The ma-al-ku

Came across this today in the CAD – Vol. 10 pg 166-168 (by way of a footnote in Tigay’s book, “You Shall Have No Other Gods”):

One of the usages of malku in Akkadian is as a common noun for a netherworld demon:

I gave (funerary) gifts to the Mal-ki, the Anunnaki, and all the gods dwelling in the netherworld. (TuL p 58 I 19)

When you [Shamash] appear the [nether-world] gods and the ma-al-[ku]  rejoice.  (this is parallel with  – “the Igigi-gods rejoice”)

Why do you (witch) want to carry my soul to the ma-al-ki. [1]

This might shed some light on the identity of Molech in the Bible where the worship of the god takes place outside of cities, in valleys and clefts of the rocks (Is 57:5, 2 Kings 23:10), and was associated with necromancy (Deut. 18:10-12; 2 Ki. 17:17; 2 Ki. 21:6).  We also find scattered references to the sacrifice of children to the “shedim” – an Akkadian loan word that means ‘spirits of darkness’ (HALOT) parallel to ma-al-ku.  (Ps. 106:37; Deut. 32:17)

Another possible reference to human sacrifice and demons is found in Amos 2:1.  There, the Massoretic text reads, “because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime’ (melek Edom lassid) – a reading that doesn’t seem to make any sense.  H. Tur Sinai suggested that the consonants be re-pointed to ‘molek adam lassed’ which gives us the following translation:

Because of three offenses of Moab, Because of four, I shall surely requite him!  Because he burns the bones of a human sacrifice (molek adam) to a demon (lassed).”  

If this is the correct reading, then ‘molek‘ in the phrase ‘molek adam’ refers to a type of sacrifice that is specifically dedicated to the god Molech.  It is not unusual for objects used in the worship of a deity to be named after the deity to whom they are dedicated.  For example, Asherah may refer to the goddess or to an object associated with her worship – a wooden pillar that stood next to the massebah.

Although the phrase molek adam in Amos 2:1 (if correct!) is not found elsewhere in the Bible, the phrase ‘mulch adam’ appears on Phoenician stelae that served as burial markers for clay jars containing a mixture of charred remains of infant bones and small sacrificial animals.  These jars are buried by the thousands in what were called ‘tophets’ by the early excavators based on comparisons between these graveyards and descriptions of child sacrifice in Jeremiah 7 and 19.  These these ceremonial infant burial grounds are unique to the Carthaginians, a Phoenician culture that flourished in north Africa, Sicily and Sardinia.   The burial sites were confined to a relatively small area surrounded by a temenos wall (a wall the separates the sacred from the profane).  As the number of  burials in the ‘tophet’ increased, the burial ground became too crowded.  But rather than expand the size of the burial ground, they leveled it with soil so that another layer of burials could be placed above the previous ones.  At the Carthage ‘tophet’, four such leveling operations were made across the span of five centuries.

An example of a Carthaginian ‘tophet’ at Tharros.  Courtesy of Gras, M. R., Peirre; Teixidor, Javier (1991). “The Phoenicians and Death.” Berytus 39.

It is usually noted that the ‘taphteh‘ described in Isaiah 30 and the place called Tophet in Jeremiah 7 and 19 refers to a place of burning and not a burial ground like what we find at Carthaginian sites.  Undoubtedly the sacrifice of children is the primary practice associated with the Tophet (‘tophet’ = ‘hearth’) but Jeremiah also seems to connect the Tophet with a burial ground.

Men shall bury in Topheth because there will be no place else to bury. (Jer 19:11 ESV)

Jeremiah describes a situation in which Jerusalem will be so crowded with burials, that there will be no place left to bury people.  Maybe there is some irony in his statement:  All of Jerusalem will become like that crowded little graveyard at the Tophet…  It is certainly possible that the Judeans practised rites similar to those of the Carthaginians and even had an infant burial place like the Carthaginian ones.  The earliest pottery urns found in the Carthaginian tophets date to approx 750 BC and the tophets did not go out of use until the mid 2nd century BC.  Their heyday would have been in the days of Jeremiah and shortly after.  But the question remains, can we connect the practice of child sacrifice (mulk adam) among the Carthaginians to the practice of child sacrifice practised by Canaanites (leheavir ba-esh) many centuries previous to them?

Well, maybe not directly, but it is worth noting that after the destruction of the Canaanite culture in Canaan, the practice of child sacrifice continued among certain groups, such as the Sepharvites.  2 Kings recounts that they, “burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim.” 2 Kings 17:31  We do not know who the Sepharvites were, but Kaufmann suggests that they be identified with the Phoenicians based on the order in which they appear in the list of people groups in 2 Kings 17, and on the basis of the divine name mlk and ‘dr in the names of their gods.   It is usually agreed that that the Phoenicians were the Iron Age inheritors of the Bronze age culture of the Canaanites.  Thus, it is possible to trace a line from Canaan to Carthage. This explains the striking similarities between Carthaginian and the Canaanite iconography.

QuinnTophet 2
A cippi found at Carthage with what looks like a composite symbol made up of a circle, bar and triangle.  The triangle was probably added to the crossbar and circle of the Ankh. It is thought to represent the Carthaginian goddess Tanat.   The crescent disk symbol is probably the moon god Baal Hammon.  Both Tanat and Baal Hammon are often mentioned in the inscriptions.


A tombstone belonging to "Ama the Smith" - found in Achziv - 7th to 6th centuries BC.
The ankh is found on earlier Phoenician stele found on the Levantine coast. This is a tombstone belonging to “Ama the Smith” – found in Achziv – 7th to 6th centuries BC. (Israel Museum)


Stele found at Hazor dating to LBA with crescent disk symbol above upraised hands.
(Israel Museum – photo by Andrew Cross)

Many scholars deny that child sacrifice was practiced, except perhaps irregularly, and only in dire circumstances.   But this is the crux of it, if child sacrifice was widely believed to have been beneficial in dire circumstances, then isn’t it likely that the practice became common in certain periods and among certain peoples?   We know that human sacrifice was practiced by other cultures and that some cultures in particularly where characterized by it…  I think it was Herodotus who warned foreigners from entering the lands of the Tauri!  In Tauri, humans were sacrificed to a fertility goddess who was a violent and terrifying lady, thirsty for the blood of humans (cf. Sekhemet or Anat)!  So it is possible that the Canaanite religion was characterized by a particular fear of a cthonic deity (ie. Molech) and that this drove them to make particularly costly sacrifices to appease it.  In the Pentateuch, the practice of child sacrifice and sodomy were the distinctive practices of a reprobate society.  In the time of Jeremiah, it was the practice of child sacrifice in particular that sealed Judah’s fate.


[1] Ma-al-ku-um also appears as an individual god – and ma-lik appears as a theophoric element in personal names (ie. Puzur-Ma-lik).

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