Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR

By Heath D. Dewrell

“For the Judahites have done evil in my sight”—an oracle of Yahweh—“they have set their abominations in the House over which my Name is invoked, defiling it. They build the shrines of the Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it arise in my mind.” (Jeremiah 7:30–31)

Among the many accusations that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible level at their contemporaries, child sacrifice certainly ranks among the most egregious. The idea that the Israelites would sacrifice their own children is so shocking that one may be tempted to dismiss the charge merely as hyperbolic. But the accusation is hardly limited to Jeremiah. For instance, among the first commands in Deuteronomy’s collection of laws is:

When Yahweh your god has cut off before you the peoples among whom you are about to enter to dispossess, and you have dispossessed them and lived in their land, be careful lest you are ensnared by them, after they have been destroyed before you—lest you inquire about their gods, saying, “How did these peoples serve their gods? I also will do likewise.” You must not do likewise for Yahweh your god, because every abomination to Yahweh that he hates they have done for their gods—for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods! (Deut 12:29–31)

This is a warning to the Israelites not to imitate the depraved Canaanites by sacrificing Israelite children to Yahweh in the same way that Canaanites sacrificed their sons and daughters to their gods. But why would such a command exist among the corpora of biblical laws unless some Israelites were at least tempted to sacrifice their children to Yahweh? Further, the fact that the oracle in Jeremiah accuses them of precisely that only strengthens the suspicion that the practice of child sacrifice was a very real, and apparently quite controversial, issue in ancient Israel.

William Blake, The Flight of Moloch, 1809 (PBS)

Abraham’s Big Test

These are far from the only references to child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible. While the story of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22) is probably the most famous example, there are also less well-known tales, such as Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter in fulfillment of a vow (Judg 11–12) and King Mesha of Moab’s sacrifice of his firstborn son during what appeared to be a hopeless siege (2 Kgs 3). Various biblical law codes demand that the firstborn of one’s cattle and flocks be handed over as a sacrifice to Yahweh, but some passages suggest that the requirement applied to firstborn children as well. In most cases, firstborn children are to be “redeemed” via the offering of a sheep (e.g., Exod 34:19–20) or a cash payment to the priests (e.g., Num 18:15–16). But in at least one case no form of redemption is mentioned (Exod 22:28–29), possibly indicating that firstborn children were sacrificed in some Yahwistic circles.

Caravaggio, The Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603 (Wikimedia Commons)

Nicolaes Ryckmans, Jephtah and his Daughter, 1643 (Europeana)

Scholars have long debated whether the Israelites could have ever actually sacrificed their children. If so, to which god (or gods) and how pervasive was the practice? There is a general consensus that child sacrifice did indeed take place in ancient Israel, although there is little agreement on the extent to which the practice occurred or on other specifics. Some argue that children were never offered to Yahweh, but only to foreign Canaanite gods like “Molek,” while others argue that child sacrifice was an ancient part of Yahwistic religion, which only fell out of favor after such rites were condemned as foreign syncretism by revisionist rhetoric, including that of the Hebrew Bible.

In my recent monograph, Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel, I address these arguments and, like most scholars, argue that at least some Israelites did sacrifice their children, probably to Yahweh. My primary objective, however, is not merely to address the existence or non-existence of Israelite child sacrifice. Instead, I collect all of the different types of evidence—biblical, archaeological, and epigraphic—to attempt to untangle the various forms of child sacrifice. “Child sacrifice” was not a homogeneous phenomenon any more than “sheep sacrifice.”

In some cases, children are said to have been sacrificed “as a mōlek-offering.” These offerings have good parallels in the Punic colonies, where an identically named rite involving child sacrifice appears in conjunction with vows. In other cases, firstborn children are offered during times of distress, such as a famine or a siege. In yet others, firstborn children are offered as a matter of course in acknowledgment of Yahweh’s claim to the first portion of all produce. Children were sacrificed for a variety of purposes in a variety of circumstances, and it appears that different groups of Yahwists practiced different forms of child sacrifice, while some—like those most prominently represented in the Hebrew Bible—practiced none of them.


Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel

Molek by Isnard from a 1753 Martin Luther Bible

Turning to the rhetoric of the Hebrew Bible itself, it is interesting to note that, even among the groups that practiced no form of child sacrifice, there was a diversity of opinion on the topic. For instance, some biblical writers seem to assume that firstborn children were indeed owed to Yahweh, but that this obligation could be carried out via a substitute offering of some sort. Others, however, reject out of hand the idea that Yahweh’s claim to firstlings ever applied to children at all. Some texts, like the one from Deuteronomy quoted above, accuse reprobate Israelites of sacrificing their children to Yahweh as if he were one of the foreign gods of the Canaanites. Others, however, equate child sacrifice with the worship of Baal or idols and deny that Yahweh was ever linked with such offerings, even by “bad” Yahwists.

One striking example of such rhetorical disagreements among biblical authors opposing child sacrifice is the question of whether Yahweh ever commanded that children be sacrificed. In the Jeremiah passage quoted above, Yahweh flatly declares that child sacrifice is a thing that “I did not command, nor did it arise in my mind” (Jer 7:31). Ezekiel, on the other hand, suggests that Yahweh did command that children be sacrificed, but only as a punishment for the Israelites’ repeated faithlessness. There Yahweh declares that, because the Israelites did not follow Yahweh’s good laws by which they could live, “I gave them statutes that are not good and precepts by which they could not live. I defiled them by their gifts, in causing to pass over every firstborn, so that I might desolate them” (Ezek 20:25–26). In this case, there seems to be a disagreement about whether the version of the law of the firstborn that lacks any sort of redemption clause constitutes a legitimate Yahwistic law at all. Thus, examining the rhetoric surrounding child sacrifice reveals differences in opinion concerning which biblical law codes were authoritative, as well as how they ought to be interpreted.

Exploring the practice of child sacrifice provides a window into the diversity of Israelite Yahwism. There was diversity in practice among those Yahwists who sacrificed their children, but there were also a variety of rhetorical strategies employed by those who opposed such rites. While the Hebrew Bible today overwhelmingly condemns child sacrifice as abominable, this biblical consensus only emerged as the result of a struggle over the relationship of Yahweh worship to the sacrifice of children. While those who opposed all forms of child sacrifice obviously (and thankfully!) won the day, the fact that these debates are preserved at all indicates that at least some Israelites saw things differently.

Heath D. Dewrell is assistant professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.



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