I am reading the commentary Leviticus by Jacob Milgrom
The author is among those scholars who accept the evidence that burning children as an offering to Molech was a thing in ancient Israel.
Leviticus 18 lists 17 sexual practices prohibited in Israel because they were thought to defile the land. But then, right in the midst of them all is verse 21:
“You must not give any of your children as an offering to Molech, so that you do not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord!” (NET Bible).
Why is this in the midst of the sexual prohibitions? And why is it said to “profane the name” of God? Why is this the only kind of false worship forbidden in Leviticus?
Milgrom believes Molech worship (he spells it Molek) was associated with a kind of ancestor worship, or cult of the dead. Leviticus 20:1-6 condemns Molech worship and the use of mediums and spiritists. These were part of the same belief system. They were particularly bad. Chapter 20 is ordered on a scale with the most severe crimes listed first.
Sacrificing children to Molech combines the crimes of idol worship and murder. Psalm 106:28 perfectly expresses the judgment that it was a crime of murder:
“They shed innocent blood –
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan.
The land was polluted by bloodshed” (NET Bible).
But it was more than that. According to Leviticus, child sacrifice not only polluted the land through bloodshed, it profaned God’s name. This was because the Israelites invoked the name of YHWH when sacrificing their children. Ezekiel 23:38-39 complains that some would murder their sons and on the same day ascend to the temple to worship there. Several passages in Jeremiah sharply deny that YHWH commanded child sacrifice (7:31, 19:5, 32:35). This means that some Israelites thought that God did command such sacrifices.
Now the geography of this is important. The place of child sacrifice was in the valley of Hinnom, a ravine. The temple was up on Mt. Zion. This points to the idea that Molech was the god of the underworld, while YHWH was a celestial god. If you wanted to get in touch with your ancestors, you went to the god of the underworld. This did not contradict, for some Israelites, the idea that YHWH was the god of heaven and earth, the god of the living. But he had nothing to do with Sheol. One god was in a trench. The other was on a mountain.
So the false religion targeted by both priests and prophets was a dualism of life and death. The idea of a Satan, an adversary, accuser, or angel of death does not necessarily come from Persia. It may have been a feature of an ancestor cult in Israel in the eighth century before Christ.
Milgrom surveys archeological evidence that ancestor worship was widespread in the ancient Near East. Particularly, he points to a shrine next to a graveyard in Ebla where it is clear that people sacrificed to their ancestors. He also cites Sumerian and Babylonian texts.
While Yahwism was the religion of larger institutions like the monarchy, the temple, and the priesthood; everyday, family worship involved ancestors. Milgrom thinks the strict Yahwists represented by the D and H stratums of the Torah were helpless to change deeply ingrained patterns of family devotion. The best they could do was to reinterpret ancestor worship as devotion to one’s fathers and to forbid the darker practices (child sacrifice and contact with the dead through mediums) associated with such worship. Milgrom does not think these efforts proved very effective in pre-exilic times. Ancestor worship probably remained the practical, daily spirituality of most Israelites.
–These laws got lumped in with sexual prohibitions against incest and such, because they also related to family life and law
–The profaning of God’s name came from the attempt by people to keep the old-time child-sacrificing, occult-dabbling family religion and still worship YHWH.
–This is the only form of idol worship or false worship explicitly condemned in Leviticus, because H wrote (and so the current form of Leviticus came to exist) in the late monarchy when this was the main cult competing with Yahwism.
I am tempted to go to a library and look at Milgrom’s longer Anchor Bible commentary to see if he fleshes his theory out more there. In the Continental commentary I am reading he has three different sections on ancestor worship, plus the comments on individual verses. I have been trying for several days to put it all together. But, having made a good effort, I still find his ideas more suggestive than definitive.
There are several missing links. Just how, for instance, did sacrificing children to the god of the underworld come into a religion designed to get guidance from your ancestors? Also, I am wondering how the Queen of Heaven cult in Jeremiah 44 related to this. Milgrom thinks the story about strange fire in chapter 10 is polemic against this cult. But I haven’t found where he says how this might fit in or be a part of ancestor worship.
It would be a big deal if he proves right. We would need to downplay the influence of Zoroastrianism and the Persian period on the development of Hebrew apocalyptic and demonology. It was all there in pre-orthodox Israelite religion.