The Second Coming of Saturn Part 21: Molech

Here is where Saturn’s desire to be the king of the universe becomes most evident. In this part of our series, we analyze the character and worship of yet another of his identities—Milcom, chief god of the Ammonites, who’s better known to history as Molech.

If anything, Molech, which is sometimes spelled “Molek” or “Moloch,” is even more mysterious than Dagan. Since ancient Semitic languages such as Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Hebrew had no vowels, it’s difficult to tell when mlkmeans “king” (melech), “messenger” or “angel” (malak), and when it’s the name of the dark god Molech. This condemnation of idolatry from the book of Isaiah is a case in point:

You journeyed to the king [mlk] with oil
and multiplied your perfumes;
you sent your envoys far off,
and sent down even to Sheol.

Isaiah 57:9 (emphasis added)

In that context, given the reference to Sheol, the Hebrew underworld, “the king” could just as easily read “Molech,” a god linked almost exclusively to the netherworld. Obviously, that would change the entire sense of the verse.

Molech’s first appearance in the Bible is in Leviticus 18, where God told the Israelites that they were forbidden to give their children as an offering to the dark god. Molech’s cult, however, extends back at least a thousand years before Moses.

A god called “Malik” is known from texts found at Ebla, a powerful kingdom in northern Syria between about 3000 and 2400 BC, more than three hundred years before Abraham arrived in Canaan. Of the approximately five hundred deities identified from texts found at Ebla, one of most common theophoric elements in personal names—like –el in Daniel (“ God is my judge”) or -yahu in Hezekiah (“YHWH strengthens”)—was ma-lik.[1]

 Israel during the divided kingdom period

Getting a handle on the character of Malik is difficult. It appears that by the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he was still worshiped at Mari, a powerful city on the Euphrates River near the modern border between Syria and Iraq. Further, it appears that Malik was served by a group of underworld deities called maliku. And five hundred years later, during the time of the judges, Malik and the maliku (called mlkm by then) were still venerated at Ugarit.[2]

What’s more, the Ugaritic texts link Malik with a god called “Rapiu,” the “King of Eternity.” This entity is interesting for a couple of reasons: First, Rapiu is a singular form of “Rephaim,” similar to ha-rapha—“the rapha” or “the giant” of 2 Samuel 21 and 1 Chronicles 20. In other words, just as Malik had his band of netherworld followers, the maliku or mlkm, it’s possible that Rapiu was “lord of the Rephaim.”

Second, the Ugaritic texts connect both Malik and Rapiu to Ashtaroth, a city in Bashan near Mount Hermon.[3]

Mother Šapšu, take a message to Milku in ʿAṯtartu [Ashtaroth]: “My incantation for serpent bite, For the scaly serpent’s poison.”[4]

Mother Šapšu was the sun-goddess in Ugarit. In this ritual, she was asked to carry a message to a god ruling in Ashtaroth, Milku, which is another form of the name “Molech.” This isn’t surprising; at the time of the judges in Israel, Bashan, the modern Golan Heights, was on the border of the relatively new nation of Ammon. The national god of the Ammonites was Milcom, who was one and the same with Molech.[5]

 Figurine of Ammonite god Milcom

In fact, Rapiu had two cities connected to his kingdom: He is described as “the god enthroned at Ashtaroth, the god who rules in Edrei.”[6] Those two cities are the same two from which Og, last of the living Rephaim, ruled over Bashan.[7] To the pagan Amorites, the kingdom of Og was literally the entrance to the underworld.

To be fair, despite the evil reputation of Molech/Malik, archaeologists have yet to find physical evidence of child sacrifice at Ugarit, Mari, or Ebla. Nor has any turned up near Jerusalem, despite references in the Bible to the ritual practice outside the walls of the city in the Valley of Hinnom. If children were being slaughtered for Molech in the Levant before the Israelites arrived, scholars haven’t confirmed it yet.

Still, the Bible mentions it in Moses’ day, around 1400 BC; Solomon built a high place for Molech around 950 BC;[8] and about 325 years later, King Josiah defiled the Topheth in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, which was used to burn children as offerings to Molech.[9]

Now, here’s where things get interesting: Molech was equated with the Mesopotamian plague-god and gatekeeper of the underworld, Nergal. Not only are both connected to death and the afterlife, Akkadian deity lists record the equation “Malik = Nergal.” Further, Semitic mlk and Sumerian NERGAL can both be understood as “king,” confirming the identification.[10]

There’s a similar link between NERGAL and Kumarbi. An inscription, probably from a foundation deposit at the temple at Urkesh dated to about 2250 BC, reads, “Tish-atal, king of Urkesh, built the temple of NERGAL.”[11] Without getting lost in the details, the conclusion of the archaeologists was this: The Sumerian logogram dKIŠ.GAL (NERGAL) represents a Hurrian divine name, not the proper name of the plague-god Nergal. Since the only god known to “live” at Urkesh is Kumarbi, “we may therefore identify the great Temple complex as being that of Kumarbi.”[12]

So, since “Malik = Nergal,” we can infer that the “NERGAL” (“king”) of Urkesh, Kumarbi, is also Malik/Molech.

The other aspect of the cult of Molech that’s relevant to our investigation is the clear connection in the Bible between the dark god and the practice of consulting the ʾōbôt, the spirits of the dead. We turn first to Leviticus:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “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.

If a person turns to mediums [ʾōbôt] and necromancers [yiddĕʿōnîm], whoring after them, I will set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.

Leviticus 20:1–6

The significance here is that God Himself directly linked the cult of Molech to the gods and spirits of the netherworld.

The unifying principle of vv. 1–6 is not merely “illegitimate cultic practices,” but the practice of the cult of the dead. This realization makes sense, also, of the condemnation of the guilty party’s entire clan (mispahto) in v. 5: as we saw at Mari and Ugarit, the cult of the dead is a family affair, to secure the blessings (and avert the wrath) of past family for the sake of the family present and yet to be.[13]

A passage similar to Leviticus 20 is found in Deuteronomy 18:

There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering [to Molech], anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, or whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.

Deuteronomy 18:10–12
 19th century artist’s conception of children sacrificed to Molech

After the prohibition on burning children as offerings, there are seven specific activities described as “abomination to the Lord.” All seven were intended to “gain information from or influence over a divine being or beings.”[14] The connection of the Molech cult to these activities and underworld entities suggests that Molech is indeed the deity we met earlier in this study—Kumarbi, the god summoned from the abi, which, as we’ve seen, is the Hurrian original behind the Hebrew words for “ritual pit” (ʾôb) and the spirits of the underworld (ʾōbôt).

It’s generally accepted that the various forms of the name Molech/Malik/Milcom (and that of the chief god of Phoenician Tyre, Melqart) derive from the Semitic root mlk (“king”). The identification of this deity with Nergal, the gatekeeper of the underworld in Akkad and Babylon, suggests that the true meaning of the name was “King of the Underworld.” This is consistent with our theory that this entity was the god worshiped by the Moabites, and perhaps by the people of Sodom in the days of Abraham and Lot, as Baal-Peor (“lord of the opening to the netherworld”).

What I suggest is that “Molech,” like “Baal,” was not a proper name, but a title: “King/Lord (of the Underworld).” And it refers to the entity at the heart of our study under his many names: Shemihazah, Kumarbi, El, Enlil, Dagan, Assur, and a few others still to be explored.

Further evidence for this hypothesis comes from the small and mostly forgotten kingdom of Ammon:

The dominance of the theophoric element ʾl in Ammonite personal names suggests the importance of the deity El in the context of family religion. […]

The occurrence of the Ammonite name element ʾl [El] with approximately the same percentage as Kemosh [national god of Moab], Qos [national god of Edom], and onomastic forms of Yahweh in theophoric names in Moabite, Edomite, and Hebrew, respectively, suggests that among the Ammonites, too, the most popular family deity likewise corresponds to the chief national deity, in this case El. […]

In contrast with the more traditional and widespread form of family piety expressed in personal names, the differentiation of Ammonite El in more nationalistic contexts like the Amman Citadel Inscription and in biblical texts, was expressed through the title Milkom—a title distinct to the Ammonite form of El in his capacity as royal god, a role reflected in the Ammonite statuary. […]

In sum, given the present state of the evidence, Milkom is best understood as a distinctly Ammonite form of El.[15] (Emphasis added.)

In short, there was no Milcom or Molech. The name is simply a title, “king,” that the Ammonites used to refer to their chief god, El. “Molech” was the form of the title used by the Hebrew prophets in which they switched out the vowels to make the name an insult, the same way they transformed “Baal” into “Bosheth” (“shameful thing”) and “Astarte” into “Ashtoreth.”[16]

Here’s another idea to consider. This was suggested by my wife, Sharon, who is obviously more observant than me: Since the name “Anakim” probably derives from Greek anax (“king” or “god”), a title given to Agamemnon, high king of the Greeks during the Trojan War, and an epithet of Zeus (“Zeus Anax”), because of his status in the Greek pantheon as overlord of creation,[17] it’s possible that the Anakim were called by that name because they served the original fallen Watcher who was called anax (“king”), Milcom/El.

In other words, “Anakim” would roughly mean “men of the ‘high king’” and the “descendants of Anak” (yel̆îdê ha-anaq) in Numbers 13:22, like the “descendants of the giant” (yel̆îdê ha-rapha) defeated by David and his men, were not literal blood descendants of a giant man named Anak, but were servants of the supernatural anax—Milcom/El, the so-called king.

This is speculative, but not out of the realm of possibility. The Assyrians and their capital city shared the name of the chief god, Assur. The Amorites were associated with a god named Amurru, and an Amorite kingdom in northern Syria called Amurru is attested in Egyptian texts from the time of the Judges. And the Egyptian Execration Texts appear to place the Anakim in the Transjordan,[18] where we’ve established the existence of cults for this entity under the names El, Milcom, Malik, and probably Baal-Peor.

Given that this god led the rebellion that created the Nephilim, who became the Rephaim spirits upon their deaths in the Flood, this could explain the link between the Anakim and Rephaim, and why Joshua fixed on the destruction of the Anakim as Israel’s first objective in the conquest of Canaan.

The connection between this entity, necromancy, and the cult of the dead—not to mention the sacrifice of children—adds a new dimension to the prophet Hosea’s condemnation of Bull El. Isaiah, writing a few years after Hosea, wove a condemnation of the cult of the dead into prophecies of the coming Assyrian invasion and the birth of the Messiah:

Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums [ōbôt] and the necromancers [yiddĕʿōnîm] who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. They will pass through [‘ābar] the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king [melek] and their God [elohay], and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.

Isaiah 8:19–22 (emphasis added)

There are several important points to note in this passage. First, the word rendered “inquire” (Hebrew dirshu) is translated “seek” or “search” about twice as often as “inquire.” Compare Isaiah’s words to the question asked by the angels of the women who’d come to prepare the body of Jesus after dawn of the third day: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”[19] In other words, Isaiah condemned the people of Judah for seeking the dead among the living, where the true “signs and portents” from God were to be found.

Moloch statue from Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 film Cabiria, on display at National Museum of Cinema in Turin, Italy

The prophet described those who looked to the spirit realm for oracles as people who were already dead: They live in darkness, and they’re “greatly distressed and hungry,” like the pagan dead of Mesopotamia who are not properly cared for by their descendants. In verse 21, Isaiah makes the connection to the dead explicit, writing that these unhappy souls will “pass through” the land. The Hebrew verb ‘ābar is based on the same root, ʿbr, from which we get ʿōberim—“Travelers,” as in the spirits of the dead who “travel” or “cross over” from the land of the dead to the world of the living; it’s the same word used by the pagan Canaanites to describe the Rephaim summoned from the underworld through rituals to the threshing-floor of El on Mount Hermon.

What Isaiah described is the punishment for those who defied God by using ritual pits to summon the spirits of the dead—they become like the unhappy dead themselves. When they realize their fate, “they will be enraged.” But in the context of the passage, with an understanding of the cult of the dead and the role of the “king” god in it, a better translation of the following sentence is this: “And they shall curse by Molek and by their ghosts.”[20] (Elohim, the word translated “ghosts,” isn’t always a reference to God. The basic meaning is “one who lives in the spirit realm.” Context is king, and here “ghosts” or “spirits” is a more accurate reading than “God.”)

It’s difficult for us in the twenty-first century to understand how an underworld god whose cult involved necromancy and child sacrifice survived in Israel and Judah for eight hundred years, but it did. The Israelites fell into the worship of Baal-Peor, another title or identity worn by this god, in the time of Moses and Joshua in the late fifteenth century BC, and it continued at least until the reforms of Josiah in the late seventh century BC.

But perhaps the most audacious example of this god’s hubris is found on top of a hill just outside the walls of Jerusalem. And it was put there by the son of Israel’s best and most beloved king.

Next: Mount Hermon and the Mount of Olives

[1] Heider, op. cit., p. 96.

[2] Ibid., p. 129.

[3] Ibid., p. 115.

[4] RS 24:244:40–41. Translation by Dennis Pardee & Theodore J. Lewis, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit (Vol. 10). (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002), p. 177. Ugaritic text RS 24:251:42 also places the god Milku in Ashtaroth.

[5] 1 Kings 11:5 calls Milcom “the abomination of the Ammonites,” and 1 Kings 11:7 uses the same description for Molech.

[6] Wyatt (2002), op. cit., p. 395.

[7] Deuteronomy 3:1; Joshua 12:4, 13:12.

[8] 1 Kings 11:7.

[9] 2 Kings 23:10.

[10] Rebecca Doyle, Faces of the Gods: Baal, Asherah and Molek and Studies of the Hebrew Scriptures (Doctoral thesis: University of Sheffield, 1996), p. 129.

[11] Giorgio Buccellati and Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati, “The Great Temple Terrace at Urkesh and the Lions of Tish-atal.” Studies on the Civilization and Culture of Nuzi and the Hurrians – 18 (2009), p. 59.

[12] Ibid., p. 63.

[13] Heider, op. cit., p. 251.

[14] Ibid., p. 259.

[15] Joel S. Burnett, “Iron Age Deities in Word, Image, and Name: Correlating Epigraphic, Iconographic, and Onomastic Evidence for the Ammonite God,” Studies in the History and Archaeology of Jordan 10 (2009), p. 161.

[16] Morris Jastrow, Jr. & George A. Barton, “Ashtoreth.” Jewish Encyclopedia,, retrieved 3/30/21.

[17] “The Linear B Word wa-na-ka.” Paleolexicon,, retrieved 4/12/21.

[18] The leaders of the Iy’anaq are listed next to rulers of the Shutu, which probably refers to Moab (cf. the “sons of Sheth” in Numbers 24:17).

[19] Luke 24:5b.

[20] Heider, op. cit., p. 331.

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