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Queries and Comments: Human Sacrifice and Circumcision, BAR 13:02, Mar-Apr 1987.

“Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son,” BAR 12-06, graphically describes the Canaanite rite of human sacrifice when siege or pestilence threatened to exterminate a city. The text attributed to the Phoenician priest Sanchuniathon that author Baruch Margalit cites makes clear that the practice of circumcision is directly related to this rite of human sacrifice. We learn there that once, when destruction threatened his city, the god El offered his only son as a sacrifice to his father, the god Heaven; he also circumcised himself and ordered his followers to do the same. Circumcision is thus a substitute for human sacrifice, an offering of a part of the body in place of the whole. In Canaanite religion, it served as a reminder to El of the offering of his own son that he himself had performed.

In the Bible, circumcision is described as a “sign” of the covenant between Israel and its God. Nowhere, however, is a reason given for the choice of this particular rite as such a sign. The Canaanite material gives us the rationale for this practice. Israel took over from the Canaanites the conviction that, by offering this part of the body in place of the whole, the life of the individual, and of the entire community, would be preserved.

Roy A. Rosenberg

New York, New York

The brief article by Baruch Margalit purporting to explain why Mesha sacrificed his son (“Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son,” BAR 12-06) needs a brief rejoinder. Its author has contributed widely to Ugaritic studies, always with daring and sometimes with a readiness to draw peculiar conclusions.

I want to take up two separate issues- (1) his handling of the Biblical texts and (2) his handling of the Ugaritic text.

First, I want to applaud Margalit’s taking up the cause of Mesha; indeed, the poor Moabites seldom get a good press from the Hebrews. However, Margalit’s reasoning is faulty. It is faulty on the issue of moral judgment and it is faulty in assessing the true implication of the Mesha incident. I take up each point separately-

A. The Moral Issue. In a sordid sort of way, people have always found the subject of human sacrifice especially fascinating. Books and articles are repeatedly written on the topic. We do, indeed, find references from all over the Mediterranean world (Rome, Greece, Hittites, etc.) to the fact that during wartime—as opposed to normal times—captured enemies were sacrificed. However, reliable testimony to the sacrifice of one’s own kin even during wartime is lacking. The largest body of reference to this ritual in the ancient Near East has always come from the Bible. But its testimony, much like the classical examples quoted by Margalit, cannot really be trusted because, not being eyewitness accounts, they are either speaking of times past folkloristically or mean to libel their enemies. Sensational claims notwithstanding, archaeology cannot provide an answer to the question either. Even at Carthagea poignant explanations may be given; for the children buried there may actually reflect ceremonial entombment of loved ones, prematurely departed, not sacrificed.

We are free to give credence to the occurrence of human sacrifice in ancient times, but if we deem ourselves scholars of the past, we ought simply to classify the available examples in order to find patterns worthy of comparative studies. If we do decide that these activities are so excessive or gross that they warrant condemnation, it is fine to do so, as long as we make it clear to our audience what we are doing. Once we take that path, however, we ought to be pretty consistent- If Mesha is involved in child sacrifice and if we judge this activity despicable, no amount of parallelism ought to matter in how the condemn it. Does the discovery of many parallels make the sacrifice of a child more cogently defensible? Is it better justified when we argue that the potential safety of a population is at stake?

B. The Biblical Viewpoint. I believe that Margalit’s most glaring difficulty, however, is not properly distinguishing between how we assess a specific institution and how the ancients evaluated it; and this takes me back to the Biblical text at issue. What we need to explain here is how the Hebrew narrator came to regard Mesha’s child sacrifice as effective. The background to the incident is important- Mesha rebels against Israel. When the kings of Israel, Judah and Edom consult Elisha on a prognosis for a campaign against Moab, Elisha not only declares God to be on their side, but provides them with a miracle—pools of water that looked like blood to the Moabites—the allies had been fighting among themselves and had killed each other. When the Moabites entered the Israelite camp, they were forced to flee from the Israelites’ counterattack (2 Kings 3). The Israelites apparently continued to be successful against the Moabites, briefly appearing at the walls of the sole remaining Moabite stronghold—the Moabite capital. There Mesha offered his heir as a sacrifice.
Traditional commentators from the Hellenistic period on have credited Mesha’s survival to Israel’s compassion (or the like) for the Moabites’ plight. This is very nice and noble, but, as with Margalit’s understanding of what transpires, it is philologically indefensible.

Margalit ascribes a meaning to one word, qes\ef, which he translates “indignation,” when in fact the Hebrew is part of a fairly widely attested idiom, haµyâ qes\ef-gadôl ‘al … , “there came a great wrath [not indignation] against [someone].” When used in such an idiom this “great wrath” (probably manifested as a plague) is almost always assigned to God, and never to human beings. The context, therefore, cannot “denote the psychological breakdown that affect[s] the Israelite forces … ,” as Margalit claims.

Because Elisha had assured the allies of victory against Moab, what we need to know, then, is what went wrong? Who stymied the allies as they besieged Kirhareset? And how does Mesha’s barbaric act negate God’s promise of victory?

Some scholars have wondered whether the Hebrews meant to ascribe this miraculous intervention to Chemosh, Moab’s god. If we accept this thesis, our concern will no longer be about the ritual itself, bloody and unpleasant though it may be, but about the readiness of the ancient Hebrews to grant Chemosh enough power to repulse the allies, God’s assurances notwithstanding! The discussion, therefore, need no longer be concerned with the problem of human sacrifice in the ancient Near East; rather, it will shift to whether Israel’s thinkers were monotheistic or monolatrous when this particular passage in Kings was edited. If the latter, then we could make sense of the passage by having the Hebrews think that just as God could guarantee victory within his own domain, Chemosh could do the same in his- Upon accepting Mesha’s sacrifice, Chemosh defeats the allies.

If on the other hand, we regard the Hebrew thinker as a monotheist, then we will remain in a deep quandary, and no amount of parallelism, even if extracted from downtown Ugarit, will come to solve the problem. This is why Siegfried Horn in his original article (“Why the Moabite Stone Was Blown to Pieces,” BAR 12-03) could offer many explanations and yet admit that “no one has been able to give a satisfactory answer” to the way the episode ends; this is why Margalit’s Ugaritic parallel is irrelevant; and this is why his explanation is, in fact, no answer at all.

But Margalit may not be correct even in his reference to the supposed Ugaritic parallel. His analysis of the Ugaritic text is dependent on too many conjectures.b In offering objections to them, I refer to Margalit’s original translation in BAR- “A firstborn, Baal, we shall sacrifice, a child we shall fulfill [as votive pledge].” To balance “firstborn” with “child,” Margalit finds it necessary to emend the last consonant of h\tp. It is risky to emend Ugaritic poetry even when we can be sure that we advance a parallelism thereby; how much more incautious, therefore, to emend one word just so we can make a restoration which suits our expectations! In addition, the first consonant of the word Margalit translates as “firstborn” ([?]kr) is damaged on the Ugaritic tablet. Other scholars have offered [d_]kr, a “male animal” or (not very plausibly due to the lack of space) [bn b]kr, “a male animal.” Of course, Margalit may be right in the way he treats these two difficulties; but there is too much of the circular reasoning here to inspire full confidence. I am personally not persuaded, and I shall give one more reason why.

What Margalit quotes in his BAR article is but a portion of a fuller document describing various offerings to be made before Ugaritic deities, most notably Baal. Unlike the segments that precede it, however, this portion does not seem to be a product of an administrative or bureaucratic mind. It is fully poetic, with an Introduction and Conclusion (as Margalit properly divides it). When we set the Introduction and Conclusion aside, we are left with the central portion of the text which is likewise poetic and likewise divisible into three segments- Baal’s invitation to defend the walls from attack (A) is itself balanced by the defenders, display of gratitude (C); (A) and (C) bracket a middle section (B), which now becomes the focus of the whole.

The middle section (B) itself divides into two parts which Margalit obviously believes to be in sequence. However—and here I beg for your attention—it is just as probable that the two segments are parallel; and this is especially likely since the Ugaritic verbs (“we shall consecrate/we shall fulfill a vow”) are themselves in parallel. This would mean that we can paraphrase (B) as follows-

a) We shall sacrifice a bull // b) We shall fulfill a pledge

a’) We shall sacrifice a [?]kr // b’)We shall fulfill a h\tp

c) We shall (therefore/furthermore) pay a tithe.

If we balance these two statements, we may find it much more reasonable to imagine the Ugaritians as offering animals (ibr/[?]kr) and fulfillment of vows (md_r/h\tp). Until we have clear-cut administrative information about human sacrifice in Ugarit, therefore, we should resist a facile reading and interpretation of this interesting text.

Jack M. Sasson, Professor of Religious Studies

University of North Carolina

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Further Evidence for Infant Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East

In “Why King Mesha of Moab Sacrificed His Oldest Son,” BAR 12-06, Baruch Margalit argues that the sacrifice by King Mesha of Moab of his eldest son caused the Israelites to withdraw and end their siege of Mesha’s capital. Margalit connects Mesha’s burnt offering of this prince with a Ugaritic text that describes this ritual, and then suggests that this act had a psychologically damaging effect on Israel, which led to its withdrawal. There can be little doubt that this is a correct correlation of the Ugaritic and Biblical material. However, to the archaeological and literary sources from Israel and Canaan can be added Egyptian artistic representations that depict the very ritual described in 2 Kings 3-27.

During the Egyptian 19th and 20th Dynasties, the Pharaohs Seti I, Ramses II, Merneptah and Ramses III (1300–1180) engaged in military campaigns against some of the kingdoms of western Asia. Egyptian temples of this period abound with scenes of Asian cities under siege by the Pharaoh and his troops. Some of these reliefs show a number of Asian supplicants standing on the city wall, with hands upraised praying for divine intervention, while women can be seen kneeling. A supplicant is usually shown holding a burning censer. On some occasions, a child is shown dangling over the wall (or, as in the case of the siege of Ashkelon, two infants are shown—see illustration).

Anthony Spalinger made a very thorough study of these scenes in 1978.1 He has concluded that the scenes in question are pictorial representations which correspond to the ritual sacrifice ascribed to Mesha of Moab.

As Spalinger observes, in all the scenes of this genre, the Asian supplicants direct their prayers toward heaven and not to Pharaoh, who is usually depicted off to one side of the city. In one such scene (Ramses II’s Beit el-Wali scene) is a text that contains an invocation to Baal. Further, since the battle is clearly raging on all fronts, it can be inferred that the ritual takes place at a rather desperate moment in the war.

The supplication scenes show no uniformity in how the child (or children) is depicted. Spalinger has isolated three different positions- 1. the child is shown alive being dangled over the city wall (compare the child on the left in the illustration); 2. the child is dead (compare the child on the right—the limp form indicates the child is dead; the man dangling the child may actually be cutting the throat!); 3. the child is being thrown over the wall.

One wonders if these depictions represent a sequence of events. A child is shown to the besiegers, it is slain in full view, and then the corpse is thrown down for the enemy to see. If this scenario is correct, then Margalit’s thesis, that the sacrifice of Mesha’s eldest son had a psychologically damaging effect on Israel, finds further support.

James K. Hoffmeir

Associate Professor of Archaeology

Wheaton College

Wheaton, Illinois

a. See Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff, “Child Sacrifice at Carthage—Religious Rite or Population Control?” BAR 10-01.—Ed.

b. See his footnote, p. 76.

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