Did The Canaanites Really Sacrifice Their Children?

Were the Canaanites merciless child killers or gentle nature worshipers?

Warning: Subject matter may disturb

Historical revisionist theories regularly receive more traction among Bible critics than the facts would warrant. For example, consider the case of polytheism verses monotheism. Most religious history books teach that cultures that were polytheistic (believers in many gods) naturally progressed towards becoming monotheistic (believers in one God). This is seen, even by agnostics as being a necessary step toward becoming a more mature society. Increasingly however, Bible critics challenge that idea. They see the move from polytheism to monotheism as a negative thing. According to their revisionist version of history, gentle nature worshiping polytheistic societies such as Canaan were supplanted by aggressive monotheistic cultures like the Hebrews which were less tolerant, sexually repressed and war-like.

The answer to this charge is obvious to Bible students. For the Bible paints a picture of Canaanite society dominated by a religious system that was both licentious and cruel. Canaanite gods demanded human sacrifice and more specifically, the sacrifice of children. In the Bible book of  Jeremiah , God states, “They built the high places of Baal in order to burn their sons in the fire as whole burnt offerings to Baal, something that I had not commanded or spoken of and that had never even come into my heart.” (Jeremiah 19:5) The Bible is clear that child sacrifice was a regular feature of the religion of the Canaanites and the surrounding nations. “…they do for their gods every detestable thing that Jehovah hates, even burning their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.” (Deuteronomy 12:31) Did the Canaanites really ritually burn their children? The revisionists say no. Any mention of Canaanite child sacrifice in the Bible is just propaganda to justify the subjection of Canaan. Recent scientific studies may have resolved the question.

According to the Bible, centers of worship for Canaanite gods such as Molech and the Baal’s were set up in Judah and Israel by apostate kings. Child sacrifice was even practiced in the Valley of Hinnom just outside of Jerusalem. Yet religious reformers such as King Josiah pulled down these places and rendered them unfit for use, “He also made unfit for worship Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom, so that no one could make his son or his daughter pass through the fire to Moʹlech.” (2 Kings 23:10)  So it is no surprise that these sites which Josiah sought to erase have not been positively identified. Other Canaanite places of worship in Israel that have been identified have not yet yielded evidence of child sacrifice.*(see footnote) Yet absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is good reason to believe the Bible did not exaggerate Canaanite barbarism.

Although Canaanite civilization was largely driven out of the land of Israel, it emigrated elsewhere, founding colonies along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, where it thrived for centuries. Most notable among these was the colony of Carthage in modern-day Tunisia. That city-state became so powerful it at one time rivaled the Roman republic. Carthaginians spoke the Canaanite language and importantly, practiced Canaanite religion. They also seemed to have brought with them their cruel predilection for child sacrifice.

Writing in the 4th century B.C.E, the Greek historian Cleitarchus said of the Carthaginian practice, “There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.” (trans. Paul G. Mosca) “Kronos” is a regional name for Baal Hammon, the chief of Carthage’s gods.

Another Greek historian named Diodorus Siculus writing less than a hundred years after the fall Carthage affirms his countryman’s account. “There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.

Canaanite Priest

Carthaginian inscription of a priest carrying an infant.

Around the same time the famous Greek historian Plutarch charged, “with full knowledge and understanding they themselves offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums took the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.

It is important to note that these are not Biblical claims but these come from secular Greek sources. Roman sources make the same charge as the nearly contemporaneous Greek historians. Still some historians claimed that, like the Biblical charge, the Greek/Roman charges of child sacrifice were merely exaggerated propaganda.

In 1921, French archeologists excavated some of the ancient city. One site appeared to be an ancient graveyard. The site had hundreds of grave markers. Underneath each one was a clay urn containing the cremated remains of human infants and animals (sometimes as many as seven urns were found one on top of another under a single marker). The soil was rich with olive wood charcoal indicating fires had been kept burning here for long periods of time.

Karthago_Tophet_2

This Carthaginian “Tophet”contained the remains of approximately 20,000 children.

The archeologists dubbed this place a “Tophet”, which is the Hebrew word for the place of child sacrifice near Jerusalem at Jeremiah 7:31. In time, many more Tophet cemeteries were discovered. The largest contained the remains of approximately 20,000 infants in urns as well as  some animals.

cropped burial urn

From the “Tophet” in Carthage. Burial urn containing the remains of an infant.

The fact that animals were buried here along with human infants seemed to suggest that this was not a normal cemetery for children. One urn containing the remains of an animal had an inscription indicating that animal was a “substitute”. This supports the archeologists conclusion that the “Tophet” contained the remains of sacrificial victims who had been burned to death as the Bible, the Greek and Roman historians had all claimed. Yet some skeptics remained. Perhaps the children had been burned after they had died of natural causes?

The inscriptions on the urns are helpful in this regard. Some of them record that vows to Tanit and Baal Hammon have been met (Tanit was the consort of Baal Hammon. She is known as Ashtoreth in the Bible – 1 Kings 11:23). Many other inscriptions record dedications from the children’s parents to Baal Hammon or Tanit, ending with the explanation that the god concerned had “heard my voice and blessed me”.

Tanit

Tanit, consort of Baal Hammon

Dr Josephine Quinn of the University of Oxford conducted extensive research on the burial urns. Regarding the dedication inscriptions, she concluded, “People have tried to argue that these archaeological sites are cemeteries for children who were stillborn or died young, but quite apart from the fact that a weak, sick or dead child would be a pretty poor offering to a god, and that animal remains are found in the same sites treated in exactly the same way, it’s hard to imagine how the death of a child could count as the answer to a prayer.

The final line of evidence came from analysis of  bones and teeth found in the urns. In the last few years, experts from a number of Academic institutions examined the contents of over 340 burial urns. Determining the exact age of the infants from the burnt bones is difficult because the heat of the fire degrades, shrinks and warps them. However in most cases, the teeth of the infants survived in better condition. As teeth grow in length, the enamel and dentine grow in thickness at a universal rate. Thus it is possible to determine the age of a baby from the thickness of the enamel and dentine.

What the researchers found is that 67% of the infants were between 1 and 2 months old and that the percentage of infant remains from babies who lived longer is very low. This does not come close to the expected pattern of mortality rates in ancient times. Rather it is strongly suggestive that a particular age group was deliberately selected and that these did not die of natural causes.

Putting together the Biblical evidence, the evidence of multiple highly regarded secular historians, the archeological evidence including numerous inscriptions and now the teeth and bone analysis and the conclusion is overwhelming and inescapable. The Canaanites really did practice child sacrifice. Human sacrifice was widespread amongst many cultures in ancient times but infant sacrifice  was relatively unknown outside of Canaanite civilization. The deliberate murder of infant children was a pronounced feature of Canaanite religion. The Bible does not exaggerate the crimes of the Canaanites.

 

*Footnote: The first archaeological work at the Judean city of Gezer in the early twentieth century revealed several burial jars full of the bones of infants buried beneath standing stones. The archeologist Robert A.S. Macalister identified this as a Canaanite “High Place” were child sacrifice had taken place. Yet his excavation techniques were so primitive and his work so poorly documented that his conclusions remain controversial.

Picture Credits:

Molech by Charles Foster c.1897 {{PD}}  Wikimedia Commons

Carthaginian priest with infant inscription at the Bardo Museum, Tunisia. Photo by Pacal Radigue (CC BY-SA 3.0) Wikimedia Commons

Carthage Tophet, photo by BishkekRocks {{PD}}  Wikimedia Commons

Burial urn. Photo by James Whitred. A.S.O.R

Statue of Tanit at the Museum of Nabeul. Photo by M.Rais {{PD}} Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Did The Canaanites Really Sacrifice Their Children?

  1. Nice research. Thanks. How this highlights the depths the ancient Israelites sunk to by imitating the nations around them, after coming to know Jehovah, the God of love. It also shows the reason why Jehovah evicted those Nations from the land.

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