It is often said that those who reject religion do so because it is the easier option. With the rejection of Judasim, it’s said, goes the obligation to daven three times a day, the obligation to learn, the obligation to dress in accordance with halacha, and many other obligations. (Even, it’s claimed, the obligation to be moral, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Something similar is said about ancient pagans. Pagans, it’s claimed, don’t have to worry about following rules or being moral, because whatever they may want to do, they can find a god that will approve. And just look at what awful, immoral things pagans did in the worship of their gods! Temple prostitutes, ecstatic orgies, human sacrifice, even the sacrifice of their own children! Pagans sound like horrible, immoral people looking for excuses to do whatever they please and engaging in the worst sort of behaviors while calling those behaviors holy.
Let’s look at it for a moment from the pagans’ point of view.
From the ancient pagans point of view, the point of view of all the evil ovdie avoda zara of tanach, it is Judaism that is the easier option. The pagan must worry every day about the wishes of the numerous gods in the local pantheon. He has to try to do what he can to strengthen his gods against the assaults and machinations of foreign gods. When doing business with foreigners, he has to be careful not to offend their gods, and has to learn the proper rituals so that those local gods might favor him with success. A Jewish person only has to worry about the wishes of a single god, and arrogantly declares that the gods of foreigners are merely figments of their imaginations to whom no respect needs to be paid.
The pagan was personally involved in the rituals of his worship, whether through spiritual journeys taken under the influence of hallucinogenics or through metaphor or sympathetic magic in sleeping with temple prostitutes to encourage the fertility of his fields and family. The Jew merely brings an animal to the Temple for the priests to process, or even worse, mumbles some words out of a book and calls it a day. Those are hardly the deeply personal, life-changing experiences of pagan worship.
Most significant, the pagan is called upon to sacrifice for the greater good that which is most dear to him. Even within the Jewish tradition, we see that the more valuable the sacrifice, the greater the favor it finds with God. The midrashim say that Cain’s sacrifice was rejected and Hevel’s accepted because Cain brought a sacrifice from the worst of his crops, while Hevel brought one of his best rams. What is more precious, more valuable than a child? Can there be any greater sacrifice than a parent giving up their child for the greater good of their people? For a parent, even sacrificing himself is nothing compared to sacrificing his child.
As horrific as child sacrifice is, we can appreciate the motivation behind it. Sacrifice was usually seen as a tit-for-tat exchange with the gods. If you give them something valuable, they will do something valuable for you. If you truly believe that a great sacrifice – the greatest sacrifice- is necessary to get the gods to bring rain, or bring back the sun, or to defeat your enemies, so that your entire people may survive - something that is very, very valuable and requires a sacrifice of equal proportion – then, as awful as it is, sacrificing your child is what you must do. How selfish it would be to watch the world burn in order to save your child!
Yet here are your neighbors, the Jews, who have as part of their sacred literature a story about how God substituted a ram for a child sacrifice and admonishes against ever sacrificing children. Here is a religion that views child sacrifice not only as unnecessary, but paints this ultimate sacrifice as an evil act. Who wouldn’t want to worship a god who wants only animals, one who will never call on you to make a bitterly painful, heart-breaking sacrifice for the greater good?
Surely this is the easy way out.