Child sacrifice was real in Canaan and the ancient near East

When reading stories in the Bible, the modern reader often has a hard time understanding the context; without understanding the historical context one then may misunderstand the intention of stories and laws in the Torah.

As hard as it is to believe, in that time and place some cultures that sacrificed humans to their gods – sometimes even their own children. The Torah itself tells us

 Do not act this way toward the Lord your God, for these people performed for their gods all manner of abominations that the Lord hates. They even burned their sons and daughters for their gods. – Devarim 12:31

In order to understand the context, we need to understand where and when these pagan practices were practiced, and what the societies were like. Here is a map of the a region historians call the Ancient Near East, the ANE.

Public domain via Wikipedia

There is much that is great from the Ancient Near East – it is the cradle of civilization. It was here that humanity invented year-round agriculture, the first writing system, the potter’s wheel, mill wheel, the first centralized governments, law codes and empires, astronomy and mathematics.

This region roughly corresponds to the modern Middle East:

Mesopotamia (modern Iraq, southeast Turkey, southwest Iran, northeastern Syria and Kuwait)

Ancient Egypt

Ancient Iran (Elam, Media, Parthia and Persia)

Anatolia/Asia Minor and the Armenian Highlands

the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan), Cyprus

Arabia (the Arabian peninsula)

Historians first refer to this region as the ANE beginning with the rise of Sumer in the 4th millennium BCE, until (roughly) the time of the conquest by the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE.

Professor David S. Levene writes

There is really no doubt from an historical viewpoint that child sacrifice was practised in ancient Canaan, although there are questions both about the extent of the practice and the religious cults that were involved.

As you indicate, the primary evidence comes not from the Middle East itself, but from Carthage, which was a Phoenician colony. Excavations at Carthage itself and at other Carthaginian cities have revealed a number of sacred precincts known as “tophets”; and here in total about 20,000 urns have been discovered (covering a period of something like 600 years).

These urns contain animal remains, infant remains, or a mixture of the two: the animal remains preclude it from being a cemetery, and point to them instead being the remains of sacrifices. Added to this are iconographic representations actually depicting the sacrifice of infants, and a number of inscriptions (some admittedly relatively late) that appear to refer obliquely to a cultic child sacrifice called a m-l-k (like other Semitic languages, Punic script does not provide vowels). Putting this together, there is little doubt that child sacrifice was a common phenomenon in Carthaginian cities.

With this in mind, we can go back to our second major source of evidence, which is the Bible itself. There are numerous references in the Bible to child sacrifice as a Canaanite practice (e.g. Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:10, 2 Kings 3:27, 16:3, 17:17, 17:31, 21:6, Isaiah 57:5, Jeremiah 7:31-2, 19:5-6, Ezekiel 16:20-21, 20:30-31, Psalm 106:36-8).

And several of these specifically refer to “molek” (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, 2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 32:35). One might, of course, feel that this is hardly an impartial source, and that such references are part of an exaggerated Biblical polemic against Canaanite religion; but there are nevertheless excellent reasons for regarding them as reliable in this matter.

One is the fact that these passages are not merely polemics against the Canaanites, but describe Israelites engaging in these practices, and contain very specific injunctions against them. But more important is the overlap with the Carthaginian evidence: the fact that we can independently know that a widespread group of people of Levantine origin engaged in child sacrifices called “m-l-k” enables us to corroborate the information in the Bible when it tells us about a similar cult with the same name.

Apart from these main sources, there are other confirmations. For example, there are New Kingdom Egyptian temple reliefs showing Egyptian attacks on Canaanite cities: the inhabitants are depicted as sacrificing their children in response to the crisis.

So much is essentially unproblematic. More difficult is knowing exactly how widespread such sacrifices were, and to which god they took place. A god with the name M-L-K was widely worshipped in the Middle East, and it seems most natural on the face of things to associate the practice of child sacrifice with his cult.

However, there are certain problems with this. One is that in a large number of societies where we know that M-L-K was worshipped, there is absolutely no evidence to indicate that any child sacrifice took place. Another is that the Bible specifically refers to the m-l-k sacrifice being offered to *other* gods (Jeremiah 32:35; cf. also 2 Kings 17:31, though the gods here do have a m-l-k root as part of their names).

It is true that the Bible does sometimes explicitly describe child sacrifices as being “l-m-l-k” (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-4, 2 Kings 23:10), which *could* mean “to M-L-K” (which is how it was traditionally understood, and what I presume lies behind Mitchener’s account).

However, a good case can be made that this term refers *only* to the sacrifice, and not to the god at all – that “la-m-l-k” in such cases means “as a m-l-k sacrifice” (Leviticus 20:5, which refers to “ha-m-l-k” is especially relevant, as the “ha-” [=”the”] would seem to imply a practice, not a name).

Scholars are divided between these possibilities. For sources, a relatively recent extended study is G.C. Heider, “The Cult of Molek: A Reassessment” (Sheffield, 1985), which has a great deal of material, though it is not the most user-friendly of books. Heider is keen to show a close relationship between the god and the sacrifice; it is worth reading it in conjunction with the review article by D. Edelman, “Journal of the American Oriental Society” 107 (1987), 727-31, who is more sceptical, and criticises some of Heider’s arguments.

Other relevant articles assessing ancient child sacrifice include L.E. Stager and S.R. Wolff in “Biblical Archaeological Review” 10 (1984), 30-51, who examine the Carthaginian material from a demographic perspective. On the Egyptian reliefs I mentioned see A. Spalinger in “Journal of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities” 8 (1978),
47-60; also (if by chance you read German) O. Keel in “Vetus Testamentum” 25 (1975), 413-69.

David Levene, Department of Classics, University of Durham

Also see The ethics of the Binding of Isaac and Why we should take another look at Leviticus.

Relate articles

25 Cultures That Practiced Human Sacrifice

Human Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East and Egypt


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One comment


    There is a good article on about the tragic history of me lech child sacrifice

    I found the comments equally interesting.

    Interesting and shocking articles! Thank you. It is sad that anti Jews use the story of moloch child sacrifice to deduce that this was part of the Jewish way of life.

    Sending love and light to all children and others, around the world, who have been or still are subjected to similar rituals


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