BIBLELORE

 

5  Infanticide and the Fire-gods

 

The Bible is replete with references to infanticide.  Thepatriarch Abraham himself was confronted by his god El with the prospect of sacrificing his son Isaac, according to Jewish tradition, as a test of submission. The idea of sacrifice of children to gods appears numerous times in the Old Testament. The Israelites abhorred the idea, judging by the criticisms of their neighbors the Canaanites by Bible chroniclers and prophets.

The Phoenicians (kin to Canaanites) are alleged to have sacrificed children to the Titan god Kronos who, according to Greek mythology, devoured his children (including a stone by deception to later prove his terrible deed). As to which came first, the alleged sacrifices by Phoenicians or the myth of Kronos, Greek historian Plutarch agreed with an account given by Greek historian Diodorus earlier, namely, that the myth developed from the practice of Phoenicians. In any case, it is to be remembered that the story of Kronos (a Greek name) is from Greek mythology, not Phoenician.

Sacrifice of infants and children, condemned and forbidden in Jewish scripture, is linked to local gods who were common to several tribes of the region, and to whom King Solomon became attached. Solomon took wives from several neighboring tribes: the daughter of the pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians and Hittites. 1 Kings 11: 3 boasts of his seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines. Seduced by them, Solomon accepted their gods and goddesses Ashtoreth and Milcom, and built shrines for Chemosh and Molech. 1 Kings 11: 5, 7, 8 reads:

"For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon. And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods."

From this text the names Milcom and Molech raise some interesting points and questions. Both are described as god (or the abomination) of the Ammonites. Are they the same god, or idol? Is Molech the name of a god or simply the translation of the word "king?" Variations in spelling are the same as the Hebrew common noun for king: melek or melech, molek or molech.

The use of the vowel "o," which has been characterized (though not documented) as a vowel of shame (bosheth in Hebrew), appears to have been used as a form of derision. Early Hebrew lacked vowels which apparently left pronunciation up to the speaker's whim, mood and penchant for mockery, a special trait, it seems, of the ancient Israelites observed earlier in Biblelore (cf. the derogatory names "dog" and "beelzebub). The name Molech would appear in script as M-l-k or M-l-ch (transliterated), so vowel usage was a matter of choice. Thus the spelling Moloch was meant to heap scorn upon the god Melek or Melech.

Curiously Jeremiah shifted the sacrifice of children to Baal: "They have built also the high places of Baal, to burn their sons with fire for burnt offerings unto Baal, which I commanded not, nor spake it, neither came it into my mind." (Jer. 19:5.)

Prior to Jeremiah's assertion, Molech and Chemosh were said to be fire-gods, whose abomination was the sacrifice of infants by their worshipers. Later he makes a distinction in the roles of Baal and Molech: "And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech..." (Jer. 32: 35a.)

The passage in 2 Kings 3: 26, 27 tells of the Moab king Mesha who offered his son as a sacrifice upon the defeat of the Moabites by Israelites:

"And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew swords, to break through even unto the king of Edom: but they could not. Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt offering upon the wall. And there was great indignation against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land."

This apparently was a desperate attempt by Mesha to turn the tide of battle, shock the Israelites with the heartless sacrifice by fire of his son, and save his own skin. It worked. His act caused such indignation against the Israelites that they ceased pursuing Mesha and returned home. There are no further details given about the actual "burnt offering" in the text.

Ahaz made his children "pass through fire": "But he walked the way of the kings when he began to reign, and reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem, and made his son to pass through the fire, according to the heathen, whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel." (2 Kings 16:3.) Again in 2 Chron. 28:3: "Moreover he burnt incense in the valley of the sons of Hinnom,and burnt his children in the fire, after the abominations of the heathen whom the Lord had cast out before the children of Israel."

Likewise Manasseh: "And he caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom." (2 Chron. 33: 6a.)

Biblical scholars who have reviewed the above Bible passages have in some cases given a worst case scenario of what happened: that children were sacrificed by death through consumption by fire. Is "passing through the fire" death by fire, or could it have been a ceremony of fire-walking that is still practiced today in some parts of the world: a religious ceremony of walking on hot stones heated by burning wood or coals? Could it have been just passing through flames as in ancient India, rather than walking on hot stones (in which case one did not die by fire)?

Certainly sacrificing first-born to the fire-god Molech by Semitic tribes has been alleged in the ancient world. And sacrifice of children to fire-gods has been claimed for many tribes of the Mesopotamian-Mediterranean region, but in none of the above-quoted passages is it clear whether the ritual was deadly or just ceremonial. Remember, the accusers were followers of Yahweh who had an axe to grind: namely, the predominance of the Israelite religion over the so-called pagan religions of Canaanites and other neighboring tribes whose territories the Israelites fought to bring under their rule.

Greek historians have kept the notion of human sacrifice to fire-gods alive in their historical accounts of the ancient world. Phoenicians who colonized North Africa at Carthage and beyond are claimed to have practiced Molech worship.

There is doubt however among modern scholars whether the questionable practice of sacrificing children by Phoenicians, Canaanites and other tribes was indeed real, or largely myth. Judging by the present-day abandonment of unwanted new-borns, the abortions of fetuses, and the abuse, sale and murder of children in every part of the world, the charge of infanticide in the ancient world, deplorable as it is, should not shock anyone today. An apparent lack of eye-witness accounts should give us pause to a broad condemnation of the "passing through fire" allegations found in Hebrew scripture.

Yahweh, the god of Moses and the Israelites, will be the subject of Chapter 6 of Biblelore.

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