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 (Jeremiah 32:35).
Shame is baked into the name; the horror and the agony endure.
Among YHWH’s greatest concern for His people Israel involved the assimilation of the practices of the Canaanites and other nations whom YHWH would drive out before them. Israel was commanded time and time again to not serve the gods of the Canaanites and their related nations; unfortunately, for generations, Israel would not listen. Of all the idolatrous cults of the Canaanites, none proved as pernicious and wicked as the cult of a god which was known in terms of the Semitic root mlk: Melek / Milcom / Melquart. Later Jewish scribes, embarrassed and ashamed at the deeds of their ancestors, used the consonants mlk but inserted the vowels from the Hebrew boshet, “shameful thing”; thus we know “Melek” as Molech (also Moloch).
Melek is the Hebrew word for “king”; Melek as a god was known as the “Great King.” The cult of Melek was strongly associated with the cult of Baal, as can be seen in Jeremiah’s denunciation in Jeremiah 32:35; among the Ammonites Melek was known as Milcom (Malkam; 1 Kings 11:5, 33, 2 Kings 23:13; cf. 1 Kings 11:7); the Tyrians spoke of him as Melek-Qart, “King of the City,” which would become shortened to Melqart, and remain an important deity for both Tyre and its colony Carthage for generations. We do not know much about Melek; some scholars have even suggested we should understand mlk as a type of sacrifice more than a deity. Whether a god in and of himself, or just a sacrifice to the gods, the awful and terrible fact remains: Canaanites, and Israelites, would make their children pass through the fire to mlk/Melek.
The condemnation of offering children to Melek is found in many places in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5, 2 Kings 23:10, Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35). It gave comfort to many to suggest the prophets spoke in hyperbole; that children really were not offered to Melek; who could do such an abominable thing? But Greek and Roman authors spoke of child sacrifices in Carthage, and we have found remains of such sacrifices as well as inscriptions which speak of such sacrifices including the word mlk. It is horrifying; it is terrible; but, by all accounts, it actually happened. People sacrificed their beloved children to Melek.
What would motivate people to do such a terrible and awful thing? We read of its condemnation; we are not explicitly told why people would do so. Nevertheless, we can imagine some possible reasons. For generations the Canaanites had served Melek and offered their children to him, either to placate him or to gain his favor. Perhaps they believed Melek would allow them to maintain some rule or power; perhaps they hoped Melek would give them strength over their enemies, something akin to Mesha’s sacrifice of his son to Chemosh which seemed to change the calculus of the battle for Moab according to 2 Kings 3:27.
We have no reason to believe the Israelites, or the Canaanites for that matter, held their children in derision or contempt. By all accounts, they loved their children like we love ours. Yet they felt obligated to offer some of their children to Melek. It had to be done, after all, to preserve their nation. That was just the way it was in the land of Canaan. The Israelites saw it, and accepted that logic. It had to be done. Melek needed to be satiated. Beloved children would die.
Such sacrifices would go on for years; no doubt many were convinced that it worked somehow. But they “worked” until they didn’t: the Assyrians overpowered the Canaanite states, followed by the Babylonians, the Persians, and the Macedonians, and they did not offer their children to Melek. Carthaginian offerings to Melqart did not grant them victory over the Romans.
The Israelites who returned from their exile had learned their lesson. “Melek” became Molech; the place where children were offered, once considered holy to Melek, was now seen as defiled and haunted. Jeremiah prophetically had pronounced the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, where people of Judah sacrificed their children to Melek, as the Valley of Slaughter (Jeremiah 7:31-32, 19:6-15); Israelites after the exile filled the Valley of Hinnom with garbage and burned it there; its awfulness inspired the word for hell in the New Testament, Gehenna (cf. Matthew 5:22, 29-30, 10:28).
We are rightly horrified at the prospect of slaughtering children to Molech. We cannot imagine that we would do anything of the sort. Yet we must be careful lest we overly demonize our ancestors in the faith; we might miss how we have made our own forms of Molech, and prove blind to what may condemn us in the end.
We could perhaps discover many forms of Molech in the modern world (confidence in military intervention in other places, corruption of children through abuse or instruction in deviant forms of sexuality, treatment of the poor, marginalized, and the oppressed, etc.), but in the Western world we should grapple with the prospect that we have made freedom a type of Molech in many ways. Every year scores of children are slaughtered in the womb in the name of a woman’s choice regarding her body. Some of the stories are tragic (women coerced into abortion by relatives, either her own or those of the father); others are horrifying in their callousness (women who think nothing of getting an abortion in order to demonstrate their rights). And yet, for those who advocate for women to maintain the right to abort in the name of choice/freedom, such is the necessary sacrifice for the cause. Those children have to die, after all, to preserve reproductive freedom. That is just the way it is done in the Western world. Likewise, every year scores of children and other innocent people are slaughtered with people with guns. Some of the stories are tragic (children coming upon a family member’s gun and accidentally killing someone); others are horrifying in their callousness (mass shooters, especially mass shooters in schools). And yet, for those who advocate an absolute right to maintain whatever arsenal a citizen might desire in the name of choice/freedom, such is the necessary sacrifice for the cause. Those children have to die, after all, to preserve our Second Amendment freedoms. That is just the way it is done in America.
No doubt people today believe their sacrifices to the Molech of freedom are convinced that it is working somehow. It might “work” until it doesn’t. And then it will be our descendants who might well look in horror and astonishment at us for what we justified and did, just as we look at our ancestors in our nation and in the faith in horror and astonishment for what they justified and did.
Israel was wrong from the beginning; Melek did not exist. YHWH, and YHWH alone, would give Israel blessings and victory and strength; setbacks, defeat, and weakness were due to an unwillingness to put that trust in YHWH. Molech’s danger remains, not because Molech exists, but because we are deceived into setting up Molechs and serving them, feeling powerless to do otherwise, while at the same time we give Molech the power over us. We prove willing to put fealty to a principle or an idea over natural care and compassion for people. We become afraid at the prospect of various dangers, and thus prove willing to justify all kinds of awful and terrible behavior so as to maintain the veneer of safety and comfort. We might look to legislation to fix things, but legislation can only try to enforce certain norms of behavior; it does not fix the underlying cultural trends which would justify or commend those behaviors in the first place. If we will stop serving “Molech,” we must repent, and no longer put our confidence in the ways of the world imprisoned by the principalities and powers, but to trust in the God who made us and in His Son who triumphed over the powers and principalities in His death and resurrection. It may lead to our alienation, persecution, and suffering; our vindication will come from God. May we serve the One True God and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry