Human Sacrifice at Gibeon?
2 Samuel 21:1-9 Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites. And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.) Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the Lord?
And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel. And he said, What ye shall say, that will I do for you. And they answered the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel, Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, whom the Lord did choose. And the king said, I will give them.
But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the Lord’s oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul. But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite: And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest.
Is this an example of human sacrifice in the Bible? In this brief exposition, we’ll explain why this is not an example of ritual human sacrifice, but rather, a standard judicial execution, with nuances associated with Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) legal codes.
To begin, it should be noted that the Gibeonites were in a corner in terms of seeking justice on their own for the actions of Saul’s house against them. They were unable to protect themselves and could not engage in a “blood feud” to avenge their losses.
For this reason, they rather pled with David for justice, and it was provided for them in the form of members of Saul’s household – with a little impetus from God for David to provide that justice. The exact nature of the punishment is a little difficult to discern; commentators have suggested everything from a ritual dismemberment to the members of Saul’s house being thrown off a cliff. It is agreed, however, that after what was done was done, the corpses were exposed to the elements.
It is this last bit that informs us that a judicial execution is what took place. In the ANE, exposure of a corpse was part of the usual punishment for covenant treaty violations — which is exactly what Saul’s house did when they broke the divinely sanctioned treaty with the Gibeonites (Joshua 9).
In light of this, let us now consider some objections alleged to connect this to human sacrifice.
It is clear that the members of Saul’s house were provided to placate God.
In light of the judicial data above, that is not at all “clear”. Rather, the narrative is clear that these were judicial executions performed to settle accounts for Saul’s violation of the treaty with the Gibeonites.
The sacrifice was made during the barley harvest. That’s when many ancient people offer human sacrifices.
Harvests were also typical time markers in an era before published calendars were available. It was also a time when a community commonly gathered together, and all could be present to witness a judicial execution.
The passage says that God was entreated for the land after the sacrifice was complete. That sounds like a human sacrifice.
The error here is the assumption that God is only entreated at times of human sacrifice. In reality, violation of a covenant in which YHWH was the chief witness and suzerain would naturally result in punishments in line with the Deuteronomic covenant curses. In this, YHWH is no different than any other ancient suzerain/patron, who would also withhold favor from those who violated covenant terms, and would properly demand that the situation be resolved — and just as naturally, once the price of justice has been paid, that is exactly when those being punished would entreat the suzerain for relief.
In conclusion: I gathered these arguments from a survey of commentator views on this passage. As it happens, there was one commentator who argued that this judicial execution was some form of sacrifice to a “sun god.” That, however, is a vastly minority position, is just not supported by the textual or contextual evidence.