First Person: Human Sacrifice to an Ammonite God?

As published in the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review


As its title indicates, an article in the July/August BAR addressed the question of ancient infant sacrifice (“Infants Sacrificed? The Tale Teeth Tell” by Patricia Smith), mainly at the tophet in Carthage, and cites Biblical passages (Leviticus 18:21; Jeremiah 32:35; 2 Chronicles 28:3) that fulminate against the practice.

But, strictly speaking, these Biblical passages do not condemn infant sacrifices but the sacrifice of sons and daughters. Is the Bible condemning infant sacrifice or, more broadly, the sacrifice of sons and daughters of more advanced age—or any age? Indeed, the most famous Biblical episode of (almost) human sacrifice involves a son who walks three days up a mountain with his father and converses with him. On the last leg of the journey the son carries the wood. He is referred to as a lad or a youth (na’ar). This of course is the famous Akedah in Hebrew, the binding of Isaac in Jewish tradition, often referred to otherwise (somewhat inaccurately) as the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22). Clearly, Isaac is no infant.

When Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, an angel of the Lord cries out to Abraham to stay his hand, and a ram caught by his horns in a thicket is sacrificed instead of Isaac.

So the question arises, were sons and daughters—as opposed to infants—sacrificed in ancient times? Is there any archaeological evidence?

From J.B. Hennessy, “Thirteenth Century B.C. Temple of Human Sacrifice at Amman,” Studia Phoenicia III, Phoenicia and its Neighbors (Leuven, 1985), figs. 3, 4.

In 1955 the late Australian archaeologist John Basil Hennessy excavated a Late Bronze Age (13th century B.C.E.) building he identified as a temple near the airport in Amman, Jordan. In the center of the solidly built structure were two circular flat stones, one on top of the other, that the excavator identified as an altar with which a large number of burnt offerings were associated, including pottery, 50 pieces of gold jewelry, small bronze pins, scarabs and cylinder seals. In the words of the excavator, “The most surprising feature of all in the final analysis of the material is that the several thousands of small bone fragments are almost exclusively [over 90 percent] human … There can be little doubt that a major concern of the ritual at the Amman airport temple was the burning of human bodies.”1 Hennessey’s general impression was that the bones represented an “immature group.” One was of a youth 14 to 18 years of age.

Did the Carthaginians really practice infant sacrifice? Learn more in Bible History Daily.

Larry G. Herr, who continued the excavation briefly in 1976, also found fragments of many human bones around a stone pile (Herr reconstructed the stone pile as originally a square altar) about 20 feet from the temple. This stone pile had functioned as a pyre: “Many small fragments of burned human bones [were] strewn all about the building, but their thickest concentration was near the stone pile.”2 The bones “were primarily from adults” [emphasis added].3

From J.B. Hennessy, “Thirteenth Century B.C. Temple of Human Sacrifice at Amman,” Studia Phoenicia III, Phoenicia and its Neighbors (Leuven, 1985), figs. 3, 4.

From J.B. Hennessy, “Thirteenth Century B.C. Temple of Human Sacrifice at Amman,” Studia Phoenicia III, Phoenicia and its Neighbors (Leuven, 1985), figs. 3, 4.

As recently noted by the Polish scholar Father Jakub Waszkowiak,4 some scholars have questioned Hennessy’s conclusions, while others have supported them. Larry Herr, for example, rejects the identification of the building as a temple and suggests that it was a crematorium where the bones of the dead were burned.5 But, as Ami Mazar remarks, “This conclusion is difficult to accept … since there are no parallels for the existence of special cremation buildings in the ancient Near East.”6 Herr does admit that if this is a crematorium, it is “the first such site ever found in this part of the world.”7 (On the other hand, as Herr also observes, if the site was for human sacrifice, this would be the first and only such site discovered in the ancient Near East.)

If the site was a temple where humans were sacrificed, it could have served the ancient Ammonite capital of Rabat Ammon, 1.5 miles to the west, although the site mystifyingly also contained Hittite, Mycenaean and Egyptian artifacts.

Jerusalem lay about 44 miles to the southwest. The Ammonite god to whom the humans were presumably sacrificed was Milkom (or Molech). Jeremiah rages against those who offer up their sons and daughters to Molech in Jerusalem’s Ben-Hinnom Valley (Jeremiah 32:35; see also Leviticus 18:21). Finally, Solomon built a shrine near Jerusalem “for Molech, the abomination of the Ammonites” (1 Kings 11:7).

Is the temple at the Amman airport a shrine to the Ammonite god Milkom, like those referred to in the Bible, where human beings were sacrificed? Certainly an intriguing possibility.

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1. J.B. Hennessey, “Thirteenth Century B.C. Temple of Human Sacrifice at Amman,” Studia Phoenicia, vol. 3, Phoenicia and Its Neighbours (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters, 1985), p. 84.

2. Larry G. Herr, “Ancient Crematorium Discovered?” Ministry magazine (November 1981), p. 24.

3. Herr, “Ancient Crematorium Discovered?” p. 25.

4. Jakub Waszkowiak, “Pre-Israelite and Israelite Burnt Offering Altars in Canaan—Archaeological Evidence,” The Polish Journal of Biblical Research 13 (February 2014), pp. 43–69.

5. Herr, “Ancient Crematorium Discovered?” p. 25; see also Larry G. Herr, “The Amman Airport Structure and the Geopolitics of Ancient Transjordan,” Biblical Archaeologist 46 (1983), pp. 223–229.

6. Amihai Mazar, “Temples of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages and the Iron Age,” in Aharon Kempinski and Ronny Reich, eds., The Architecture of Ancient Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1992), p. 183.

7. Herr, “Ancient Crematorium Discovered?” p. 25.


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  1. Jürgen says

    Hershel is totally wrong: Jewish had to sacrifice firstborn children to god. That was long time tradition ( see Ex 13.2. , Num 3.3.). So why digging on the history of others and blaming them? – Is this the true love of the Hebrew god?

  2. DWIGHT says

    I have long wondered given the biblical account of God’s requirement to sacrifice Isaac and Abraham’s seemingly docile response and his readiness to do so whether the request was viewed by Abraham given the idolatrous culture out of which he came.

  3. Ric says

    Yes, more proof of the divinity of ancient scriptural events this time dating to the 13th century BC. Scripture confirmation of human infant sacrifice this is exciting and important news!

    Meanwhile in the real world we see this as evidence of Rameses II relentless pursuit to rebuild Thutmose III’s Egyptian Empire. It indicates a lack of these victims’ parents to suffer their children to the fate of starvation and or slavery at the hands of the divine Pharaoh. It also demonstrates that the God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Jacob forbid such practice. He is demanding the trust of his Chosen People to find them a way to survive when others fail. It also provides protection of the three youths taken to Babylon at a much later date.

    For those seeking God of the real world of ancient Israel there is another conqueror of the 13th century. He was eager to make Egypt and Hittite and all lands far and wide submit to him. He is the Assyrian King Shalmaneser I. The real world consideration presented here removes the mysticism from a historical document and glorifies God. Keeping him and his people’s history in the real world of flesh and suffering. Salmaneser I was so far reaching in his goals against Hittite and Egypt. To keep safe and strong these nations threaten by his drive to eat away their territories. They chose to create the first written Peace Treaty AKA the Treaty of Kadesh in human history. Again, God is glorified!

    There is in truth nothing mystifying in this. It is only the world God created coming alive in rejoicing at his power and glory in our time and reality. Mr. Shanks nice piece but can we get into the real world? Otherwise, sir I am going continue to claim present considerations of Israel’s ancient past places it in a parallel universe unique to Israel alone.

  4. JAMES says

    Jürgen: The God of the Bible never commanded the Israelites to kill their firstborn children or any siblings born thereafter. In the case of Isaac, God’s intent was to affirm in the mind of Abraham, the level of the patriarch’s faith and his willingness to be obedient in his calling. Exodus 13:2 references sanctification (a setting apart) to God, not sacrifice to God. Numbers 3:3 is a preface to the introduction of Aaron’s sons who would serve in the Levitical priesthood. It has nothing to do with human sacrifice. Unfortunately however, human sacrifice was in fact, practiced by multiple cultures in the ancient near East. Of particular relevance to our discussion, is the truth that some ancient Israelites [particularly during the period of the OT prophetic books – referred to collectively in the Hebrew Tanakh (תַּנַ”ךְ‎) as the Nevi’im ‘(נְבִיאִים)], wantonly murdered their own children in ritual sacrifice to Molech, Baal, Asherah, et al, in blatant defiance of the strict instruction of the Hebrew God. Tragically, the Hebrews of antiquity were not alone in this vile practice, but (as the Scriptures make plain) were seduced into pagan idolatry and its many trappings by their neighbors such as the Ammonites.

  5. Kurt says

    The Greatest Proof of God’s Love
    Genesis 22:1-18
    ABRAHAM loved God. That faithful patriarch also loved Isaac, the son of his old age. But when Isaac was possibly 25 years old, Abraham faced a test that went against the natural instincts of a father—God told him to sacrifice his son. The story, however, did not end in Isaac’s death. At the critical moment, God intervened by means of an angel. This Bible account, recorded at Genesis 22:1-18, gives us a prophetic glimpse into God’s great love for us.
    “God put Abraham to the test,” says verse 1. Abraham was a man of faith, but now his faith would be tested as never before. God said: “Take, please, your son, your only son whom you so love, Isaac, and . . . offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall designate to you.” (Verse 2) Remember, God does not allow his servants to be tried beyond what they can bear. So this test showed his confidence in Abraham.—1 Corinthians 10:13.
    Abraham responded with prompt obedience. We read: “Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his ass and took two of his attendants with him and Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering. Then he rose and went on the trip.” (Verse 3) Abraham evidently kept the details of the test to himself.
    A three-day trip followed, giving time for somber reflection. But Abraham’s resolve did not weaken. The words he spoke revealed his faith. Upon seeing the selected mountain in the distance, he told his servants: “You stay here . . . , but I and the boy want to go on over there and worship and return to you.” When Isaac asked where the sheep was for the offering, Abraham said: “God will provide himself the sheep.” (Verses 5, 8) Abraham expected to return with his son. Why? Because “he reckoned that God was able to raise him [Isaac] up even from the dead.”—Hebrews 11:19.
    Up on the mountain, when Abraham took the “knife to kill his son,” an angel stayed his hand. God then provided a ram, caught in the thicket, that Abraham could offer up “in place of his son.” (Verses 10-13) In God’s eyes, it was as if Isaac had actually been sacrificed. (Hebrews 11:17) “Before God,” explains one scholar, “the willingness was reckoned as equal to the deed.”
    Jehovah’s confidence in Abraham was vindicated. And Abraham’s confidence in Jehovah was rewarded, for God repeated and enlarged upon his covenant with Abraham, which covenant promised blessings for people of all the nations.—Verses 15-18.
    In the end, God spared Abraham the sacrifice that He would not spare himself. Abraham’s willingness to offer up Isaac foreshadowed God’s offering of his only-begotten Son, Jesus, for our sins. (John 3:16) The sacrifice of Christ is the greatest proof of Jehovah’s love for us. Since God made such a sacrifice for us, we do well to ask ourselves, ‘What sacrifices am I willing to make in order to please God?’
    Jehovah say in Jeremiah 7:31 “And they have built the high places of To′pheth,which is in the valley of the son of Hin′nom,in order to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire,a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart.”
    Ahaz and Manasseh are the only Judean kings referred to as making their offspring pass through the fire. However, with the impetus given by these two kings to child sacrifice, the practice apparently became entrenched among the Israelites in general. (2Ki 16:3; 21:6; Jer 7:31; 19:4, 5; 32:35; Eze 20:26) The children, at least at times, were first killed, rather than being burned alive.—Eze 16:20, 21.

  6. Dan says

    You are incorrect on several accounts. You mention child sacrifce being “Jewish tradition at least until time of Abraham”. Abraham was the first “Jew” as he was given the covenant of circumcision. By the biblical chronology, the Exodus took place 400 years after God initiated this covenant with Abraham. There was no “Jewish” tradition prior to Abraham!
    Second, God did not require the firstborn child to be killed as a human sacrifice. In Ex. 13:2 God required the firstborn male of the Israelites to be consecrated to the Lord: “The Lord said to Moses, “Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether human or animal.” Normally, as you suggest, this would have meant a sacrifice. However, in verses Ex 13:11-13, God tells the Israelites to “redeem” the firstborn male child with a substitute sacrifice. They could also do this for other animals, such as donkeys.
    Third, your interpretation of Numbers 3:3 as God requiring the firstborn to be sacrificed is absurd. Nadab and Abihu were Aaron’s adult sons who were serving as priests. They violated God’s commands and offered “strange fire” before the Lord and they were struck down by God for their disobedience in their priestly office. They were not sacrificed to God by Aaron.
    Furthermore, in Deuteronomy 12:31, God tells the Israelites that sacrificing children is a detestable practice of the Canaanites which they are not to imitate:”You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”
    Clearly, you don’t know your Hebrew Bible. I suggest you read it before spouting incorrect things on a public website

  7. Dan says

    Jurgen: One more thing. 2 Kings 21 describes the reign of King Manasseh of Judah, who introduced all kinds of Canaanite god worship & practices to the Jewish people and he even sacrificed one of his own children “in the fire”. As in Deuteronomy, through his prophets God calls these actions “detestable” and promises that Judah and Jerusalem will suffer a severe judgment – which occurred several decades later with the Bablyonian destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the exile.
    The only human sacrifice that God has ever accepted is the one that he himself made, incarnated as Jesus Christ, who lived the perfect life that we fail in doing, and dyed on the cross for the sins of all of humanity. In this unique case, the Messiah willingly offered himself, as predicted in Isaiah 53:
    “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death,and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors”

  8. David says

    The passage in Judges that bothers me, and may very well have some other explanation such as translation errors, is the story of Jephthah’s daughter in 11:30 and 11:34-40. To an amateur, me, it reads as if Jephthah offered his daughter up for a burnt offering. Again for me it is not clear that Jephthah was part of Israel, apparently his “strange” mother was not of Israel, but he still lead and fought for Israel and the vow seems to be to the God of Israel.

  9. Jürgen says

    Well it takes some time that even CNN knows where Ukrainia is…. They marked it there where Switzerland is. And same CNN said, Saudi Arabia has direct border to Syria… Well … facts are not really strong case of Americans… so I understand why US people believe in the bible and its texts. Whole Europe is laughing on Americans and their “knowledge” of geography, god and history.

  10. JAMES says

    Jürgen: I didn’t realize that you are an expert. Please post a bibliography of your published works.

  11. stephania says

    The Bible CONDEMNS any human sacrifice. Whether babies, kids, or Adults.Its very easy to understand that. If u ask y did God want Jacob to sacrifice his son Issac? God wanted to see if Jacob was loyal down to the death of his son. Which later God himself had to do with his son Christ Jesus in order for humans to be forgiven of sins and eventually receive everlasting life. Again God HATES HUMAN sacrificing. Life is precious to God. Christ died and HIS body was and is the ultimate sacrifice for once and forever. Christ blood his is greater than any other sacrifice. God does not accept any other kind of sacrifice.

  12. Shuki says

    “… Abraham and Isaac conversed [on the way to the place of sacrifice]…”? Not so. Initially, Isaac asked about the apparent absence of a lamb, to which Abraham replied cryptically”,.. God will see [to it], my son.” Then, three entire days of marching silently: the tension and the anxiety are
    thick without words!

    Also, to Stephania: Abraham, not Jacob is the father of Isaac.

  13. Anselma says

    Dear Jürgen, I am European, I even come from a German speaking country as you do and maybe even your country, but I am not laughing at Americans. I feel pity for you that you do not seem to know the bible but come here to insult others. I recommend, you take time to really read the bible, from all German translations the Schlachter 2000 is the best. Gottes reicher Segen (be blessed)!

  14. Basil says

    If the excavation has no parallel, either temple or cremation, then the inference tilts toward its being a temple. People die much more frequently than being sacrificed, so if people in that ancient time in this part of the world used to burn dead bodies it is impossible to fail to find parallels for a cremation site.

    One more remark, what is the point of having a high percentage of adults in one cremation?

    Moreover, it is well known that the old middle eastern rituals do not recognize burning corpses but rather burying them.

    All remarks and clues support one conclusion, that is Hennessy’s.

  15. Wouter says

    Interesting how theists can only counter with “You do not understand your Bible, you should read it / really read it / read deeper etc etc.” answers with no substance. Why do theists insist on deeper interpretation, prophetic shadowing and trying to convince others that god “was actually saying this”. That type of arguing has resulted in thousands of sects and now which is the correct sect? Not everyone can be correct! I also have to add that people who doesn’t have the inclination to study, should not make comments and show off their ignorance, like Jurgen’s statements on Ex13 and Num3

  16. Lisee says

    Oh yes! How “absolute factual” is historical academia, researched from ancient text and historian patriarchal writings? Please we must understand that most often than not historical texts tend to be written on the account of the victors side. I am a theist who suggests people really search a matter out beyond the scope of the bible and popular scholarly texts also. We really should exercise our minds and search a matter out for ourselves. “The heart of the prudent gets knowledge; and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” (Pro 18:15).
    Its interesting to see that legends are known to be based in some historical facts, whilst myths are based on traditions or legends and are for the purpose of passing on deep symbolic meaning. I find it hard to believe that God would only have according to my bible 1450 pages of words to say to mankind.”But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,” says the LORD. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. Jer 31:33
    I believe man does have a lot to do with what is written in today’s incarnation in ways such as how accurately do we understand early Hebrew manuscripts passed down the generations, and the inclusions and exclusions in the canonization of bible text in and around 380-400 BC, to all the modern paraphrasing, copying and recopying that we see today. I believe meaning sadly is taken out of context (lost in translation, confusion between literal and figurative). I gather this could also occur not in the same way but with other religious texts not just Christianity.
    I do find historical artwork a method to discern historical relevance as in a partial glimpse of history. Being told to us through the eyes of the artist observer of that time. Whilst archaeology findings are quite fascinating in producing tangible evidence and shedding some light into the past that can help illuminate the present I personal believe can only interpret events at possible best and still leaves room for only more questions.
    The word of God comes by faith and I believe the word of God is written on the human heart. It is made more alive then in just our bible reading “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. “You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” 2 Cor 3:3

  17. Lisee says

    oops correction 380- 400 AD*

  18. Dennis says

    The True God of the Bible, required exclusive devotion- and obedience. Never requiring human sacrifice. If his covalent people disobeyed and did an act of FAULSE worship they were punished for any detestable act that was committed-
    Where are they today and where will they be in the Promised Kigdom when the evil no longer plegues man- it’s best to know the True God and to seek that one and His Kingdom-

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