The Key That Fits the Lock, Part Nine

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).

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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.