“They have built shrines to Baal, to put their children to the fire as burnt offerings to Baal which I never commanded, never decreed, and which never came into My mind” (Jer 19:5, JPS)
“I, in turn, gave them laws that were not good and rules by which they could not live: When they set aside every first issue of the womb, I defiled them by their very gifts – that I might render them desolate, that they might know that I am the LORD” (Ezek 20:25-26)
These are the texts Levenson begins with in his The Death & Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism & Christianity. For many, this first text isn’t all that shocking because we will automatically apply our rule of faith (allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture) but Levenson rightly cautions against this (at least so quickly). In Exodus 34:20, the sacrifice of the first-born is given the opportunity to be ‘redeemed’ by an animal while Exod 22:28 is eerily silent in terms of this provision.
What later prophets do with this text does seem to present some tensions: Jeremiah denies that YHWH ever commanded it (or is Jeremiah only speaking of sacrificing to other gods, e.g., Molech?) while Ezekiel, while not condoning the practice, does have it as a command of YHWH. Interestingly enough, Levenson also asks the probing question, “If, as Jeremiah put it, “burn[ing] their sons and daughters in fire” is something which YHWH “never commanded, which never came to [His] mind,” then how shall we explain the aqedah, the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22?” (12).
What this seems to point to for Levenson is that “YHWH once commanded the sacrifice of the first-born but now opposes it” (8). This is not to say that people obeyed this law frequently but throughout the literature of the OT it is undeniable that this idea of sacrificing the first-born is ubiquitous.
Vestiges of this idea can be found most importantly in Genesis 12 (aqedah), Judg 11:29-40 (Jephthah’s vow), 2 Kgs 3:26-27 (Mesha’s sacrifice). The theology underlying Exod 22:28 is that first-fruits of all creation, animals and sons alike, belong to YHWH. This is the underlying motif that will undergo many transformations in the OT.
He then takes this tradition and extends it to the self-identification of Israel as the first-born of YHWH (Exod 4:22). The Exodus itself is a story of redemption at the cost of the first-born. Israel is released only at the expense of Egypt’s first-born.
This notion is transformed further in a cultic setting. Whereas the offering of firstlings to YHWH in Exod explicitly says to give YHWH first-born sons as well, the stipulation in Deut 15:19-23 is missing. Has it been eradicated? Levenson says no, it has been transformed both by the cultic rites of the paschal lamb but also, importantly, in the dedication of the Levites whom Aaron is to “designate before the LORD as an elevation offering from the Israelites” (Num 8:11, 13).
This even goes so far as to present a crisis in Num 3:39-43 when the number of first-born males of Israel were 273 more than the number of Levites. “Thus Aaron and his sons were given 1,365 shekels as redemption moeny for the first-born for whom no Levites were available to serve as substitutes (Num 18:15-18, 49-51)” (47).
Ultimately this does lead to the theme of Christ as Son of God. Ironically Levenson does point out the hypocrisy found in Tertullian who railed against an ancient African practice of sacrificing their children because Saturn sacrificed his children: they were following imitatio dei, “in mimicry of Saturn’s deeds with respect to his own offspring” (24). Tertullian found it repulsive to follow a god who would sacrifice his own children. Do you sense the irony? See John 3:16.