As an expression of religious devotion, human sacrifice has been widespread at certain stages of the race's development. The tribes of Western Asia were deeply affected by the practice, probably prior to the settlement of the Hebrews in Palestine, and it continued at least down to the 5th century BC. At times of great calamity, anxiety and danger, parents sacrificed their children as the greatest and most costly offering which they could make to propitiate the anger of the gods and thus secure their favor and help. There is no intimation in the Bible that enemies or captives were sacrificed; only the offering of children by their parents is mentioned. The belief that this offering possessed supreme value is seen in Micah 6:6, where the sacrifice of the firstborn is the climax of a series of offerings which, in a rising scale of values, are suggested as a means of propitiating the angry Yahweh. A striking example of the rite as actually practiced is seen in 2 Kings 3:27, where Mesha the king of Moab (made famous by the Moabite Stone), under the stress of a terrible siege, offered his eldest son, the heir-apparent to the throne, as a burnt offering upon the wall of Kir-hareseth. As a matter of fact this horrid act seems to have had the effect of driving off the allies.
Human sacrifice was ordinarily resorted to, no doubt, only in times of great distress, but it seems to have been practiced among the old Canaanitish tribes with some frequency (Deuteronomy 12:31). The Israelites are said to have borrowed it from their Canaanite neighbors (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chronicles 28:3), and as a matter of fact human sacrifices were never offered to Yahweh, but only to various gods of the land. The god who was most frequently worshipped in this way was Moloch or Molech, the god of the Ammonites (2 Kings 23:10; Leviticus 18:21; 20:2), but from Jeremiah we learn that the Phoenician god Baal was, at least in the later period of the history, also associated with Molech in receiving this worship (Jeremiah 19:5; 31:35).
As in the case of the Canaanites, the only specific cases of human sacrifice mentioned among the Israelites are those of the royal princes, sons of Ahaz and Manasseh, the two kings of Judah who were most deeply affected by the surrounding heathen practices and who, at the same time, fell into great national distress (2 Kings 16:3; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chronicles 33:6). But it is clear from many general statements that the custom was widespread among the masses of the people as well. It is forbidden in the Mosaic legislation (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2-5; Deuteronomy 18:10); it is said in 2 Kings 17:17 that the sacrifice of sons and daughters was one of the causes of the captivity of the ten tribes. Jeremiah charges the people of the Southern Kingdom with doing the same thing (Jeremiah 7:31; 19:5; 31:35); with these general statements agree Isaiah 57:5; Ezekiel 16:2; 20:31; 23:37; Psalms 106:37 f. A study of these passages makes it certain that in the period immediately before the captivity of Judah, human sacrifice was by no means confined to the royal family, but was rather common among the people. Daughters as well as sons were sacrificed. It is mentioned only once in connection with the Northern Kingdom, and then only in the summary of the causes of their captivity (2 Kings 17:17), but the Southern Kingdom in its later years was evidently deeply affected. There were various places where the bloody rite was celebrated (Jeremiah 19:5), but the special high place, apparently built for the purpose, was in the Valley of Tophet or Hinnom (ge-hinnom, Gehenna) near Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:6). This great high place, built for the special purpose of human sacrifice (Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35), was defiled by the good king Josiah in the hope of eradicating the cruel practice (2 Kings 23:10).
The Biblical writers without exception look upon the practice with horror as the supreme point of national and religious apostasy, and a chief cause of national disaster. They usually term the rite "passing through fire," probably being unwilling to use the sacred term "sacrifice" in reference to such a revolting custom. There is no evidence of a continuance of the practice in captivity nor after the return. It is said, however, that the heathen Sepharvites, settled by the Assyrian kings in the depopulated territory of the Northern Kingdom, "burnt their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim" (2 Kings 17:31). The practice is not heard of again, and probably rapidly died out. The restored Israelites were not affected by it.
Compare SACRIFICE (Old Testament), VI, 10.
William Joseph McGlothlin
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