by Lien-yueh Wei
The Burnt Offering of Children: Canaan and Israel
Among all the religious rituals of Palestine, one of the most ghastly, controversial, and condemned practices is human sacrifice. Among all types of human sacrifice, the burnt offering of children is regarded as the most inhumane and immoral ritual. However, did the practice really exist in ancient Canaan and Israel? If so, what are the differences in their respective viewpoints of the practice and the significance for each of them?
Many scholars think that archaeological discoveries and ancient texts show the possible historicity of the burnt offering of children in Canaan and Israel. Charred skeletons of children have been discovered together at Gezer, Ta’anach, and Megiddo of Palestine. Although these skeletons do not have undisputed correlation with children sacrifice, they are similar with hundreds of urns containing the charred remains of children found at Carthage sites. Commemorative stelae leave no doubt about the role of those children found in Carthage as sacrificial victims. They were offered up in payment of a vow. Even though Carthage is not in Palestine, scholars are able to compare Canaanite and Israelite findings with the clearly identified markers of child sacrifice in Carthage. Moreover, in Mesopotamia and Jerusalem, scholars have found epigraphic sources that record the practice. North Mesopotamian texts of the tenth-seventh centuries B.C.E. signify the burnt offering of male children in honor of the god Hadad. A Syrian inscription indicates that people burnt their children for the gods Adrammelech and Anammelech. The Hebrew Bible abundantly attests that the burnt offering of children was current in early Palestinian religion (Lev. 20:2; Deut. 12:31; 2 Ki. 16:3; 17:31; 23:10; Jer. 7:30-32; 19:3-5; Ezek. 16:20-21). For instance, Jeremiah, an Israelite prophet, mentioned many times that Israelites have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in fire as offerings to Baal (Jer. 19:5). A title page engraving from the Mishnah, the commentary written by rabbis, shows a boy about to be sacrificed by fire to Molech as an illustration for the tractate.
On the other hand, some scholars think that the burnt offering of children did not really happen in ancient Israel. The charred skeletons of children do not necessarily prove that child sacrifice was the cause of death because it could be a cremation, which might be a normal type of child interment at that time or it might be an indispensable way to avoid the spread of some horrible, infectious diseases which killed many children in that area. Concerning the textual evidence, some scholars agree with the historicity of the practice in ancient Canaan, but they disagree with that in ancient Israel. They argue that in all those sources in the Hebrew Bible, there is no mention of “burning” or “sacrificing” children to Molech. Some scholars refer to the practice as an innocuous ritual of passing a child “rapidly” through a flame as an initiation rite in order to transfer an Israelite child to paganism or as a means of absorbing immortality and giving the child extra strength. Actually, in many ancient Asian religions, when a child became sick, their parents would take the child to a temple and a priest would pass the child through fire for driving out an evil spirit and making the child recover from sickness. This ritual is still popular in some regions of China today.
Notwithstanding that the evidence for the burnt offering of children in Palestine is ambiguous, the supporters of its historicity have the advantage in this controversy. In my opinion, their opponents cannot explain many explicit records. For example, the practice is very obviously described in two stories in the Bible. Abraham is willing to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as a burnt offering and to kill Isaac before burning him (Gen. 22:1-19). Jephthah’s only daughter asks to go into hills and weep for two months before being sacrificed in fire by her father (Jud. 11:29-40). These events cannot be interpreted as an innocuous ritual of passing a child rapidly through fire. Hence, we might have to acknowledge that the burnt offering of children really existed in ancient Canaan and Israel.
Even though the burnt offering of children existed in ancient Canaan and Israel, the two cultures had different viewpoints and understandings of the significance of the practice. For instance, the Canaanite practice was based on a mythological tradition. People believed that the practice was one of the most effective rituals to please the deity and dispel adversity. Therefore, the practice usually came after a defeat and a great disaster. Sometimes, it was a votive offering. Since the ritual was popular in Canaan, some scholars infer that the practice was positively regarded in Canaanites and their religions.
On the other hand, Israelite people adopted the practice and its notion from the Canaanites. Many people followed the practice, but the dominant religion, Yahwism, highly abhorred the practice and prohibited it in the biblical texts. Not only did many Israelite prophets or many authors of the Hebrew Bible constantly warn the Israelite people of the result, a serious penalty from God, of practicing the burnt offering of children, but also some kings of Judah destroyed altars built for this practice. Josiah, for example, desecrated Topheth in the Hinnom Valley, so that no one might make the child pass through the fire for Molech (2 Ki. 23:10).
However, If we understand that Yahwism and its God abhorred child sacrifice, how can we explain the events that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son as a burnt offering and that Jephthah, an Israelite judge chosen by God, sacrificed his only daughter in fire?
First, Abraham’s sacrifice was unprecedented in that he was not governed by motive, honor, vow, or fear, but solely by obeying God’s command. In fact, God’s purpose in this event was not sacrifice, but obedience. Wherefore, God prevented Abraham from killing his son at that moment and told Abraham the real purpose of this command. For most Israelite people, this event was not the practice of children, but that of faith. Second, Jephthah’s sacrifice was not according to God’s command or will, but for his own purpose and motive. Some rabbis thought that Jephthah’s sinful act of immolating his daughter was due to his ignorance. They also condemned Jephthah as one of three biblical figures to take imprudent vows, but he was the only one who regretted his imprudence. Thus, the events of Abraham and Jephthah were treated as extraordinary and could not be taken as indicative of the normative or allowable practice in Israel.
In conclusion, we might have to accept that the burnt offering of children really existed in ancient Canaan and Israel, and it was one of the most ghastly practices of the Israelites adopted from Canaan. Nevertheless, Yahwism endeavored to prohibit it, while the Canaanite religion supported and practiced it. Hence, many Jewish scholars assert that Yahwism is an ethical religion and is very different from the other religions in Canaan from this point.