Acharey Mot & Kedoshim: The Mystery of Molekh

May 2, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Posted in Acharey Mot, Kedoshim | Leave a comment

Scene:  Night, in a deep valley below the wall of Jerusalem.  Pagan priests kindle a fire at the feet of a brass idol named Tofet.  The brass hands reach forward, the mouth is open wide.  A father gives his  infant child to a priest, who lays it on the hands of the idol.  The brass is burning hot.  The baby screams. The priests beat a drum to drown out the screams, so the father can bear to watch his child burn to death.

This is the lurid scene that Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) imagined when he wrote his commentary on Jeremiah 7:31, a verse that describes one of the things the people of Judah did that God objected to:

And they have built shrines for tofet which are 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. 

Rashi claimed that Tofet and Molekh were two names for the same brass idol.  Actually, the meaning of the word tofet is still unknown.  Earlier rabbis guessed that it came from  the word tof = a small hand drum, and this probably led to the idea that drums were beaten during this child sacrifice.  Modern authorities speculated that tofet might come from an Aramaic word meaning “fireplaces”.

The word tofet shows up in the Hebrew Bible nine times, once in the second book of Kings and eight times in Jeremiah.  The word appears to refer sometimes to an idol, other times to a shrine just outside Jerusalem.

The word molekh first appears much earlier in the Bible, in this week’s double Torah portion, Acharey Mot (After the Death) and Kedoshim (Holiness):

And do not give your offspring to pass through for the molekh, and do not profane the name of your god; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 18:21–Acharei Mot)

molekh = the word melekh = king, or the word malackh = to reign, but with mysteriously different vowels

The second portion for this week, Kedoshim, includes a passage describing the penalties for giving one’s offspring to the molekh:  stoning to death followed by excommunication. Neither Torah portion says how offspring were given to the molekh, and neither mentions fire as the element the children passed through.

In Leviticus/Vayikramolekh does not seem to be a proper name, since it is always ha-molekh = the molekh.  But it becomes a proper name  in its next appearance, when King Solomon succumbs to idol-worship:

Then Solomon was building shrines to Chemosh, the detestable idol of Moab, that were in front of Jerusalem; and for Molekh, the detestable idol of the people of Ammon.  (I Kings 11:7)

The next reference to molekh is embedded in a passage about how King Josiah cleansed Judah of idolatry:

He desacralized the tofet which is in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, to prevent passing a son or a daughter through fire for the molekh. (II Kings 23:10 )

This is the only verse in the Hebrew Bible that connects tofet with molekh. This is also the first time the Hebrew Bible says an infant is passed through fire for the molekh.  Here, both tofet and molekh are preceded by “the”, so they are not proper names of idols.  But the Torah does not say what they are.

The final occurrence of the word molekh is in the book of Jeremiah, 25 chapters after the verse that stimulated Rashi’s imagination.  Here, God’s speech leaves out the fire and adds the molekh:

And they built shrines to the alien god, which are in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for passing their sons and their daughters to the molekh, which I did not command …  (Jeremiah 32:35)

So what is the molekh?

All the commentary I have read agrees that the word molekh comes from the same Hebrew root as the word melekh = king, and that the Torah sees God as the king of the whole universe. Here are four theories about the relationship between molekh and melekh:

* Non-Israelites living in Canaan called one of their gods Molekh because they used the same root for “king” in their related languages, just as various Canaanite gods were called Ba-al because they used the same root as Hebrew for “master”.

* The word molekh is a unique grammatical form, perhaps an adjective like “kingly” or “soveriegn”.

* The Masoretic scribes of the 7th-11th centuries who first added vowels to the Torah gave eight of the  words spelled m-l-kh in the Bible the same vowel sounds as the word boshet = shameful.

Older Jewish commentary assumed the word molekh referred to an alien god to whom child sacrifices were made.  Such gods did exist in the ancient world; for example, archaeologists have discovered reliefs from a Phoenician site in Spain dating to about 500 BCE which show a two-headed being with open mouths receiving offerings of children in bowls.  Stories about this god could have influenced Rashi’s vivid description of Molekh as a brass idol heated by fire.

In the 19th-century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch argued that the molekh represented the malignant power of Fate, as opposed to God’s “providence”. Parents who gave their children to the molekh, according to Hirsch, confused God (who wants what is ultimately good for humankind) with Fate (a hostile power that limits human happiness).  They believed that by burning a child, they would appease Fate and their remaining family would escape future disasters.

Other commentary claims that the people of Judah thought their own God required these sacrifices. That would explain why Jeremiah repeatedly said that child sacrifice was not at all what God had in mind.

In the time of the prophets, if a father confused God with Fate (as defined by Hirsch), then he would believe there was no point in trying to increase long-term happiness for everyone in his family.  God would not let him succeed.  With a feeling of doom, he would hand over one child in the grim hope that if the family suffered now, they could get it over with and avoid future disasters.

Thank goodness we don’t think that way today!  Or do we?  I have often heard people who grew up during the Depression of the 1930’s express the attitude that if you don’t suffer now, you’ll have to suffer later. Put your nose to the grindstone, and by the time your face is flat, you can have a good retirement.  It worked for them.

Those of us who were young in the 1960’s have a sunnier outlook, but I wonder if children growing up now, during the Great Recession, will once again believe in a universe that is hostile to human happiness, and say that if you don’t suffer now, you’ll have to suffer later.

Rashi’s lurid scene of infants burning on the hands of a brass idol may be fit only for an adventure movie today.  But we still need the Torah to remind us that although bad things do happen, we are not doomed.  As God reminds us in both today’s Torah portions and in the book of Jeremiah, bowing to Fate is neither required nor desirable.  The universe is set up so that it is possible for humans to lead good and even happy lives—if we follow rules such as “You shall not steal and you shall not deny a rightful claim and you shall not lie to one another” (Leviticus 19:11), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

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