Ever since the Roe vs. Wade case main-streamed abortion in the United States, the ability to take the life of one’s baby has achieved a religious status. Judging by responses to news that Roe vs. Wade may be overturned, people have certainly acting as if their idols are under attack. I think it is helpful for Christians to understand that abortion does indeed function as a sort of sacrament in our society. But we are not alone.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites found themselves surrounded by nations that offered their children as a religious sacrifice. Molech worship appears to have been common place among the Canaanites, and according to Stephen in Acts 7 (Acts 7:43) it became a prominent feature of Israelite culture.
Who was Molech?
According to the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, Molech (also spelled Moloch) was a Canaanite god who was worshiped primarily by parents burning their children as a sacrifice. Customs appear to be varied. Sometimes it was an oldest son, sometimes the ashes were built into the family house (as in, they were put into a jar, and placed literally in cornerstone of a house). The general idea appears to be that the act of sending the child to the realm of the dead prepared the way for the rest of the family to be received by Molech in the afterlife. In other words, children were sacrificed for the wellbeing of their parents.
It is impossible to understand Molech worship in the Old Testament without beginning with Abraham. If you recall, Abraham was promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5). This promise would be fulfilled through his seed, which is the same word used in Genesis 3:15 to prophecy the savior. In other words, Abraham’s promise entailed that through him a son would be born who conquer sin and the devil, and through whom his family would be able to have their relationship to God restored.
When Abraham finally had a son through whom the promise would come, God commanded him to take the Son to Mount Moriah (Gen 22:2) and “offer him there as a burnt offering.” Abraham obeyed, tied Isaac up, and was ready to take his life when God stopped the knife, and instead provided a ram as a substitute. It would take over two thousand years, but eventually God would provide Jesus as the lamb. He would be crucified, perhaps on the very same spot where Abraham had gone to offer Isaac. Ever since Eden, there has been resident in human DNA the knowledge that a child will save us. But ever since Mount Moriah, there has been a war in humanity–should a parent look to Christ for salvation, or offer up their own offspring on an altar instead?
But, returning to Abraham, after God stopped his sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham’s family was not able to settle in Israel. Instead, they began working their way toward Egypt. Why? Because the wickedness of the nations that occupied that land was not yet sufficient to warrant their eradication (cf. Gen. 15:16).
Five hundred years later, when the Israelites finally left Egypt to return to settle in Israel, that was no longer the case. By that point, the Canaanites had fully thrown themselves into the worship of Molech. And God warned them about this before they entered the land:
“Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.”Leviticus 20:2-5
God knew that child sacrifice was thriving in Israel, and so he warned the Israelites of it. It was so evil, he said, that anyone who did it deserved to die. But also, God said that anyone who looked away—who pretended not to see how evil it was—that person too should be cut off from Israel. In other words, there was no room to say “not my family, not my problem.” The evil of child sacrifice is so extreme, turning the other way was itself a cowardly act sin.
But Israel did indeed fall into Molech worship. It began, both tragically and ironically, with Solomon. He married foreign wives, and allowed them to worship foreign gods, including Molech (1 Kings 11:7). I called this ironic because remember the hope of Israel—that God, through the line of Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and David, would provide a son who would be the savior. Yet what happened? Those in that line began to sacrifice their offspring to Molech. They’d rather kill the child in front of them than wait for the child God would provide.
This wasn’t confined to Solomon either. Others in David’s line also worshiped Molech. King Ahaz burned his son in the fire (2 Kings 16:3). Manasseh built an altar to Molech in the temple itself (2 Kings 21:5), and also burned the Davidic heir in the fire as a sacrifice to Molech (2 Kings 21:6). The practice was widespread throughout Judah (Jer. 32:35).
The practice was finally stopped by brave King Josiah, who cut down the high places and put an end to the Israelite practice of “burning their sons and daughters as an offering to Molech” (2 Kings 23:10). In fact, after Josiah’s revival, Molech disappears from the pages of Scripture—until Stephen’s rebuke in Acts 7.
When I was a younger Christian, I read about Molech worship and had more questions than answers—did it really happen? Would people really burn their children to death to secure a more prosperous future for themselves? But over time it simply became more and more clear that the United States is basically where Judah and the Canaanites were: child sacrifice is simply a part of our culture—a sacrament, really. And if the right to do it is infringed or revoked, don’t be surprised when people respond with a religious fervor. After all, abortion is a religion as old as Molech.