First Person: Human Sacrifice to an Ammonite God?

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

hershel-shanks

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.

The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and ancient practices—from dining to makeup—throughout the Mediterranean world.

Notes:

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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  • Jonas says

    Infant mortality rate in the areas in question was extremely high during the biblicial and preceding time period. Many children did not make it to adulthood. It would be tough to say for certain whether a child was sacrificed or died of natural illness and evidence that a child was killed specifically rather than being simply cremated would be an archaeological challenge. I recently read a good article about the Canaanites. A lot of modern view of this region comes through a biblical lens which may not be any more accurate than the views the Romans had of the ancient celts. It is easy to make a culture into a bunch of barbarians if your objective is to kill them and subjugate them.

  • 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-

  • Lisee says

    oops correction 380- 400 AD*

  • 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

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