Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Human sacrifice at Moriah and Egypt

an ancient sacrifice in the Torah

(This is a brief examination of two ancient biblical events in history for the purpose of gaining understanding. It is NOT an advocacy for such a practice involving human sacrifice by anyone today, but it is look at human sacrifice, by God himself, in a way Israel never understood and rejected. gt)

Recently, I found myself reading various articles (see links at end of article) by both Jews and Christians on a particular Jewish perspective. The perspectives in these articles were drawn on as much on the Torah as from the New Testament. (NT) I am not one to take offense at slights and accusations on the faith that is in Christ Jesus as it sometimes seems in the Torah on these matters. Notably, some appear, at least to this Christian, as a reconstructive, retroactive interpretation with no other objective than to resist and counter the message of the sacrifice of Jesus as recorded by the NT writers. This objective from Jews is understandable as we will see later.

The purpose of this brief article is to bring a focus to bear on the death, or sacrifice, of Egypt’s firstborn as the tenth and final plague which God brought on Pharaoh.

Specifically, it is an effort to tune to the dialog between the sacrifice of 1) Isaac at Moriah, 2) the firstborn of Pharaoh (Egypt) and 3) Jesus with the primary focus being on Egypt’s firstborn as it is, more than the sacrifice of Isaac or Jesus, an undeniable reality closely and graphically related to Israel’s history in the Torah. Whether or not these sacrifices are believed as having been fulfilled, embraced or rejected; all three involve human sacrifice.

I would like to develop the purpose of this article on the sacrifice event of Egypt’s firstborn which is strategically positioned in Israel’s history, but also in the chronological, natural order spectrum of 1) firstborn, 2) sacrifice and 3) resurrection. It is a sacrifice which is  fully capable of speaking (without philosophical or lofty speculation) much like the blood of Abel and prophets speaks to the injustice of their own death, to the reality of human sacrifice as wrought by God. There’s no intent or need to speculate or to cast Abel in this discussion on human sacrifice. His death was a selfish murder by his brother, Cain.

The objective of this article is that Jews might step back from what is to them a cacophony on the sacrifice of Jesus and talk of adoration and worship of him. Instead, as a prelude to faith in Jesus which can come through understanding, it is hoped their attention will focus for a truer understanding on the initial death of the firstborn of Egypt in the Torah.

obedient willful sacrifice of self

God created humans. It is a simple and profound truth. Some humans may accept it. Others may reject that statement. We all remain human. We react either as witting or unwitting witnesses and participants to our interactions with humans. We are the ones who do what humans do to each other, for each other, and – towards God.

The truth that humans misunderstand each other is equally true of humans with respect to God. Some devote themselves so totally to God that their lives are a sacrifice to him. It is their obedient willful sacrifice of self. Then, there are those whose understanding of sacrifice is to offer up another, in their place, to God. Certainly, history does not and cannot conceal or ignore the idolatry of civilizations which practiced human sacrifice.

the sacrifice of Isaac

The sacrifice of Isaac holds great significance for Israel. Seemingly, Israel’s embrace of that sacrifice is in proportion to Israel’s rejection of the mere thought that God would give such a command, hence, much of the speculation which has developed over the centuries. Whatever ancient Israel’s understanding and interpretation of that sacrifice might be it is the more recent sacrifice of Jesus, as declared by the gospel writers, which creates and raises an undeniable tension up against that sacrifice in the Torah. The unspoken reality is the need to secure and strengthen the Jewish interpretation away from that tension. Hence, what I call, the reconstructive retroactive interpretation, which reflects a collective effort to diffuse or diminish the sacrifice of Jesus while simultaneously seeking to infuse and extrapolate meaning and significance from the sacrifice of Isaac. Yet, neither the sacrifice at Moriah nor the sacrifice (or, punishment) at Egypt, the latter which is the focus of this article, were ever intended to be replicated in Israel. Certainly, this is just as true among Christians, too.

elements of a sacrifice

There are elements, in no particular order, common to the sacrifice of a Moriah and Egypt. 1) They are costly, not because of their quantity, but because of the value of human life. 2) They are full of purpose that transcended the moment of the sacrifice. 3) They are declared openly before they occurred. 4) The promise, or benefit, of those sacrifices is received by those designated by God. 5) They are specific as to who was to be sacrificed. These same elements are evident in those sacrifices offered by the Levites to the Lord. Similarly, they are evident in the sacrifice of Jesus.

a more ancient sacrifice than Jesus

Yet, as eager and ready as is the Jew to speak about, to and against the sacrifice of Jesus it is the older human sacrifice at Egypt, besides the sacrifice of Isaac in Israel’s history; which remains no less a puzzle for Israel than the sacrifice of Jesus. The Bible records these significant human sacrifices at two different locations of Moriah and Egypt. Yes, there are at least two other sacrifices neither of which were condoned by God. One is representative of a people who fell away from God. (2 Kings 3:27, see also, Jeremiah 19) The other of an individual who, no less apostate, ignorantly uttered his own rashness which resulted in the sacrifice of his own daughter. (Judges 11:31)

It was the human sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn through which Israel obtained her deliverance, from Egyptian slavery after nine prior plagues, finally. I anticipate someone might wonder if this sacrifice was not essentially God exacting his vengeance on Egypt by effectively, to put it in human terms, murdering Egypt’s firstborn? And, isn’t it a stretch to ennoble the death of Egypt’s firstborn as a sacrifice when they were not offered up to God, but they were struck down by God himself? Is there a precedent of evil-for-good model to which Israel can look and draw as concerns the sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn?

a model

Yes, there is a model. It is Joseph. Clearly, Joseph had reflected not only on what his brothers had done to him, but he sought to understand the greater purpose God had in mind for him and for Israel. Joseph summarized the whole experience to his brothers: You did it for evil, but God intended it for good. (Genesis 50:20) Joseph examined, framed and articulated his past experience radically as a true, meaningful, significant blessing for Joseph and Israel.

When God struck/sacrificed Egypt’s firstborn it was, as is the sacrifice of all firstborn unto the Lord, a pleasing and an acceptable aroma to the Lord. It was not just to humble Pharoah for his evil stubbornness, his pogrom on the Israelites’ firstborn or his defiance against the patient warning of God through nine plagues. It would compel Israel to examine again the meaning and significance of Abraham’s human sacrifice of Isaac which had become a theological speculation piece during four hundred years of slavery. Pharoah’s pogrom against Israel’s firstborn was under stealth and cunning, but God declared his intent and deliberate purpose to sacrifice Egypt’s firstborn openly and clearly for Pharoah, his court and all Egypt. The specific human (and animal) sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn by the Lord and for the Lord was not without the appreciable value of all life much less human life. The promise was the expected result: Pharoah would let Israel go into the wilderness where they could go and worship the Lord.

Long before the sacrifice of Jesus God had prepared Israel, no differently than he did a stubborn Pharoah, about what God could do, would do and did through the sacrifice of the firstborn child he gave to Joseph and Mary. And, to merely gasp in aghast with hand to mouth that God could not and would not do such a thing is what has led to endless discussion and speculation as to the sacrifice of Isaac and a hand-wringing arms length dismissal of the sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn and, no less, the sacrifice of Jesus.

Yet, here is what is unconvincing about the Jewish dismissal of the sacrifice of Jesus on the basis, or pretext, which Jews state constitutes adoration of a man, as Jews perceive Jesus, in clear violation of the Torah’s prohibition:

The sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn was no more intended than was the sacrifice of Isaac to convince Israel or the gentiles that God wants bodily human sacrificial burnt offerings as goes one Jewish interpretation. Both human sacrifices demand an understanding and not merely a quick casting aside of the whole matter as lessons against rank idolatry.

the human sacrifice of Moriah and Egypt

Nonetheless, the two instances of human sacrifice at Moriah and Egypt were deliberate and full of purpose. The purpose of those sacrifices was made clear after they were accomplished for all to see and to understand. But, the idea strikes appall. It nauseates. Our minds reel and will not allow it to settle into our conscience. Yet, there are images, some faint, some in bold archetype in these two sacrifices in the Bible. We can no more walk away from these with an intellectual loftiness about Isaac or Egypt’s sacrifices than plug in to the narrative our vicarious devotion to God on the backs of those sacrificed without responding to what God did through their sacrifice.

a principal reason for rejection

This is the principal reason why the claims of the faith in Jesus by the saints in Christ, a Jew according to the flesh, are lost to the Jews in the flesh in their rejection to the sacrifice of Jesus, historically. This is not a slam on the Jews, the Torah or Judaism, but rather a desire for them as well as Christians to understand more fully their respective mutual heritage and the claims associated with those claims.

The best efforts, or so the saints in Christ believe, of declaring to Jews what Jesus said and accomplished can no more pierce the Jewish claims against idolatry or their conscience, because of the shielding effect of the Torah on their conscience by the Torah’s admonition against idolatry.

This is the reason reverence and worship of Jesus, for the Jew, is idolatry and is an abomination unto the Lord for the Jew.

But, is it possible the Torah, so revered by Jews as well as Christians, speaks a message which they have overlooked, forgotten, rejected or dismissed altogether? It is the Torah which introduced the Bible reader to Abraham, a man who believed God. The Torah states God counted Abraham’s belief as righteousness for Abraham. Although Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Abraham as a man of great faith it appears his story became nothing more than a wonderful story to be retold in Israel while casting the significance of the sacrifice event as prophecy and solace for Israel’s future persecutions and sufferings. Yes, there have been centuries of scholarly study by Jews on the sacrifice of Isaac, but those studies and the interpretations of the scripture among Jews seem to have produced nothing more than a diluted, watered down sacrifice of a human into a devotional message for Israel. Similarly, Christians view the sacrifice of Isaac as a powerful demonstration of Abraham’s faith, but Abraham’s righteousness is seen as something beyond human comprehension or attainability. I believe one reason for such a theology to be embraced among Jews is because anything more on the significance and meaning of the sacrifice of Isaac would only raise the tension concerning the sacrifice of Jesus..

This is the much touted, and true, claim (Deuteronomy 6, the Shema) of Jews: God stated clearly and without room for doubt or need to explore for significance or meaning quite simply, because

1) God is one, and 2) God alone is to be worshiped.

This tout is zealously, but mistakenly, pushed over against the obedience of the saints in Christ in the form of a charge that the message of the New Testament is confused and convoluted in its embrace of idolatry of a man who directs worship away from God.

Jewish interpretations

Broadly speaking, though not comprehensively, these are three prominent Jewish views on the sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham and reflected in the articles.

  1. Abraham misunderstood God, his hand was never stopped by the angel of the Lord and Isaac was sacrificed. Isaac did not return with Abraham from Moriah.
  2. The sacrifice of Isaac is a portend of the persecution and suffering of Israel and her deliverance by the hand of God.
  3. The sacrifice of Isaac was to renounce pagan concepts of God along with human sacrifice.

Still, there is a wide chasm in the history between Abraham and Israel: It is Egypt. What do Egypt and Abraham share in common in Israel's history? It is, in one word, sacrifice. Chronologically, a sacrifice event itself also falls between firstborn and resurrection events. Simply stated, there can be no resurrection without first having the lifeless form of one who has been born into this world. Israel has a deep awareness, practice and familiarity associated with the firstborn as the one who received the father's blessing which among other things includes the inheritance of the father's worldly possessions. Israel also has an equally profound awareness, practice and familiarity associated with the sacrifice of the firstborn animal to be offered up to God. The firstborn male child was to be dedicated to the Lord, but it was the Levites whom God took as his own possession in perpetuity in place of Israel’s firstborn.

These were not animal sacrifices. They were human lives offered to God and taken by God. The sacrifices of these firstborn is more than a story of personal devotion (regarding Isaac) and divine power. (regarding Egypt) Was there a lesson for Israel in these sacrifices of the firstborn? Other than some emotional anxiety why are these viewed as they are for the most part by Israel? Noticeably absent in most of the articles sourced for this article is any mention of the sacrifice of the firstborn man and animal in Egypt. This is not to say these sacrifices are trifled in Israel, but as a matter of history they (the sacrifice of Isaac, particularly) are a matter for intellectual, scholarly study and source of prophetic solace in times of suffering and persecution for Israel. These sacrifices, if examined, solely on the idea of virtual human sacrifice involving Isaac and the actual human sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn appear, taken at face value as absurd and an abomination unto God, but then, the wisdom and ways of God are not as those of man. (Isaiah 55:8)

The Jewish response to these sacrifice events may be the single greatest obstacle towards understanding the sacrifice of Jesus, but it is also framed between the events the firstborn and the resurrection.

There’s an inseparableness between belief and obedience on the part of Abraham in the sacrifice of Isaac. Similarly inseparable, as became defined by the law of Moses for Israel, is the firstborn from sacrifice and these from the ultimate hope of the resurrection of the righteous and the wicked.

the firstborn

Abraham was an old man and past the age of fathering offspring. Yet, it was in his old age that God not only promised him a son, but delivered Abraham his firstborn son, Isaac. Then, what does God do? He calls on Abraham to offer up his firstborn son. It is powerfully striking that in the English version of the scriptures the word love appears for the first time in the scriptures in this passage.
He said, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go into the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” Genesis 22:2

Was God merely out to make a fool of Abraham by taking him to the brink of human sacrifice; the epitome of idolatry against God? Every indication from the scriptures of what happened that day at Moriah is that Isaac was delivered and returned to his father Abraham.

Egypt was not so fortunate as to be delivered from the last plague which God sent on that people. Only after the angel of the Lord struck and took as a sacrifice unto the Lord the firstborn human and animal in all of Egypt was Israel delivered and set free. Yes, there were many animals taken along with that sacrifice, but the enormity of that human sacrifice, not just the numbers, but that EVEN A SINGLE human life should be taken before Israel could be set free!
Oh, GOD!

the sacrifice

The sacrifice of Isaac was not as by coercion as some might see it. Isaac was not a naïve child. He was familiar with his father's custom of offering sacrifice to the Lord. When it came time Isaac was as obedient as was his father and he consented to being bound on the woodpile made ready for his own sacrifice. Lest anyone think in the hindsight aftermath of his deliverance that Isaac was full of life and not as good as dead; they deceive themselves.

Egypt’s firstborn may not have been as perfectly ready and willing to be sacrificed as was Isaac. Yet, it seems quite plausible that just as the Egyptians learned with the pronouncement of each of the subsequent nine plagues that they heard and learned from Pharoah’s court of the latest and final coming plague on their firstborn. The awe seems as inconceivable as it is unimaginable: The firstborn of Egypt has been openly and specifically declared as the target of the next coming plague from God on Egypt to ensure Israel’s deliverance.

Jesus, the firstborn of Joseph and Mary, no less repeatedly, openly and specifically himself as the ransom for the sins of those who put their trust on him.

the resurrection

The vision of the valley of dry bone in Ezekiel introduced to Israel the concept that the Creator of life can give life to what long ago returned to dust. The plausibility of this resurrection far exceeds the speculation given to a literal resurrection of Isaac. Although the NT portrays Isaac as having been resurrected from the dead it makes clear the meaning (Hebrews 11:19) is figuratively. Just as significant  the context of  this pre-Torah, pre-Ezekiel passage attributes to Abraham the belief that God is able to raise the dead.

There was no less of a collective belief, even if unwittingly, in the resurrection by Israel following the sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn: Israel was delivered from slavery and death to live their lives in worship to God.


Effectively, what the sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn signifies is the patent reminder that God, the Creator of life can and does take up life, not only at the end of one’s ripe old age, but when and how he openly and clearly declares he will do so. Do not mistakenly equate this statement concerning what God can do with the glib, "God can do anything." While that terse statement is true; my statement concerns two, notwithstanding their respective interpretations, sacrifice events with a third (Jesus) sacrifice to be accounted for on the basis of the first two. The ostensible revulsion to human sacrifice as a Jewish interpretative response to the sacrifice of Isaac seems rather misplaced if not unconvincing when applied to the sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn, and - Jesus.

Although none of these three sacrifices are recorded in the Torah and the New Testament as something for believers to replicate they are all clearly the unashamed, unapologetic work of God. The reason Israel’s claim of revulsion to human sacrifice is unconvincing is because when this same reaction is applied to the sacrifice event at Egypt it does not hold up. The reason it does not hold up is because the fluctuation between virtual/literal sacrifice of Isaac is no match for the actual, historical sacrifice event in Egypt. Similarly and without surprise, all efforts to apply the same scrutiny do not hold up when applied to the sacrifice of Jesus.

The sacrifice of Egypt’s firstborn in the Torah poses a challenge to the Jewish interpretation of the Isaac sacrifice event at Moriah as much as the sacrifice of Jesus at Calvary. Even the mistaken infusion of the literal resurrection of Isaac speaks to the true hope of the inseparableness of the firstborn from sacrifice without which there can be no resurrection.

Rabbi David C Levy
Rabbin Suzanne Singer
R. Louis Jacobs
Shoshana Matzner-Beckerman
Joshua Holo
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard
Zoltan Fisher
Glenn Miller


  1. Dear Gil
    Sacrifice means to relinquish that which you hold dear - how hard is it for you to relinquish your preconceived notions as to why Jews don't accept the Christian claims for Jesus and simply listen to what the Jews themselves have to say about this position?

  2. Yisroel, I appreciate the definition of sacrifice.

    my notions aside, as you call them, I offered corroborative substance in my article. I would no more presume to ask by brethren in Christ than Jews to accept anything without understanding. I conceded, for the benefit of my fellow disciples of Jesus, how the Jewish rejection of worship/adoration of Jesus is not hard to understand given the Torah's strict admonitions against idolatry.

    Granted, the source links I posted at the end of the article may not include other authoritative source with which you are familiar in which case I invite you to share with the readers and myself that source.

  3. Gil
    You make the point that the Jewish "failure" to "understand" sacrifice is an important if not the most important factor in the Jewish "failure" to accept Jesus.
    This fits right in with the Christian pattern of dehumanizing the Jewish people. The Jewish people have written and explained why they cannot accept Jesus - they wrote the explanation on the pages of history with their very life blood - yet you ignore their testimony and pontificate as to why the Jews "really" don't accept Jesus.
    Thank you
    You may enjoy this post http://yourphariseefriend.wordpress.com/2011/04/01/biblical-offerings-versus-christian-doctrine/
    as well as this one

  4. Alright, Yisroel, let me grant you, for the sake of discussion, that I am totally wrong on my point on the Jewish failure to understand sacrifice. I admit I cringe at the word/phrase "accept Jesus" as you attribute to me. It smacks of a superficiality to say nothing of biblical authenticity and as such not a phrase I am given to using.
    Still, - dehumanizing? Is this a trump card?
    I do not question or deny Jews have shed their blood for their faith and outright bigotry against them throughout history. Yet, here again you blithely say I ignore that history despite both my attitude and the content of my article. Although I did not presume to enumerate all of those periods in Jewish holocausts I focused on one. That one also happened to result in the shedding of Egypt's firstborn. Despite that being the focus of the article you have not said a single word, Yisroel.
    I will be reading the links.
    Peace to you, Yisroel.

  5. Dear Gil
    You wrote "The Jewish response to these sacrifice events may be the single greatest obstacle towards understanding the sacrifice of Jesus, but it is also framed between the events the firstborn and the resurrection."
    So no - dehumanizing is not a "trump card". Dehumanizing is when a person (in this case a nation) speaks what is on their heart - and instead of listening - you take the mike from them and tell the world what they are saying.
    We are married to God - the devotion that you are encouraging is the deepest violation of that marriage
    To now tell me that Israel "doesn't understand sacrifice" is why they refuse to commit to Jesus - is unbelievably frustrating
    Let the Jewish people tell you why Jews don't commit - you go ahead and present your best arguments as to why we should - but don't psychoanalyze our commitment to God.

  6. First, Yisroel, if I, as you say, have taken the mike from Israel I have not deprived Israel of anything. You yourself said it: They are saying, that is, what is on their heart. Whatever I or anyone say by way of our own interpretation neither denies nor silences their testimony.
    Second, I have hardly, as you say, encouraged anything. I have presented what is familiar AND ACCEPTED by Israel, namely the Torah. This means my references to Jesus in this context are intended and kept to a minimum. You will not find me calling, as I stated before, for Israel to just "accept Jesus."
    Third, these measures on my part cannot prevent you from straining to jump at your, not my, familiar, ready conclusions any time you happen to hear and engage with a guy like myself.
    Fourth, the Jewish people ARE TELLING me. I'm letting you tell me and if I, as you say, have psychoanalyzed Israel's commitment to God, you on the other hand have said precious little to the content of my article.
    You introduced the term, dehumanizing, so I will make an application. You judge for yourself if it there's any merit on this more graphic, human application.
    The sacrifice of Egypt's firstborn happened according as God commanded. How much, how often, how closely have their voices been given the mike to be heard? What is the worth of ANY human sacrifice that we would dehumanize it and dismiss it and forget about it?

  7. Gil
    We do not forget about the death of the Egyptian firstborn - we remember it precisely as God directed us to remember it.
    I would not associate that death (Egyptian firstborn) with the sacrifice at Moriah because the main ingredient (according to Scripture) of Moriah - obedience; was lacking in the Egyptian death. Still; both proclaim God's ultimate sovereignty over everything - a truth perhaps to insignificant for you - but the calling of my nation.

  8. I have not disputed or questioned whether Israel remembers the death of the Egyptian firstborn, Yisroel. Your statement that "we remember it precisely as God directed us to remember it" seems much like a sound bite to stop all discussion.

    I leave it for you to reflect on this statement of yours: "obedience; was lacking in the Egyptian death." It seems to be about as glib as the sound bite. Your statement, if you and I didn't know any better, would have one believe, IF the Egyptian's upon learning of God's order fell in line to be sacrificed and were in fact obediently sacrificed, -then- just maybe it could be began to be associated with the sacrifice at Moriah.

    The truth is God did not lay that enormous burden on the Egyptians. Instead, God gave the order and carried it out himself.

    How is it, in light of our dialog thus far and whatever you might have read from my blog, that you would think I would consider as insignificant or dispute the calling of Israel by God in the aftermath of the sacrifice of Egypt's firstborn?

    Peace to you.