Moloch (; Masoretic M?le?; Ancient Greek: , Latin: Moloch; also Molech or Molek) is a name or a term which appears in the Hebrew Bible several times, primarily in the book of Leviticus. The Bible strongly condemns practices which are associated with Moloch, practices which appear to have included child sacrifice.
Traditionally, Moloch has been understood as referring to a Canaanite god. However, since 1935, scholars have debated whether or not the term refers to a type of sacrifice on the basis of a similar term, also spelled mlk, which means "sacrifice" in the Punic language. This second position has grown increasingly popular, but it remains contested. Among proponents of this second position, controversy continues as to whether the sacrifices were offered to Yahweh or another deity, and whether they were a native Israelite religious custom or a Phoenician import.
Since the medieval period, Moloch has often been portrayed as a bull-headed idol with outstretched hands over a fire; this depiction takes the brief mentions of Moloch in the Bible and combines them with various sources, including ancient accounts of Carthaginian child sacrifice and the legend of the Minotaur.
'Moloch' has been figuratively used in reference to a person or a thing which demands or requires a very costly sacrifice. A god Moloch appears in various works of literature, such as John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô (1862), and Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" (1955).
The etymology of Moloch is uncertain: most scholars derive it from the root mlk "to rule" but with the vowels of bet "shame" (first advanced by Abraham Geiger in 1857) or as a qal participle from the same verb. R. M. Kerr criticizes both theories by noting that the name of no other god appears to have been formed from a qal participle, and that Geiger's proposal is "an out-of-date theory which has never received any factual support". Paul Mosca similarly argued that "The theory that a form molek would immediately suggest to the reader or hearer the word boset (rather than qodes or ohel) is the product of nineteenth century ingenuity, not of Massoretic [sic] or pre-Massoretic tendentiousness".
Scholars who do not believe that Moloch represents a deity instead compare the name to inscriptions in the closely-related Punic language where the word mlk (molk or mulk) refers to a type of sacrifice, a connection first proposed by Otto Eissfeldt (1935). Eissfeldt himself, following Jean-Baptiste Chabot, connected Punic mlk and Moloch to a Syriac verb mlk meaning "to promise", a theory also supported as "the least problematic solution" by Heath Dewrell (2017). Scholars such as W. von Soden argue that the term is a nominalized causative form of the verb ylk/wlk, meaning "to offer", "present", and thus means "the act of presenting" or "thing presented". Kerr instead derives both the Punic and Hebrew word from the verb mlk, which he proposes meant "to own", "to possess" in Proto-Semitic, only later coming to mean "to rule"; the meaning of Moloch would thus originally have been "present", "gift", and later come to mean "sacrifice".
The word Moloch occurs 8 times in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible; in one of these instances (1 Kings 11:7) it is probably a mistake for Milcom, the god of the Ammonites. Five of the others are in Leviticus, with one in 2 Kings and another in The Book of Jeremiah. All of these texts condemn Israelites who engage in practices associated with Moloch, and most associate Moloch with the use of children as offerings. The activity of causing children "to pass over the fire" is mentioned, without reference to Moloch, in numerous other verses of the bible, such as in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:10), 2 Kings (2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 17:31; 21:6), 2 Chronicles (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6), the Book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:31, 19:5) and the Book of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 16:21; 20:26, 31; 23:37).
Leviticus repeatedly forbids the practice of offering children to Moloch:
And thou shalt not give any of thy seed to set them apart to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.
The majority of the Leviticus references come from a single passage of four lines:
Moreover, thou shalt say to the children of Israel: Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. I also 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 at all hide their eyes from that man, when he giveth of his seed unto Molech, and put him not to death; then I will set My face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go astray after him, to go astray after Molech, from among their people.
And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.
And they built the high places of Baal, which are in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to set apart their sons and their daughters unto Molech; which I commanded them not, neither came it into My mind, that they should do this abomination; to cause Judah to sin.
Given the name's similarity to the Hebrew word melek "king", scholars have also searched the Masoretic text to find instances of melek that may be mistakes for Moloch. Most scholars consider only one instance as likely a mistake, in Isaiah:
For a hearth is ordered of old; yea, for the king [melek] it is prepared, deep and large; the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.-- Isaiah 30:33
The Greek Septuagint translates the instances of Moloch in Leviticus as "ruler" (), and as "king" () at 1 Kings 11:7. It contains Moloch at 2 Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 30:35. Additionally, the Septuagint uses the name Moloch in Amos where it is not found in the Masoretic text:
Before 1935, all scholars held that Moloch was a pagan deity, to whom child sacrifice was offered at the Jerusalem tophet. The medieval rabbinical tradition understood Moloch as closely related to other similarly named deities mentioned in the bible such as Milcom, Adrammelek, and Anammelech. The medieval rabbinical tradition also connected Moloch to reports of ancient Phoenician and Carthaginian child sacrifice; both of these rabbinical ideas were taken over by early modern scholarship. Some modern scholars have proposed that Moloch may be the same god as Milcom, Adad-Milki, or an epithet for Baal.
G. C. Heider and John Day connect Moloch with a deity Mlk attested at Ugarit and Malik attested in Mesopotamia and proposes that he was a god of the underworld, as in Mesopotamia Malik is twice equated with the underworld god Nergal. Day also notes that Isaiah seems to associate Moloch with Sheol. The Ugaritic deity Mlk also appears to be associated with the underworld, and the similarly named Phoenician god Melqart (literally "king of the city") could have underworld associations if "city" is understood to mean "underworld", as proposed by William F. Albright. Heider also argued that there was also an Akkadian term maliku referring to the shades of the dead.
The notion that Moloch refers to a deity has been challenged for several reasons. Moloch is rarely mentioned in the Bible, is not mentioned at all outside of it, and connections to other deities with similar names are uncertain. Moreover, it is possible that some of the supposed deities named Mlk are epithets for another god, given that mlk can also mean "king". The Israelite rite conforms, on the other hand, to the Punic mlk rite in that both involved the sacrifice of children. None of the proposed gods Moloch could be identified with is associated with human sacrifice, the god Mlk of Ugarit appears to have only received animal sacrifice, and the mlk sacrifice is never offered to a god name Mlk but rather to another deity.
In 1935, Otto Eissfeldt proposed, on the basis of Punic inscriptions, that Moloch was a form of sacrifice rather than a deity. Punic inscriptions commonly associate the word mlk with three other words: ?mr (lamb), b?l (citizen) and ?dm (human being). b?l and ?dm never occur in the same description and appear to be interchangeable. Other words that sometimes occur are b?r (flesh). When put together with mlk, these words indicate a "mlk-sacrifice consisting of...". The Biblical term lammolekh would thus be translated not as "to Moloch", as normally translated, but as "as a molk-sacrifice", a meaning consistent with uses of the Hebrew preposition la elsewhere. Bennie Reynolds further argues that Jeremiah's use of Moloch in conjunction with Baal in Jer 32:25 is parallel to his use of "burnt offering" and Baal in Jeremiah 19:4-5.
The view that Moloch refers to a type of sacrifice was challenged by John Day and George Heider in the 1980s. Day and Heider argued that it was unlikely that biblical commentators had misunderstood an earlier term for a sacrifice as a deity and that Leviticus 20:5's mention of "whoring after Moloch" necessarily implied that Moloch was a god. Day and Heider nevertheless accepted that mlk was a sacrificial term in Punic, but argue that it did not originate in Phoenicia and that it was not brought back to Phoenicia by the Punic diaspora. More recently, Anthony Frendo argues that the Hebrew equivalent to Punic ylk (the root of Punic mlk) is the verb 'br "to pass over"; in Frendo's view, this means that Hebrew Moloch is not derived from the same root as Punic mlk.
Since Day's and Heider's objections, a growing number of scholars has come to believe that Moloch refers to the mulk sacrifice rather than a deity. Francesca Stavrakopoulou argues that "because both Heider and Day accept Eissfeldt's interpretation of Phoenician-Punic mlk as a sacrificial term, their positions are at once compromised by the possibility that biblical m?lekh could well function in a similar way as a technical term for a type of sacrifice". She further argues that "whoring after Moloch" does not need to imply a deity as mlk refers to both the act of sacrificing and the thing sacrificed, allowing an interpretation of "whor[ing] after the mlk-offering". Heath Dewrell argues that the translation of Leviticus 20:5 in the Septuagint, which substitutes "princes" for Moloch, implies that the biblical urtext did not include the phrase "whoring after Moloch". Bennie Reynolds further notes that at least one inscription from Tyre does appear to mention mlk sacrifice (RES 367); therefore Day and Heider are incorrect that the practice is unattested in Canaan (Phoenicia). Reynolds also argues for further parallels.
Among scholars who deny the existence of a deity Moloch, debate remains as to whether the Israelite mlk sacrifices were offered to Yahweh or another deity. Armin Lange suggests that the Binding of Isaac represents a mlk-sacrifice to Yahweh in which the child is finally substituted with a sheep, noting that Isaac was meant to be a burnt offering. This opinion is shared by Stavrakopoulou, who also points to the sacrifice of Jephthah of his daughter as a burnt offering. Frendo, while he argues that Moloch refers to a god, accepts Stavrakopoulou's argument that the sacrifices in the tophet were originally to Yahweh. Dewrell argues that although mlk sacrifices were offered to Yahweh, they were distinct from other forms of human or child sacrifice found in the Bible (such as that of Jephthah) and were a foreign custom imported by the Israelites from the Phoenicians during the reign of Ahaz.
A minority of scholars, mainly scholars of Punic studies, has argued that the ceremonies to Moloch are in fact a non-lethal dedication ceremony rather than a sacrifice. These theories are partially supported by commentary in the Talmud and among early Jewish commentators of the Bible. Rejecting such arguments, Paolo Xella and Francesca Stavrakopoulou note that the Bible explicitly connects the ritual to Moloch at the tophet with the verbs indicating slaughter, killing in sacrifice, deities "eating" the children, and holocaust. Xella also refers to Carthaginian and Phoenician child sacrifice found referenced in Greco-Roman sources.
Medieval and modern sources tend to portray Moloch as a bull-headed humanoid idol with arms outstretched over a fire, onto which the sacrificial child is placed. This portrayal can be traced back to medieval Jewish commentaries, which connected the biblical Moloch with depictions of Carthaginian sacrifice to Cronus (Baal Hammon) found in sources such as Diodorus, with George Foote Moore suggesting that the bull's head may derive from the mythological Minotaur. John S. Rundin suggests that further sources for the image are the legend of Talos and the brazen bull built for king Phalaris of the Greek city of Acragas on Sicily. He notes that both legends, as well as that of the Minotaur, have potential associations with Semitic child sacrifice.
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.
Gustave Flaubert's Salammbô, a 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 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 Salammbô and included an enormous image of Moloch modeled on Flaubert's description. American antisemite and anti-communist agitator Elizabeth Dilling, and her husband Jeremiah Stokes, wrote an antisemitic work, 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 Baal Hammon..
Moloch is sometimes used to indicate something that demands immense sacrifice and subservience.
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.
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.
Aus Anspielungen der Propheten muss man schliessen, dass Moloch von seinen Verehrern mit dem Nationalgott Jahwe kombiniert wurde.[From the prophets' allusions we must conclude that Moloch was combined with the national god Jahweh by his followers.]
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