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Moloch, also rendered as Molech, Molekh, Molok, Molek, Molock, Moloc, Melech, Milcom, or Molcom (representing Semitic מלך m-l-k, a Semitic root meaning "king") is the name of an ancient Ammonite god. Moloch worship was practiced by the Canaanites, Phoenicians, and related cultures in North Africa and the Levant.
As a god worshipped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites, Moloch had associations with a particular kind of propitiatory child sacrifice by parents. Moloch figures in the Book of Deuteronomy and in the Book of Leviticus as a form of idolatry (Leviticus 18:21: "And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Moloch"). In the Old Testament, Gehenna was a valley by Jerusalem, where apostate Israelites and followers of various Baalim and Caananite gods, including Moloch, sacrificed their children by fire (2 Chr. 28:3, 33:6; Jer. 7:31, 19:2–6).
Moloch has been used figuratively in English literature from John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667) to Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1955), to refer to a person or thing demanding or requiring a very costly sacrifice.
The Hebrew letters מלך (mlk) usually stand for melek "king" (Proto-Northwest Semitic malku) but when vocalized as mōlek in Masoretic Hebrew text, they have been traditionally understood as a proper name Μολοχ (molokh) (Proto-Northwest Semitic Mulku) in the corresponding Greek renderings in the Septuagint translation, in Aquila, and in the Middle Eastern Targum. The form usually appears in the compound lmlk. The Hebrew preposition l- means "to", but it can often mean "for" or "as a(n)". Accordingly one can translate lmlk as "to Moloch" or "for Moloch" or "as a Moloch", or "to the Moloch" or "for the Moloch" or "as the Moloch", whatever a "Moloch" or "the Moloch" might be. We also once find hmlk "the Moloch" standing alone.
Because there is no difference between mlk "king" and mlk "moloch" in unpointed text, interpreters sometimes suggest molek should be understood in certain places where the Masoretic text is vocalized as melek, and vice versa.
Moloch has been traditionally interpreted as the name of a god, possibly a god titled the king, but purposely mispronounced as Molek instead of Melek using the vowels of Hebrew bosheth "shame".
In other passages, however, the god of the Ammonites is named Milcom, not Moloch (see 1 Kings 11.33; Zephaniah 1.5). The Septuagint reads Milcom in 1 Kings 11.7 instead of Moloch. Many English translations accordingly follow the non-Hebrew versions at this point and render Milcom. The form mlkm can also mean "their king" as well as Milcom, and therefore one cannot always be sure in some other passages whether the King of Ammon is intended or the god Milcom. It has also been suggested that the Ba‘al of Tyre, Melqart "king of the city" (who was probably the Ba‘al whose worship was furthered by Ahab and his house) was this supposed god Moloch and that Melqart/Moloch was also Milcom the god of the Ammonites and identical to other gods whose names contain mlk.
Amos 5:26 reads in close translation:
Other references to Moloch use mlk only in the context of "passing children through fire lmlk", whatever is meant by lmlk, whether it means "to Moloch" or means something else. Though the Moloch sacrifices have traditionally been understood to mean burning children alive to the god Moloch, some have suggested a rite of purification by fire instead, though perhaps a dangerous one. References to passing through fire without mentioning mlk appear in 18:10–13; 2 Kings 21.6; Ezekiel 20.26, 31; 23.37. So this phrase is well documented in scripture, and similar practices of rendering infants immortal by passing them through the fire, are indirectly attested in early Greek myth, such as the myth of Thetis and the myth of Demeter as the nurse of Demophon. Some have responded to the proponents of this view of the Moloch sacrifices (being only a ritualized "pass between flame") by pointing out their failure to understand the Hebrew idiom le ha'avir ba'esh to imply "to burn" and their use of anthropological evidence of suspect relevance to draw parallels to early Hebrew religious practices.
The word here translated literally as 'seed' very often means offspring. The forms containing mlk have been left untranslated. The reader may substitute either "to Moloch" or "as a molk".
And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.
Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whoever he be of the children of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones. And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name. And if the people of the land do any ways hide their eyes from the man, when he giveth his seed unto Molech, and kill him not, then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit whoredom with Molech, from among their people.
And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
Later commentators have compared these accounts with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the Punic city of Carthage, a Phoenician colony. Cleitarchus, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn, that is to Ba‘al Hammon, the chief god of Carthage. Issues and practices relating to Moloch and child sacrifice may also have been exaggerated for effect. After the Romans defeated Carthage and totally destroyed the city, they engaged in post-war propaganda to make their arch-enemies seem cruel and less civilized.
There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the 'grin' is known as 'sardonic laughter,' since they die laughing.
Diodorus Siculus (20.14) wrote:
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.
Diodorus also relates that relatives were forbidden to weep and that when Agathocles defeated Carthage, the Carthaginian nobles believed they had displeased the gods by substituting low-born children for their own children. They attempted to make amends by sacrificing 200 children of the best families at once, and in their enthusiasm actually sacrificed 300 children.
In the book The History of Sicily from the Earliest Times the author recounts the tale slightly differently. He states that the Carthaginian nobles had actually acquired and raised children not of their own for the express purpose of sacrificing them to the god. The author states that during the siege, the 200 high-born children were sacrificed in addition to another 300 children who were initially saved from the fire by the sacrifice of these acquired substitutes.
Plutarch wrote in De Superstitiones 171:
... but 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 took the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.
Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.
A rabbinical tradition attributed to the Yalkout of Rabbi Simeon, says that the idol was hollow and was divided into seven compartments, in one of which they put flour, in the second turtle-doves, in the third a ewe, in the fourth a ram, in the fifth a calf, in the sixth an ox, and in the seventh a child, which were all burned together by heating the statue inside.
"First MOLOCH, horrid King besmear'd with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents tears,
Though, for the noyse of Drums and Timbrels loud,
Their children's cries unheard that passed through fire
To his grim Idol. Him the AMMONITE
Worshipt in RABBA and her watry Plain,
In ARGOB and in BASAN, to the stream
Of utmost ARNON. Nor content with such
Audacious neighbourhood, the wisest heart
Of SOLOMON he led by fraud to build
His Temple right against the Temple of God
On that opprobrious Hill, and made his Grove
The pleasant Vally of HINNOM, TOPHET thence
And black GEHENNA call'd, the Type of Hell."
He is listed among the chief of Satan's angels in Book I, and is given a speech at the parliament of Hell in Book 2:43 – 105, where he argues for immediate warfare against God. He later becomes revered as a pagan god on Earth.
In Bertrand Russell's A Free Man's Worship (1903), Moloch is used to describe a particularly savage brand of religion:
The savage, like ourselves, feels the oppression of his impotence before the powers of Nature; but having in himself nothing that he respects more than Power, he is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship. Pathetic and very terrible is the long history of cruelty and torture, of degradation and human sacrifice, endured in the hope of placating the jealous gods: surely, the trembling believer thinks, when what is most precious has been freely given, their lust for blood must be appeased, and more will not be required. The religion of Moloch — as such creeds may be generically called — is in essence the cringing submission of the slave, who dare not, even in his heart, allow the thought that his master deserves no adulation. Since the independence of ideals is not yet acknowledged, Power may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain.
During the growth of vehicle ownership in the United States, the concern for automobile deaths prompted at least one editorial cartoonist to label the automobile "the Modern Moloch," viewing the car as a machine of death.
In The Gathering Storm (1948), the first volume of Winston Churchill's history of World War II, Churchill describes Hitler's triumph at the moment he finally achieved total power in 1933; "He had called from the depths of defeat the dark and savage furies latent in the most numerous, most serviceable, ruthless, contradictory and ill-starred race in Europe. He had conjured up the fearful idol of an all-devouring Moloch of which he was the priest and incarnation."
At a later period and almost universally the Newts themselves came to accept a different faith, whose origin among them is unknown; this involved adoration of Moloch, whom they visualized as a giant Newt with a human head; they were reported to have enormous submarine idols made of cast iron, manufactured to their orders by Armstrong or Krupp, but no further details ever leaked out of their cultic rituals since they were conducted under water; they were, however, believed to be exceptionally cruel and secret. It would seem that this faith gained ground rapidly because the name Moloch reminded them of the zoological "molche" or the German "Molch," the terms for Newt.
In Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" (1955), Moloch is used as a metaphor for capitalism and industrial civilization, and for America, more specifically. The word is repeated many times throughout Part II of the poem, and begins (as an exclamation of "Moloch!") in all but the first and last five stanzas of the section.
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!
Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!
Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!
Nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century archaeology found almost no evidence of a god called Moloch or Molech. They also characterized Rabbinical traditions about other gods mentioned in the Tanach as simply legends, and regarded them as raising doubt about what was said about Moloch. They suggested that such descriptions of Moloch might be simply taken from accounts of the sacrifice to Cronus and from the tale of the Minotaur; They found no evidence of a bull-headed Phoenician god. Some identified Moloch with Milcom, with the Tyrian god Melqart, with Ba‘al Hammon to whom children were purportedly sacrificed, and with other gods called "Lord" (Baʿal) or (Bel). These various suggested equations combined with the popular solar theory hypotheses of the day generated a single theoretical sun god: Baal.
Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô, a semi-historical novel about Carthage published in 1862, included a version of the Carthaginian religion, including the god Moloch, whom he characterized as a god to whom the Carthaginians offered children. Flaubert described this Moloch mostly according to the Rabbinic descriptions, but with a few of his own additions. From chapter 7:
Then further back, higher than the candelabrum, and much higher than the altar, rose the Moloch, all of iron, and with gaping apertures in his human breast. His outspread wings were stretched upon the wall, his tapering hands reached down to the ground; three black stones bordered by yellow circles represented three eyeballs on his brow, and his bull's head was raised with a terrible effort as if in order to bellow.
Chapter 13 describes how, in desperate attempt to call down rain, the image of Moloch was brought to the center of Carthage, how the arms of the image were moved by the pulling of chains by the priests (apparently Flaubert's own invention), and then describes the sacrifices made to Moloch. First grain and animals of various kinds were placed in compartments within the statue (as in the Rabbinic account). Then the children were offered, at first a few, and then more and more.
The brazen arms were working more quickly. They paused no longer. Every time that a child was placed in them the priests of Moloch spread out their hands upon him to burden him with the crimes of the people, vociferating: "They are not men but oxen!" and the multitude round about repeated: "Oxen! oxen!" The devout exclaimed: "Lord! eat!" and the priests of Proserpine, complying through terror with the needs of Carthage, muttered the Eleusinian formula: "Pour out rain! bring forth!"
The victims, when scarcely at the edge of the opening, disappeared like a drop of water on a red-hot plate, and white smoke rose amid the great scarlet colour.
Nevertheless, the appetite of the god was not appeased. He ever wished for more. In order to furnish him with a larger supply, the victims were piled up on his hands with a big chain above them which kept them in their place. Some devout persons had at the beginning wished to count them, to see whether their number corresponded with the days of the solar year; but others were brought, and it was impossible to distinguish them in the giddy motion of the horrible arms. This lasted for a long, indefinite time until the evening. Then the partitions inside assumed a darker glow, and burning flesh could be seen. Some even believed that they could descry hair, limbs, and whole bodies.Night fell; clouds accumulated above the Baal. The funeral-pile, which was flameless now, formed a pyramid of coals up to his knees; completely red like a giant covered with blood, he looked, with his head thrown back, as though he were staggering beneath the weight of his intoxication.
Italian director Giovanni Pastrone's silent film Cabiria (1914) was largely based on Salammbo and included an enormous image of Moloch modeled on Flaubert's description. American anti-communist agitator Elizabeth Dilling, and her husband Jeremiah Stokes, wrote an anti-Semitic book, The Plot Against Christianity (1964). Re-released under the title The Jewish Religion: Its Influence Today — with Talmudic writings annotated by Dilling — it quoted Flaubert's description as if it were historically accurate. Information from the novel and film still finds its way into serious writing about Moloch, Melqart, Carthage, and Ba‘al Hammon.
In 1921 Otto Eissfeldt, excavating in the neighbourhood of Salammbó, Carthage, discovered inscriptions with the word MLK, which in the context meant neither "king" nor the name of any god. He concluded that it was instead a term for a particular kind of sacrifice, one which at least in some cases involved human sacrifice. A relief was found showing a priest holding a child. Also uncovered was a sanctuary to the goddess Tanit comprising a cemetery with thousands of burned bodies of animals and of human infants, dating from the 8th century BC down to the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. Eissfeldt identified the site as a tophet, using a Hebrew word of previously unknown meaning connected to the burning in some Biblical passages. Most of the children's bodies appeared to be those of newborns, but some were older, up to about six years of age.
Eissfeldt further concluded that the Hebrew writings were not talking about a god Moloch at all, but about the molk or mulk sacrifice, that the abomination was not in worshiping the god Molech who demanded children be sacrificed to him, but in the practice of sacrificing human children as a molk. The Hebrew Bible states that the Hebrews were strongly opposed to sacrificing first-born children as a molk to Yahweh himself. The relevant Scriptural passages depict Yahweh condemning Hebrews sacrificing their first-borns; those who did were stoned to death, and those who witnessed but did not prevent the sacrifice were excommunicated.
Similar "tophets" have since been found at Carthage and other places in North Africa, and in Sardinia, Malta, and Sicily. In late 1990 a possible tophet consisting of cinerary urns containing bones and ashes and votive objects was retrieved from ransacking on the mainland just outside of Tyre in the Phoenician homeland.
From the beginning there were some who doubted Eissfeldt's theory but opposition was only sporadic until 1970. Prominent archaeologist Sabatino Moscati (who had accepted Eissfeldt's idea, like most others) changed his opinion and spoke against it. Others followed.
The arguments were that classical accounts of the sacrifices of children at Carthage were not numerous and were only particularly described as occurring in times of peril, not necessarily a regular occurrence.
Texts referring to the molk sacrifice mentioned animals more than they mentioned humans. Of course, those may have been animals offered instead of humans to redeem a human life. And the Biblical decrying of the sacrificing of one's children as a molk sacrifice doesn't indicate one way or the other that all molk sacrifices must involve human child sacrifice or even that a molk usually involved human sacrifice.
It was pointed out the phrase "whoring after" was elsewhere only used about seeking other gods, not about particular religious practices.
Eissfeldt's use of the Biblical word tophet was criticized as arbitrary; even those who believed in Eissfeldt's general theory mostly took tophet to mean something like 'hearth' in the Biblical context, not a cemetery of some kind.
John Day, in his book Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge, 1989; ISBN 0-521-36474-4), again put forth the argument that there was indeed a particular god named Molech, citing a god mlk from two Ugaritic serpent charms, and an obscure god Malik from some god lists who in two texts was equated with Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of the underworld.