(We are moving into a more permanent home on the Oregon coast, now that the pandemic has put a hiatus in our travels abroad. While I am unpacking next week, you may want to read last year’s post on next week’s Torah portion, Emor: Libations.)
And you must not give any of your offspring to pass through for the molekh, and you must not profane the name of your God; I am Y-H-V-H. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:21)
molekh (מֹלֶךְ) = melekh (מֶלֶךְ) = king, spelled with the vowel marks of boshet (בֺּשֶׁת) = shame.
This command in Acharey Mot (“After the death”), one of this week’s two Torah portions, contains the first occurrence of the word molekh in the Torah—if you are reading the standard Masoretic text. If you read a Torah scroll, which has no vowel marks, it looks the same as a command not to give your offspring to “the king” (melekh).1
The prohibition above raises two questions:
- How does giving your offspring (children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren) to the molekh profane the name of the God of Israel?
- What does “to pass through” mean?
Profaning the name
The usual biblical way to profane God’s name appears in this week’s second Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holy ones”):
And you must not swear by my name for a falsehood, and profane the name of your God; I am Y-H-V-H. (Leviticus 19:12)
Using God’s personal four-letter name to give false testimony demeans that name by treating it as merely a trick word for pulling off a wicked deed.
Perhaps giving a child to the molekh demeans a different name of God. Psalm 47:7-8 considers God “our king” and “king of all the earth”. Giving children to another god called “king” (מלך), one who demands an unholy deed, demeans God’s name and reputation.
Later in Kedoshim God pronounces two penalties for this serious offense:
Any man of the Israelites, or from the foreign sojourners sojourning in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to the molekh must certainly be put to death; the people of the land must pelt him with stones. And I, I shall give my attention to that man and cut him off from among his people, because he gave one of his offspring to the molekh, intentionally making my holy ones impure and profaning my holy name. (Leviticus 20:2-3)
Even if the people do not stone the molekh-worshipper, God will still “cut him off”2 along with
… all the whores after him from among the people who whore after the molekh. You must make yourselves holy and you must be holy, because I, Y-H-V-H, am your God.” (Leviticus 20:5)
Throughout the Torah the God of Israel demands both exclusive worship (being faithful to God instead of “whoring” after other gods) and adherence to God’s rules for holy behavior.
Passing through fire
King Josiah of Judah begins his campaign for exclusive worship of one God by clearing the effects of other gods out of the temple in Jerusalem: an Asherah idol, utensils for worshiping Baal and Asherah, and enclosures woven for Asherah. Next Josiah demolishes the shrines in Judah where unauthorized worship is going on, and then:
He desecrated the burning-place which is in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, to prevent passing a son or a daughter through fire for the molekh. (2 Kings 23:10)
The second book of Chronicles describes the same practice during the time of Josiah’s grandfather, King Menashe, 3 confirms that there was an established tradition of passing children through a fire in the valley of Ben-Hinnom below Jerusalem.4
King Josiah discourages this practice by desecrating the place where it happens. Jeremiah, who prophesies from Josiah’s reign until after the Babylonian army destroys Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E., discourages the practice by reporting that God never wanted people to do it in the first place.
And they built shrines for the burning-place in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, and which was definitely not on my mind. (Jeremiah 7:31)
And they built shrines for the Baal in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, for passing their sons and their daughters to the molekh, which I did not command them, and it was not on my mind to do this abomination … (Jeremiah 32:35)
Jeremiah makes it clear that the “king” worshipped in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom is not the God of Israel.
According to modern commentator Jacob Milgrom, some Israelites might have believed that God wanted people to pass their offspring through the fire in a ritual that may or may not have burned them to death. Alternatively, Milgrom wrote, people might have believed in two gods, the king of the heavens (God the melekh, worshiped in the temple on top of a hill in Jerusalem) and the king of the underworld (the molekh, worshiped in the valley below).5 Jeremiah 32:35 denounces both beliefs, insisting that there is only one God and God never wanted people to burn their children.
The Hebrew Bible does not say whether a child who was passed through, between, or over the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom survived the experience. One Talmudic opinion is that the child was led along a latticework of bricks between two fires; another is that the child leaped over a small bonfire.6
On the other hand, the Talmud shortens Valley of Ben Hinnom (Gey Ben Hinnom in Hebrew) to Gehinnom elsewhere in the Talmud. The rabbis imagine Gehinnom, where the fire for the molekh burned, as the opening to a vast underground fire where the souls of the wicked go after death.7 (The righteous go straight to the Garden of Eden.) Burning in Gehinnom purifies the souls of the wicked, which are eventually redeemed.
I think the myth of Gehinnom is actually a return to the belief, denounced by Jeremiah, that God desired the burning of children in Ben Hinnom. Several Talmud tractates claim that God created Gehinnom and the Garden of Eden before creating the world.8 Therefore the melekh of heaven who created all the earth, and the molekh of the underworld who burns souls and commands passing children through fire, are actually one and the same god.
So why did the Masoretes replace the word melekh with molekh in passages about passing children through fire? It strikes me as one of many attempts to dodge the theodicy or “problem of evil”: How can God be both all-good and the source of everything that exists, including evil?
I say forget the molekh, and wrestle directly with the problem.
- For centuries the Hebrew Bible was written with consonants but no vowels. When the Masoretes added vowel marks in the 6th–10th centuries C.E. they also assigned the vowels in the word boshet to seven appearances of the word for “king”, turning מֶלֶך (melekh) into מֺלֶךְ (molekh).
- In the Torah being “cut off”, karet, means either dying prematurely, dying without children, or dying in spiritual isolation. In the Talmud it can also mean being excluded from the World to Come (as in Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64b).
- Menashe, who ruled the kingdom of Judah circa 697-643 B.C.E., is described in 2 Chronicles 33:6 as worshiping false gods and passing his own sons through the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom. His grandson Josiah ruled circa 640–609 B.C.E.
- Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64a, assumes that parents also handed over their children to priests of the molekh.
- Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus (A Continental Commentary), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2004, p. 199.
- Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 64b.
- See Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 19a. Jews did not adopt the idea that souls survive death until the second century B.C.E. The idea of souls burning in an underground fire came from Greek and Persian sources, which Jews developed into the myth of Gehinnom (later called Gehenna) and Christians developed into the myths of Hell and Purgatory. The Talmud was written during the third through fifth centuries C.E.
- Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 54a and Nedarim 39b.