I have recently done some research on child sacrifice in the Bible for the sake of a novel I am writing about Queen Jezebel and ancient Israel in the ninth-century B.C. Most readers of the Bible do not find it controversial that human sacrifice was performed in the ancient world and that it was prohibited by the God of the Hebrews. But as always, modern scholars and skeptics try to argue away the facts with their literary theories of deconstruction. If the Bible is wrong and the ancient world was not so bad, then we can go ahead and sacrifice our own children on our altars of convenience and dismiss those nagging guilty pangs of conscience that comes from learning the lessons of history.
Child Sacrifice in the Bible
Child sacrifice was one of the abominable behaviors of Canaanites that was repeatedly condemned by Yahweh (Deut. 12:31; also, Lev. 18:21; 20:2-5.) It was sometimes referred to directly as “burning their sons and daughters in the fire” (Deut. 12:31; also, 2 Kings 17:17; Jer.7:31; 19:5; Ezek. 16:20-21; 20:31.) or “passing them through the fire” (Deut. 18:10; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; 2 Chron 33:6; Jer. 32:35; Ezek. 16:21; 20:26, 32; 23:37), and sometimes indirectly as “shedding innocent blood” (2 Kings 21:16; also, 2 Kings 24:4; Isa. 59:7; Jer.22:3; 26:15; Psalm 106:38). Those innocent victims are described as food eaten by the gods (Ezek. 23:37-39).
Unfortunately, Israelites were guilty of breaking this command of God almost immediately upon entering the Promised Land.
[Israelites] poured out innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was polluted with blood (Psalm 106:38).
Judah was guilty of child sacrifice from the days of Solomon up to the Babylonian exile:
[Judahites] have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind— (Jeremiah 19:5).
After Solomon’s kingdom split, Israel too was guilty of child sacrifice that led to their Assyrian exile.
And [Israel] burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight (2 Kings 17:17–18).
Molech and his Tophet in the Valley of Hinnom in Jerusalem is the one most connected to child sacrifice in the Old Testament (see Lev. 18:21; 20:2-4; 1 Kings 11:7; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 32:35.) But he is not the only recipient of such offerings. Baal was sometimes connected with Molech as a separate but related deity. He is spoken of as being present in Molech’s accursed Valley of Hinnom.
They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech (Jer. 32:35; also Jer. 19:5:).
Baal here could be a reference to the Canaanite deity by that name or a generic reference to “the lord” (the Baal) of the valley area. But elsewhere, high places are linked to Baal’s fertility cult, while the valley is linked to Molech’s underworld cult, two distinct locations of two distinct deities. Nevertheless, an interwoven connection between the two gods and their cults is expressed in Isaiah 57.
you who burn with lust among the oaks,
under every green tree, [Baal fertility cult]
who slaughter your children in the valleys,
under the clefts of the rocks…[Molech Tophet cult]
On a high and lofty mountain [high places of Baal]
you have set your bed,
and there you went up to offer sacrifice. [to Baal]
You journeyed to the king with oil [Molech]
and multiplied your perfumes;
you sent your envoys far off,
and sent down even to Sheol. [valley of Molech] (Isaiah 57:5-9)
The Tophet (also called Topheth) was the altar upon which children were burned in sacrifice to the deity. Everywhere the word appears in the Old Testament, it is always used in connection with the Valley of Hinnom and therefore with Molech as well.
The Valley of Hinnom, where Molech’s Tophet of sacrifice was located, became “Gehenna” (a derivative of the Hebrew), a metaphor for hell or final judgment in the Second Temple and New Testament times. It is a common misunderstanding to caricature Gehenna as a garbage dump. There is no textual or archaeological evidence that it was such a thing. But it was a place of evil that was judged with fire and destruction.
In Jeremiah 7 and 19, the prophet predicts judgment upon Judah because of her worship of other gods, including child sacrifice on the Tophet in the Valley of Hinnom. He prophesies that the Babylonians will come and bring great destruction upon Jerusalem. There will be so many dead lying on the ground that the name of the valley will be changed from the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom to the Valley of Slaughter.
… for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. And the dead bodies of this people will be food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away (Jer. 7:32–33).
Thus will I do to this place, declares the Lord, and to its inhabitants, making this city like Topheth. The houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah—all the houses on whose roofs offerings have been offered to all the host of heaven, and drink offerings have been poured out to other gods—shall be defiled like the place of Topheth (Jere 19:12–13).
Yahweh says that he will turn Jerusalem itself into a Tophet of burning destruction like a sacrifice to him because of their use of the Tophet and worship of the host of heaven. This was what indeed happened when Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. And thus Gehenna (the Valley of Slaughter) became the symbol of God’s judgment upon those who violated his commands.
The Attempt to Attribute Human Sacrifice to the Bible
Recent critical scholarship has tried to argue that Yahweh himself actually commanded and accepted human sacrifice from Israelites and only later did post-exilic agenda-driven authors write propaganda into the Bible to try to discredit this “once-acceptable sacrifice.” This is an attempt to reduce Hebrew Yahwism down to evolving Canaanite religion rather than revelation from heaven. They suggest several key passages to support this contention: (1) Yahweh’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22), (2) Jephthah’s vow to sacrifice his own daughter (Judges 11:29-40), and 3) Yahweh’s explicit statement that he had previously commanded human sacrifice in Ezekiel 20:25.
Yahweh’s command to Abraham is one of the most debated passages in the Bible. That command was clearly and contextually testing of Abraham’s faith that Yahweh didn’t intend for Abraham to perform. Such hypotheticals of testing are more reflective of a contrast with the Canaanite culture than an accommodation of it. Would Abraham be willing to do what he thought was wrong if Yahweh commanded it? Abraham was supposed to trust Yahweh’s righteousness and not lean on his own fallible fallen human understanding. That is a test of trust, not the validation of an evil.
Jephthah’s vow has also been debated for centuries about whether it even referred to human sacrifice rather than a life of religious celibacy (Judges 11:30). But at the end of the day, the text gives no moral judgment of Jephthah’s behavior from God’s perspective. Yahweh is not shown to approve of it any more than he is shown to condemn it. An argument from silence is not an argument for anything. The story merely describes what happened. Jephthah’s performance of his vow thus remains to be judged by scriptural passages that do make moral judgments on human sacrifice as evil.
Ezekiel’s recording of Yahweh’s strange statement about statutes and human sacrifice is surely the most difficult of the passages to address. In it, Yahweh is referencing the disobedience of Israel toward him in the wilderness.
Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and rules by which they could not have life, and I defiled them through their very gifts in their offering up all their firstborn, that I might devastate them. I did it that they might know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 20:25–26).
It sounds as if God is saying that his laws of Torah were not good and that he deliberately defiled the people by telling them to sacrifice their children. And then he gets even more strange to suggest that this was done so that they might know that he was Yahweh. It is one list of confusing contradictions against everything else written of God’s Law in the Old Testament.
The context of the passage solves the problem of misinterpretation. It wouldn’t make sense that Yahweh here would say the opposite of everything he has said throughout the Old Testament about his Law. In fact, it wouldn’t make sense to contradict what was previously said in this very same chapter of Exodus 20: that his statutes were good (v.12), that they would give life (v.11), that idols defiled them (v.7, 18), and that human sacrifice was forbidden (vv. 28-29, 31). Yahweh said very clearly that regarding child sacrifice, “I did not command it, nor did it come into my mind” (Jer. 7:31).
Context is everything. And the context of the passage is about Israel being given over to pagan control as punishment for her disobedience. The verses before Ezekiel 20:25-26 reiterates Yahweh’s warning that he would “scatter them among the nations and disperse them through the countries” (20:23-24). Yahweh gave them up to the godless nations around them whose gods they chose to worship.
Well, those gods had their own statutes and rules that violated Yahweh’s law. So the best translation of v. 25 is not God “gave them those statutes,” but rather as the NKJV translates, God “gave them up” to those evil laws and rules. This is what is meant by “withholding his hand” from Israel in v. 22. This is also what is meant by Paul in Romans 1 where God “gave up” the pagans to their depravity to be judged by it (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). So God gave up the Israelites to the godless nations with their godless statutes and culture that Israel was seeking after. Yahweh’s goal was that Israel would suffer from her bad choices and return to Yahweh.
The attempt to attribute child sacrifice to the Bible as if it were originally a normal part of Yahweh worship has no textual support from Scripture. The fact that many Israelites engaged in human sacrifice is simply proof of what the Bible says that they were spiritually unfaithful to Yahweh for so long that he sent them into exile precisely for sins such as child sacrifice.
The obvious connection that child sacrifice has with the modern practice of abortion is not hard to catch, and thus the parallels between Jezebel’s day and our own are instructive. Phrases like “sacrificing children in temples of Molech” or “on the altars of convenience” are used by pro-lifers of abortion clinics because the willing murder of one’s own offspring in order to bring benefit to a person’s life or to escape personal suffering is exactly what the motivation was behind child sacrifices of the ancient world. In the same way that the ancient world pleaded with the gods through child sacrifice to save them from the suffering of diseases, famine, or wars, so today’s culture pleads to Molech through abortion to “save” women from the suffering of poverty, “oppressed status,” or gender wars.
True believers in child sacrifice who were mothers of that ancient time considered it difficult but necessary to sacrifice their babies, just as true believers in abortion today will admit the difficulty of their act while demanding it a necessary right to sacrifice their babies. “Safe, legal, and rare” has resulted in a universal sacrament.
In the end, there is just no legitimate moral argument for murdering innocent children. And as in ancient Israel, the child sacrifice of abortion marks the beginning of the end of a civilization by the judgment of God.
The Modern Attempt to Deny Ancient Human Sacrifice
Outside the Bible, child sacrifice in Phoenician culture (like that of Tyre’s) has a significant presence in both textual and archaeological evidence. Among the most ancient texts that reference it are the following that wrote about the city of Carthage in North Africa, a settlement of Phoenicians.
Fourth-century BC Greek author Kleitarchos (paraphrased):
“Kleitarchos says that 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. There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos [Baal], 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.”
First-century BC Greek historian Diodorus Siculus:
“In their zeal to make amends for their omission to sacrifice the noblest children, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in a number not less than three hundred. 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 thereupon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.”
Second-century AD Greek author Plutarch:
“No, 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 [so that] the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.”
Though these texts speak of Phoenician child sacrifice in locations geographically removed from Canaan, they actually confirm religious and cultural connection to Jezebel’s Tyre. The city of Carthage was founded by Dido of Tyre shortly after Jezebel’s death. As Henry Smith explains, “The evidence indicates that the Phoenicians brought this barbaric practice to Carthage from Canaan, and therefore, evidence of child sacrifice at Carthage provides evidential support for the historicity of the biblical accounts which mention such sacrifices.”
Critical scholars have recently sought to discredit or diminish the descriptions of Phoenician child sacrifice in both biblical and classical historians by complaining of prejudice in the authors who describe the sacrifices. In other words, biblical prophets used poetic hyperbole against polytheists, and Greek and Roman authors wrote propaganda about their enemies, such as Carthage, in order to paint them as barbarians and to justify their own barbarity.
But this doesn’t really fit the facts. First, because authors of different eras and vastly different cultures all wrote about the child sacrifice of Carthage. That is the definition of legally sound corroborating eyewitnesses.
Second, both Greeks and Romans practiced infant exposure, leaving unwanted infants to die of exposure to natural elements. So they didn’t condemn the killing of infants—because they practiced it. Their interest was not moral but theological.
Thirdly, the archaeological evidence confirms that both biblical and classical authors knew what they were talking about. Such physical evidence of child sacrifice has been found in Phoenician colonies all over the western Mediterranean. The most famous of sites is the Tophet at Carthage, North Africa, already referenced above.
Lawrence Stager and Sam Wolff, archaeologists who had excavated the site described it this way:
The Carthaginian Tophet is the largest of these Phoenician sites and indeed is the largest cemetery of sacrificed humans ever discovered. Child sacrifice took place there almost continuously for a period of nearly 600 years…we nevertheless estimate the size of the Carthaginian Tophet during the fourth and probably the third centuries B.C. to be, at the minimum, between 54,000 and 64,000 square feet. Using the density of urns in our excavated area as a standard, we estimate that as many as 20,000 urns may have been deposited there between 400 and 200 B.C.
The excavation site involves several levels that cover time periods from 800 B.C. to about 146 B.C. Earlier dates are below the water level and not accessible. Each level consists of urns that contain the charred bones of children, both boys and girls, from newborn to three-years-old, mixed in with charred bones of goats and sheep. These burnt sacrifices were made to Tanit and Baal-Hammon, the patron goddess and god of Carthage. Tanit is the equivalent of Astarte in Canaan. Some say Baal-Hammon is the equivalent of the high god El. But in Canaan Astarte was the consort, not of El, but of Baal, the “Most High.” So Baal-Hammon is most likely the equivalent of the Canaanite Baal-Hadad.
Critical scholars have recently constructed revisionist theories to describe the Carthage Tophet as not being a location of child sacrifice but a cemetery for children who died of natural causes. Stager, Wolff, and Greene debunk this skepticism by explaining several aspects that mitigate such revisionary speculation.
First, the natural mortality rate of children at this time doesn’t match the unnaturally high mortality rate of children in the Tophet, thus indicating deliberate infanticide rather than natural causes.
Second, none of the remains of the infants show the pathological condition of the disease.
Third, naturally expired infants are usually ritually buried in foundations of homes or near the adults of the family, not in a separate cemetery.
Fourth, some of the inscriptions on stela above the urns describe sacrificial vows to a deity never seen in normal funerary stela.
Finally, burial urns of charred animal bones that are sacrificial substitutions are found interspersed with the children’s urns, something that would only make sense in terms of sacrificial rites. There were no pet cemeteries, and animal sacrificial substitution for humans was common though not universal. Some children were still sacrificed.
Some have suggested that animal substitution evolved out of human sacrifice, but the later levels of Carthage show an increase in human sacrifice in later years, not a decrease, thus disproving the evolutionary theory.
Child sacrifice was integrated into the Phoenician culture and the Israelite and Judahite cultures in a deeply affecting way. The biblical, historical, and archaeological evidence is consistent with each other.
I sought to portray the reality of ancient child sacrifice in ancient Phoenicia and Israel in my new novel Jezebel: Harlot Queen of Israel. To show how it was integrated into their socio-economic world. In one sense, the modern reader will be shocked at how it could have been so normalized—until that astute reader realizes its analogy with the modern-day normalization of abortion, child sacrifice 2.0.
Brian Godawa is the best-selling biblical fiction author of the new novel series of spiritual war in the Bible, Chronicles of the Watchers. The first book in the series, Jezebel: Harlot Queen of Israel is now available. This article is excerpted from the book The Spiritual World of Jezebel and Elijah that is a theological companion book to the Jezebel novel.