Cannibal Killers in the Bible

Human Cannibalism

Cannibal killers in horror films tend to be mad or bad. The family of cannibals in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are mad. Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter, the brilliant and cultured serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs, is bad. But what about those who are dangerous to know simply because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time? What about those who eat the flesh of their own kind simply to survive? 

In this blog post, I’m not going to give a theological analysis of cannibalism or cannibal killers. It’s enough to point out the obvious fact that cannibalism is explicitly forbidden by the Old Testament (Leviticus 26:29). Instead, I want to tell the Bible’s only story that includes a cannibal killer. And then I want to quote some other verses that mention it because of the vivid and horrific language this literature uses to describe cannibalism. 

The Cannibal Killer Mothers

There are multiple references to cannibalism in the Bible. But there’s only one story about it, as far as I can tell. But this one story incapsulate the fact about cannibal killers in the Bible. Those who practised cannibalism did so not because they were mad or bad but because they were starving to death. 

King Ben-hadad king of Syria mobilised his arms and besieged the city of Samaria, capital of the norther kingdom of Israel. Because of the blockade of supplies and resources, and because the siege lasted so long, there were a terrible famine in the city. Hunger was so great that a donkey’s head was sold for two pounds of silver and a quarter cup of dove’s droppings for two ounces of silver. 

One day, as the king Jehoram of Samaria was walking on the city wall, he passed two women below. One of them call to him for help. After initially giving her a sarcastic reply, he asked what he could do for her. The first women explained she had made a deal with the second women. They would boil and eat her son one day and do with the same with the other woman’s son the next day. The first women kept her side of the bargain, but the second woman was now refusing to keep hers. 

When he heard that, king Jehoram tore his royal robes. Those below could see he was wearing sackcloth below it. Then, he swore to kill the prophet Elisha, who was also in the city under siege, and who he blames for not getting God to help them. That didn’t end well. You can read the rest of the story in 2 Kings chapter 7. 

Cannibal Killers and Sieges

One of earliest mention of cannibalism in the Bible is related to this.

It describes in graphic and great literary detail the sort of suffering that occurs during a siege. 

Because of the suffering your enemy inflicts on you during a siege, you will eat the fruit of your own womb, the flesh of those sons and daughters that God gave you. The most gentle and refined man among you will begrudge sharing food with his brother, his wife or his children who survive. He will refuse to share food even as he eats it because he has nothing else left due to the siege and the hardships it brings. The most tender and well-bread women among you – so sensitive and sophisticated that she would hardly touch the ground with her foot – will not only begrudge sharing food, but she’ll even eat the afterbirth/ placenta from her womb and the children she bears. And she’ll eat it secretly because she has nothing else, such is the horror of the siege and the oppression of your enemies. 

Deuteronomy 28:53-57

The horror here is intensified by the description of the men and women who were committing cannibalism, what exactly they ate, and how they ate it. It’s also interesting that the context for cannibalism here is just like in the story – a city under siege. This is common in the Old Testament. Here’s another example from Jeremiah 19:9. 

I will make this city desolate and an object of horror. Everyone who passed by will be shocked and will whistle at the carnage. I will make them eat the flesh of their own sons and daughters. Everyone will eat the flesh of their friends and neighbours in the siege, such will be the distress inflicted on them by their enemies. 

Jeremiah 19:9

The Cannibal Killers of Jerusalem

Speaking of Jeremiah, I have to point out that it’s not just sieges that are context for cannibalism. When Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Jeremiah wrote a poem of Lamentation to bewail it, a sort of funeral dirge for Jerusalem. It mentions cannibal killers twice. 

Pray to God for the lives of your children, who collapse with hunger at every street corner. Look, O LORD, and consider! Who have you ever treated like this? Is it right that women eat the fruit of their own wombs, the small infants they nursed, not much bigger than the size of a hand? 

Lamentations 2:19-20

Those who were pieced by swords were better off than those pieced by famine, who wasted away, pierced with pain, because the fields lack produce. Even tender-hearted women have boiled their own children with their own hands for food when my people were destroyed. 

Lamentations 4:9-10

The horror of cannibalistic acts are highlighted here by those who were eaten (the smallest of babies) and those who did the eating (the most compassionate and empathic of mothers). The prophet Ezekiel wrote about the same event. 

Because you worship your disgusting idols, I will bring about a situation that has never happened before and that will never happen again: Fathers will eat their own sons, and children will eat their own parents, right in front of you.  

Ezekiel 5:10

Before, they practiced their cannibalism in secret. Now, such was the hunger and the horror, that that they did it openly, right in the middle of where everyone lived. 

The Bible doesn’t shy away from describing horrific actions in explicit detail even while the moral context is one of clear condemnation. In fact, most of what makes these horrors so horrific is exactly that the fact that they are condemned as terrible evils. Otherwise, they’re just stuff that happens, about which you can feel whatever you want. 

The Bible doesn’t shy away from describing such horrors. And neither, in our own language and storytelling, should we. 

Photo by Lea Kobal on Unsplash

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