In my last article I discussed the phrase “Lord of the Flies” and how it can be traced back to the ancient Canaanite god Ba’al. In keeping with that theme, I wanted to discuss the ancient Ammonite god Molech (or Moloch). But before I do, I want to let you know that the topic we are about to discuss can be difficult to stomach.
Having given fair warning, where do we begin? Well, if you recall from my previous article, the Israelites encountered a variety of pagan gods — including Ba’al — when they entered the land of Canaan. In fact, they had probably already been very familiar with these gods even before they arrived, since they seemed to have temporarily begun to worship them when they made the Golden Calf in the wilderness (Exodus 32). Even so, Israel had been commanded not to engage in the worship of pagan gods, including Molech, who was mentioned by name as early as Leviticus 18:21.
Of course, the question we have to ask is: Who is Molech? To answer that, we need to consider both biblical and non-biblical sources.
For starters, when we look at the Old Testament we see a few characteristics of Molech:
- Molech required the giving of children — typically the firstborn — to him as a human sacrifice (Leviticus 20:2–3).
- The sacrifices typically took place south of Jerusalem in the Valley of Hinnom (Jeremiah 32:35).
- The location of the sacrifices was known as Topheth, or “place of the drum,” where the children were burned alive (2 Kings 23:10).
- The priests of Molech would offer the children as food to Molech, or quite possibly even eat part of the burnt children themselves as Molech’s representatives (Ezekiel 23:37).
While these are some of the descriptions of what was involved in the worship of Molech, the Bible does not tell us exactly why the people did it. For that information we will have to consider a few other sources.
For example, in the Hebrew midrashim (early Jewish writings and interpretations of the Old Testament) we are told that Molech had the head of a calf, or bull, and the body of a human. Additionally, sacrifices were made to Molech in order to ensure some sort of economic success or prosperity. This could include protection for a shipment of goods, a bountiful harvest, or the blessing of having more children in the future.
As far as how the children were sacrificed, Professor George Moore describes such an event in an article he wrote for the Journal of Biblical Literature:
“The idol itself had the head of a calf upon a human body; its arms were extended, with the hands open like those of a man who is about to receive something from another. The image was hollow — we must suppose of metal — and was heated by a fire from within till the hands were glowing. The priests took the child from its father and laid it in the hands of Moloch, where it was burned to death; the priests meanwhile violently beating drums that the cries of the victim might not be heard by the father and move his heart.”
In the above account, the father alone is mentioned because it was typically the father who would demonstrate his piety by offering the child. This is not to say that the mother was not present. Yet in that culture it is the father who would have taken the lead role in bringing the child to the priests and presenting it for sacrifice.
This practice of child sacrifice was not only rampant among the people of Canaan but was also adopted by their close relatives. The Phoenicians, descendants of the Canaanites, established places of child sacrifice all over the Mediterranean, even as far as Spain. These Phoenician settlements were called “Punic” by the Romans and included cities such as Carthage in North Africa.
Carthage itself, before being destroyed by Rome during the Punic Wars, was known for performing large numbers of child sacrifices. Plutarch, a Greek philosopher and historian who lived in the first century A.D., described the practice of the Carthaginians in his work On Superstition:
“With full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and 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.”
Although the description above is eerily similar to what we see from Jewish sources concerning the worship of Molech, it is important to note that the Carthaginians offered their sacrifices to the god Cronus (or Kronos). Yet Cronus is actually not very different from Molech. Like Molech, he was a god of the harvest, and was often depicted as carrying a sickle. And although some aspects of the mythology surrounding Cronus do not appear to be directly drawn from the Phoenicians, the ancient Greek historian Philo of Byblos described Cronus as originally being a Phoenician (Canaanite) god.
Yet even if Molech and Cronus are related, how does the Minotaur come into this story? Well, the island of Crete — where the mythology surrounding the Minotaur of Minos took place — was under Phoenician influence well into the Iron Age and had been at least partially settled by the Phoenicians. Interestingly, the Minotaur itself was described as having the head of a bull and the body of human, not unlike the description of Molech. According to Greek mythology, the Minotaur consumed young boys and girls as an offering given by the Athenians in order to prevent some sort of disaster.
Yet the Minotaur of Crete was not unique to the Mediterranean world. On the island of Cyprus, archaeologists have discovered depictions of priests wearing bull-masks, as well as actual bull skulls that were altered to serve as masks. These items have been dated to around one thousand years before Christ and seem to indicate an early presence of child sacrifice associated with a god that was half-bull and half-human.
So, what can we gather from all of these different examples of child sacrifice? Well, at its core we see that people offered their children as burnt sacrifices in order to avert some sort of disaster or to provide some sort of economic blessing.
Furthermore, we see that the actual sacrificial act involved parents (led by the father) bringing their child to a priest who likely wore a mask fashioned from the head of a bull. As the child was placed on the burning arms of the idol, the priest would signal for drums to be played loudly in order to drown out the child’s screams. If the parents showed any hesitation or remorse for their actions, the god would not be satisfied and the sacrifice would not have the desired effect.
At this point, one might ask: “Why would they make such a sacrifice to a mere statue?”
Well, those parents truly believed that sacrificing their child was the only way to avert disaster or to acquire economic blessing and prosperity. The culture itself also believed this and would have argued that sacrificing the child was actually in the child’s best interest. For if the parents refused to offer their son or daughter, that child would be accursed and experience a life of pain and suffering — a life not worth living. Therefore, the killing of the child was the best thing for all parties involved: the parents, the society, and even the child itself.
But thankfully we have become wiser in our modern society, right? Well, to be honest, Molech and the Minotaur are alive and well here in the West. For we continue to proclaim that abortion — the sacrifice of unborn living children — is necessary for economic prosperity and to avert disaster and suffering. Furthermore, we are told that those children with defects or disorders (such as Down Syndrome) would experience a life of pain and suffering if they were to be allowed to live. They might not receive the care that they needed from impoverished parents or unwed mothers. Therefore, sacrificing them would be in their best interests and would be an act of mercy, not cruelty.
Just consider that, at abortion clinics today, the modern high priest of Molech is served by priestesses who send out escorts or play loud music in order to ensure that certain things are not heard (such as the gospel). The children are then devoured, with some priests even keeping trophies as a way to remember the service that they gave to their god.
But what about those women who demonstrate any hesitation or regret for their decision? Well, they become anathema in the eyes of the cult of Molech. Remember, the sacrifice is not effective — and the god is not satiated — if there are any tears or hesitation. So the abortion must be shouted and celebrated: “Rejoice! For our god has been satisfied!”
As for those who oppose this worship of Molech, they are denounced as haters of women, haters of the family, and haters of society. Any attack, any obstacle, any restriction on abortion must be opposed. The Minotaur will not take kindly to any challenge and Molech demands that his people be able to worship him freely.
Yet hope is not lost. For long ago Israel eventually entered the land and destroyed Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom. That place of child sacrifice just outside of Jerusalem became the garbage dump known as Gehenna — a place where “the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”
And while the nation of Israel failed to fully end the worship of Molech, another came later to finish the job. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the new Israel, entered the land and willingly sacrificed himself just outside of Jerusalem in order to rescue his people, conquer death, and defeat his enemies.
Having been raised from the dead, Christ is now exalted and calls all people to repent of their sins and to place their trust in him. He is patient and long-suffering with us, delaying his return and judgment until all is accomplished. Yet, when he returns, the wicked shall be sent to the very place where they had once sent their babies. For Gehenna is the same Greek word used for Hell — a place of screams, drums, and torment where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched. Hell is where the babies were murdered for Molech.
But even now, Christ calls for all to turn to him in repentance and faith. Even now, the sin of murder can be paid for by the blood of the sinless Son of God. Even now, there can be forgiveness.
So, on this day, let us honor mothers and motherhood. Yet let us also pray for the repentance of our nation.