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?
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.
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
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.
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.
A version of this post first appeared on Bible History Daily in September 2014.
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