I’ve been reading Jeffrey Tigay’s excurses in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Deuteronomy. What I like is Tigay’s clear explanation of the different scholarly positions on issues.
In this post, I’ll talk about Tigay’s excursus on “Child Sacrifice and Passing Children through Fire”. According to Tigay, there is evidence that “special precincts in Phoenician colonies, such as Carthage”, practiced child sacrifice (page 464). In Carthage, there are urns that contained the charred bones of children and animals. Many of the urns date to the eighth-second centuries B.C.E. and “are buried beneath steles inscribed with dedications to the gods, thanking them for answering the offerers’ prayers” (page 464). Moreover, the Phoenician precincts have cemeteries where “human burials are limited to children” (page 464).
But did Canaan have child sacrifice, as the Hebrew Bible may state? According to Tigay, thirteenth century B.C.E. Egyptian reliefs that show “besieged Canaanite cities” depict Canaanites “praying toward heaven and dropping the bodies of dead children, who had apparently been sacrificed, over the walls” (page 464). But these children apparently had not been burned. Still, the Canaanites were offering their children to the gods so that the gods would deliver them. They were showing the gods that they meant business by offering people who were of value to them—their very own children.
But there is debate about whether or not passages such as Deuteronomy 18:10—which forbids passing children through fire—is even about child sacrifice. The phrase (in the participle form) is ma’avir ba-esh (“causing to pass in the fire”). The phrase can entail sacrifice, for Exodus 13:11-13 uses it in reference to sacrificing the firstborn of cattle to God (while humans are redeemed). At the same time, Israelites could give a child to God by “consecrating him to serve God in the sanctuary”, as Hannah did with Samuel (I Samuel 1:11) (page 465).
Moreover, passing something through fire does not necessarily mean burning it up, for “In Numbers 31:23 it refers to nondestructive purging of utensils; though they are brought into contact with fire, they are not consumed” (page 465). Tigay states that some scholars, therefore, think that passages such as Deuteronomy 18:10 are about people passing their children between rows of fire—or having the children leap over the fire—in order to be consecrated to the deity “as servants or worshipers, or for a magical purpose such as purification or divination” (page 465). Tigay cites examples of such a practice: In Orissa, India, people walk over hot coals to test their faith in the deity’s (in this case, Kali’s) ability to protect them, or to receive healing for themselves or others.
Was the child in Canaan offered to the god as a burnt sacrifice, or was he consecrated to the god through fire in a non-lethal fashion?
On page 216 of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, Moshe Weinfeld supports the “non-lethal consecration” view. He states that, in a few neo-Assyrian documents, burning the first son is not literal but rather a consecration of the child to Adad, the weather god. Moreover, according to Weinfeld, the worship of Molech was the product of Assyrian influence, for, in II Kings 16:3, Ahaz of Judah is the first in Judah to pass his son through fire, and Ahaz was the one who “opened the door to Assyrian influence through his treaty with Tiglath-Pilesar (2 Kgs. 16:7)” (page 216).