In particular, note Henry Neufeld’s post on the many meanings of sacrifice, to which I would add the complication that our understanding of legitimate sacrifice has itself changed (thankfully!), and did so even within the ancient world. For instance, I’ve lately been enjoying an excellent series of lectures on Ancient Greek Literature. The one I listened to on my drive home last night discussed Agamemnon, who sacrificed his daughter Iphigeneia at the beginning of the Trojan War, described with great pathos (and sickening detail) in the first part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy. A similar story, of course, appears in Judges 11, which describes with like pathos (though none of the gory details) Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter after a war with the Ammonites.
But the interesting this about both stories is how they indicate a shifting view of human sacrifice from the period described to the one in which the story is told. While Agamemnon and Jephthah apparently considered human sacrifice as an acceptable means of earning the god’s favor, those telling their stories saw things quite differently, taking pains to build up sympathy for the victim. These, I think, can provide a model for our own reading of the more gruesome aspects of biblical history. Like Aeschylus and the unnamed author of Judges 11, we must tell these stories, not to excuse or encourage such acts, but precisely to reveal their tragedy. For we still live in a world that is willing to sacrifice its children (whether in the names of various gods, nationalities, or as a “choice”), and too often we are numb to its horror.