Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 57:1-10) transports me to the Mayan ruins of Bonampak in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. It was the spring of 2003, and Kim and were there on a tour with a group of faculty from Mars Hill. The excavated sites there, as in Palenque and Yachtilan, were absolutely fascinating, after having seen pictures and studied the Mayan myths from the Popul Vuh. I remember standing on the site of their ecstatic religious rituals, which included a fair amount of blood-letting, especially one ritual which involved the ruler getting high off some kind of hallucinogenic enema, and then offering some blood from his private parts to the gods. Human sacrifice seems to have been common as well, with captured enemy combatants and children among the victims. The Mayan’s ritualistic ballgame also ended with a human sacrifice; some scholars believe that it was actually the winning player who was sacrificed to the gods. The players did not resist this early version of sudden death, or try to throw the game to save their lives, because dying in this way was considered the highest honor, a fate far better than wasting away with disease.
As perverse and repugnant as such ritualistic sacrifices seem to us, we have to note that the Mayans were not alone in including them in their religious practices. Humans sacrifice, include child sacrifice, is evident throughout the history of various cultures and world religions, and it was obviously part of the practice of the early Canaanites, as the Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah railed against the covenant people who slaughtered their children or sent them through the fire to appease the gods. The prophetic ire and the Mosaic taboos were not against human sacrifice per se, but specifically against the ritual killings in homage to the fertility god Molech. The taboo was not always there when it came to sacrificing lives to Yahweh. We read the conquest stories, and see that when the warriors defeated a city, they were to take neither prisoners nor booty; God mandated that everything and everyone surviving the attack – including infants and children – be considered “devoted to destruction” and burned. Then we read a curious story in the history of battles between Israel and Moab, when God was giving Israel the victory; Moab was getting soundly defeated until their king sacrificed a child, after which God immediately turned the tide and Israel had to retreat. Or we read about a man of faith named Jepthah who promised God he would sacrifice the first thing to walk out of his door; he grieved when it turned out to be his beloved daughter. And then, Ezekiel recounts a time in the history of the Exodus and the rebellion of the wilderness wanderers, where God says: I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live; I defiled them through their gifts—the sacrifice of every firstborn—that I might fill them with horror so they would know that I am the LORD. Wow, that is horrifying way to get a people’s attention.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when the gospel writers and early church writers wrote of Jesus, they framed his story in terms of a child sacrifice – for God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son. It is something virtually every pre-modern culture throughout history, including the Canaanites and the Hebrews and the ballplayers of Bonampak, would understand. It has something to do with the awe-some and awe-ful fragility of the human condition in relationship to the creator and sustainer of life, and the deep-seated need to demonstrate some sense of reverent homage to that sacred force in order to experience the blessing of continued life. Hence, the ritual blood-shedding is called sacrifice – a sacred act. We moderns are repulsed by the idea, but that doesn’t mean we don’t participate in sacrifice. I wonder how Isaiah might rail against a civilization like ours, rich beyond compare, claiming moral high ground as we sacrifice 16,000 children a day to hunger, and thousands more to preventable water-born diseases, far more than were ever sacrificed in all the pre-modern cultures. Until Jesus’ sacrifice moves us to be as repulsed by this as we are by images of Molech worshipers slaughtering children and burning them alive, we would do well to hear Isaiah’s words directed squarely at us.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.