“Killing Me Softly”: Cultic Infanticide in Ancient Israel

24 09 2006

There is no doubt that people feel an aversion to the issue of infanticide. Despite several indicators within the Hebrew Bible that some people were murdering their children, as a ‘sacrifice’ or otherwise, Rabbinic literature insists on employing euphemisms (cf: bTa’an 4a – “שאלו שלו כהוגן”) and some mediaeval commentators avoid the issue entirely. The Bible itself appears uneasy, as can be seen by contrasting the suspense in leading up to the non-sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22) with the brevity of the actual sacrifice conducted by Jephtha (Jud 11). This would seem to indicate that ancient audiences felt a similar aversion to the issue.

So far as the narrator’s description of Jephtha’s sacrifice is concerned, mediaeval exegetes employed the brevity of the text to support the notion that, as with the Pentateuchal aqeidah story (Gen 22:1-14), Jephtha’s daughter had not actually been sacrificed at all. This is despite the fact that other ancient witnesses to the story appear to accept the sacrifice as having occurred. Instead, some commentators decided that she had merely been forced to lead a life of pious seclusion – an assertion made possible through the narrator’s repeated reference to the girl’s virginity (Jud 11:37, 38, 39).

Although we have already mentioned the non-sacrifice of Isaac, the story nonetheless testifies to the possibility of human sacrifice, as does the story of Jephtha’s daughter (irrespective of what became of her). The following is a list of places within the Hebrew Bible that speak of this same phenomenon. For the sake of completeness, I have included the Isaac and the Jephtha stories.

1) Gen 22:1-14 (Abraham is told to sacrifice his son. He already knows what to take with him and what to do. Assumedly, the audience is also familiar with the procedure);

2) Lev 18:21 (You may not pass your seed through the fire to Molekh: for a range of classical interpretations, see G. Vermes, “Leviticus 18:21 in Ancient Jewish Bible Exegesis”, Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann (Jerusalem, 1981), 108-124);

3) Lev 20:2-5 (All those who give their seed to Molekh must be executed);

4) Deut 18:10 (Nobody may consign their son or daughter to the fire, or practice divination);

5) Jud 11 (Jephtha swears to sacrifice the first thing to leave his house; Jephtha’s daughter runs out to greet him; Jephtha is said to fulfil his vow);

6) 2 Kgs 3:27 (Moabite king sacrifices his son on the city wall. It appears to work, as the Israelite armies then return home);

7) 2 Kgs 21:6 (Menasseh consigned his son to the fire, and practiced divination);

8) 2 Kgs 23:10 (Josiah destroyed the Topheth in the valley of Ben Hinnom so that nobody may consign their son or daughter to the fire of Molekh);

8a) 2 Kgs 23:14 (Josiah shattered the pillars, cut down the sacred posts, and covered the site with human bones. It is in my opinion that this verse may be read to imply that the breaking of the pillars and the posts was what caused the site to be covered with bones, ie: human remains had been stored within these casings);

9) Isa 28:15, 18 (Jerusalemites made a covenant with death: a reference to child sacrifice, according to J. Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 58-64).

In light of references to the Ammonite God Milcom/Molekh (1 Kgs 11:5, 7 and 2 Kgs 23:13), it appears reasonable to assume that this may have been an Ammonite – and not an Israelite – phenomenon. This could account for familiarity with the practice, as well as the implicit irony in Jephtha’s sacrifice (having returned from conquering the Ammonites). Is this a reasonable assumption?

Archaeological evidence for this practice in Palestine is scanty, but literary evidence does exist. If the Israelites had not practiced cultic infanticide as had their neighbours (not only the Ammonites: evidence exists to likewise incriminate the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians), then there would be no need to forbid it in such harsh terms.

The strongest evidence (omitted above) lies in Ex 22:28-29. I reproduce the two verse below:

מלאתך ודמעך לא תאחר
בכור בניך תתן־לי
כן תעשה לשרך לצאנך
שבעת ימים יהיה עם־אמו ביום השמיני תתנו־לי

The first clause is of dubious translation, but is rendered by JPS as:

“You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats”

This clause is probably a metaphorical allusion to the following (my translation):

“You shall give me your first-born son;
Such shall you do with your ox(en), (and) with your flocks:
Seven days will he be with his mother, (but) on the eighth day you shall give (him) to me”

At first glance, this appears to be of the same nature as other laws that mandate the sacrifice of first-born livestock (Ex 13:12-13; Ex 34:19-20; Num 18:15). Upon deeper investigation, however, we notice a problem. The subject in the first line is in the singular (your first-born son) and singular in the third (he will be with his mother), but plural in the second (oxen, flocks). What is more, the connective clause כן תעשה (such shall you do) is noted by Fishbane to be an example of a later editorial edition (M. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), 181). Once we realise this, we also notice that two of the other parallel verses – Ex 13:12-13 and Ex 34:19-20 – also feature additions. Not content with merely stipulating the law that relates to livestock, they also hastily add that such is not the case with human offspring.

What are we to make of this? Several academics perceive this to be a clear indication that cultic infanticide was practiced in ancient Israel. This would explain references to it, familiarity with it, laws against it, editorial work to cover it, and exegetical discomfort with it. It would also do much to indicate that such, indeed, was the fate of Jephtha’s daughter, robbed of name and robbed of future, for her father uttered a vow to the Lord and it could not be retracted (Jud 11:35).

[Note: This post originally appeared on my former blog. For earlier comments, please click here.]




One response

6 10 2006
John Cowan

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife
And as they sojourned both of them together
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

–Wilfred Owen, 1916

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