Ancient Jewish History: The Cult of Moloch


Evidence concerning Moloch worship in ancient Israel is found in the legal, as well as in the historical and prophetic literature of the Bible. In the Pentateuch, the laws of the Holiness Code speak about giving or passing children to Moloch (Lev. 18:21, 20:2–4) and the law in Deuteronomy speaks of “passing [one’s] son or daughter through fire” (18:10). Although Moloch is not named in the Deuteronomy passage, it is likely that his cult was the object of the prohibition.

The author of the Book of Kings speaks about “passing [one’s] son and daughter through fire” (II Kings 16:3 [son], 17:17, 21:6 [son]). II Kings 23:10 speaks about “passing [one’s] son or daughter through fire to Moloch.” Some scholars interpret the phrase lә-haʿavir ba-esh, as a reference to a divinatory or protective rite in which children were passed through a fire but not physically harmed. However, the same phrase lә-haʿavir ba-esh is found in an unmistakable context of burning in Numbers 31:23.

Other biblical texts refer to the sacrifice of children. Psalms 106:37–38 speaks of child sacrifice to the unnamed idols of Canaan. In prophetic sources, Jeremiah 7:31 and Ezekiel 20:25–6 speak disapprovingly of sacrificing children to Yahweh (for the “bad statutes” referred to by Ezekiel, see Ex. 22:28–29; but see Friebel); Jeremiah 19:5 speaks of sacrificing children to Baal; Ezekiel 16:21, 20:31, 23:37, 39 of sacrificing children to unnamed divinities; as does Isaiah 57:5. In none of these is there a mention of Moloch. Only in Jeremiah 32:35 is Moloch mentioned by name and there he is associated with Baal.

Distinction should be made between human sacrifice as a sporadic deed at a time of crisis and distress, such as the holocaust of the son of Mesha king of Moab (II Kings 3:27), or as an act which serves to express an unusual degree of religious devotion as the binding of Isaac (cf. Micah 6:7), on the one hand, and the Moloch cult which was an established institution with a fixed location (the Topheth), on the other. As the classical sources have it, the sacrifices of children at Carthage, a colony founded by Phoenicians on the coast of Northeast Tunisia, usually came after a defeat and a great disaster – a religious practice based upon an ancient mythological tradition. Thus Phoenician tradition ascribed to Sanchuniaton relates that the god Elos (= El) sacrificed his son following a war which brought disaster upon the state. If the classical reports are accurate, it could be maintained that there is no real connection therefore between the Phoenician-Punic child sacrifices which are sporadic and conditioned by crisis and the Moloch worship which was an institution or cult. In contrast though to the classical reports, the archaeological discoveries at Carthage, which attest some 20,000 burials of infant bones along with animal bones in what are evidently not instances of natural death appear to conflict with the classical reports. There is as yet no evidence of child sacrifice in the Carthaginian homeland, the cities of Phoenicia (Lebanon) proper, where far less excavation has been done.

The Name

The accepted view since Abraham Geiger is that Moloch is a tendentious mis-vocalization of the word melekh, “king,” the original vowels being changed and patterned after the vocalization of boshet, “shame,” which was often used as an intentional substitute for Baal (see Euphemism and Dysphemism ). It is true that the names Moloch (I Kings 11:7) and Milcom occur in the Bible in reference to an Ammonite god, and that deities by the name Malik/Muluk are attested to from the 18th century B.C.E. onward. However, the laws and warnings against the worship of the Moloch could hardly refer to these particular deities. It is unlikely that one particular god who is not especially famous would be singled out for mention, while other prominent gods, e.g., Baal, are not mentioned by name in the Torah even once. That the original vocalization was melekh may be learned from Isaiah 30:33, which undoubtedly alludes to the fiery ceremony of the Moloch rites. The fact that the Septuagint of the Pentateuch (which was the first to be translated by the Greek translators) translates molekh as “king” (archon) seems also to indicate that at the time of the translation of the Torah, the reading molekh instead of melekh was as yet unknown.

A new dimension was added to the problem of the name Moloch with the discovery of some Latin dedicatory inscriptions in North Africa. In these inscriptions the term molchomor – which has been equated with מלכ אמר in the Punic inscriptions, the meaning of which was also unclear – occurs in the context of a lamb offering. The context has provided a clue to the meaning of both molchomor and מלכ אמר. Molchomor has been interpreted as molech immer, i.e., molech, “sacrifice” (see below) and ommor, “a lamb.” This interpretation, however, is beset by difficulties. First, it is hard to explain how immer (Aram. and Akk. “lamb”) became ommor; no less difficult is the interpretation ofmolech as sacrifice. O. Eissfeldt argued (on the basis of Syriac) that molech means “vow,” but this can hardly be reconciled with the biblical text. It would be futile to translate li-znot ʾaḥare ha-molekh (לזנות אחרי המלך) in Leviticus 20:5: “to go astray after the vow.” Besides, it is methodologically unsound to explain a Hebrew word in the Bible on the sole basis of a late Aramaic word. Another expression occurring in the Punic inscriptions מלכאדם, turned out to be even more crucial for the understanding of the Hebrew molekh. Here again some scholars understood the term as human sacrifice. However, as in the case of מלכ אמר, no objective evidence has been found for this interpretation of מלכאדם. The most plausible explanation is, as has already been suggested, that the term means “king of humankind,” and is the epithet of the god to whom the inscription is dedicated. The word “king” was indeed a common attribute of the deities in the Phoenician-Punic sphere, e.g., Melkart (“king of the city,” i.e., Tyre), מלכבעל, etc. El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon, later identified with Kronos, was named Malkandros (Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 16) which means “king of man” (Greek aner [gen. andros], “man”), in other words מלכאדם. This is corroborated by evidence from the Assyrian-Aramean sphere where the epithet “King” is applied to the god Adad/Hadad, who is identified with the Canaanite-Phoenician Baal – was also called “King,” cf. מלכבעל – “Baal is king.” The identification of Hadad-Baal with Moloch provides the background to Jeremiah 32:35, which fulminates against the bamot-altars of Baal in the valley of Ben-Hinnom where male and female children were burnt to Moloch, i.e., Baal-Hadad. Furthermore, a series of Assyrian-Aramean documents analyzed by K. Deller showed that Adadmilki or Adadšarru (“Adad the king”) was actually the god to whom children, sometimes firstborn, were burned (see below). The Assyrian material sheds new light on II Kings 17 where Adadmelech (to be read instead of Adrammelech) is the god to whom the Sepharvites burn/dedicate their children (verse 31). Adadmelech in this verse stands next to Anammelech who has been correctly related by scholars to Anath who bears the title “Queen of Heaven,” the standard term for Ishtar in Akkadian (šarrat šamê; cf. Sum. nin.anna.ak = Inanna). The pair Adad and Ishtar, or the “king” and the “queen,” are the ones to whom children are dedicated in the Assyrian-Aramean documents quoted above. Adad and ʿAshtart were actually the dominant gods in Syro-Palestine until the beginning of the common era, as may be deduced from the passage preserved by Philo of Byblos (ascribed to Sanchuniaton): “Ashtart the great and Zeus Demarus who is Hadad, the king of the gods, were enthroned on the earth” (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 1:10, 31; cf. O. Eissfeldt, Kleine Schriften, 3 (1966), 335–9). Another instructive example is the second century B.C.E. Greek inscription, found in Acre, that is dedicated to Hadad and Atargatis (= combination of Ishtar and Anath) who listen to prayer (M. Avi-Yonah, in: IEJ, 9 (1959), 1–2). As will be shown below, the introduction of the Moloch coincided with the introduction of the worship of the “queen of the heaven,” although the latter persisted after the reform of Josiah whereas the Moloch cult seems to have perished following the reform. The worship of the Moloch along with the worship of the “queen of the heaven” are therefore to be seen against the background of the widespread worship in the Assyro-Aramean culture of Adad/Hadad, the king, and Ishtar Ashtarth/Anath, the queen, that began in the ninth-eighth century B.C.E. This sheds new light on the controversial passage Amos 5:26: “… You carried the canopy [Heb. sikkut is a deliberate misvocalization of sukkat or sukkot to make it resemble to שִׁקּוּץ; shikkuẓ, “abhorrence,” cf. LXX and 6QD 14–17] of your king and the kaiwanu [changed deliberately into kiyyun, as skikkuẓ] of your image[s] the star of your god[s] which you made for yourselves.” The kamānu/kawānu, found in Jeremiah 7:18, and 44:19, is a cultic cake in the form of a star which is the image of Ishtar, who is called in Akkadian kakkab šamê, “the star of the Heaven.” The image of Ishtar צלמיכם כוכב אלהיכם, is depicted here as having been carried under a canopy in a procession, a procedure attested in the Assyrian documents (cf. L. Waterman, Royal Correspondence of the Assyrian Empire, 1 (1930), no. 1212, rev. 1–10 = SAA XIII: 192; for corrected reading see A.L. Oppenheim, in: BASOR, 107 (1947), 8, n. 4), but unrecognized until now. “Your king” in this verse is none other than her consort, Adad the king, sometimes identical with the sun-god Shamash.

The Nature of the Worship

As already indicated above, the legal and historical sources speak about passing children to Moloch in fire. According to the rabbinic interpretation, this prohibition is against passing children through fire and then delivering them to the pagan priests. In other words, according to this interpretation, this refers to an initiation rite. This kind of initiation or consecration is actually attested to in various cultures (see T.H. Gaster, in bibl.) and the Septuagint interprets Deuteronomy 18:10 in a similar manner. This is a Midrash of the rabbis likewise attested by the Septuagint. A similar non-sacrificial tradition, perhaps more ancient, is found in the Book of Jubilees. The Book of Jubilees 30:7ff. connects intermarrriage or rather the marrying off of one’s children to pagans with the sin of Moloch. This tradition seems to be echoed in the dissenting opinion of R. Ishmael (cf. Meg. 4:9) in Sifrei Deuteronomy 18, who explains the prohibition of Moloch as the impregnation of a pagan woman, an interpretation lying behind the Syriac translation in Leviticus 18 and 20. The common denominator of all these traditions is the understanding of Moloch worship as the transfer of Jewish children to paganism either by delivering them directly to pagan priests or by procreation through intercourse with a pagan woman. This tradition is in keeping with the general rabbinic tendency to make biblical texts relevant to their audiences, who were more likely to be attracted to Greco-Roman cults and to intercourse with pagan women than to the sacrifice of humans to a long-forgotten god.

In the framework of the penalty clauses of some neo-Assyrian contracts, there is the threat that if one of the parties violates the contract, he will burn his son to Adad the king and give his daughter to Ishtar, or Belet-ṣēri. Some of these documents showed that Adadmilki or Adadšarru (“Adad the king”) was actually the god to whom children, sometimes firstborn, were burned. Ch.W. Johns, who first published these documents, contended that burning is used here in the figurative sense, meaning dedication (Assyrian Deeds and Documents, 3 (1923), 345–6). This figurative interpretation was accepted by Deller and Weinfeld, but context indicates that they are to be taken literally (see CAD Š/II, 53; SAA VI: 102). From the fact that Ahaz, who opened the door to Assyria and Assyrian culture and religion (see e.g., II Kings 16:6ff.), was the first king to indulge in the worship of Moloch, it may be deduced that this was introduced through Assyrian influence, along with other practices such as the burning of incense on the roofs (II Kings 23:12), the sun chariots (23:11), and the tents for the Asherah (23:7). There is no reason to suppose that the Moloch was introduced as a result of Phoenician influence, as is commonly supposed. Were this true, one would expect to find the Moloch worship in Northern Israel, which was overwhelmed by Phoenician influence, especially at the period of the Omri dynasty. No allusion, however, to this practice in the Northern Kingdom has been found. The worship of Moloch, which was practiced at a special site (outside the walls of Jerusalem in the valley of Ben-Hinnom) called Topheth, became firmly established in the time of King Manasseh, his son Amon, and at the beginning of Josiah’s reign. If it was completely eradicated by Josiah within the framework of his reform activities (II Kings 23:10), then Jeremiah’s references to this worship (7:31, 19:1ff., 32:35) might apply to the days of Manasseh and also to the time of Josiah before the reform (see Y. Kaufmann , Toledot, 3 (1960), 382–90).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Ḥ. Albeck, Das Buch der Jubiläen und die Halacha (1930), 26ff.; O. Eissfeldt, Molk als Opferbegriff im Punischen und Hebräischen… (1935), 46ff.; N.H. Tur-Sinai, Ha-Lashon ve-ha-Sefer, 1 (19542). 81ff.; H. Cazelles, in: DBI Supplément, 5 (1957), 1337–46; R. de Vaux, Studies in Old Testament Sacrifice (1964), 52–90; M. Buber, Malkhut Shamayim (1965), 99–100; K. Deller, in; Orientalia, 34 (1965), 382–6; T.H. Gaster, Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament (1969), 586–8. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Weinfeld, in: UF, 4 (1972), 133–54; M. Smith, in: JAOS, 95 (1975), 477–79; M. Held, in: ErIsr, 16 (1982), 76–77; B. Levine, JPS Torah Commentary Leviticus (1989), 258–60; R. Clifford, in: BASOR, 279 (1990), 55–64; A. Millard, in:DDD, 34–35; G. Heider, in: DDD, 581–85, incl. bibl.; K. Friebel, in: R. Troxel et al. (eds.), Seeking Out the Wisdom of Ancients..Essays … M. Fox (2005), 21–36.

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