1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Moloch

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MOLOCH, or Molech (in Hebrew, with the doubtful exception of i Kings xi. 7, always “the Molech”), the name or title of the divinity which the men of Judah in the last ages of the kingdom were wont to propitiate by the sacrifice of their own children. According to the Hebrew consonants it might simply be read “the king” (mélek), an appellation for the supreme deity of a Semitic state or tribe. The traditional pronunciation (Μολόχ), which goes back as far as the Septuagint version of Kings, probably means that the old form was perverted by giving it the vowels of bōsheth “shame,” the contemptuous name for Baal (q.v.). In i Kings xi. 7 (see above) it is the name of the god of the Ammonites, elsewhere called Milcom or Malcam; but it appears from 2 Kings xxiii. 10, 13 that the worship of Milcom at the shrine set up by Solomon was distinct from Molech worship, and the text should probably therefore be emended to the longer form (so the Septuagint).

The phrase employed in speaking of these sacrifices is that of dedication—“to make one's son or daughter pass through (or by means of) fire to (the) Molech” (2 Kings xxiii. 10; but elsewhere without the words “through fire” Lev. xviii. 21); and it appears from Jer. vii. 31, xix. 5; Ezek. xvi. 20 seq., that this phrase denotes a human holocaust,[1] and not, as sometimes has been thought, a mere consecration to Molech by passing through or between fires, as in the Roman Palilia and similar rites elsewhere (on which see Frazer, Golden Bough, 2nd ed., ii. 40 sqq., iii. 237 sqq.). Human sacrifice was common in Semitic heathenism, and at least the idea of such sacrifices was not unknown to Israel from early times (see Isaac; Jephthah).[2] We learn from 2 Kings iii. 27 that the piacular sacrifice of his son and heir was the last offering which the king of Moab made to deliver his country. Even the Hebrew historian ascribes to this act the effect of rousing divine indignation against the invading host of Israel; it would not, therefore, be surprising if under the miseries brought on Palestine by the westward march of the Assyrian power, the idea of the sacrifice of one's own son, as the most powerful of atoning rites, should have taken hold of those kings of Judah (Ahaz and Manasseh, 2 Kings xvi. 3, xxi. 6) who were otherwise prone, in their hopelessness of help from the old religion (Isa. vii. 12), to seek to strange peoples and their rites. Ahaz's sacrifice of his son (which indeed rests on a somewhat late authority) was apparently an isolated act of despair, since human sacrifices are not among the corruptions of the popular religion spoken of by Isaiah and Micah. In the 7th century, however, when the old worship had sustained rude shocks, and all religion was transformed into servile fear (Mic. vi. i seq.), the example of Manasseh did not stand alone, and Jeremiah and Ezekiel made frequent and indignant reference to the “high places” for the sacrifice of children by their parents which rose beneath the very walls of the temple from the gloomy ravine of Hinnom or Tophet.[3] (Jer. vii. 31, xix., xxxii. 35; Ezek. xvi. 18 sqq., xxiii. 37). The children apparently were not burned alive; they were slain and burned like any other holocaust (Ezek. loc. cit.; Isa. Ivii. 5), their blood was shed at the sanctuary (Jer. xix. 4; Ps. cvi. 38). Thus the late Rabbinical picture of the calf-headed brazen image of Molech within which children were burned alive is pure fable, and with it falls the favourite comparison between Molech and the Carthaginian idol from whose brazen arms children were rolled into an abyss of fire, and whom Diodorus (xix. 14) naturally identifies with the child-eater Kronos, thus leading many moderns to make Molech the planet Saturn.

It is with these sacrifices that the name of “the Molech” is always connected; sometimes “the Baal” (lord) appears as a synonym. At the same time, the horrid ritual was so closely associated with Yahweh worship (Ezek. xxiii. 39) that Jeremiah more than once finds it necessary to protest that it is not of Yahweh's institution (vii. 31, xix. 5). So too it is the idea of sacrificing the firstborn to Yahweh that is discussed and rejected in Micah vi. It is indeed plain that such a sacrifice—for we have here to do, not with human victims in general, but with the sacrifice of the dearest earthly thing—could only be paid to the supreme deity; and Manasseh and his people never ceased to acknowledge Yahweh as the God of Israel. Thus the way in which Jeremiah (Jer. xix. 5) and the legislation of Leviticus (xviii. 21, xx. 2-5) and the author of Kings, seem to mark out the Molech or Baal as a false god, distinct from Yahweh, is precisely parallel to the way in which Hosea speaks of the golden calves or Baalim. In each case the people thought themselves to be worshipping Yahweh under the title of Molech or Baal; but the prophet refuses to admit that this is so, because the worship itself is an apostasy to heathenism. Note, also, the attitude of Ezekiel in xx. 25 seq., 31, references which cannot be explained away.

Although the motive came from within, the form taken by the cult has appeared to many to be of non-Israelite origin. Babylonia and Assyria, however, seem to be out of the question: malik, “arbiter, decider,” is there an epithet of various gods, and as an appellative means “prince” and not king; further, little evidence for the prevalence of human sacrifice has as yet been found in those lands (A. Jeremias, Das Alte Test. im Lichte d. alten Orients, 2nd ed., p. 454). Among the Canaanite branch, the king-god is more prominent, and apart from the Ammonite variant Milcom, numerous names compounded with Milk- are found on Phoenician inscriptions and among western Semites mentioned in cuneiform literature (H. Zimmern, Keilinschr. u. das Alte Test., 3rd ed. pp. 470 sqq.). It is true that child-sacrifice in connexion with fire prevailed among the Phoenicians, and, according to the Greeks, the deity honoured with these grisly rites was Kronos (identified with the Phoenician El, “God”). On the other hand, the seat of the cult appears to have been at Jerusalem, and the period during which it flourished does not favour any strong Phoenician influence. Again, the form of the word Tophet and Ahaz's association with Damascus might point to an Aramaean origin for the cult; but it would not be safe to support this view by the statements and names in 2 Kings xvii. 31. On the whole, the biblical tradition that the Molech-cult was Canaanite and indigenous (Deut. xii. 29 sqq., xviii. 9 seq.) holds the ground. There was a tendency in time of misfortune to revert to earlier rites (illustrated in some ancient mourning customs), and it may have been some old disused practice revived under the pressure of national distress.

See, generally, G. F. Moore, Ency. Bib., s.v.; Lagrange, Études sur les religions sémitiques 2nd ed. pp. 99-109; B. Stade, Bib. Theol. d. Alt. Test. i. 232 seq., 244 seq.; J. G. Frazer, Adonis, &c., 2nd ed. pp. 144 seq. 401 sqq; and J. A. Montgomery, Journ. Bib. Lit., 1908, i. 40 sqq. On archaeological evidence for human sacrifice from Palestinian soil, see H. Vincent, Canaan d'après l'exploration récente, pp. 50, 116, 189 sqq.

(W. R. S.; S. A. C.)

  1. In 2 Chron. xxviii. 3 (parallel to 2 Kings xvi. 3) a single letter is transposed in the phrase, changing the sense from “caused to pass through the fire” to “caused to burn with fire.” Geiger (Urschrift und Uebersetzung, p. 305) very unnecessarily supposed that this was everywhere the original reading, and that it had been changed to soften the enormity ascribed to the ancient Hebrews. The phrase “to give one's seed to Molech” (Lev. xx. 2 seq.), and the fact that these victims were (like other sacrifices) regarded as food for the deity (Ezek. xvi. 20) explain and justify the common reading.
  2. In Hos. xiii. 2, the interpretation “they that sacrifice men” is improbable, and 2 Kings xvii. 17 and Lev. xviii., xx. are of too late date by themselves to prove the immolation of children to Moloch in old Israel. The “ban” (חרט‎), which was a religious execution of criminals or enemies, was common to Israel with its heathen neighbours (cf. the inscription of Mesha), but lacked the distinctive character of a sacrifice in which the victim is the food of the deity, conveyed to him through fire.
  3. The etymology of the word Tophet is obscure; it is possibly of Aramaic origin and means “fire-place,” cf. tophteh, “pyre,” (Isa. xxx. 33). The vocalization is artificial, the Masoretes having given it the vowel-points of bōsheth. See W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites, 2nd ed., 377.