Offering to Molech (illustration from the 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster). The illustration shows the typical depiction of Moloch in medieval and modern sources.
Babylonian cylinder seal representing child sacrifice
Tanakh (Hebrew Bible)
The Tanakh mentions human sacrifice in the history of ancient Near Eastern practice. The king of Moab gives his firstborn son and heir as a whole burnt offering (olah, as used of the Temple sacrifice). In the book of the prophet Micah, the question is asked, ‘Shall I give my firstborn for my sin, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’, and responded to in the phrase, ‘He has shown all you people what is good. And what does Yahweh require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.' The Tanakh also implies that the Ammonites offered child sacrifices to Moloch.
ITS Ban in Leviticus
In Leviticus 18:21, 20:3 and Deuteronomy 12:30–31, 18:10, the Torah contains a number of imprecations against and laws forbidding child sacrifice and human sacrifice in general. The Tanakh denounces human sacrifice as barbaric customs of Baal worshippers (e.g. Psalms 106:37). James Kugel argues that the Torah’s specifically forbidding child sacrifice indicates that it happened in Israel as well. The biblical scholar Mark S. Smith argues that the mention of “Topeth” in Isaiah 30:27–33 indicates an acceptance of child sacrifice in the early Jerusalem practices, to which the law in Leviticus 20:2–5 forbidding child sacrifice is a response. Some scholars have stated that at least some Israelites and Judahites believed child sacrifice was a legitimate religious practice.
Gehenna and Tophet
Further information: Moloch
The most extensive accounts of child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible refer to those carried out in Gehenna by two kings of Judah, Ahaz and Manasseh of Judah.
Most scholars agree that the ritual performed at the tophet was child sacrifice, and they connect it to similar episodes throughout the Bible and recorded for the ancient Phoenicians (referred to as Canaanites in the Bible) and Carthaginians by Greco-Roman sources. There is disagreement about whether the sacrifices were offered to a god Moloch. Based on Phoenician and Carthaginian inscriptions, a growing number of scholars believe that Moloch refers to the type of sacrifice rather than a deity. There is currently a dispute as to whether these sacrifices were dedicated to Yahweh rather than a foreign deity.
Archaeologists have applied the term “tophet” to large cemeteries of children found at Carthaginian sites that have traditionally been believed to house the victims of child sacrifice, as described by Greco-Roman and biblical sources. This interpretation is controversial, with some scholars arguing that the tophets may have been childrens’ cemeteries, rejecting the Greco-Roman sources as anti-Carthaginian propaganda. Others argue that not all burials in the tophet were sacrifices.
The tophet and its location, Gehenna, later became associated with divine punishment in Jewish Apocalypticism.
Bible – Kings –
20 Moreover you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, to defile yourself with her. 21 And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.
18 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. 3 According to [a]the doings of the land of Egypt, where you dwelt, you shall not do; and according to the doings of the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you, you shall not do; nor shall you walk in their [b]ordinances. 4 You shall observe My judgments and keep My ordinances, to walk in them: I am the Lord your God. 5 You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.
6 ‘None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness: I am the Lord. 7 The nakedness of your father or the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover. She is your mother; you shall not uncover her nakedness. 8 The nakedness of your father’s wife you shall not uncover; it is your father’s nakedness. 9 The nakedness of your sister, the daughter of your father, or the daughter of your mother, whether born at home or elsewhere, their nakedness you shall not uncover. 10 The nakedness of your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, their nakedness you shall not uncover; for theirs is your own nakedness. 11 The nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father—she is your sister—you shall not uncover her nakedness. 12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is near of kin to your father. 13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is near of kin to your mother. 14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother. You shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt. 15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law—she is your son’s wife—you shall not uncover her nakedness. 16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness. 17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter, nor shall you take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness. They are near of kin to her. It is wickedness. 18 Nor shall you take a woman as a rival to her sister, to uncover her nakedness while the other is alive.
19 ‘Also you shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness as long as she is in her customary impurity. 20 Moreover you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, to defile yourself with her. 21 And you shall not let any of your descendants pass through the fire to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God: I am the Lord. 22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. 23 Nor shall you mate with any animal, to defile yourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion.
24 ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. 25 For the land is defiled; therefore I visit[c] the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. 26 You shall therefore [d]keep My statutes and My judgments, and shall not commit any of these abominations, either any of your own nation or any stranger who dwells among you 27 (for all these abominations the men of the land have done, who were before you, and thus the land is defiled), 28 lest the land vomit you out also when you defile it, as it vomited out the nations that were before you. 29 For whoever commits any of these abominations, the persons who commit them shall be [e]cut off from among their people.
30 ‘Therefore you shall keep My [f]ordinance, so that you do not commit any of these abominable customs which were committed before you, and that you do not defile yourselves by them: I am the Lord your God.’ ”