Molekh makes its first appearance in Vayikra 18:
(כא) וּמִזַּרְעֲךָ לֹא תִתֵּן לְהַעֲבִיר לַמֹּלֶךְ וְלֹא תְחַלֵּל אֶת שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי י"י.
(21) And from your offspring do not give for bringing across to the Molekh, and do not profane the name of your God, I am Hashem.
Vayikra 20 then follows up with the punishment meted out to those who engage in such conduct:
(ב) וְאֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל תֹּאמַר אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמִן הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מִזַּרְעוֹ לַמֹּלֶךְ מוֹת יוּמָת עַם הָאָרֶץ יִרְגְּמֻהוּ בָאָבֶן. (ג) וַאֲנִי אֶתֵּן אֶת פָּנַי בָּאִישׁ הַהוּא וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתוֹ מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ כִּי מִזַּרְעוֹ נָתַן לַמֹּלֶךְ לְמַעַן טַמֵּא אֶת מִקְדָּשִׁי וּלְחַלֵּל אֶת שֵׁם קׇדְשִׁי.
(2) And to the Children of Israel you are to say: Any man, any man of the Children of Israel and of the sojourners that reside in Israel that gives of his offspring to the Molekh shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones. (3) And I will direct my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he gave from his offspring to the Molekh to defile My sanctuary and profane My holy name.
But what does it mean to give one's seed to the Molekh, and how is this performed? Is it merely a single action, as per the single verb of "יִתֵּן" in Vayikra 20, or is it a multi-step process, as might be indicated by the longer "תִתֵּן לְהַעֲבִיר" formulation of Vayikra 18? And why is specifically this act associated with the defiling of Hashem's sanctuary and desecration of His name?
Molekh and Passing Through Fire
וְטִמֵּא אֶת הַתֹּפֶת אֲשֶׁר בְּגֵי [בֶן] (בני) הִנֹּם לְבִלְתִּי לְהַעֲבִיר אִישׁ אֶת בְּנוֹ וְאֶת בִּתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ לַמֹּלֶךְ.
And he defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter to pass through the fire to Molech.
The verse connects Molekh worship with passing children through fire, but does not elaborate further, leaving the exact nature of the rite ambiguous. Does it refer to child immolation or some other act involving fire? While other verses in Tanakh also attest to such a cult of child sacrifice,2 they do not mention the Molekh.3 For example, Devarim 12:29-31 states:
(כט) כִּי יַכְרִית י״י אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה בָא שָׁמָּה לָרֶשֶׁת אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֹתָם וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בְּאַרְצָם. (ל) הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן תִּנָּקֵשׁ אַחֲרֵיהֶם אַחֲרֵי הִשָּׁמְדָם מִפָּנֶיךָ וּפֶן תִּדְרֹשׁ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם לֵאמֹר אֵיכָה יַעַבְדוּ הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה אֶת אֱלֹהֵיהֶם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה כֵּן גַּם אָנִי. (לא) לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה כֵן לַי״י אֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי כׇל תּוֹעֲבַת י״י אֲשֶׁר שָׂנֵא עָשׂוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם כִּי גַם אֶת בְּנֵיהֶם וְאֶת בְּנֹתֵיהֶם יִשְׂרְפוּ בָאֵשׁ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם.
(29) When Hashem your God shall cut off the nations from before you, where you go in to dispossess them, and you dispossess them, and dwell in their land; (30) take heed to yourself that you not be ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before you; and that you not inquire after their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? I will do likewise.” (31) You shall not do so to Hashem your God: for every abomination to Hashem, which he hates, have they done to their gods; for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods.
This verse uses the term "יִשְׂרְפוּ", clarifying that the children were actually burned. The root "שרף", though, is absent from Vayikra 18 and 20 and the other verses which mention the Molekh. In these, only the verbs "לְהַעֲבִיר" and "נָתַן" appear. Are the verses in Vayikra speaking of the same cultic practice as Devarim and Melakhim II or a different one?
Context of Forbidden Relations
The twin prohibitions of Molekh in Vayikra 18 and 20 are framed by similar contexts. Vayikra 18 contains a list of the forbidden abominations of the Egyptians and Canaanites which is made up exclusively (except for, perhaps, the prohibition of Molekh) of offenses of a sexual nature. Similarly, the prohibition in Vayikra 20 immediately precedes the list of punishments for these offenses. However, in Vayikra 20, there is an additional sin placed between Molekh and the list of sexual offenses: the prohibition of turning to necromancers ("וְהַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר תִּפְנֶה אֶל הָאֹבֹת וְאֶל הַיִּדְּעֹנִים"). Interestingly, in Devarim 18:10-11 as well, the prohibition of passing one's children through fire is immediately followed by the prohibition on practitioners of black magic, including the same "אוֹב וְיִדְּעֹנִי". These parallels raise the following questions:
- Is there a connection between Molekh and sexual crimes, and in particular, the neighboring laws of adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality?
- Does Molekh relate to necromancy?