In 2019, in a coastal area of northern Peru, archaeologists discovered the largest child burial site ever found. Lying beneath a lonely plot of desert sands were the skeletons of 227 children between the ages of 4 and 14.
The archaeologists dated their find to the time of the Chimú tribe 600 years ago. They tell us that the children were all ritually killed at the same time.
It was a gruesome find. How could this happen?
The chilling scene only makes sense when you understand how the gods were viewed in societies such as the Chimú. In ancient tribal communities, it was understood that the gods controlled everything that happened. Each god was designated responsibility for a particular aspect of life. Knowing this, the way to do well was to keep the gods happy – especially the one you needed at the time. So, if you wanted a baby, you turned to the fertility god; if you needed a healthy crop, you looked to the rain god.
Having made your choice, you would bring your offering to the temple where the god was said to dwell. The type of offering depended on the magnitude of your request; you could bring food, animals or, if you were really desperate, your children.
“If there was a famine, you knew they were angry. In such cases, the only way to rectify the situation was to make sacrifices.”
So, people had a ‘relationship’ with the gods, but it was difficult to know what the gods were thinking. The main way was to look for signs in the world around you. If the crops were flourishing, you knew the gods were happy. But if there was a famine, you knew they were angry. In such cases, the only way to rectify the situation was to make sacrifices.
This appears to be what was happening in the Chimú community on that terrible day 600 years ago. Archaeologists believe that the children were sacrificed to stop disasters linked to the El Niño phenomenon – a weather event known to trigger flooding and landslides in the area. You can only imagine the Chimús’ desperation as they brought their children to the altar by the sea. They faced an impossible choice: the destruction of their village or the slaughter of their children.
It is against this backdrop that the God of the Bible shines most brightly. Like the Chimú, the people of the Ancient Near East worshipped many gods. In the beginning, there was no reason to anticipate that Israel’s Yahweh was any different from other gods. But time showed that to be far from the truth.
The Grand Reveal
There is one scene in Scripture that highlights God’s unique nature perhaps more clearly than most. In the story, Elijah had just won a victory over Israel’s King Ahab and Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 19). A contest by fire on Mount Carmel had revealed Elijah’s God to be more powerful than Ahab’s and Jezebel’s. Enraged at their loss, Ahab and Jezebel set out to take revenge on Elijah. Later, we find him as a lone fugitive, fearing for his life in a cave near Mount Horeb.
The cave sets the stage for the main point of the story. Here, God chooses to reveal himself. He tells Elijah to go out and stand on the mountain and wait for him to ‘pass by.’
A great wind follows. It tears ‘the mountains apart’ and ‘shatters the rocks’, but God wasn’t present in the wind. Then there’s a great earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake either. Finally, there is a fire, but God wasn’t in the fire (verses 11–12).
How does God wish to be known?
In the stillness that follows, God speaks. He speaks to Elijah about his situation (verses 12-18). In other words, God reveals himself as a voice.
The God who Speaks Back
Elijah’s revelation in the cave becomes even more pronounced when we remember Israel’s earlier encounters with God. Previously, God had revealed himself with natural phenomena such as fire, wind, earthquakes, thunder, lightning and smoke (Exodus 19:9; 20:18–19, Numbers 9:15–19; Psalm 99:7). These were all in keeping with ancient expectations for a theophany. Yet here we discover that this God is known by a voice that was personal and identifiable. If the traditional marks of a theophany express God’s power, his voice expresses his personhood. This God – the Creator – speaks back.
We see the theme of a talking God threading in and out of every story in the Bible. From the very beginning, God reveals himself by interpersonal communication. It has been estimated that one third of the Hebrew Scriptures is taken up with God-conversations. The phrase ‘God said’ and its variations appear up to 3,800 times in the Old Testament alone! By his very nature, God is a communicator.
“As an omniscient God, we take it for granted that God knows us. But the faculty of speech makes him knowable to us. When we hear his voice… we get to know him.”
The idea of a God who speaks back changes the way we relate to God. Language is the means by which we can be known. It makes relationship possible. As an omniscient God, we take it for granted that God knows us. But the faculty of speech makes him knowable to us. When we hear his voice, we learn his thoughts. We begin to understand what motivates him. We get to know him.
We see the truth of a knowable God most completely in the person of Jesus, the living Word of God (John 1:1). The manifestation of God’s “word in the flesh” (John 1:14) demonstrates God’s relatability. When Jesus spent time with his disciples, children, lepers, strangers, and even his enemies, he showed us the motivation of the Creator. At the heart of the Christian God is personal relationship.
Today this relationship is accessible to us by the Holy Spirit. When we choose to follow Jesus, we receive the Spirit and the ability to hear God’s voice for ourselves (Acts 2:16–17). Unlike the Chimú, we do not need to guess at our circumstances to know what God is thinking. Instead, we are invited into a personal knowledge of God that grows through listening and attending to his voice. We can know God!
[i] Jenny Awford, ‘“World’s Largest Child Sacrifice Site” Discovered in Peru’, News.com.au (29 Aug. 2019) (accessed 16 Feb. 2021).
[ii] John Loren Sandford, Elijah Among Us (Grand Rapids: Chosen, 2002), p.163.
Article supplied with thanks to God Conversations.
About the Author: Tania Harris is a pastor, speaker, author and the founder of God Conversations.