Of course, the perfectly reasonable reaction to this headline would be: “why would anyone want to understand the motivations for child sacrifice?” Just the thought of sacrificing children makes any good person nauseous. When I was a child and first learned of the practice, I was sure it was a joke – why, nobody would ever do such a thing! Right?
Wrong. But before I continue to go down this dark path, let me clarify. When I speak of child sacrifice, I do not mean casually killing the unborn (which is primarily about selfishness), or sending children as suicide bombers (which is about killing others, not “merely” sacrificing your own). I am referring to the stone-cold act of sacrificing children, a practice which has been performed by pagan tribes and civilizations throughout time. What could possibly inspire a mother or father to do such a heinous and evil act?
I only really tried to come to grips with this question when I realized that the Torah addresses it. The answer has several interlocking pieces, as follows.
We are told to never sacrifice our offspring to “Molech.” (Lev. 18:21, 20:2) The letters for Molech are the very same as the letters for “Melech,” which is Hebrew for “king.” The Torah is not in favor of powerful monarchs (a Jewish king, should we choose to have one, has strict power limits (Deut. 17:15)). The very first king named the text is Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-9), who makes a sport out of hunting things that are weaker than he is – indeed, Nimrod is the first “hero” in the Torah, a man who makes everything about himself. Nimrod is the first to have a kingdom, and as a hero on the earth, he put himself ahead of all others. Nimrod is described as being “in front of/before G-d.”
The next mention of kings are those who, in Avraham’s time, battle each other (Gen. 14). Along the way they capture and harm innocents around them. Avraham gets involved to save those who have been captured –
He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people. (Gen. 14:16)
But Avraham conspicuously refuses to ally himself with either set of warring kings – he will not take even a shoelace from the King of Sodom. The Torah is telling us to reject human power that is used to oppress others. The lesson is basic: we reject power that is used to aggrandize ourselves or oppress others. Killing our children for the sake of power is prohibited.
Refusing to see G-d in each person
There is an odd connection in the text between child sacrifice and what most translators think refers to G-d’s name. Here is the “normal” translation of these two verses:
And I will set My face against that party, whom I will cut off from among the people for having given offspring to Molech and so defiled My sanctuary and profaned My holy name. (Lev. 20)
Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molech, and do not profane the name of your God: I am G-d. (Lev. 18:21)
What does G-d’s name have to do with offering children to a deity who is not G-d?! I think there is a word play here – because the word for “name”, shem, is also the same letters as the word for “there,” or “placement,” sham. Indeed, the core of the word for “soul” or “spirit”, neshama, is the same as “name/there/placement.”
G-d formed the man from the soil’s humus, blowing into his nostrils the soul [neshama] of life: man became a living being. (Gen 2:7 – also Deut. 20:16)
The Torah is referring to the placement of G-d’s soul in each person! (Gen. 6:3)
So think of those verses like this:
And I will set My face against that party, whom I will cut off from among the people for having given offspring to Molech and so defiled My sanctuary and profaned my spirit/placement.
Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molech, and do not profane the spirit/placement of your God: I am G-d.
Which then makes a lot more sense: if we take innocent human life, then we are attacking or profaning G-d Himself. Killing a person is a rejection of the divine quality of each human soul.
And it dovetails beautifully with the rejection of power for its own sake. Because after all, G-d is in each person, not merely in those who are more powerful. So when we honor the strong instead of the weak, we are rejecting a core principle of the Torah, that every person is equally endowed by the Creator.
Indeed, one of G-d’s biggest punishments of mankind comes when people start treating the weaker sex like chattel:
When humankind profaned greatly on earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of the powerful saw how pleasing the daughters of men were, and took the ones they chose… and G-d [limited human lifespan] to one hundred and twenty years. (Gen. 6)
In other words: When men took women without concern for their own free will and choices, it profaned G-d because it offended the divine quality of women’s souls. G-d hates it when we treat each other poorly simply because we are more powerful than others are.
Which then helps us understand why sacrificing offspring to Molech is specifically called out: You can only sacrifice children because you are stronger than they are. You FORCE them! Giving up children goes to the fundamental anti-Torah principle of celebrating the strong at the cost of the weak. And that is why doing so profanes G-d. Offering offspring to Molech is not merely idol worship. And it is not merely killing. It is about the ideology of power – worshipping great men like Nimrod and the kings who don’t care about those who are weaker–and rejecting the placement of G-d’s own spirit in each person.
In which case, we might better understand what makes people sacrifice children: to truly serve power, you must emulate power, by killing those who are weak, we elevate the strong. It is Might Makes Right, like the ultimate race war that Hitler sought in order to help nature reach its logical culmination.
The Torah commands us to understand those who are not strong, and championing their cause. We insist that even the weak are valuable. It is why we had to be in Egypt – so that we can always understand how being oppressed feels. It is the core reason why we are commanded to love the stranger, the widow and the orphan, why we are commanded to do justice, to give charity and tithes. It is why “love your neighbor as yourself” is the central verse at the precise center of the entire text of the Torah. (Lev. 19:18)
And it helps us understand why the Chinese are bewildered when we are horrified that they execute criminals by removing their organs. Chinese murder in this way not only because it makes practical sense, but also because they can. For China and for Putin, power is its own justification. Worshipping power, by committing rape and war crimes in Ukraine, is just another way to worship Molech. These acts are not aberrations or exceptions: they are key components of a power-worshipping ideology.
There is one other aspect in this text which provoked a question: why does the Torah reject sacrificing offspring, but not specifically our children? An answer may be found by the way the word “offspring” is used in the Torah. The specific word is actually zera, which is used in the text to describe seeds as well as ongoing generations – used in the Torah to describe the seeds of fruit-bearing trees (Gen. 1:11), the children of Eve (Gen. 3:15, 4:25), and the potential found within Noah’s Ark (Gen. 7:3). Seeds represent the investment in the next generation, planning for the future. Indeed, every plant that puts energy into seeds – and every parent who chooses to have and nurture children – is giving up their own immediate pleasures and peaceful contentment for the sake of an uncertain future.
In other words, when we invest in children, we weaken ourselves in the present in order to invest instead in the future. We surrender power today for possibilities tomorrow.
We see the two sides of this trade in Jacob and Esau. Jacob invests in the long term – wives, children, and flocks. But Esau is a hunter, someone who kills animals without having to invest in them first. It is no coincidence that Esau is happy to sell his future for a mess of pottage right now. (Gen. 25:30)
So when we sacrifice children, we put power today ahead of the potentials found in the future. This is evil because we are always meant to live for the future! The Torah is a body of commandments designed to help us always look forward, to grow from the past, to learn from our mistakes and always seek to improve.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @kidcoder work]
p.s. There are other viable ways of understanding the verse that tells us that allowing child sacrifice would “profane G-d’s name” (instead of reading it as “the placement of G-d” as I do above).
When mankind murders children, it is murder most foul. So sacrificing a child to Molech also impugns G-d’s good name – because the murder has happened in the world G-d created. How can a G-d who allows children to be burnt alive be called “good”? How can G-d allow innocent children to be burnt alive?
Merely posing the question is enough to give Him a bad reputation – a bad name! The text acknowledges this, and commands us, G-d’s partner in this world, to never stand by and allow child sacrifice.
p.p.s. Nimrod is echoed in a much later commandment:
And if any Israelite or any stranger who resides among them hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten, that person shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. (Lev. 17:13)
In the Torah you can hunt and eat kosher animals – but because the hunt is inherently a “might makes right” exercise (as opposed to, say, culling flocks or herds who have co-dependent relationships with their owners), the Torah gives us a way to hunt while still explicitly acknowledging G-d’s role and authority over the hunter.