, nor did it come to my mind; therefore, behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when this place shall no more be called Topheth, or the valley of the son of Hinnom, but valley of Slaughter.”
The unnamed compiler of the book of Leviticus warns, “You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God.”
During the invasion and destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar, the great temple in Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the populace carried off into years of exile and servitude in Mesopotamia, a period known as the Babylonian Captivity.
After perhaps 48 years of captivity, the Persian monarch Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and permitted the Jews to return to their homeland. When the temple in Jerusalem was reconstructed under the supervision of Nehemiah, the Place of the Topheth was maintained as a continually smoldering dump, where the inhabitants of the rising city disposed of garbage and trash. In that manner, they showed their contempt for the horrors that had once taken place at the site.
Many years later, when Jesus wanted to convey to his mostly Jewish audiences the awfulness of being shut off from the light of God, he used the term Gehenna, a term that resonated deeply with his listeners, one that conveyed the most foul concept imaginable. Gehenna became the synonym for hell.
Human sacrifice still takes place, although the modern idols are no longer carved of gold or stone. Rather, they are internal and intangible, the various isms that arise from time to time with which humans torment themselves, concepts that inspire so many to troop off behind egomaniacal leaders and to eagerly serve evil causes. On February 3, 2015, a Jordanian fighter pilot named Moaz al-Kasabeh who had been shot down and captured by ISIS was locked into an iron cage and publicly burned alive, as the surrounding crowd cheered and hooted. Has humanity really advanced from the days of the Topheth or the apexes of the pyramids at Tenochtitlan? Not in any visible way, it seems.
It seems that in any age there are those most eager to suspend all morality, all sensitivity, all empathy in order to submerge their minds in the comfortable confines of the crowd, whether it consists of a swarm of Mussolini’s Black Shirts, a slavering crowd of Southern racists intent upon lynching a hapless victim or the mob of orcs and goblins who defiled the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. More recent false gods demanding the sacrifice of human blood include Hitler’s dream of imaginary racial purity and Vladimir Putin’s obsession with a reconstituted Soviet empire.
In her pivotal work The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt coins the phrase “banality of evil,” offering that those who commit or acquiesce in evil acts do not resemble monsters but are everyday humans, indistinguishable from the rest. If so, there have been no shortage of such banal personalities existing within each generation of mankind from ancient times to the present.
This time of year, Christians of all the various persuasions remind themselves and others of their belief that Jesus sacrificed himself willingly at Golgotha, negating the impetus for other forms involving animals or people and that he did so for the good of all others. “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
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