What’s on readers’ minds? Sacrifice—from ancient Israelites to Nubian kings.
In “Rabbath of the Ammonites,” AO 05:02, Timothy Harrison suggests that the Israelite commander Jephthah committed the “unthinkable act” of killing his daughter and offering her as a human sacrifice (Judges 11:30–40).
This is unlikely. The Hebrew phrase in Judges 11:31 translated as “burnt offering” has also been rendered—in the New English Bible, for instance—as “whole offering,” which may suggest something quite different. Judges 11:40 tells us that, as a consequence of Jephthah’s vow, the daughters of Israel would “lament” (tanot) Jephthah’s daughter for four days out of every year. The meaning of tanot, however, is unclear in this instance. Although the King James Version renders the word as “lament,” it also includes a marginal gloss noting that the word might mean “talk with.” Tanot can also mean “recount,” “commend” and—according to the third, revised edition of the 19th-century scholar Benjamin Davies’s A Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (1957)—“repeat.” Jephthah’s daughter, then, was probably not killed but remanded to a temple, where she served the rest of her life without marrying. This is why she and her companions wept over her virginity rather than over her impending death (Judges 11:38).
We asked Susan Ackerman, a professor of religion at Dartmouth College, to respond to Ms. Steinford’s letter:
Caroline Steinford correctly points out that biblical law generally condemns child sacrifice. In Leviticus we read, “You shall not give any of your progeny to consign as a sacrificial offering; thus you will not profane the name of your God” (18:21, see also 20:2–5). Similarly, in Deuteronomy, “There shall not be found among you anyone who consigns his son or his daughter to the fire … for anyone who does these things is an abomination to Yahweh” (18:10–12, see also 12:31).
Yet Ms. Steinford errs in presuming that the rite of child sacrifice was not practiced in Israel just because biblical law forbade such offerings. To choose a couple of examples, the Judahite king Ahaz (734–715 B.C.E.) is said to have burned his own son as an offering (2 Kings 16:3). And the northern Israelite king Hoshea (732–723 B.C.E.) allowed the cult to flourish among his subjects (2 Kings 17:16–17).
In addition, the great sixth-century B.C.E. prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Second Isaiah castigate Israelites for practicing child sacrifice. Addressing the sinners of Judah, for example, Ezekiel says: “You slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering” (16:21).
Despite the ringing condemnation we find in books like Ezekiel, certain biblical texts seem less emphatic in 007dismissing the ritual of child sacrifice as wholly alien to Israelite religion. Even the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22, often taken as the paradigmatic expression of the repudiation of child sacrifice within Israelite tradition, hints at the possibility of the rite’s legitimacy. After all, God seems to show no compunction about requesting from Abraham the sacrifice of his first-born son; nor does Abraham express any doubt about Yahweh’s right to demand his child as an offering. In other instances, too, Yahweh asserts the right to ask for the sacrifice of children, particularly the first-born. For example, Yahweh tells Moses: “Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and beast, is mine” (Exodus 13:1–2).
Yahweh does not always end up insisting that the first-born child be killed. In some cases, as in Genesis 22, the offspring are redeemed through the substitute sacrifice of an animal. But such redemption is not universal, and thus the possibility remains open that Jephthah did indeed sacrifice his daughter.
Indeed, this is surely the most obvious interpretation. Contrary to what Ms. Steinford suggests, there was no temple in Jerusalem during the period of the Judges (late second millennium B.C.E.). In fact, Jerusalem, according to the biblical account, had not yet come under Israelite control.
Nor is there any evidence in the Bible that the Israelites dedicated young virgins to a life of service in the temple. Indeed, given Israelite purity laws, it would have been impossible for any post-pubescent woman to have served in the temple, since the temple’s standards of purity would have been violated by the presence of that woman’s menstrual fluids. Moreover, it seems that the ancient Israelites did not prize virginity generally—unlike, say, later Christian tradition. Everyone in ancient Israel was expected to marry 008and produce children, thus honoring the Bible’s first commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.”
Blame Iraq, Not U.S.
John Malcolm Russell’s sweeping assertion that Iraqi antiquities are being looted, mutilated and illegally sold abroad because U.S. “economic sanctions essentially destroyed modern Iraqi culture” is ignorant and specious (“Plundering Iraq,” AO 05:02).
The theft of Iraqi antiquities began long before the Gulf War. Some 40 years ago, as a student of ancient Assyrian language and culture, I recall seeing and hearing of cylinder seals and fragments of cuneiform tablets, with Baghdad Museum numbers still on them, being offered for sale in the United States. At that time I believed such items should be seized and returned to Iraq to help preserve an ancient cultural heritage.
Today, the Iraqi government mainly protects those antiquities serving the purpose of political propaganda. Thus parts of ancient Babylon have been reconstructed as a backdrop for demonstrations supporting Saddam Hussein, who identifies his own rule with that of Nebuchadrezzar (604–552 B.C.), the ancient king of Babylon. Parading Iraqi soldiers even dress in ancient garb on certain occasions.
Iraqi archaeologist Tariq Madhloom labored hard to restore some of the gates of Nineveh and the throne room of Sennacherib’s “Palace Without Rival.” The current Iraqi government, however, does not care to protect this valuable site. One wonders if relief fragments are leaving the country with the approval of corrupt bureaucrats who are paid not to notice such things. This is an old story, scarcely confined to Iraq. Is the U.S. to blame for Iraqi corruption?
Return Antiquities to the Culture of Origin
I believe artifacts that have been removed from their original site of origin should be returned—not necessarily to the country where they were found but to the culture that originally created them. By this logic, the Dead Sea Scrolls should stay in Israel and not go back to Jordan where they were found. After all, that area was Israel (or more specifically Judea) when they were buried. The Siloam Inscription should be returned to Israel with grateful thanks to the Turks who rescued it from destruction. The Parthenon Marbles should go back to Greece where they can be seen in proper context with the building they belong to. The bust of Nefertiti and other Egyptian relics should go back to Egypt. The same goes for “Cleopatra’s Needle” in New York City, where the air pollution is destroying it. Another obelisk in Rome, from Ethiopia, was removed by Mussolini during World War II—it should go back to Africa. Traveling exhibits could make these items available for all to see, but they belong to those who made them.
De Soto, Texas
The Dead Sea Scrolls were not found in Jordan. They were found in what is today the West Bank—though for a time, after the creation of Israel in 1948 and the end of the British mandate, this area was claimed by Jordan. Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank was recognized by Jordan and Pakistan, but not by any other country.—Ed.
Sacrificing the Living
Egyptologist George Reisner believed that ritual sacrifice [of a ruler’s family upon the death of the ruler] in ancient Nubia “was not a cruel inhuman thing, but rather a kindly custom” (Past Perfect, AO 05:02). Such sacrifices offered “assurance of the continuation of the long-accustomed family life in the other world.”
I suspect that the ultimate function of collective sacrifice was the removal of members of the old ruler’s court. Elimination of some of the previous ruler’s dependents would mean that the new ruler could start fresh with a court of his own choosing—without having to deal with the sometimes resentful members of a previous court.
Ritual sacrifice might also have served the useful function of eliminating potential contenders for power. One need only consider the bloody succession free-for-alls in the early Hittite kingdom to see what happens when too many members of the previous administration remain above ground.
Via the Internet
Saving the Nawamis
The nawamis article (Avner Goren, “Nawamis of Sinai: Exploring 5,000-Year-Old Desert Tombs,” AO 05:01) was long anticipated. The response by Paul H. Zahn (“Political Taffy-Pulling?” AO 05:04), however, who suggests that the Israeli excavation of the nawamis was simply opportunistic, baffles me. He is right about one thing; the excavations were done because they were possible. Israeli archaeologists certainly did not have access to the Sinai while it was in Egyptian hands. But no Egyptian archaeologist saw fit to publish the nawamis.
Now they have been studied, dated and published. Now Mr. Zahn can read about them in scholarly journals and Archaeology Odyssey. It is my understanding that when Israel signed the peace treaty with Egypt, Goren turned over all Sinai artifacts and archaeological notes to Egypt. Will they be seen again?
It seems reasonable to describe Goren’s activity as a “salvage dig.” The nawamis might well have disappeared into the sands without study and publication.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina