The Catholic Thing
The Key That Fits the Lock, Part Nine Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 07 November 2012

It is time now to accompany Abraham to Mount Moriah. “Whosoever he be of the children of Israel,” said the Lord to Moses, “that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:2). 

Let the great Milton describe the wicked cult of Molech (Moloch), and what happened to the children:

First Moloch, horrid King besmeared with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of drums and timbrels loud,
Their children’s cries unheard, that passed through fire
To his grim Idol.

Some say that a Moloch-idol might be cast as a great consuming maw, enclosing a furnace within. The babies would “pass through the fire to Moloch,” charred beyond recognition. 

Others say that the child would be laid in his open arms, extended forward, but sloping downward, so that eventually the child would drop into the flames. It was a Phoenician fertility rite, confirmed by the discovery of a great necropolis outside of Carthage – a garbage dump of human bones, of very small human bones.

It may surprise us to learn how hard it was to knock this lesson into the heads of the kings of Israel. Manasseh, for one, seems never to have encountered a cult he did not respect. He worshipped the sun and the moon and the stars, like the Chaldeans, consulted astrologers and diviners, and “made his son to pass through the fire” (2 K. 21:6). 

We can’t know for certain that it really was Manasseh’s son, though. He may have imitated the practice of rich Phoenicians, who would “adopt” a poor man’s baby for money, and burn it to a crisp for Moloch, so as to get the reward themselves and make everybody happy.

           The Flight of Moloch by William Blake (1809)

We who cut babies to ribbons for convenience should take note. The hideous cult was the result of a misunderstanding of just about everything. They reasoned thus: if we give of our fertility, we will be granted fertility in turn. 

Temple prostitution is one form the cult takes; the sacrifice of children is another. It’s not how nature works, as we now know – we who persist in the evils anyway. More important, it is not how God works. This is what Abraham will learn on that terrible day when he climbs the mountain with his son, Isaac.

Pagans acted according to the formula do ut des: “I give, so that you will give in return.” The relationship of believer to his god is like that between a small shopkeeper and the boss who runs a protection racket. 

In the Iliad, an old man named Chryses approaches the Greek chieftain Agamemnon to ask him to release his daughter. He promises prayers if Agamemnon agrees, for he is a priest of Apollo, the archer god “who shoots from afar” – says Chryses, veiling a threat beneath the commonplace description. 

When Agamemnon refuses and throws Chryses out of camp, the old man reminds Apollo of all the sacrifices he’s given him these many years, and calls upon him as Smintheus, the god of mice, to curse the Greeks with plague. Apollo owes it to him, and obliges the request.

So when God commands Abraham to take his only son and sacrifice him, alas, the old man may have been crushed with dismay, but he cannot have been too surprised. It is the sort of thing many a god would do. 

Now before we proceed, I hear an objection from the gallery. “But doesn’t God promise gifts in return for obedience?  Isn’t that what the covenants are all about?What’s the difference?” All the difference in the world – the difference between brokerage and love.

“O how love I thy law! . . .It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97). Beyond all earthly goods, which we can freely acknowledge, such as long life, many children, and the esteem of honorable men, what the devout soul longs for is to dwell with God: “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God” (Ps. 42:1). 

              Abraham Preparing to Sacrifice Isaac by William Blake (c. 1783)

To be given the law of God is to share in His goodness and life: “He sheweth his word unto Jacob, his statutes and his judgments unto Israel.  He hath not dealt so with any nation” (Ps. 147:19-20). 

That is why Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, says that the greatest of all the laws, the second like unto the first, are, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”  “On these two commandments,” says Jesus, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt. 22:37-40). 

It is as if God had commanded, “Live! Breathe the breath of love! Turn from your tawdry wickedness, and let me place a clean heart within you.” That, we see, is a command of an entirely different sort. Life is not a payoff in exchange for love: it is what love by its nature bestows.

I admit this is a hard lesson to learn. It took quite a bit of drama to impress it upon Abraham. Modern man is no closer, apart from grace, to understanding it than Abraham was.  The Moloch-worshippers thought they could buy a “good” life with blood. We think we can pry it open with tools, or secure it by clever political deals. 

All forms of utilitarianism have the whiff of Moloch-brand charcoal about them, with their fine calculations of profit and loss for the aggregate man, a fellow who, to the calculator’s convenience, does not actually exist.

So Abraham trudges up the lonely mountain with his son, his only son, his beloved son Isaac. The boy’s name suggests the laughter with which Abraham and Sarah greeted the prophecy of his conception. But there is no laughter on that awful morning. Yet Abraham believes. 

More on this next time.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
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Comments (9)Add Comment
written by Facile1, November 07, 2012
Jesus exhorts us to LOVE GOD FIRST. But it is counter-intuitive. After all the psalmist said "Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." And St. Thomas Aquinas said "Love follows knowledge."

But the psalmist and St. Thomas Aquinas are wrong. Jesus is correct. As humans we fall in love first before we come to know our beloved. It is our God-given nature. And while we have good reason to fear, we are also given the courage that comes with FAITH to cast out fear.

And so it should be, we must LOVE GOD FIRST if we are ever to hope of knowing HIM at all.
written by Jack,CT, November 07, 2012
Desr Lord heal our Nation and
start over...our Nation is at
A crossroads and i pray we all
come together and pray for our
nation.I love all the people
suffering from "Sandy",and I
Pray the emotional pain is
blunted with unity and common
I pray for our leaders may the
election be blessed with Love
and not division,I pray the
President leads in a way
that mends fences and brings
back moderation.
written by Micha Elyi, November 07, 2012
"Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom."

Not, "be afraid" but "respect" is the psalmist's intention - it's a very old meaning of the word "fear". And can one truly love what one does not respect? No. So there you go, Facile1, the psalmist is correct. And love follows knowledge, St. Thomas Aquinas is correct also.

"As humans we fall in love first..."

You're confusing infatuation with real love.
written by jsmitty, November 07, 2012
Very nice, Tony. You might be interested to know (or may already) that there might be a play on words in the Hebrew between Molech (the god) and melek (the king) since in the latter shameful days of the Judahite monarchy the two became conflated. See Isaiah 57:9 for one place that this pun could be at work!
written by Arthur Henry, November 07, 2012
In his recent book "The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture" Yarom Hazony makes a very credible case for Abraham's being sure that God would not actually require Him to sacrifice His son, though Abraham's willingness to go along with God's request anyway bespeaks of the same level of trust.

In my eyes, it is Abraham's having an even higher view of the Goodness of God than the usual interpretation, since Abraham is obeying a God who he knows would not require such a thing as human sacrifice (as did Molloch worshippers), going along with God's request since he is trusting the right thing will happen somehow.
written by Tony Esolen, November 07, 2012
Thank you, Smitty. That's kind of you. I have thought that Milton, who certainly knew his Hebrew, was punning on Moloch in that first line, "Moloch, horrid King." We might also toss the mysterious Melek / tzedeq into the mix: Melchisedec ...
written by G.K. Thursday, November 08, 2012
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Certainly much of what you say, Professor Esolen, is true WRT paganism as represented in Milton and later writers. And it is true that "do ut des" was part of the milieu of pagan belief. Especially in the 70s and 80s of the last century this would have been accepted as the whole story of ancient paganism's approach to the divine. The influence of Yehezkel Kaufmann's notion that Isrealite religion was so entirely foreign to the pagan world surrounding it was de rigeur in those days. He went so far as to write that "It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world knew; its monotheistic world view has no antecedents in paganism." But more recently Catholic scholars have refined the overly broad brush used by Kaufmann. John J. Collins, for example, has written that "the eventual triumph of monolatry [in Israelite religion] cannot be disputed. Nonetheless, it is salutary to remember that in the beginning it was not so." (_The Bible after Babel_, 128f). Ancient paganism was very complex and differed greatly from one cult to another, not to mention from one society to another.

On the problematic association of molek to melek, this has been around since the late medieval rabbinical schools, and was taken up by Protestant scholars in the 17th and 18th centuries (see George Heider, _The Cult of Molek, a reassessment, JSOT Supplement 43). Neither the patristic authors nor the scholastic theologians used this association. It is termed a "possible but not certain" association by Brandeis University's Dr. Marc Brettler (review of _Molech, a god of human sacrifice in the Old Testament_ by John Day, Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies, vol 17, num 1, pp 98-100), and is not clearly in play in Isaiah 57:5-9 due to a probable periscope break between these verses. It is best to be very careful when asserting the association of two words just because they bear some structural resemblance. A word like "horse" may seem to have a lot in common with "hoarse" but the similarities are purely superficial. This is especially difficult to trace when words come from both different cultures and historical epochs. The wild eyed assertions of 18th and 19th century Protestant "higher criticism" linking this-to-that (e.g., Molech to Saturn) willy-nilly simply can't be maintained these days.
written by Tony Esolen, November 08, 2012
GK: Oh, I wasn't saying that Moloch did mean that. I'm just giving the sacred author the same leeway to play on words that I'd give to any author. I think the pun is there; as I think there's a pun on the Hebrew words for "naked" and "subtle" in Genesis 3. Also, it isn't necessary to call a thing "utterly different in all respects" in order to conclude that in fact it is utterly different in some essential respect. The more I study the ancient pagans, the more the uniqueness of Israel stands out for me.... There's a despair that dogs paganism at its brightest, and a hope that shines in Hebrew wisdom literature even in its darkest, such as in the Preacher.
written by G.K. Thursday, November 08, 2012
Yes, you're free to assert whatever you want. Puns, no puns -- go ahead and have at 'em. After all it's your blog post!

My comment was simply to point out that present scholarship in the area of ancient paganism doesn't support your assertions. OTOH, the status quaestionis in these areas doesn't completely deny a Kaufmannian thesis like yours. It simply nuances it. Israel clearly was different in important ways. And your posts are more homiletical in their design than they are the results of scholarly activity. So don't take my comments as critical of your post; they are meant more in the spirit of a supplement.

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