Greatest Commandments: Levitical Contradictions and Human Sacrifice in the Torah

It’s well past midnight, and so I’m probably missing something very simple, some easy explanation for this stuff. But there appears to be some difficulties in Leviticus 27, and it’s not clear to me how to resolve these, even after consulting expert opinion.

Theological Warranty

Of course, this is just some dude's blog. Personal interpretations, studied on my own, and all that. While I did consult outside sources, ultimately, I’m just a theological peasant, without any special knowledge or trained theological education, and I’m ultimately subordinate to real theologians and biblical scholars. I hardly know enough Hebrew to follow the prayers, and my Greek is non-existent. There's no theological warranty, express or implied, here. If you quake in fear from the following instructions, you need to STOP. It may be the case that you are actually a Wandering Internet Nomad who stumbled here through Google and you don't realize it. Well, someone just told you. Please don't base major theological decisions, or even statements, on the content of this post. I don't know you and I don't how how you got here. Stop calling. Jimmy no live here, you no call back! (HT Hanselman)

The Problem

In studying the last chapter of Leviticus to map commandments in our massive mitzvot map, I’ve stumbled on some controversy:

  • Leviticus 27:9-10 contains 2 commandments which seem to contradict each other.
  • Leviticus 27:29 appears to suggest human sacrifice.

Ha! One at a time.

Contradictory Commandments


Ok, get this. Leviticus 27:9-10 reads like this:

If what a person vowed is an animal that is acceptable as an offering to the LORD, such an animal given to the LORD becomes holy. They must not exchange it or substitute a good one for a bad one, or a bad one for a good one; if they should substitute one animal for another, both it and the substitute become holy.

Maybe I’m reading this too rigidly, but there appears to be 2 commandments in the emphasized section:

  • No substitutions for animals vowed to the Lord.
  • Substitution animals are to be consecrated.

Consulting Maimonides’ famous 613 commandments list, he, too, reads it this way, extracting 2 commandments out of this passage, with his commandment listings seemingly at odds with one another:

#440. Not to substitute another beast for one set apart for sacrifice.

#441. The new animal, in addition to the substituted one, retains consecration.

-Maimonides’ reckoning of commandments contained in Leviticus 27:10

Doing a bit of research on this came up dry; most of the commentary I found on the web skimmed over this seeming contradiction. To that end, I’ve asked the fine folks at about this passage to determine whether there’s a traditional explanation for this passage.

There’s probably a simple explanation, but I’m not seeing it right now. I think the most harmonious way to interpret this is, “Don’t substitute. But if you do, both are holy.” Another potential way would be, “Don’t substitute. If you try to substitute, now you have 2 offerings, both holy.” Both of those don’t sit too well, however, there must be another interpretation.

Human Sacrifice?

So this is a bit odd. In the vast information sea that is the internet, you come across a lot of “skeptic” takes on the Scriptures. (I use quotes, because it’s not that they’re skeptical, it’s that they are just atheists using a fancy name for themselves. I liken it to left-wing politicians fancying themselves as “progressives”. It’s a disingenuous name. I digress.)

On one well-known skeptic site, the author pointed out that Leviticus 27 suggested human sacrifice.

‘But nothing that a person owns and devotes to the LORD—whether a human being or an animal or family land—may be sold or redeemed; everything so devoted is most holy to the LORD.

No person devoted to destruction may be ransomed; they are to be put to death.

-Leviticus 27:28-29

In context, most all of Leviticus 27 is about people, animals, or possessions vowed to the Lord. And the animals, if kosher, were to be offered as sacrifices. The skeptic extends this idea to the difficult passage of Lev 27:29, where a person devoted to destruction (that is, the absolute giving over to the Lord, consecration?) may not be ransomed (bought back). Instead, they’re to be put to death.

Wait, what?

Admittedly, the case here for human sacrifice is weak; there’s no mention of sacrificing that person to God. Even so, we’re left with this puzzling passage about putting to death a person devoted to destruction.

Where does this “devoted to destruction” come from? If we connect v29 with v28, we can equate “devoting to the LORD” with “devoting to destruction.” The footnotes suggest they may be related: both devotions use a Hebrew word that refers to “the irrevocable giving over of things or persons to the LORD, often by totally destroying them.”

If this is accurate, it seems indeed that nothing devoted to the Lord can be sold or redeemed, and that persons devoted to the Lord are to be put to death.

If I was looking to find contradictions and raise a stink, I’d interpret this is the worst way possible, as the skeptics do.

If I was looking to interpret these harmoniously, I’d suggest tying the bit of forbidden ransoms with the death penalty: “A devoted-to-God person who is ransomed, thus breaking the commandment, is to be put to death.” Or perhaps the putting to death is for the one who paid the ransom, thus breaking the commandment.

More Contradictions in 27?

And what’s with v28, anyways; nothing devoted to the Lord can be sold, redeemed, or ransomed? Doesn’t that contradict v18, which suggests things can be redeemed? “If the one who dedicates the field wishes to redeem it, they must add a fifth to its value, and the field will again become theirs.”

Leviticus 27 like a mess to me. And worse, I missed our congregations’ study on it this year, so I’m not privy on the groupthink.

If you fine blog readers have any takes on the supposed human sacrifice verse (v28-29), or on the apparent contradictions all through Lev 27, I’m all ears.

Oh, and here’s the latest Mega Massive Mitzvot Map, the Leviticus 27 commandments in orange:

(direct image link)


  1. I was just wondering yesterday about Greatest Commandments: glad to see you're still laboring on this worthy project.

    On "devoted to destruction": I think it's a reference to herem (a la Joshua, or Deut 7:17(26)), not to voluntary devotion of humans.

  2. I think Yahnatan is on the right track. I also think, of the resources you have consulted, is probably your best bet for getting a reasonable answer. Your quandary tends to re-enforce my position that we can't read the Bible "straight", as it were, and that we need to take a look at the commentary, including the Oral Law, behind the written text.

    Judaism has been wrestling with these questions thousands of years longer than Christianity and I can only imagine that they may possess insights that escape even some of the finest Christian experts in the field. This isn't because Christian scholars are somehow deficient, but the bias of the church against the Talmudic, Chassidic, and Kabbalistic understanding of the basic Torah text often results in "blind spots". It's not that the answer isn't there, it's just that the location of the answer is invisible to most Christian eyes.

    When I come across some part of scripture that seems to be internally contradictory, I conclude that the problem is with me and not with the scripture. On a more fundamental level, Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book God in Search of Man states, "The question breaks forth with the realization that it is man who is the problem", not God.

    God and His Universe is perfect (OK, we broke it, but He's going to help us fix it), however we are not. We are like a person trapped in a complex maze, trying to find our way out in the dark by bumping into walls and feeling our way along the floor one inch at a time. We constantly come to dead ends and have to retrace our steps. We know that Jesus is the light and Torah is the lamp, but even so, we struggle all our lives to glimpse the spark that leads us out of the labyrinth and into the court of the King.

    Today's blog post is very illuminating. Keep up the good work.

  3. One answer has been given at The answer follows my own harmonious interpretation:

    The second commandment is a fail-over; break the first commandment (no substitution), then follow the second commandment. I find this odd, in fact, I can't think of other examples of this in the Torah. One commenter suggested "Do not murder" and "put the murderer to death" is an example, but that differs in who the commandment is directed to: "do not murder" is directed to the practitioner, "put the murderer to death" is directed towards his prosecutors.

    The answer also pointed to the Rambam's halacha on these sacrifices, where its shown Rambam, too, believes commandment #2 is a fail-over.


  4. I'm going to jumpstart the whole 'human sacrifice' argument with tomorrow's "morning meditation". Watch for it and let me know what you think.

  5. My take on Lev.27:28 is that the word Cherem or Charam the same word, pointing differently and can mean either a devotion to or to ban or destroy. YHWH will sometimes command in war that a city be given up and destroyed as an act of devotion. It is a kind of Holy War. Similar to the meaning of Korban.


  6. Wouldn't the requirement of marrying the girl you sleep with count as another? I had the impression that these failovers are somewhat common.

  7. You and several other have noted that there are, in fact, many fail-over commandments. So, this bit isn't so odd after all.