Moloch went by many names including, but not limited to, Ba'al, Moloch, Apis Bull, Golden Calf, Chemosh, as well as many other names, and was widely worshipped in the Middle East and wherever Punic culture extended (including, but not limited to, the Ammonites, Edomites and the Moabites). Baal Moloch was conceived under the form of a calf or an ox or depicted as a man with the head of a bull.
Hadad, Baal or simply the King identified the god within his cult. The name Moloch is the name he was known by among his worshipers, but is a Hebrew translation. (MLK has been found on stele at the infant necropolis in Carthage.) The written form Μολώχ Moloch (in the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament), or Molech (Hebrew), is the word Melech or king, transformed by interposing the vowels of bosheth or 'shameful thing'.
He is sometimes also called Milcom in the Old Testament (1 Kings 11:5, 1 Kings 11:33, 2 Kings 23:13 and Zephaniah 1:5)
The Hebrew letters מלך (mlk) usually stands for melek 'king' (Proto-Northwest Semitic malku) but when vocalized as mōlek in Masoretic Hebrew text, they have been traditionally understood as a proper name Μολοχ (molokh) (Proto-Northwest Semitic Mulku) in the corresponding Greek renderings in the Septuagint translation, in Aquila, and in the Middle Eastern Targum. The form usually appears in the compound lmlk. The Hebrew preposition l- means 'to', but it can often mean 'for' or 'as a(n)'. Accordingly one can translate lmlk as "to Moloch" or "for Moloch" or "as a Moloch", or "to the Moloch" or "for the Moloch" or "as the Moloch", whatever a "Moloch" or "the Moloch" might be. We also once find hmlk 'the Moloch' standing by itself.
Because there is no difference between mlk 'king' and mlk 'moloch' in unpointed text, interpreters sometimes suggest molek should be understood in certain places where the Masoretic text is vocalized as melek, and vice versa.
Moloch has been traditionally interpreted as the name of a god, possibly a god titled the king, but purposely mispronounced as Molek instead of Melek using the vowels of Hebrew bosheth 'shame'.
Moloch appears in the Hebrew of 1 Kings 11:7 (on Solomon's religious failings):
Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and lmlk, the abomination of the Sons of Ammon.
In other passages, however, the god of the Ammonites is named Milcom, not Moloch (see 1 Kings 11.33; Zephaniah 1.5). The Septuagint reads Milcom in 1 Kings 11.7 instead of Moloch which suggests a scribal error in the Hebrew. Many English translations accordingly follow the non-Hebrew versions at this point and render Milcom. The form mlkm can also mean 'their king' as well as Milcom and therefore one cannot always be sure in some other passages whether the King of Ammon is intended or the god Milcom.
It has also been suggested that the Ba‘al of Tyre, Melqart 'king of the city' (who was probably the Ba‘al whose worship was furthered by Ahab and his house) was this supposed god Moloch and that Melqart/Moloch was also Milcom the god of the Ammonites and identical to other gods whose names contain mlk.
Amos 5:26 reads in close translation:
But you shall carry Sikkut your king,
and Kiyyun, your images, the star-symbol of your god
which you made for yourself.
The Septuagint renders 'your king' as Moloch, perhaps from a scribal error, whence the verse appears in Acts 7.43:
You have lifted up the shrine of Molech
and the star of your god Rephan,
the idols you made to worship.
Other references to Moloch use mlk only in the context of "passing children through fire lmlk", whatever is meant by lmlk, whether it means "to Moloch" or means something else. It has traditionally been understood to mean burning children alive to the god Moloch. But some have suggested a rite of purification by fire instead, though perhaps a dangerous one. References to passing through fire without mentioning mlk appear in Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:10-13; 2 Kings 21.6; Ezekiel 20.26,31; 23.37. So the existence of this practice is well documented. For a comparable practice of rendering infants immortal by passing them through the fire, indirectly attested in early Greek myth, see the entries for Thetis and also the myth of Demeter as the nurse of Demophon.
The word here translated literally as 'seed' very often means offspring. The forms containing mlk have been left untranslated. The reader may substitute either "to Moloch" or "as a molk".
The laws given to Moses by God expressly forbade the Jews to do what was done in Egypt or in Canaan. “You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Moloch, and so profane the name of your God” (Lev. 18:21).
And you shall not let any of your seed pass through l'Molech, neither shall you profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.
Again, you shall say to the Sons of Israel: Whoever he be of the Sons of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that gives any of his seed l'Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones. And I will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people; because he has given of his seed l'Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name. And if the people of the land do at all hide their eyes from that man, when he gives of his seed l'Molech, and do not kill him, then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go astray after him, whoring l'Molech from among the people.
2 Kings 23:10 (on King Josiah's reform):
And he defiled the Tophet, which is in the valley of Ben-hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire l'Molech.
And they built the high places of the Ba‘al, which are in the valley of Ben-hinnom, to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire l'Molech; which I did not command them, nor did it come into my mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
Jewish rabbinic commentary
The 12th century rabbi Rashi, commenting on Jeremiah 7:31 stated:
Tophet is Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt; when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved.
A rabbinical tradition attributed to the Yalkout of Rabbi Simeon, says that the idol was hollow and was divided into seven compartments, in one of which they put flour, in the second turtle-doves, in the third a ewe, in the fourth a ram, in the fifth a calf, in the sixth an ox, and in the seventh a child, which were all burned together by heating the statue inside.
Classical Greek and Roman accounts
Later commentators have compared these accounts with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the Punic city of Carthage, which was a Phoenician colony. Cleitarchus, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn, that is to Ba‘al Hammon, the chief god of Carthage. Issues and practices relating to Moloch and child sacrifice may also have been overemphasized for effect. After the Romans defeated Carthage and totally destroyed the city, they engaged in post-war propaganda to make their archenemies seem cruel and less civilised.
Paul G. Mosca, in his thesis described below, translates Cleitarchus' paraphrase of a scholia to Plato's Republic as:
There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the 'grin' is known as 'sardonic laughter,' since they die laughing.
Diodorus Siculus (20.14) wrote:
There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.
Diodorus also relates relatives were forbidden to weep and that when Agathocles defeated Carthage, the Carthaginian nobles believed they had displeased the gods by substituting low-born children for their own children. They attempted to make amends by sacrificing 200 children of the best families at once, and in their enthusiasm actually sacrificed 300 children.
Plutarch wrote in De Superstitiones 171:
... the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century theories
It seemed to many commentators that Cronus or Saturn must also be Moloch. However, nineteenth century and early twentieth century archaeology found almost no evidence of a god called something like Moloch or Molech. Nineteenth and early twentieth century commentators also characterized Rabbinical traditions about other gods mentioned in the Tanach as simply legends, and regarded them as raising doubt about what was said about Moloch. They suggested that such descriptions of Moloch might be simply taken from accounts of the sacrifice to Cronus and from the tale of the Minotaur; No bull-headed Phoenician god was known. This did not hold back some from identifying Moloch with Milcom, with the Tyrian god Melqart, with Ba‘al Hammon to whom children were purportedly sacrificed, and with any other god called 'Lord' (Ba‘al) or (Bel). These various suggested equations combined with the popular solar theory hypotheses of the day generated a single theoretical sun god Baal.
Moloch in medieval texts
Like some other gods and demons found in the Bible, Moloch appears as part of medieval demonology, as a Prince of Hell. This Moloch finds particular pleasure in making mothers weep; he specialises in stealing their children. According to some 16th century demonologists, Moloch's power is stronger in December. It is likely that the motif of stealing children was inspired by the traditional understanding that babies were sacrificed to Moloch.
Moloch in Milton's Paradise Lost
In John Milton's Paradise Lost, Moloch is one of the greatest warriors of the rebel angels, vengeful and militant,
"besmeared with blood,
Of human sacrifice, and parents' tears."
He is listed among the chief of Satan's angels in Book I, and is given a speech at the parliament of Hell in Book 2:43 - 105, where he argues for immediate warfare against God. He later becomes revered as a pagan god on Earth.
Moloch in Russell's A Free Man's Worship
In Bertrand Russell's A Free Man's Worship, Moloch is used to describe a particularly savage brand of religion:
The savage, like ourselves, feels the oppression of his impotence before the powers of Nature; but having in himself nothing that he respects more than Power, he is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship. Pathetic and very terrible is the long history of cruelty and torture, of degradation and human sacrifice, endured in the hope of placating the jealous gods: surely, the trembling believer thinks, when what is most precious has been freely given, their lust for blood must be appeased, and more will not be required. The religion of Moloch--as such creeds may be generically called--is in essence the cringing submission of the slave, who dare not, even in his heart, allow the thought that his master deserves no adulation. Since the independence of ideals is not yet acknowledged, Power may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain.
Moloch in Ginsberg's Howl
In Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Moloch is used as a metaphor for the American city, thus aligning McCarthy-era America with the demon. The word is repeated many times throughout Part II of the poem, and begins (as an exclamation of "Moloch!") in all but the first and last five stanzas of the section.
Modern research, theories and concepts
Salammbô, a semi-historical novel about Carthage by Gustave Flaubert published in 1888, was extraordinarily successful. Flaubert created his own version of the Carthaginian religion, including the god Moloch, whom he made to be the god to whom the Carthaginians offered children. Flaubert described this Moloch mostly according to the Rabbinic descriptions, but with a few of his own additions. From chapter 7:
Then further back, higher than the candelabrum, and much higher than the altar, rose the Moloch, all of iron, and with gaping apertures in his human breast. His outspread wings were stretched upon the wall, his tapering hands reached down to the ground; three black stones bordered by yellow circles represented three eyeballs on his brow, and his bull's head was raised with a terrible effort as if in order to bellow.
Chapter 13 describes luridly how, in desperate attempt to call down rain, the image of Moloch was brought to the center of Carthage, how the arms of the image were moved by the pulling of chains by the priests (apparently Flaubert's own invention), and then describes the sacrifices made to Moloch. First grain and animals of various kinds were placed in compartments within the statue (as in the Rabbinic account). Then the children were offered, at first a few, and then more and more.
The brazen arms were working more quickly. They paused no longer. Every time that a child was placed in them the priests of Moloch spread out their hands upon him to burden him with the crimes of the people, vociferating: "They are not men but oxen!" and the multitude round about repeated: "Oxen! oxen!" The devout exclaimed: "Lord! eat!" and the priests of Proserpine, complying through terror with the needs of Carthage, muttered the Eleusinian formula: "Pour out rain! bring forth!" The victims, when scarcely at the edge of the opening, disappeared like a drop of water on a red-hot plate, and white smoke rose amid the great scarlet colour. Nevertheless, the appetite of the god was not appeased. He ever wished for more. In order to furnish him with a larger supply, the victims were piled up on his hands with a big chain above them which kept them in their place. Some devout persons had at the beginning wished to count them, to see whether their number corresponded with the days of the solar year; but others were brought, and it was impossible to distinguish them in the giddy motion of the horrible arms. This lasted for a long, indefinite time until the evening. Then the partitions inside assumed a darker glow, and burning flesh could be seen. Some even believed that they could descry hair, limbs, and whole bodies. Night fell; clouds accumulated above the Baal. The funeral-pile, which was flameless now, formed a pyramid of coals up to his knees; completely red like a giant covered with blood, he looked, with his head thrown back, as though he were staggering beneath the weight of his intoxication.
A human sacrifice in this poster of Cabiria.
Director Giovanni Pastrone's silent film Cabiria (1914) was largely based on Salammbo and included an enormous image of Moloch modeled on Flaubert's description. Elizabeth Dilling quoted Flaubert's descriptions as factual in her notorious anti-Semitic book The Plot Against Christianity, re-released under the title The Jewish Religion: Its Influence Today. Information from the novel and film still finds its way into serious writing about Moloch, Melqart, Carthage, and Ba‘al Hammon.
Eissfeldt's theory: a type of sacrifice
In 1921 Otto Eissfeldt, excavating in Carthage, discovered inscriptions with the word MLK, which in the context meant neither 'king' nor the name of any god. He concluded that it was instead a term for a particular kind of sacrifice, one which at least in some cases involved human sacrifice. A relief was found showing a priest holding a child. Also uncovered was a sanctuary to the goddess Tanit comprising a cemetery with thousands of burned bodies of animals and of human infants, dating from the 8th century BC down to the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. Eissfeldt identified the site as a tophet, using a Hebrew word of previously unknown meaning connected to the burning in some Biblical passages. Most of the children's bodies appeared to be those of newborns, but some were older, up to about six years of age.
Eissfeldt further concluded that the Hebrew writings were not talking about a god Moloch at all, but about the molk or mulk sacrifice, that the abomination was not in worshipping a god Molech who demanded children be sacrificed to him, but in the practice of sacrificing human children as a molk. Hebrews were strongly opposed to sacrificing first-born children as a molk to Yahweh himself. The practice may have been conducted by their neighbors in Canaan. The relevant Scriptural passages depict Yahweh condemning Hebrews sacrificing their first-borns, those who did were stoned to death, and those who witnessed but did not prevent the sacrifice of a first-born were excommunicated.
Similar "tophets" have since been found at Carthage and other places in North Africa, and in Sardinia, Malta, Sicily . In late 1990 a possible tophet consisting of cinerary urns containing bones and ashes and votive objects was retrieved from ransacking on the mainland just outside of Tyre in the Phoenician homeland.
Further discussion of Eissfeldt's theories unfolded.
Discussion of Eissfeldt's theory
From the beginning there were some who doubted Eissfeldt's theory but opposition was only sporadic until 1970. Prominent archaeologist Sabatino Moscati (who had accepted Eissfeldt's idea, like most others) changed his opinion and spoke against it. Others followed.
The arguments were that classical accounts of the sacrifices of children at Carthage were not numerous and were only particularly described as occurring in times of peril, not necessarily a regular occurrence.
Texts referring to the molk sacrifice mentioned animals more than they mentioned humans. Of course, those may have been animals offered instead of humans to redeem a human life. And the Biblical decrying of the sacrificing of one's children as a molk sacrifice doesn't indicate one way or the other that all molk sacrifices must involve human child sacrifice or even that a molk usually involved human sacrifice.
It was pointed out the phrase whoring after was elsewhere only used about seeking other gods, not about particular religious practices.
Eissfeldt's use of the Biblical word tophet was criticized as arbitrary. Even those who believed in Eissfeldt's general theory mostly took tophet to mean something like 'hearth' in the Biblical context, not a cemetery of some kind.
John Day, in his book Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge, 1989; ISBN 0-521-36474-4), again put forth the argument that there was indeed a particular god named Molech, citing a god mlk from two Ugaritic serpent charms, and an obscure god Malik from some god lists who in two texts was equated with Nergal, the Mesopotamian god of the underworld. A god of the underworld is just the kind of god one might worship in the valley of Ben-Hinnom rather than on a hill top.