Child Sacrifice, A Traditional Religious Practice in Ancient Israel?

Scholars continue to debate a number of important issues concerning the nature of human (child) sacrifices in the ancient Near East, including the origins of the rite, to whom these sacrifices were intended, and by whom they were performed.  A number of books dedicated to the topic have appeared in recent years,[1] and many scholarly books pertaining to the history of Israelite religions have included discussions of these issues as well.[2] Especially vexing as pertains to the biblical material is the question of whether there was in fact a god named Molech/Molek to whom these sacrifices were being performed, and whether or not the biblical phrase “to make pass through the fire” refers to child sacrifice or simply a ritual of dedication. 

Until 1935, when Otto Eissfeldt published his volume Molk als Opferbegriff im Punischen und Hebräischen, und das Ende des Gottes Moloch,[4] it had been presumed that there was an Israelite cult which performed human sacrifices to a god named Molech/Molek.  However, Eissfeldt argued that there never was a deity Molech (and thus there was no cult devoted to him), and that the term mlk was not the name of a deity at any rate, but a term used for a sacrifice—in this case a human sacrifice—cognate with the Phoenician/Punic mlk sacrifice.  Eissfeldt’s thesis won a large number of adherents and is still accepted by many scholars today, although notable scholars such as John Day and George Heider have disagreed with him in certain instances.  For instance, they argue that although there are times in the Hebrew Bible when this word does indeed indicate a type of sacrifice, there was yet a god named Molech and a cult dedicated to him in ancient Israel, and that this deity was a Canaanite underworld deity.[5] In support of this conclusion[6], Day has argued that it is clear that the alleged god Molech is not to be equated with either YHWH, the Ammonite god Milcom, Baal, nor the Aramean deity Adad-milki; rather, a god mlk is known from the Ugaritic texts, as well as from Akkadian sources.  Further, he argues that the fact that there was a separate cult area where the sacrifices were performed (the topheth south of Jerusalem, as opposed to the Jerusalem temple) argues against the identification of Molech with YHWH.  Moreover, Day believes that the Hebrew Bible has not misunderstood what was originally a term for a sacrifice with a name for a deity, because this would have had to happen in a variety of biblical sources, a fact he feels strains credulity.

What are we to make of these disagreements amongst scholars?  Most scholars today, including Day, agree on at least several points: there was a cult of child sacrifice in ancient Israel, and that this practice is of Canaanite origin; that this type of sacrifice, contra some older scholarship, does indeed refer to the practice of actually sacrificing children, and not simply of dedicating them to a deity;[7] that there are a number of instances in the Hebrew Bible where the term mlk is most certainly a term for a (human) sacrifice–just as in the Phoenician/Punic sources–and not a god, as Eissfeldt originally brought to light; and that, although this term may be used for a sacrifice, there are yet instances in the Hebrew Bible where the term more naturally refers to an alleged deity named Molech.  The central questions therefore remain: was there a deity named Molech to whom an Israelite cult was dedicated and for whom human sacrifices were performed, as Day and Heider have argued?  And if so, what can be known about this deity?

There are a number of points that might be marshaled against the arguments put forth by Day.  Day goes to great lengths to suggest that certain biblical texts (e.g., Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 32:35) do not indicate that the Israelites were sacrificing their children to YHWH.[8] It seems more likely, however, given other passages in the Hebrew Bible that refer to these sacrifices being performed for YHWH or at YHWH’s command, that these passages in Jeremiah do intimate or imply that human sacrifices were being performed for/to YHWH.  For instance, Jeremiah 32:35 (a part of the Deuteronomistic redaction of the text[9]) reads, “And they built high places for Baal, which are in the valley of ben Hinnom in order to make their sons and their daughters pass through the fire as a mlk sacrifice.  This I did not command them, nor was it in my heart (for them) to do this abomination…”  The other passages in Jeremiah are similar.

However, even if these passages in Jeremiah are not conclusive as to whether human sacrifices were performed in YHWH’s name or at YHWH’s behest, other biblical passages confirm this fact.  For instance, Ezekiel 20:25-26 directly indicates that YHWH actually commanded such sacrifices: “I [YHWH] also gave them statutes that were not good, and ordinances by which they could not live.  I caused them to sin by their (own) gifts, by causing (them) to pass through (the fire) all who open the womb [i.e., the firstborn], in order that I might horrify them, in order that they might know that I am YHWH.”  Moreover, the imagery of the mlk sacrifice in Isaiah 30:27-33 (esp. verse 33) clearly indicates that such offerings were performed for/to YHWH.  Micah 6:6-7 is also of note, as it condemns child sacrifice, not because it is immoral, but because, in absence of covenant fidelity and justice, it is an excessive and unnecessary form of worship, just as are sacrifices to YHWH of, for instance, thousands of rams.[10] I therefore agree with Mark Smith that “These passages indicate that in the seventh century child sacrifice was a Judean practice performed in the name of Yahweh…In [Isaiah 30:27-33] there is no offense taken at the tophet, the precinct of child sacrifice.  It would appear that Jerusalemite cult included child sacrifice under Yahwistic patronage; it is this that Leviticus 20:2-5 deplores.”[11] This is of significance for another reason: because the topheth was seen as operating under YHWHistic patronage, Day’s argument that, because there was a separate place from YHWH’s Jerusalem temple for human mlk sacrifices to take place (namely the topheth) and this therefore indicates that YHWH must have been a separate deity from the alleged god Molech, is unconvincing.

The somewhat opaque references in Jeremiah referred to above have additional implications for evaluating Day’s argument that the Deuteronomists and other biblical authors, who lived at a time when (or soon after) such sacrifices were actually being performed, would not have confused the sacrificial term mlk with the name of a deity.  Saul Olyan has cogently argued that this is not a case of the Deuteronomists’ misunderstanding the terms and their references; rather it is a matter of the Deuteronomists purposefully distorting the terminology and their references in order to criticize what were otherwise native Israelite practices that they deemed illegitimate.  Just as they distorted the original nature of Asherah/the asherah in Israelite religion by associating her/it with Baal instead of YHWH,[12] so too the Deuteronomists, as seen in the passage quoted from Jeremiah above, associated human sacrifice, otherwise a traditional Israelite practice in certain circles, with Baal—a polemical distortion, as human sacrifice is nowhere else attested in Canaanite religion for Baal.[13] Rather, human sacrifice in Canaanite religion was associated with El (with whom YHWH was identified at an earlier period in Israelite religion).[14] That the Deuteronomists have distorted the factual reality behind the mlk sacrifice and the deity/deities for whom it was intended, one might also note that the Deuteronomists also (mis)identify Milcom, the god of the Ammonites, with Molech in 1 Kings 11:7; however, as Day himself has argued, human sacrifice was a Canaanite phenomenon, and it seems unlikely that Molech is to be equated with the Ammonite god Milcom.[15] Finally, it also seems from Deuteronomistic polemic that such sacrifices were  known to take place at the bamot, or “high places,” and this again points to a purposeful dissimulation, as the bamot, contra the Deuteronomistic historiographic presentation, were a common feature of traditional Israelite religion and the worship of YHWH (although, as will be noted below, there is apparently no extra biblical evidence for such sacrifices actually taking place at the bamot).[16] For these reasons I conclude that Day has misunderstood the real problem: it is not a matter of the Deuteronomistic (and other, later) authors misunderstanding the real nature of the sacrifices and for whom they were performed (indeed, several authors know exactly for whom they were intended: YHWH); rather, it is a matter of the Deuteronomistic agenda to discredit practices which they deemed illegitimate, as in the case of Asherah/the asherah.

Other problems with Day’s analysis remain.  For instance, although Day cites evidence that there was a god mlk in both Ugaritic and Akkadian sources, there is no evidence linking the god mlk with human sacrifice or with the Hebrew and Phoenician sacrificial term mlk.[17] In fact, as Day argues, the sacrificial term mlk originates from the root hlk, meaning “to go,” and in this way is similar to other sacrificial terms in Hebrew, such as ‘olah and qorban.[18] Nor is it certain that the god mlk in the Ugaritic texts pertains to the cult of the dead,[19] although it seems likely that, whoever this deity actually was, he did have some connection with the underworld.[20] These complications, in turn, may call into question the biblical evidence that might be mounted for associating veneration of the dead at the high places with child sacrifice—at any rate, there is no extra biblical evidence that child sacrifice ever even occurred at the high places[21] (and this may indicate that child sacrifice was actually not a very common practice in ancient Israel[22]). Finally, Ugarit does not even attest to the practice of child sacrifice, a serious issue for Day’s suggestions.[23]

Although mentioned above, it is worth reiterating the fact that child sacrifice in the ancient Near East was primarily the province of El (=Baal Hamon=Baal Addir=Addir Melek=(later) YHWH; cf. 2 Kings 17:31), not biblical Baal (=Hadad=Baal Shamem)—in fact, as Olyan has argued at length, there is no evidence that Baal was ever the recipient of human sacrifice in Canaanite religion (although there may be a few references for such sacrifices being dedicated to Baal among non-Canaanites[24]).[25] This is significant, because, if true, it would further undermine the credibility of the Deuteronomistic presentation of human sacrifices being performed for Baal.

Finally, it is worth discussing other ancient Near Eastern sources concerning human sacrifice.  As recounted by Philo of Byblos, and as we have seen in our discussion of an alleged Molech cult in ancient Israel, there were apparently a number of deities to whom a human mlk sacrifice could be offered, including El (=Kronos), Ouranos, YHWH, and other deities.  What other evidence do we have from the ancient Mediterranean world regarding such sacrifices, and to whom were they offered?  As mentioned above, it seems clear that human sacrifice was an indigenous Canaanite (and hence Israelite) practice, frequently associated with El (later identified with YHWH in Israelite religions).  Mark Smith has an excellent discussion of the relevant evidence, including textual, epigraphical, archaeological, and iconographic materials.[26] All I offer here is a brief summary of the most pertinent evidences.

Both Phoenician and Punic materials designate multiple recipients for the mlk sacrifice, just as Philo attests.  These deities include Eshmun, Baal Hamon and Tannit (=El and Asherah[27]).[28] Other classical sources, including Diodorus Siculus, also indicate that such sacrifices were performed for Kronos (=El).[29] New Kingdom war reliefs in Egypt also depict Levantine peoples performing child sacrifices during times of war.[30] Archaeological evidence from Punic Carthage also attests to child sacrifice and burials, although some scholars have argued that the practice of human sacrifice was still quite rare there, contrary to popular polemic in the ancient world.[31] Other sites of child sacrifice are known from the ancient Mediterranean world, all the way from Spain, to Sicily, to Sardinia, and possibly Tyre.[32] Additionally, there is archaeological evidence in Late Bronze Age Ammon in Transjordan of burned children’s bones, probably indicating a cult of human sacrifice there.[33] This fact, in turn, lines up well with the biblical account of 2 Kings 3, where the kings of Judah, Israel, and Edom ally together and attack king Moab of Mesha, driving him back to his city.  In verse 27 king Mesha sacrifices his son upon a wall bringing “great wrath” on Israel—presumably because the god of Moab was summoned to Mesha’s defense via the sacrifice—and they (the Israelites) fled back to their own land.  This story is also of note because it agrees with Philo of Byblos and Porphyry, as well as what we saw in Egyptian war reliefs: namely that these sacrifices were offered by the royal or ruling classes during times of great trouble, including war.

In conclusion, therefore, it seems quite likely that, contrary to biblical polemic and Deuteronomistic historiogrpahical distortion, human (child) sacrifice was a traditional Canaanite (and hence Israelite) practice, and that mlk sacrifices were indeed devoted to YHWH, even among royal (so-called official) circles.

[1] See Susanna Shelby Brown, Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in Their Mediterranean Context (JSOT/ASOR monograph series, no. 3. Sheffield: Published by JSOT Press for the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1991); John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament. University of Cambridge oriental publications, no. 41 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); George C. Heider, The Cult of Molek: A Reassessment. Journal for the study of the Old Testament supplement series, 43 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1985); Paul G. Mosca, Child Sacrifice in Canaanite and Israelite Religion: A Study in Mulk and Mlk (Unpublished Dissertation) (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1975); and Jon Douglas Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993). This post is drawn from a term paper I wrote during the Fall 2009 semester. Translations from the Hebrew Bible are my own unless otherwise noted.

[2] See, for example, Smith, The Early History of God, 171-181, as well as Saul Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), 11-13 and notes.

[3] For this point see Baumgarten, The Phoenician History, 248-249.

[4] Otto Eissfeldt, Molk als Opferbegriff im Punischen und Hebräischen, und das Ende des Gottes Moloch (Halle: Niemeyer, 1935).

[5] Day, Molech, 84.

[6] For what follows, see Day, Molech, 82-85.

[7] It is worth noting that the term does not inherently refer to human sacrifice.  In Punic materials it simply refers to a sacrifice of some sort and the following word in construct with mlk specifies the type of sacrifice.  Hence, mlk sacrifices of animals are known in our sources.  However, for the biblical authors, this sacrifice seems to specify human (child) sacrifices in most instances.  See Day, Molech, 4-13.

[8] Day, Molech, 85.

[9] Day, Molech, 85.

[10] Olyan, Asherah, 13.

[11] Smith, The Early History of God, 172.

[12] Olyan, Asherah, 13-14, 38-61, 74.

[13] Olyan, Asherah, 12 and notes, 68.

[14] Olyan, Asherah, 12 and notes, 62-68.

[15] Day, Molech, 84.

[16] Smith, The Early History of God, 9, 11, 12, 180-181.

[17] Smith, The Early History of God, 178-179.

[18] Day, Molech, 7-8, 82.  This may therefore undermine the argument put forth by those who suggest that the term mlk necessarily indicates that the origins of this sacrifice lie in human sacrifices performed by the king, or that it was a sacrifice performed for the king deity of the pantheon (whether El, YHWH, etc.), contra Smith, The Early History of God, 178.

[19] Smith, The Early History of God, 179.

[20] For a full discussion, see Smith, The Early History of God, 178-181, and the literature cited there.

[21] Smith, The Early History of God, 181.

[22] Smith, The Early History of God, 181.

[23] Smith, The Early History of God, 179.

[24] Olyan, Asherah, 68, n. 20.

[25] Olyan, Asherah, 12 and notes, 62-68.

[26] Smith, The Early History of God, 172-178.  The following discussion is based on his analysis.

[27] As argued at length by Olyan, Asherah, 62-69.

[28] Smith, The Early History of God, 172-173.

[29] Smith, The Early History of God, 173.

[30] Smith, The Early History of God, 177.

[31] Smith, The Early History of God, 173-174.

[32] Smith, The Early History of God, 173 and notes.

[33] Smith, The Early History of God, 177-178.

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  • Kevin Barney

    Very interesting, TYD. I find your argument compelling. For my somewhat similar discussion, see pp. 13-15 of this paper:

    I didn’t say it there, but I sort of see the Akedah as an aetiiology for the cessation of child sacrifice in Israel.

  • Kevin,

    Thanks for your comment and the link. I will read through your essay.

    I think that Day and Heider’s books are well written, erudite, and certainly worth reading. John Day in particular is a terrific scholar, and his volume Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan is one of my favorite works in that category of scholarly literature. Moreover, from my limited conversations with him, he seems like a wonderfully nice person.

    Nevertheless, I find Saul Olyan’s position quite likely, given, for instance, that 1) it is beyond reasonable doubt that the Deuteronomists in other instances polemicized against Israelite beliefs and practices by labeling them Canaanite in an effort to delegitimize them, when in actuality these views and practices were native to ancient Israel (I think that Asherah/the asherah is a case in point, and Saul Olyan’s volume on that subject, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel, is simply splendid), and, in (inter)relation to point one, 2) it is apparent from archaeology and historical study that the majority of people who would eventually compose the nation-state of Israel arose predominately from Canaanite origins, and for this reason it is additionally clear that the Deuteronomistic historiographical presentation of ancient Israel adopting “foreign” Canaanite beliefs and practices is extremely misleading, because these views and practices were in fact indigenous to ancient Israel since Israel was of (mainly) Canaanite descent. Thus it is not a matter of syncretism at all, contra the Deuteronomists, but rather in reality it was the Deuteronomists (and those who shared their views, whether earlier or later) who were the innovators or revolutionaries in many instances!

    I have a couple more posts that will discuss Asherah/the asherah, El and YHWH, and several of these other issues I have mentioned. I think they will flesh out my arguments here, and they fit together quite nicely at any rate.

    Best wishes,


  • Good job TYD and it’s good to see you back on the blog.

  • Thanks Blake!

  • Kevin,

    Rene Girard and many of those who follow his thinking view the Akedah in the same way. They argue that Abraham ended human sacrifice and instead animal sacrifice became the norm.

  • David B.

    Thanks TYD. Interesting post!

    In response to my friend Kevin, I personally have a hard time seeing the Akedah as a story expressing any sort of aetiology. I just don’t see any of the explicit or even implicit markers that would lead to such a conclusion.

    I highly suspect that if this was the story’s original intent, i.e. to provide a story of origin for the cessation of child sacrifice in Israel, such a momentous intent would have included some sort of explicit indication that the Akedah marks the beginning of animal substitution. Consider the use of the textual maker ‘ad-ken in the account of aetiology witnessed in Genesis 2:

    “Therefore [because this event happened] shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24)

    Yet Genesis 22 lacks any such markers like those witnessed in the account of aetiology featured in Judges 11: 39-40, where the story of human sacrifice explains the origins for the “custom in Israel, that the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.”

    The fact that we don’t encounter anything remotely similar to this marker identifying the story of human sacrifice in Judges 11 as an aetiology in Genesis 22 makes me doubt that such a purpose was originally intended for the Akedah.

    Just my thoughts.

  • Matt Elder

    Over the last few years I have studied the Canaanite influences of Judaism in great detail. As an atheist I find that Mormons are more open to the available evidence and seem to be more educated in this regard than either their Jewish or Christian counterparts. I’ve attempted to have conversations with both Jews and Christians regarding this topic with the effect of people plugging their ears and signing “lalalalalala”. What is it about Mormonism that encourages the incorporation of this material into discussion?