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Home Book of Abraham Special Section Sacrificial Virgins in the Book of Abraham an Historical Touch

Sacrificial Virgins in the Book of Abraham an Historical Touch

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Research By Kerry A. Shirts

We have all ignored the history in the BofA for too long now anyway. What does Joseph Smith say Abraham's objections are in the BofA in the PofGP? Idolatry and human sacrifice. (Abr 1:7), Abraham complains they are trying to take away his life. Granted Hugh Nibley has far more sources available to him than I myself have, yet I do have some sources which indicate some historical matters in the BofA. In the days of Terah, we are told that people began to sacrifice their children and to worship images. It was in the days of Serug, Abraham's great-grandfather, that the people began to look upon the stars, and prognosticate by them and to make divination, and to make their sons and daughters pass through the fire. (Nibley - "The Unknown Abraham" in the Improvement Era, Feb. 1969 - quoting "Philo's Biblical Antiquities".)

At this point, a source I have that Nibley does not mention says "Serug is said to have discovered the art of coining gold and silver money. In his days men erected many idols into which demons entered and wrought great signs by them." (Rev. S. Baring Gould, Legends of the Patriarchs and Prophets, John B. Alden, 1884, p. 147). I got this source out of the city dump years ago. Someone had thrown it out, so I have kept it and read it. A most fascinating little read! So here they were, as the BofA reports "offering up their children unto their dumb idols." (Abr 1:7) with Abraham protesting and nearly getting himself in serious trouble. Nimrod's sacrifice of 70,000 babies may well be an echo of the practice and have nothing to do with Herod. This idea of Nibley's is confirmed in S. Baring Gould's book again, on p. 170 wherein Nimrod, after seeing the star in the East on Abraham's birth, which devoured the other stars, said Nimrod built a huge tower and housed all the pregnant women in it. He killed 70,000 male babies and left the females alive. This is very much in line with the idea presented in the BofA by Joseph Smith. Children were being sacrificed! That is historic ritual we might say. S. Baring Gould also notes the other idea that Abraham was against - "At this time idolatry was commonly practised by all." (p. 177). BofA says this also. Joseph Smith is exactly accurate here with both the legends (which he didn't know), as well as the history of Abraham's time.

Classical writers have described Egyptian sacrificial rites as witnessed in various lands. What is so very interesting is that in Ethiopia, Achilles Tatius reports, a virgin with hands bound behind was led around an altar by a priest chanting an Egyptian hymn; then "all retired from the altar at a distance," the maiden was tied down, and a sword was first plunged into her heart and then slashed her lower abdomen from side to side. The remains were burned, cut to pieces, and eaten. (Nibley, "IE", Feb. 1969). Note also that Robert Graves in his "Greek Myths" says that among the Scythian Taurians "a princely stranger ... is killed with a sword by the goddesse's virgin priestess; and she throws the corpse into the sacred fire." (Vol. 2, p. 74, 77). We know, thanks to the earlier labors of Dr. Jos. L. Saalschutz that "Aristomenes von Messene opfert dem Jupiter dreihundert Menschen, unter welchen sich Theopompous, der lacedamonische Konig befand. Dergleichen geschah in den altesten Zeiten bei den Lustrationen und Expiationen haufig. Ausserdem hatte Bachus einen Altar in Arkadien, auf wlechem sehr viel junge Madchen mit zusammengebundenen Ruthen so lange gebauen wurden, bis sie starben. Die Lacedamonier hatten einen ahnlichen Gebrauch, indem sie ihre Kinder zur Ehre der Diana Orthia so sehr geisselten, dass sie bisweilen ihr Leben einbussten." (Archaologie der Hebraer, 1855, p. 180 - I got a first edition in Sam Weller's bookstore in Salt Lake City a few months back). Here again we see the same theme, the maidens and children offered for sacrifice and in no small measure! This is another source Nibley didn't use, but I have.

The Pseudo-Plutarch tells how the first Pharoah in bad years was ordered by the oracle to sacrifice his own daughter and in grief threw himself in the Nile (Nibley, Feb. 1969). Heliodorus explained that the Egyptians of the late period selected their sacrificial virgins from among people of non-Egyptian birth, the rule being the men were sacrificed to the sun, women to the moon, and virgins to Osiris, equated here to Bacchus. This is precisely and exactly what we read of in Abr. 1:9! Here the girls are plainly meant as consorts of the god, in the usual ritual marriage of the year-rite, common to Egypt and Syria. Indeed, in a legend we learn that Nimrod's own daughter Radha fell in love with Abraham and tried to come to him in the sacrificial fire! The name is interesting since Rodha, Rhodopis, is a name popularly given to the Sphinx in late times, which was the Egyptians sacred hierodule. And Alan Gardiner reminds us that from the 21st dynasty onwards, the title "God's wife", formerly reserved for the Pharoah's wife, was "transferred to his daughter who became the consecrated wife of the Theban god and to whom human intercourse was strictly forbidden." (Gardiner Egypt of the Pharoahs, p. 343). This was the line of virgin priestesses which enjoyed a royalty line at Thebes. So here we have the august virgins of the royal line set apart as spouses of the god, and as such, expected to engage in those activities which would make them ritual hierodules. Strabo says that the Egyptians sacrificed the fairest princess, a virgin of the royal line, to be a hierodule until her physical purification, after which she could marry.

Here is a plain indication that such princesses "of the royal descent" as described in Abraham 1:11, were expected to jeopardize their virtue, and if they refused to do so they would forcibly be dispatched in the manner of the hierodules. Wainwright says the ladies represent the spirit of fertility, an adulteress is one in whom this spirit is emphatically incarnate. In the annual year rites, Wainwright explains that royal princesses, even the queen herself, were expected to function as courtesans. In short, as Joseph Smith's marvelous BofA says after the manner of the Egyptians, royal princesses were sacrificed both for their virtue and their lives on ritual occassions. (Wainwright - The Egyptian Sky Religion, pp. 55, 89).

Excerpts from, William J. Adams article also deserve to be far better known, expecially in light of human sacrifice and what the Book of Abraham theme would have us understand what happened in ancient history.

Human Sacrifice and the Book of Abraham

by William James Adams, Jr. in BYU Studies, Vol. 9, #4, pp. 473ff

Did the ancient Babylonian's practice human sacrifice? The world of scholarship is confused on the issue. Such scholars as Blome, [Friedrich Blome, Die Opfermaterie in Babylonien und Israel. (Rome, 1934), p. 369], Ward, [William H. Ward, Seal Cylinders of Western Asia.Washington, D. C., 1910), pp. 58, 309, 367.], and de Vaus [Roland de Vaux, Studies in Old Testament Sacrifice ( Cardiff, 1964 ), pp. 55-60], flatly deny that human sacrifice was practiced in the Babylon of Abraham's time, though de Vaux concedes that the practice came into use in the seventh century b.c. under the influence of the worship of Molech in Canaan. Other scholars, Jastrow [Morris Jastrow, Jr., Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria (Philadelphia, 1915) , pp. 358, 359.], Jeremias [Alfred Jeremias, Das Alte Testament in Lechte des Alten Orients (Leipzig, 1916), p. 399], Meissner, [Bruno Meissner, Babylonien and Assyrien (Heidelberg, 1925), II, 84], look at the evidence, but remain uncommitted. "On the other hand it is quite uncertain, whether human sacrifice was known in Mesopotamia . . ." are the words of Meissner and reflect the attitude of the other uncommitted scholars.

At this point it seems appropriate to define the term "human sacrifice." We will consider an act as a human sacrifice if (1) a person is killed either on an altar or in a temple or other holy place, and, (2) the killing is being done by a priest, priestess, or god. Both of these conditions should prevail.

With this definition of human sacrifice in mind, let us now look at the evidence. The evidence concerning the practice of human sacrifice among the Semites of Babylonia comes from four sources: (1) the circumstantial evidence from archaeological digs, (2) comments in ancient written texts, (3) human sacrifice as pictured on cylinder seals, and (4) the behavior of other Semitic peoples regarding the practice of human sacrifice.

To date, only one archaeological dig has produced any circumstantial evidence. Excavation at the Anu-Adad Temple in Assur, recovered a stele which describes the activities of Samsi-Adad IV (825-811 BC). The excavator notes: "It is remarkable that a human skull was found under the stele. From the stele's inscription it is unthinkable that this is a grave with a tombstone." [Walter Andrae, Der Anu-Adad-Tempel in Assur (Leipzig, 1909), p. 78.] If not a tombstone, then what? Meissner suggests that the skull "originated perhaps from a human sacrifice" (p. 84).

Several Assyrian legal documents contain penalty formulas which demand that the person who breaks the contract can redeem himself only by burning his eldest child on the altar of a temple. Below are the texts and their translations:

Text K 439 dated to Sulmu-Sarri (698 BC): Found in - [C. H. W. Johns, Assyrian Deeds and Documents (Cambridge, 1898), I, 389, 390], Reverse lines 5 and 6 read i sarrap maras-su rabi-tu itti BANMIN.NU.ERIN a-na Be-lit Seri i-sar-rap which being translated reads "he will burn his oldest, daughter with 'a quantity of ritual cider' to Belit-Seri, he will burn."

Text K 1492 dated to Samas-Kasid-Abi (669 BC): [Found in - C. H. W. Johns, Assyrian Deeds and Documents (Cambridge, 1898), I, 227, 228], Reverse lines 7-10 read lu-u apal-su rabu lu-u maras-su itti 10 imer ri-qi-e tab-te a-na Be-la-tu Se-e-ri: i-sarrap which is translated as "either his oldest son or his oldest daughter with ten imer of good spices he will burn to Belat-Seri."

Text K 1488 with no date given: Found in [C. H. W. Johns, Assyrian Deeds and Documents (Cambridge, 1898), I, 351, 352], Reverse lines 7-9 read apal-su- a-nadSin i sarrap maras-su rabi-te itti BANMIN.NU.ERIN a-na Be-lit Seri i-sar-ap which reads in translation as "he will burn his oldest son to Sin, with a 'quantity of ritual cider' he will burn his oldest daughter to Belit-Seri."

Text AO 2221 dated to Sa-Nabu-Su (ca. 656 BC): Found in [Textes Cuneiformes, Vol. IX: Contrats et Letters, edited by G. Contenau (Paris, 1926), plate XXV], Reverse line 3 reads apal-su rabu ina dha-am-ri sa dAdad i sarrap and is translated as "his oldest son he will burn in the sanctuary of the god, Adad."

In an old Babylonian text (Bu 88-5-12, 51) a man is mentioned in a list of offerings as a confirmation oath. Lines 33 and 34 read awil-ia alap-ia immer-ia lu-u a-wi-lu-tum lu-u al-pu lu-u im-me-ru which translates as "my man, my ox, my sheep, either a man or an ox or a sheep

These texts have been interpreted in four ways: (1) Johns suggested that the verb sarapu, "to burn," had lost its force and referred only to a ritual. [Johns, Assyrian Deeds and Documents, III, 345, 346.] (2) Furlani argued that since the penalty was so severe, the contracts were never broken. [Giuseppo Furlani, Il Sacrificio nella Religione dei Semiti di Babilonia e Assiria (Rome, 1933), pp. 273, 274] (3) Jastrow was not sure whether these phrases should be accepted literally or as mere threats. He did feel that they suggested "that at one time children were offered as sacrifices in the way indicated." [Jastrow, Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria pp. 385, 359] (4) de Vaux finds the argument of Koehler and Ungnad most convincing (de Vaux, p. 59). These two scholars noted that the texts quoted above (except Bu 88-5-12, 51) come from the seventh century b.c. It was at this time that the worship of Molech with its burning of children was introduced to the Hebrewsby the Phoenicians. They then speculate that the practice of burning children to a god was passed on from the West Semites to the Assyrians of the seventh century. [Joseph Koehler and Arthur Ungnad, Assyriche Rechtsurkunden (Leipzig, 1913), p. 456]

The pictured evidence comes from cylinder seals...

This first seal was catalogued by Ward (#138c, p. 53), Jeremias (#171, p. 399), and Boehmer (#482 and p. 82). Found in [Rainer Michael Boehmer, Untersuchungen zur Assyriologie und vorder-asiatischen Archaeologic, Band IV: Die Entwicklung der Glyptic waehrend der Akkad-Zeit (Berlin, 1965)]

Ward suggests that this seal represents two distinct scenes. On the left half two gods are talking. The other scene shows a god, drawn twice for symmetry, ready to kill a foe. On the other hand, Jeremias suggests that this may be a victim being dragged to the sacrificial altar at the left.

In lieu of our definition of sacrifice, it is appropriate at this point to define an altar. From the seals studied by Ward the following types of altars have been noted (pp. 360-367):

Thus, in our first seal we find both the stepped and hourglass altars present along with a god holding a knife of some sort. Note also the presence of a bird which is very similar to the bird in Facsimile 1 of the Book of Abraham.

This second seal was catalogued by Jeremias (#170, p. 399). Jeremias interpreted this seal as a human sacrifice. Indeed, we have a man about to be slain by a god, or a priest in the presence of god.

The third seal of interest to us was catalogued by Osten. [Hans Henning von der Osten, University of Chicago, Oriental Institute Publications, Vol. XXII: Ancient Oriental Seals in the Collection of Mr. Edward T. Newell (Chicago, 1934), #153, p. 113] We have here our best pictured evidence which shows a man about to be sacrificed on a table altar. Concerning this seal Osten says, "Sumero-Akkadian seal No. 153, however, shows a god being killed or sacrificed on an altar. This scene has a mythological meaning, but we may consider it as evidence that in earlier times in the Near East human beings were sacrificed" (p. 155).

We will now look at the practice of human sacrifice among other Semitic and neighboring peoples. Gurney translates a Hittite text as follows: "If the troops have been beaten by the enemy they perform a ritual 'behind' the river, as follows: they 'cut through' a man, a goat, a puppy, and a little pig; they place half on this side and half on that side, and in front they make a gate of . . . wood and stretch a . . . over it, and in front of the gate they light fires on this side and that, and the troop walk right through, and when they come to the river they sprinkle water over them." [O. R. Gurney, The Hittites (Baltimore, 1962), p. 151] He further notes that in a broken passage a prisoner of war is on a list of items for sacrifice.

Among current-day Arabs human sacrifice is forbidden and unpracticed, but we find hints that it was practiced in pre-Islamic times. An early Christian story tells of the son of St. Nilus who is saved from being sacrificed to Venice, the morning star, because the Arabs overslept. [Photius, Patrologia Graeca, p. lxxix, cols. 583-694] A story from the third century a.d. says that the Arabs of Duma sacrificed a child every year and buried it under an altar. [Prophyry, De Abstinentia, II, 56] Isaac of Antioch (fifth century) said that when the Arabs of the Syrian desert took Beth Hur in Mesopotamia, they sacrificed many children to the goddess Al Cuzza. A century later an Arab leader, Mundhir III, sacrificed four hundred nuns to the same goddess. Near Kufa are two stelae called "the two stones rubbed with blood." These are supposed to have been set up by Mundhir who rubbed them each year with the blood of human sacrifices. [ Julius Wellhausen, Reste arabischen Heidentums (Berlin, 1897), pp. 40-43] During the early days of Islam a story was told of Muhammad's grandfather. The grandfather had vowed to sacrifice one of his sons if he were to have ten sons. At the birth of his tenth son he was advised to offer a hundred camels instead. [M. Gaudefrey-Demombynes, Mahomet (Paris, 1957), p. 57]

The Old Testament makes frequent mention of the practice of human sacrifice among the Hebrews. Micah 6:1-8 includes human sacrifice in a list of offerings which are secondary to justice, love, and humility. Isaiah 66:3 gives several parallel lines. The first half of each line gives the acceptable practice, and the second half of each line gives the pagan practice:

slay the ram, smite a man, sacrifice the lamb, offer up a dog

In Leviticus 19:21 and 20:2-5 the sacrificing of a son to Molech is forbidden. Mention is made of "passing children through the fire of Molech" in 2 Kings 3:27, 16:3, 17:17, and 23:10.

Human sacrifice in North Africa is discussed by de Vaux (pp. 75-84). The bones in the sacrificial pits of the Carthage temple were studied by a medical student and revealed the following:

Eighth and seventh centuries

human bones alone 55.5%

animal bones alone 11.1%

mixed 33.3%

Sixth and fifth centuries

human bones alone 48.0%

animal bones alone 23.0%

mixed 29.0%

Fourth through second centuries

human bones alone 21.7%

animal bones alone 26.0%

mixed 52.2%

Now that we have looked at the evidence from archeology, texts, pictures, and neighbors, what does it all add up to?

When we remember that the Arabs of Duma sacrificed a child each year and put the body under the altar, it is not so surprising to find a skull buried under a stele in the Anu-Adad-Temple.

Also, de Vaux declared that human sacrifice came with the Phoenicians in the eighth and seventh centuries and that the new mode of worship was reflected in the penalty formulas of seventh-century Assyrian contracts. But the human sacrifices of the Phoenicians and Canaanites were to Molech, whereas the human sacrifice in the contracts were to well-established deities, Sin and Belit-Seri, who had well-established rituals. Why should they adopt a new ritual? It would seem easier to introduce a whole new religion, such as the worship of Molech, than to change an old ritual. Also, de Vaux fails to take into account file Old Babylonian confirmation oath which lists a man among items to be sacrificed. In this regard it should be noted that Abraham's home, Ur of the Chaldees, was one of the great centers for worship of the moon-god Sin.

Neither can the pictures be brushed aside as weak hints. With the cylinder seal published by Osten (see above) we no longer have weak hints but a strong one. Further, as we consider how many Semitic and neighboring cultures practiced human sacrifice, it becomes most plausible to think that the ancient Semites of Mesopotamia also practiced it. And it also becomes most plausible to think that an attempt was made to sacrifice Abraham as Joseph Smith declared it was.

Last Updated on Monday, 17 May 2010 11:30  

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