Lay not thine hand upon

Bereshis 22 And it came to pass after these things, that G-d did test Avraham, and said unto him, Avraham: and he said, Hineini (Behold, here I am). And He said, Take now thy son, thine ben yachid (only son) Yitzchak, whom thou lovest, and get thee into eretz Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Avraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his donkey, and took two of his servants with him, and Yitzchak his son, and cut the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which G-d had told him. Then on Yom HaShlishi Avraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off. And Avraham said unto his servants, Abide ye here with the donkey; and I and the young man will go over there and nishtachaveh (we will worship) and we will come back again to you. And Avraham took atzei haolah (the wood of the burnt offering), and laid it upon Yitzchak his son; and he took the eish (fire) in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together. And Yitzchak spoke unto Avraham his father, and said, Avi (My father): and he said, Hineini, beni (Here am I, my son). And he said, Hinei, the eish (fire) and the wood: but where is the seh (lamb) for a burnt offering? And Avraham said, My son, G-d will provide Himself a seh (lamb) for a burnt offering: so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which G-d had told him of; and Avraham built a mizbe’ach there, and laid the wood in order, and made the akedah (binding) of Yitzchak his son, and laid him on the mizbe’ach upon the wood. And Avraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 

11 And the Malach Hashem called unto him out of Shomayim, and said, Avraham, Avraham: and he said, Hineini. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the young man, neither do thou any thing unto him

In 1921 the largest cemetery of sacrificed infants in the ancient Near East was discovered at Carthage. It is well established that this rite of child sacrifice originated in Phoenicia, ancient Israel’s northern neighbor, and was brought to Carthage by its Phoenician colonizers. Hundreds of burial urns filled with the cremated bones of infants, mostly newborns but even some children up to age six years old, as well as animals have been uncovered at Carthage.

They were buried there between the 8th century B.C. and the fall of Carthage during the third Punic War in 146 B.C. On the burial monuments that sometimes accompanied the urns, there was often inscribed the name or symbol of the goddess Tanit, the main Phoenician female deity, and her consort Ba’al Hammon. Infants and children were regularly sacrificed to this divine couple.

Fulfillment of a vow was probably the most frequent reason an infant or child was sacrificed as witnessed by the third century B.C. Greek author Kleitarchos (paraphrased by a later writer):

Out of reverence for Kronos (the Greek equivalent of Ba’al Hammon), the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, whenever they seek to obtain some great favor, vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity if they are especially eager to gain success.

A typical example of an inscription follows:

To our lady, to Tanit, the face of Ba’al and to our lord, to Ba’al Hammon that which was vowed (by) PN son of PN son of PN. Because he (the deity) heard his (the dedicant’s) voice and blessed him.

Thus fulfillment of a vow before or after obtaining a special favor from the gods, a favor that brings blessing or success to the dedicant, appears to be the most common reason for child sacrifice. Occasionally, however, at times of civic crisis, mass child sacrifice was practiced as attested by the first century B.C. Greek historian Diodorus Siculus who reported the response of the Carthaginians to their army’s defeat by Agathocles in 310 B.C.:

Therefore the Carthaginians, believing that the misfortune had come to them from the gods, betook themselves to every manner of supplication of the divine powers . . . In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly.

The actual rite of child sacrifice at Carthage has been graphically described by Diodorus Siculus:

There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.

Plutarch, a first and second century A.D. Greek author, adds to the description that:

the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.

There is conflicting evidence regarding the actual cause of death of the victims. Some reports suggest that they were burned alive while other reports suggest that the infants and children were slaughtered first. The victims themselves were members of both the wealthy mercantile and estate-owning class as well as the lower socioeconomic class as attested by the titles of the dedicants on the burial monuments. Occasionally, however, the upper class would substitute lower class children for their own by purchasing them from the poor and then sacrificing them as Diodorus Siculus reports:

in former times they (the Carthaginians) had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons, but more recently, secretly buying and nurturing children, they had sent these to the sacrifice.

Two inscriptions at Carthage even show that occasionally the parents would sacrifice a defective child hoping to later receive a healthy one as a substitute. In one inscription a man named Tuscus says that he gave Ba’al “his mute son Bod’astart, a defective child, in exchange for a healthy one. ” Child sacrifice probably became a standard practice for both religious and sociological reasons. Diodorus Siculus suggests that the:

ancient myth that Cronos did away with his own children appears to have been kept in mind among the Carthagians through this observance.

The second and third century A.D. Roman lawyer and Christian apologist who was a native North African and spent most of his life in Carthage, Tertullian, wrote:

Saturn (the latinized African equalivant of Ba’al Hammon) did not spare his own children; so, where other people’s were concerned, he naturally persisted in not sparing them; and their own parents offered them to him, were glad to respond…

According to the ancient myth, Saturn selfishly swallowed up the first five of his children in order to prevent his destined dethronement by one of them. Hoping to gain Saturn’s favor and thus his blessing, the Carthaginians worshipped Saturn by imitating him. Serving a god with ungodly attributes, the Carthaginians were willing to submit to his murderous demands. Indeed Saturn’s demands may have assisted the Carthaginians in their own self-serving plans. The Syro-Palestinian archeologists Lawrence Stager and Samuel Wolff suggest that:

Among the social elite of Punic Carthage the institution of child sacrifice may have assisted in the consolidation and maintenance of family wealth. One hardly needed several children parceling up the patrimony into smaller and smaller pieces . . . for the artisans and commoners of Carthage, ritual infanticide could provide a hedge against poverty. For all these participants in this aspect of the cult, then, child sacrifice provided special favors from the gods.

This suggestion is supported by archeological evidence at Carthage that the practice of child sacrifice flourished as never before at the height of its population as well as civilization.

There is a funerary stela dedicated to the goddess Tanit at Carthage. Archaeologists have discovered upwards of 20,000 burial urns at the Carthaginian Tophet, which contain the incinerated remains of children sacrificed to Tanit and her consort, Ba’al Hammon. The Carthaganians came from Phoenicia (north of Israel in modern day Lebanon), and brought with them Canaanite customs and practices, including child sacrifice. The Israelites were repeatedly warned by God not to adapt the despicable practices of the Canaanites. Failing to heed these warnings, God eventually brought judgment upon the Israelites.

Child sacrifice was not confined to Phoenicia, Carthage and the western Mediterranean world. It was also practiced by the Canaanites and through the process of religious syncretism by some Israelites. The earliest reference to child sacrifice in the Bible is found in Leviticus where the practice is address by Moses in connection with Molech:

Do not give any of your children to be passed through (the fire) to Molech for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. (Lev. 18:21; see also 20:1-5).

In I Kings 11:7, Molech is identified as “the detestable god of the Ammonites” and recent archeological evidence in the former territory of the Ammonites from the period of the Conquest supports biblical testimony that child sacrifice was practiced in Jordan roughly contemporarily with Moses.”[18] The Hebrew word Molech is the same Semitic root as the Punic word mulk which was found inscribed on several burial monuments at Carthage giving linguistic evidence for the continuity between the practice of child sacrifice in Canaan and at Carthage. But whereas at Carthage the word refers to the sacrificial offerings including human sacrifice, in Leviticus it refers to the god who demands child sacrifice.[19] The “passing through” refers to sacrificing by burning in a fire.[20] For this “passing through to Molech” (same Hebrew words in Leviticus and Jeremiah) took place later in Israel’s history in the region of the high places of Ba’al in the Valley of Ben Hinnom in Jeremiah 32:35. This murderous scene was described by the Lord through the mouth of Jeremiah in earlier chapters:

For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned sacrifices in it to gods that neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah ever knew and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built me the high places of Ba’al to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Ba’al -something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call this place Topheth [possibly derived from an Aramaic word meaning hearth or fireplace but here referring to the precinct of child sacrifice] or the Valley of ben Hinnom, but the Valley of slaughter. (Jeremiah 19:4-6; see also 7:31-32)[21]

The history of child sacrifice in ancient Israel and God’s response to the practice can be uncovered by examining the biblical texts that address it in the Pentateuch, historical books and prophetic writings. In the Pentateuch, Moses warns the Israelites who will soon enter the land of Canaan (Leviticus 18:3 and 20:21-24) where they will be exposed to the cult of Molech not to sacrifice any of their children to the god:

The Lord said to Moses, say to the Israelites: “Any Israelite or any alien living in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death. The people of the community are to stone him. I will set my face against that man and I will cut him off from his people; for by giving his children to Molech he has defiled my sanctuary and profaned my holy name. If the people of the community close their eyes when that man gives one of his children to Molech and they fail to put him to death, I will set my face against that man and his family and will cut off from their people both him and all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molech. (Leviticus 20:1-5; see also 18:21).

The penalty for sacrifice to Molech is harsh, i.e., stoning to death (Lev. 20:2); for it is a serious offense against the Lord.

1. It defiles God’s sanctuary (Lev. 20:3) and since His holy presence cannot abide in a place polluted by sin, it threatens abandonment by God of His people.

2. It profanes God’s holy name making God appear less than the holy God that He is by inferring that He is a God who desires, or at least permits, child sacrifice.

3. God knew that the practice of child sacrifice to Molech was a form of spiritual prostitution (Lev. 20:5). God’s relationship to His people is a close personal one with a human analogy in the sexual intimacy of marriage. God, of course, expects the exclusive commitment of marriage, not the pick-and-choose relationships of prostitution.

4. In Deuteronomy, God through Moses rejects child sacrifice even if allegedly done in the worship and service of God Himself (Deut. 12:29-31). In reference to the nations of Canaan that Israel was about to invade and dispossess (12:29) and the worship of their gods (12:30), Moses commands:

You must not worship the Lord your God in their way because in worshipping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods. (Deuteronomy 12:31)

With remarkable discernment, Moses recognized that such unacceptable service can sometimes begin not as a conscious determination to do ungodly things but as an “ensnaring” by other nations and their gods (12:30).[22]

Two of Moses’ admonitions against child sacrifice are found in the stipulation section of the loosely covenant treaty form of Leviticus 18:21 and the more rigid covenant treaty form of Deuteronomy[23] (Deut. 12:29-31). In the covenants made between God and Israel, the Lord expected His people to obey the civil, moral and religious stipulations. His commands were to be obeyed because of allegiance to His Lordship and out of a sense of gratitude for His great acts of redemption (Lev. 18:2-3 and Deut. 5:1-2,6 and 12:1).

Failure to obey the covenantal stipulations is failure to give God full allegiance as Lord and failure to respond appropriately to His gracious acts of redemption.

Disregarding the covenant stipulations is a serious offense, some of which, including child sacrifice, are so grievous as to be punished by capital punishment which is to be done by the entire community (Lev. 20:2-3). If the offense goes undetected by the community, God Himself threatens to “set my face against” and “cut off” the offender (Lev. 20:3), probably a threat of premature death.[24] So detestable to God is child sacrifice that He even threatens to set His face against and cut off those who, though not participants in the practice, “close their eyes” to the crime (Lev. 20:4-5). Further, the warning not only applied to God’s covenant people but to any non-Israelite living in Israel (Lev. 20:2). Child sacrifice was not one of the many tribal customs aliens who lived in Israel were permitted to practice.

In these Pentateuchal passages dealing with child sacrifice the offense is recognized as a sin in at least three different ways. As noted above it was seen as a sin against God, i.e. in defiling His sanctuary, in profaning His holy name, in spiritual prostituting to Molech and in ungodly worship of the Lord Himself. But child sacrifice was also perceived as a sexual sin and/or sin against the family as well as a sin against the community. In Leviticus 18 (see also Lev. 20:9ff), the stipulation against child sacrifice is listed among various sexual sins, e.g. incest (18:6ff), adultery (18:20), homosexual acts (18:22) and bestiality (18:23). It is not obvious from the immediate context of Leviticus 18 and 20 why child sacrifice is linked to various illicit sexual practices. It is probable, however, that the worship of Molech not only involved child sacrifice but the pagan custom of cultic prostitution.

In Isaiah 57:9, “Molech” (mlk in Hebrew. It must be remembered that vowel notation was a later addition by Masorete scholars to the received consonantal text) is mentioned. Earlier in the chapter “those sacrificing their children” (57:5b) is in parallel with “those burning with lust” (57:5a). They are also described in 57:3 as “offspring of the adulterer and the prostitute.” The Hebrew word for adulterer is masculine while the prostitute is feminine, indicating that the children are the offspring of an adulterous father and a prostituting mother. But the phrase is not to be taken literally. Rather, the declared attributes of the parents are in fact used to characterize the offspring themselves.[25] The connection between child sacrifice and cultic prostitution is even clearer in Ezekiel where we read:

And you took your sons and your daughters whom you bore to me and sacrificed them as food to the idols. Was your prostitution not enough? You slaughtered my children and made them pass through (the fire) to the idols. (Ezekiel 16:20-21)

Thus the Old Testament scholar Moshe Weinfeld links cultic prostitution with child sacrifice in Isaiah and Ezekiel saying, “The children born of cultic prostitution associated with Molech were presumably delivered to the idolatrous priests, even as the offspring of a regular marriage may have been handed over to Molech.”[26] Given that some of the children offered to Molech were conceived illegitimately during adulterous/prostituting affairs, it seems probable that child sacrifice offered a convenient way to dispose of the consequences of these aberrant sexual practices.

Another possible reason for grouping child sacrifice with illicit sexual practices is that they are all sins against the family. Of the sexual sins listed together in 20:10ff, the Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser, Jr., says: “Every assault against an individual here is simultaneously an attack on the very existence of the family.”[27] Kaiser sees these sexual sins all as sins against the family since they disrupt normal family relationships. It is possible then that child sacrifice, which was clearly an assault against the family, came to be associated with other stipulations that protected the family. Since the family was the foundation of Israelite society, any threat to the family was a threat to the community as well. Thus, the community was to be vigilant in guarding against the practice and was to take the severest community action against any offenders, i.e., stoning to death.

Despite the covenantal stipulations and warnings against child sacrifice, Scripture records that some Israelites did in fact practice child sacrifice. Of Ahaz, the 8th century B.C. king of Judah, we read:

He walked in the ways of the kings of Israel and even made his son pass through the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites. (2 Kings 16:3)

Sadly Ahaz’s grandson Manasseh followed in his footsteps (2 Kings 21:6). But these accounts of child sacrifice were not isolated as recorded by Jeremiah (see above). Being a prophet of God, it was Jeremiah’s obligation to prosecute on behalf of God the covenant lawsuit against those who had broken the covenant. The evidence against the Israelites was incontestable for it was publicly visible to all. As the Lord’s mouthpiece, Jeremiah testifies against Judah:

They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, something I did not command nor did it enter my mind. (Jer. 7:30-31; see also 19:4-5)

Because of this offense for which Israel is corporately responsible, Jeremiah predicts disaster (7:32-34 and 19:1-3, 6-15). If only the people would repent, disaster could be thwarted (Jer. 18:5-11). But the Israelites were a “stiff-necked” people who would not listen to God’s words (Jer. 9:15; see also 18:5-12). They had forsaken their God to serve other gods even to the extent that they would sacrifice their own children spilling “the blood of the innocent” (Jer. 19:4). Mannaseh’s grandson Josiah had tried to bring about reformation among the Israelites. After renewing the covenant between God and His people (2 Kings 23:1-3), Josiah:

desecrated Topheth which was in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, so no one could use it to make his son or daughter pass through the fire to Molech. (2 Kings 23:10)

But Josiah’s reformation was short-lived as evidenced by Jeremiah’s prophetic witness (see above). God used Rome to judge Carthage in 146 B.C., bringing an end to child sacrifice there.[27b] Hundreds of years earlier God used Babylon to judge Israel when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, leveling God’s temple which signified God’s just abandonment of His people, and leading Israel into captivity. While exiled in Babylon, Ezekiel reminded the two prostituting sisters Oholah (representing Samaria in Ezekiel 23:4) and Oholibah (representing Jerusalem) of the reason they had been exiled. In confronting the two with “their detestable practices” the Lord through Ezekiel said:

they have committed adultery and blood is on their hands. They committed adultery with their idols, they even made the children they bore to me pass through the fire as food for them (Ezekiel 23:36-37).

Idolatry had not disappeared by New Testament times, but took on a broader meaning. Commenting on the New Testament authors’ understanding of idolatry, Herbert Schlossberg notes that “a man can place anyone or anything at the top of his pyramid of values, and that is ultimately what he serves. The ultimacy of that service profoundly affects the way he lives.”[28] Physical idols were still common in New Testament times, e.g. I Corinthians 8:4-5. However, in Pauline theology idolatry is also recognized as any worshipping or serving the creature rather than the Creator which is equivalent to exchanging the truth of God for a lie (Rom. 1:23,25).[29] Placing anything above the Creator and His truth is idolatry, for in this idolatry the creature’s erroneous value judgments are substituted for the Creator’s correct ones. Sadly, people know the truth but suppress it (Rom. 1:18). For God has revealed His nature, power and laws both in the visible world and in the hearts and consciences of humanity (Rom. 1:19-20; 2:14-15). But mankind is on a downward spiral of depravity and destruction that begins with devaluing the Creator and His truth and ultimately leads to an outpouring of God’s just wrath at the final judgment (Rom. 1:24-32, 2:5,8-9,12). Even now mankind is experiencing God’s wrath as He gives men over to the consequences of their sin (Rom. 1:26-28). Apart from God’s gracious intervention, all mankind faces the present and future revelation of God’s just wrath. But as recipients of God’s righteousness through faith in Christ Jesus, we have been justified (Rom. 1:17; 3:21-28). Having been justified by His grace, our lives must not be conformed to this world’s idolatrous values but be transformed by the renewing of our minds to God’s perfect will (Rom. 12:2).

1 Comment

  1. Having read this I thought it was rather informative.
    I appreciate you finding the time and effort to put this article together.
    I once again find myself spending way too much time both reading and leaving
    comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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