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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Molech

MOLECH, mō’ lĕk (מֹּ֑לֶכְ, הַמֹּ֖לֶכְ; LXX ἄρχων, G807, “ruler,” in Lev 18:21; 20:2-5; ὁ βασιλέυς αὐτῶν, “their king,” in 1 Kings 11:7 [11:5 in LXX]; ὁ Μολόχ, in 2 Kings 23:10; ὁ Μολόχ βασιλέυς, and ὁ Μολόχ βασιλέυς, “The King, Moloch,” in Jer 32:35 [39:35 in LXX]. The meaning is uncertain).

1. Meaning. Most scholars accept one of two meanings for “Molech.”

Some contend that molech is a generic noun denoting a particular type of sacrifice, “a votive offering.” This view is based primarily on the use of mlk in a number of Punic and Neo-Punic inscrs. dated roughly from the 4th to the 1st cent. b.c. from N Africa and engraved upon stelae which commemorated a sacrifice. The word mlk occurs alone or compounded with expressions, the most remarkable of which are mlk’mr and mlk’dm. Several stelae, dated from the end of the 2nd cent. or beginning of the 3rd cent. a.d., bear an analogous Latin inscr. vocalized molchomor which is evidently a transcription of the Punic mlk’mr. Thus one can reckon molk as the vocalization of the first element.

O. Eissfeldt then showed that the word had a ritual sense denoting a sacrifice made to confirm or acquit a vow. Probably mlk’mr and mlk’dm mean respectively “offering of lamb” and “offering of man,” and refer to the sacrifice of an infant, or of a lamb substitute. Furthermore, although these inscrs. and texts are of late date, R. Dussaud read mlk’mr on a stele from Malta of the 7th or 6th cent. b.c.

Moreover, Sanchuniathon as quoted by Porphyry through Philo (De Abstinentia, ii, 56), a text also taken up by Eusebius (Praep. Ev., iv, 16, 6), said that the Phoenicians sacrificed children at a much earlier date, and Quintus Curtius (His. IV., iii, 23, tr. H. Bardon in the Budé Collection) said explicitly that this rite was transmitted from Phoenicia to Carthage. Although mlk never appears with a sacrificial meaning in the Phoen. inscrs., this silence is explicable because Quintus Curtius also said the practice had been in abeyance for centuries before the founding of Carthage. The Ras Shamra texts, roughly contemporaneous with the period in which Philo places Sanchuniathon, may use mlk for a type of sacrifice but the texts are not decisive (cf. C. H. Gordon, glossary No. 1119). More compelling is the mention of mlkm at the end of a list of divinities among the first alphabetic tablets discovered in 1929. A tablet from excavations in 1956 contained the same list in syllabic Akkad. in which mlkm is represented by “the Maliks” (pl. form), and these mlkm come among a group of cult objects or actions which are divinized. It is possible, then, that the mlkm gods are divinized molk sacrifices.

The major objection to this view is the statement in Leviticus 20:5 which condemns those who “prostitute themselves by following Molech.” Here Molech must be a divinity and not a sacrifice. On the contrary the references to “Molech” in all the Biblical texts can be understood as a divine name.

The term traditionally has been explained and recently has been defended to be a deliberate misvocalization of the title “King,” “the King” (Melech, hammelek) for the god of the Ammonites by inserting the vowels of boshet “shame” (cf. Ashtoreth). This title is a divine epithet which enters into the composition of many Phoen. and Heb. names, where it changes places with proper names of divinities. The epithet is found also under the forms muluk and malik in the name lists of Mari at the beginning of the second millennium b.c. Accordingly, it may be construed as an alternate form of Milcom. J. Gray argued that the proper name of the god was Athtar, an astral deity.

2. The cult. It usually is assumed that the cult of Molech involved sacrificing the children by throwing them into a raging fire. The expression “passed through [the fire] to Molech” (Lev 18:21; 2 Kings 23:10; Jer 32:35) normally is so interpreted for these three reasons: (1) it is assumed that the same rite is mentioned in 2 Kings 16:3; 21:6; 23:6; Isaiah 30:33; Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; Deuteronomy 12:31; (2) this rite is abundantly verified among the Canaanites in both literary texts and artifactual evidence; and (3) whereas 2 Kings 23:10 informs us that Josiah “defiled Topheth (‘incinerator’), in the valley of the sons of Hinnom that no one might make his son or daughter pass through the fire to the Molek,” Jeremiah 7:31 says: “they have built the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn (śrp) their sons and their daughters.” The verbal connections between these two passages are so close that “to burn” seems to be equivalent “to pass through the fire.”

N. H. Snaith, however, contended that the disputed expression means the children were given up by the parents to grow up and be trained as temple prostitutes. His best evidence is that in Leviticus 18 the writer throughout the whole chapter is concerned with illegal sexual intercourse, and esp. so in vv. 19-23. Moreover, the phrase was so interpreted in the Talmud. The apparently foreign insertion in Leviticus 18:21 is difficult to explain (cf. R. de Vaux, Studies in Old Testament Sacrifice [1964], 87, n. 137). On the other hand, the rabbis also luridly describe a statue of Moloch according to the first view.

Bibliography G. F. Moore, “The Image of Moloch,” JBL XVI (1897), 161-165; J. Carcopino, “Survivances par substitution des sacrifices d’enfants dans l’Afrique Romaine,” Révue de l’Histoire des Religions, CVI (1932-B), 592-599; O. Eissfeldt, “Molk als Opferbegriff im Punischen und Hebräischen und das Ende des Gottes Moloch,” Beiträge zur Religionsgeschichte des Altertums, III (1935); R. Dussaud, Comptes-rendus de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, I (1946), 376f.; W. Kornfeld, “Der Moloch,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes, LI (1948-1952), 287-313; W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (1953), 162-164; K. Dronkert, De Molochdienst in Het Oude Testament (1953); A. Berthier and R. Charlier, Le Sanctuaire punique d’El-Hofra à Constantine (1955); E. Dhorme, “Le Dieu Baal et le Dieu Moloch,” Anatolian Studies, VI (1956), 57; J. Hoftijzer, “Eine Notiz zum punischen Kinderopfer,” VT, VIII (1958), 288-292; J. G. Février, “Essai de reconstruction du sacrifice Molek,” JA (1960), 167-187; R. de Vaux, Studies in Old Testament Sacrifice (1964), 73-90; N. H. Snaith, “The Cult of Molech,” VT, XVI (1966), 123f.; J. Gray, I and II Kings: A Commentary (1970), 275ff.