Although this post neither addresses the Lord’s motive for taking the life of the Canaanite children nor the fairness of it, before we get into those things, we need to understand the context. This, too, is sad to read, but we must not imagine Canaanite children as being in any kind of a normal home by Western standards, or even most Ancient Near Eastern family standards. Canaanite childhood wasn’t a fun Brady Bunch or Modern Family existence: it was horrific.
Life was hard on Canaanite children because, among other things, the Canaanites committed two types of sins which damaged their children. As I’ve shown in past posts and in my “We Don’t Hate Sin” article, archaeological evidence shows that the Canaanites were an incestuous people. Sexual molestation is a horrible crime in our society—and it should be—but in Canaanite society their god, Baal, raped his sister while she was in the form of a calf “seventy-seven, even eighty eight times.”1 In other words, Baal raped her a lot. Baal also regularly had sex with his daughter Pidray,2 and at his father’s urging Baal had sex with his mother Asherah to humiliate her.3
We should expect that if the Canaanites worshiped a god who rapes his sister and has an ongoing sexual relationship with his daughter and sexually humiliates his mother, that the Canaanites would ape their god’s behavior. As Psalm 115:8 says “Those who make [idols] become like them; so do all who trust in them.” Incest destroys the normal boundaries of family and to make family matters much, much worse, it results in an extremely high incidence of birth defects.4
But there was a worse evil than molestation and rape, and that was offering a child to Molech. Molech was a Canaanite underworld deity represented as an upright, bull-headed idol with human body in whose belly a fire was stoked and in whose outstretched arms a child was placed to be burned to death.5 Plutarch reports that during the Phoenician (Canaanite)6 sacrifices, “the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of the wailing should not reach the ears of the people.”7 And it wasn’t just infants; we know that children at least as old as four were sacrificed.
Kleitarchos says the Phoenicians and especially the Carthaginians who honoured Kronos, whenever they wished to succeed in any great enterprise, would vow by one of their children if they achieved the things they longed for, to sacrifice him to a god. A bronze image of Kronos was set up among them, stretching out its cupped hands above a bronze cauldron, which would burn the child. As the flame burning the child surrounded the body, the limbs would shrivel up and the mouth would appear to grin as if laughing, until it was shrunk enough to slip into the cauldron.8
Oxford professor John Day wrote: “In fact, we have independent evidence that child sacrifice was practiced in the Canaanite (Carthaginian and Phoenician) world from many classical sources, Punic inscriptions and archaeological evidence, as well as Egyptian depictions of the ritual occurring in Syria-Palestine, and from a recently discovered Phoenician inscription in Turkey. There is therefore no reason to doubt the biblical testimony to Canaanite child sacrifice.”9 U.C.L.A researcher Shelby Brown writes: “The longevity of child sacrifice and the tenaciousness with which Carthaginians and other Phoenicians adhered to the practice despite their frequent contacts with neighbors who abhorred them for it suggests that the ritual was crucial to Phoenician religion and to the well-being of a city and its inhabitants.”10 Brown cites archaeological evidence that many thousands of children were victims but that “modern scholars are perhaps overly eager to exonerate the Phoenicians from a ‘crime’ (in our eyes) that, by Phoenician standards, was simply not an offense” (75). Brown concludes: “No other ancient people, however, regularly chose their own children as sacrificial victims, or equated them with animals which could sometimes be substituted for them. The Phoenician practice indicates a definition of the ‘family’ and the boundaries belonging to it and alienation from it that was incomprehensible to others in the ancient Mediterranean.”11 What must “family” have been like with rampant sexual molestation and with playmates and siblings being burned to death? How many children wondered if they might be the next sacrifice?
But, as I said, this doesn’t answer why the Lord would command that these children, who themselves were victims of a depraved Canaanite culture, should be killed or how that could be fair. We’ll look at these issues in coming posts.
- Albright says that in “the light of several Egyptian accounts of the goddess, unquestionably translated from an original Canaanite myth” that Baal raped his sister Anath while she was in the form of a calf. W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the God’s of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1968), 128-129. [↩]
- Albright, Yahweh and the God’s of Canaan, 145. [↩]
- For the story of Baal having sex with Asherah see: “El, Ashertu and the Storm-god” Albrecht Goetze, trans., James B. Pritchard, ed., The Ancient Near East: Supplementary Texts and Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University, 1969), 519. [↩]
- Hal Herzog, “A group of genetic counselors reviewed the research on the biological consequences of sex between relatives (here). They found a surprisingly small increase (about 4 percent) in birth defects among the children of married cousins. Incest between first-degree relatives, however, was a different story. The researchers examined four studies on the effects of first-degree incest on the health of the offspring (including the Czech research). Forty percent of the children were born with either autosomal recessive disorders, congenital physical malformations, or severe intellectual deficits, and another 14 percent of them had mild retardation. In short, the odds that a newborn child who is the product of brother-sister or father-daughter incest will suffer an early death, a severe birth defect, or some mental deficiency approaches 50 percent. Hal Herzog, “The Problem With Incest: Evolution, Morality, and the Politics of Abortion,” Huff Post, 10-9-2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hal-herzog/the-problem-with-incest-e_b_1946901.html, Accessed 4-28-15. [↩]
- John Day, Molech: A god of human sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1989), 62. [↩]
- “The word ‘Canaanite’ is historically, geographically, and culturally synonymous with ‘Phoenician,’ the title immediately becomes more impressive, since it also deals with the role of the Phoenicians in the history of civilization” (W. F. Albright, The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Essays in honor of William Foxwell Albright, G. Ernest Wright, ed. [Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1965], 438). [↩]
- Plutarch, De Superstitione 13 as quoted in Day, Molech, 89. [↩]
- Kleitarchos, Scholia on Plato’s Republic 337A as quoted in Day, Molech, 87. See Albright, Yahweh, 234-244 for a significant discussion of the nature and archaeology pertaining to child sacrifice. [↩]
- John Day, “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic, 2000), 211-212. [↩]
- Ibid., 171. [↩]
- Brown, Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice, 75. See also Albright, Yahweh and the God’s of Canaan, 152. Brown, further comments, “Rather than ceasing with time and contact with other peoples, the rite continued at Carthage until the city’s destruction in 146 BC and survived in North Africa into the third century AD even under Roman rule.” 13. [↩]