Gehenna and the Conquered Grave

As I continue my research into the nature of Israelite child sacrifice in the Old Testament I am struck by the differences between the “Molech Cult” (e.g. Leviticus 21:1-5; Jeremiah 19) and the mysterious instances in which firstborn heirs were offered (or almost offered) as a sacrifice to Yahweh (Genesis 22;  Judges 11).

The Molech sacrifice was carried out in a specific way (whole burnt offering by fire), to a specific deity (either Baal or Molech), in a specific place (Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem), for a specific purpose (divination/fortune telling), and with an unspecified type of offering (a son, a daughter or multiple children).


Carthage topheth, wikimedia commons

The rare instances of Yahwistic child sacrifice – Abraham and Isaac (almost), Jephthah and his daughter and possibly Mesha and his heir (2 Kings 3:27) were carried out in different places (Moriah, Gilead, and Kir-Haresheth), for a different purpose (obedience to and/or seeking salvation from Yahweh), and with a specified type of offering (the firstborn or beloved son of the family).

The best two texts for seeing the differences between the two practices are Jeremiah 32:33-35 and Micah 6:6-8.


They have turned to me their back and not their face. And though I have taught them persistently, they have not listened to receive instruction. They set up their abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.” (Jeremiah 32:33–35 ESV)

Jeremiah explicitly shows that the Molech cult was against the regulations of Torah. In other places, Jeremiah prophesied that the Hinnom Valley would be so filled with the dead that there would not be any space to bury anyone (e.g. Jeremiah 19). This prophecy would later lead the Hinnom Valley/Cult of Molech to come to be identified with the entrance to hell itself (Talmud) and become the primary name for hell – Gehenna – in the New Testament (Matt. 5:22).

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6–8 ESV)

Note the lesser to the greater argument – regular burnt offerings, calves a year old, a thousand rams, ten thousands of rivers of oil then the firstborn son. The point is that all of these things are acceptable for sacrifice – but even the sacrifice of a firstborn son, the highest form of sacrifice imaginable, is inadequate to please Yahweh without obedience.
The main academic reason that I point this distinction out is that so many treatments of biblical child sacrifice try to lump all of the related passages together into a monolithic system (e.g. Levenson – The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son 1993). Some even claim that there existed a regular practice of ritual child sacrifice (in the Molech sense) to Yahweh! This practice like many other idolatrous practices (e.g. Yahweh having a wife named Asherah) were all perfectly legitimate, they claim, until about the 8th or perhaps 6th cent. BCE in which the redactors of the Bible made the text come into conformity with their own singular (among many other strands), Yahwistic theology – effectively erasing the earlier more syncrestic, mainstream idolatrous practices (e.g. Dever and Stavrakopoulou). Besides the fact that this reeks of conspiracy theory – the texts can be better harmonized when we see distinction instead of similarity.
The main theological reason that I point to this distinction is that it has powerful implications when related to the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice – a fulfillment of various types of Levitical sacrifices. But can it also be seen as a fulfillment of the the highest type of sacrifice – the death of the firstborn, unblemished son at the hand of the righteous Father? If for the sake of argument, we assume that what I have argued above is correct, then we have a most interesting second temple development of the two types of Israelite first temple child sacrifice.
For the Molech cult – its bloody, desecrated topheth becomes the mouth of hell itself – the lake of fire, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth where all wicked souls reside eternally. Gehenna is its name and it receives the second death.
For the Yahwistic, firstborn, beloved son rite – its bloody, desecrated sacrifice becomes the gate of the kingdom of heaven itself, paradise, the “way” to the place of no tears and no pain where all redeemed souls reside eternally. The conquered tomb is its name, its death has no sting and it brings about the second birth.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NAS95)

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