Image: “The Mesha Stele” also known as “The Moabite Stone”
In their article, “Phoenician Bones of Contention,” published in the journal Antiquity, Volume 87, Issue 338 (December 2013): 1199-1207, Paolo Xella, Josephine Quinn, Valentina Melchiorri, and Peter van Dommelen argue that the bones found at Carthage are evidence that human sacrifices were made at the Topheth, the sacred place dedicated to the goddess Tanit.
Although scholars have debated whether the ancient burial places where thousands of urns containing the remains of cremated infants were evidence of child sacrifice or only a child cemetery, a group of academics have concluded that the evidence found at Cartage proves without any doubt that the Carthaginians did indeed sacrifice their children to their gods.
In a report released by the University of Oxford, Josephine Quinn said:
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the stories about Carthaginian child sacrifice are true. This is something the Romans and Greeks said the Carthaginians did and it was part of the popular history of Carthage in the 18th and 19th centuries.
But in the 20th century, people increasingly took the view that this was racist propaganda on the part of the Greeks and Romans against their political enemy, and that Carthage should be saved from this terrible slander.
What we are saying now is that the archaeological, literary, and documentary evidence for child sacrifice is overwhelming and that instead of dismissing it out of hand, we should try to understand it.
People have tried to argue that these archaeological sites are cemeteries for children who were stillborn or died young, but quite apart from the fact that a weak, sick or dead child would be a pretty poor offering to a god, and that animal remains are found in the same sites treated in exactly the same way, it’s hard to imagine how the death of a child could count as the answer to a prayer.
It’s very difficult for us to recapture people’s motivations for carrying out this practice or why parents would agree to it, but it’s worth trying.
Perhaps it was out of profound religious piety, or a sense that the good the sacrifice could bring the family or community as a whole outweighed the life of the child.
It is difficult for people today to understand the motive behind child sacrifice. To the modern mind, child sacrifice would be considered a barbaric ritual that should be unacceptable in any situation. People today would be unable to understand the need for child sacrifice or find any justification for this barbaric rite.
However, child sacrifice, although a practice that is unacceptable today and would be considered a crime in almost any society in our civilized world, must be understood from the perspective of the social, cultural, and religious context of the people who believed that it was an acceptable religious practice.
Child sacrifice, when looked at from the perspective of the parent who was sacrificing his or her child to a god, was an act of pious faith. The sacrifice of children was considered to be a deep demonstration of faith that came out of deep religious conviction. The dedication of one’s child to a god or goddess was accompanied by a solemn ritual that was performed at the Tophet, the sacred place where child sacrifice was performed.
In antiquity, many people believed that the sacrifice of human lives was the greatest gift one could offer to the gods. Many reasons motivated people to make a human sacrifice to the gods. Some of these reasons include the desire to please the gods, the request for a special favor, a desire to obtain better crops, or as an atonement for one’s sins.
According to the narrative found in the book of Kings, Mesha, the king of Moab offered his son to Chemosh, his god, in order to obtain a victory against Israel: “When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, . . . he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall” (2 Kings 3:26-27).
Some people in ancient Israel believed in and practiced child sacrifice. The people’s rhetoric question to Micah the prophet reflects a popular belief that child sacrifice was one way by which they could atone for their sins: “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? . . . Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7).
Jephthah sacrificed his daughter in order to pay his vow to the Lord: “Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering’” (Judges 11:30-31). When he returned victorious from the battlefield, he “did with her according to the vow he had made” (Judges 11:39).
Even some of the kings of Judah sacrificed their children as an offering to pagan gods. Ahaz “made his son pass through fire, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 16:3). Manasseh “made his son pass through fire” (2 Kings 21:6).
Although some scholars believe that the expression “pass through fire” does not refer to human sacrifice, the biblical evidence clearly suggests that these two kings practiced child sacrifice because the Deuteronomic historian accused them of following the pagan practice of other nations.
Ruthann Birr, one of my former students at Northern Baptist Seminary, in her paper, “Child Sacrifice in the Old Testament,” written for my class on the Former Prophets, wrote the following about child sacrifice at Carthage [references omitted]:
Through the archaeological excavations at Carthage in 1921, we are given some of the best verification and understanding of the existence of the rite of child sacrifice within the context of the Phoenician culture. The largest cemetery of sacrificed infants in the ancient Near East ever discovered was unearthed here.
Founded in 814 B.C., Carthage began as a fledgling colony of Phoenicia but had developed into the center of Punic power by the fourth and third centuries B.C. With the founding of this city also came the infamous rite of child sacrifice imbedded in the religion of Phoenicia honoring their gods.
Hundreds of burial urns containing cremated remains of children – from newborn infants to children up to six years of age – as well as animals have been documented at the Carthage burial site. Based on the density of the excavated area, it is estimated “as many as 20,000 urns may have been deposited there between 400 and 200 B.C.”
The connection of this site to ritual sacrifice comes from the many inscriptions found on the burial monument accompanying these urns: inscriptions of the name or symbol of the Phoenician goddess Tanit (often identified with Astarte, the eastern Mediterranean goddess) and of Ba’al Hammon, the main patriarch of the Phoenician gods.
A typical example of one of the inscriptions reads: “To our lady, to Tanit, the face of Ba’al and to our lord, to Ba’al Hammon that which was vowed (by) PN [personal name] son of PN son of PN. Because he (the deity) heard his (the dedicant’s) voice and blessed him.”
Child sacrifice at Carthage was offered at the Topheth, a word whose meaning is unknown. Scholars believe that the word means “fireplace” or “hearth,” but its true etymology is uncertain.
The people of Judah practiced child sacrifice to Molech at the Topheth that was in the Hinnom Valley. According to Jeremiah, in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, the people of Judah burned “their children in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal” (Jeremiah 19:5). During the Deuteronomic religious reforms in the seventh century B.C., Josiah, in his attempt at eliminating syncretistic practices from the religion of Yahweh, “defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of Ben-hinnom, so that no one would make a son or a daughter pass through fire as an offering to Molech” (2 Kings 23:10).
So detestable was the practice of child sacrifice in Israel that Jeremiah prophesied that the Valley of Hinnom would become “the valley of Slaughter” (Jeremiah 7:32), because there the Lord would judge and punish those who engaged in child sacrifice.
In Hebrew, the expression “valley of Hinnom” is gê’ hinnōm, an expression that appears in the New Testament as “Gehenna,” the place where the wicked would suffer punishment and be destroyed. Jesus said: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Matthew 10:28 NAB).
In one of Jeremiah’s oracles, the Lord condemned the practice of child sacrifice: “And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire– which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind” (Jeremiah 7:31).
Thus, when speaking of child sacrifice in the Bible, one must remember what God said about child sacrifice: “That is something I never commanded them to do! Indeed, it never even entered my mind to command such a thing” (Jeremiah 7:31 NET).
In a comment to my post, Peter Bekins called to my attention that the Mesha Stele does not make any reference to child sacrifice (see his comment below). The reference to Mesha’s sacrificing his son appears only in the narratives found in the book of Kings. I have made a correction to my post in order to reflect this fact about the Mesha Stele.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary