Molech. An 18th-century German illustration of Moloch (“Der Götze Moloch” i.e. The Idol Moloch). Wiki.
Worship and Blood Eating
By Moshe Ben-Chaim
Maimonides states (“Guide for the Perplexed”, Book III, chapter XLVI, pg. 362 Dover ed.) that certain cultures who would either eat blood or sit around a pot of blood, as they felt they would be favored by “spirits”. He writes:
“They imagined that in this manner the spirits would come to partake of the blood which was their food, whilst the idolaters were eating of the flesh; that love, brotherhood and friendship with the spirits were established because they dined with the latter, at one place and at the same time, that the spirits would appear to them in dreams, inform them of coming events, and be favorable to them.”
After Maimonides explains the origin of the Torah prohibition against eating blood, he connects this prohibition to the prohibition to serve Molech, a fire G-d. (I will record a few sources in a moment which depict Molech’s practice.) Maimonides continues:
“….the law emphasized the prohibition (against blood eating) in the exactly in the same terms as it emphasizes idolatry. ‘I will set My face against that soul that eats blood.'(Lev. 17:10). The same language is employed in reference to him ‘who gives of his seed to Molech’; ‘then I will set My face against that man.’ (Lev, 20:5). There is, besides idolatry and eating blood, no other sin in reference to which these words are used. For the eating of blood leads to a kind of idolatry, to the worship of spirits.”
Maimonides points to a connection between eating blood and Molech. His parallel is drawn from the Torah’s own language, which is almost identical in both offenses, “I will set My face against that soul that eats blood”, and , “then I will set My face against that man” regarding Molech. These two verses strengthen the equation of these two offenses. Maimonides also mentions the notion of “spirits”, in application to both blood eating and Molech – a further equation.
How exactly did one worship Molech? According to Maimonides, a parent would cause his child to pass through flames without burning the child. As he states, people felt this to be a “light thing”, and by doing so, the imagined they were protecting their children. A “light thing” as he puts it means no risk. Followed by, “to protect their children” clearly indicates that Maimonides held Molech worship not to cause harm to the child. Ramban (Lev. 18:21) was of the opinion that parents would actually burn their children to the point of death. He bases this on many verses. He also equates Molech to the sacrificing of children to Baal, which he concludes are one and the same practice. He points out that the admonishment used by G-d in reference to such vicious abominations is, “(matters) that I have spoken not of, nor entered My mind.” What is so significant about Molech and Baal that this sentiment is used by G-d?
What is the common denominator in these theories of Molech worship? What would both Maimonides and Ramban agree is the element which distinguishes Molech from all other practices?
Why is Molech referred to more harshly than idolatry, “you defiled My sanctuary and profaned My name.”(Lev. 20:3) And why is this prohibition followed immediately by prohibitions to divine spirits and enchanters?
On this point, the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 64a) teaches that Molech is in fact, not classical idolatry. It derives its proof from a previous Mishna on page 53a, where it lists Torah violators who are stoned. There, it includes “idolaters, one who gives his seed to Molech, …”. The talmud proves that had Molech been a classical form of idolatry, there would be no need to isolate it. It would be subsumed under the broader category of idolatry, as is done with regards to all other forms of idolatry. But as the Mishna lists Molech separate from idolatry, the Rabbis conclude, Molech is not idolatry. So what is it? Furthermore, the Talmud asks, “Why is Molech called “Molech”? The answer according to one view is that “Molech means “that which rules; one violates the Torah through allowing anything to rule over him, even a pebble, even a chip of wood.” This is significant, as idolatry usually has some fixed form, some unique structure for the idol. Here, the Talmud states that the worshiped form is irrelevant. And even though one might say, “are they not worshiping fire?” It might well be that they do burn their children in fire, but perhaps they do so, not TO the fire per se, but to an imagined deity. An intangible thing. Let’s keep this last point in mind. The fact is that Ramban pointed out that both Molech and Baal incorporate child burning as their practice, so I would say that the fire was a means of worship, not the deity.
What about the other practice which Maimonides equates to Molech, that of blood eating? How did one violate it? This seems very straight forward, based on Maimonides’ description. People either ate blood, or dined around a pot of blood. Both practices were based on “dining with spirits”. This fits in well with the verses which immediately precede the prohibition of blood eating. First, the Torah discusses prohibition to slaughter animals on the field: (Lev. 17:4-5) “And to the opening of the Tent of Meeting he did not bring to sacrifice offerings to G-d, before the tabernacle of G-d, ….he will be cut off from the midst of his people. In order that the Children of Israel bring their sacrifices that they sacrifice in the fields, and they bring them to G-d.” Notice how in both verses the Jews are warned to bring their sacrifices to “G-d”. This indicates that their crime is one where they are sacrificing to ‘another’ imagined entity. And two verses later, “And you shall not continue anymore your sacrifices to seirim (demons) that you err after,…” This proves that the sacrifices in the fields were intended for a recipient other than G-d. (Keep this in mind, as I believe this to be the underlying tie between blood eating and Molech.)
Now we find after these verses addressing sacrifice, the prohibition of eating blood. What does blood eating have to do with sacrifices to the “seirim”, these demons? It would appear that the goal is one and the same, as both, sacrifices in fields (not to G-d’s Tabernacle), and blood eating, were meant to approach spirits as Maimonides stated earlier. According to the Ibn Ezra, (Lev. 17:7) these spirits were seen only by fools, “mishugaim”. They are not real, but imagined things. Maimonides says so well, “They sacrificed to spirits, not to G-d. According to the explanation of our Sages, ‘lo eloha’ (no to G-d) imply the following idea: They have not only not left off worshiping things in existence; they even worship imaginary things.” (ibid, pg. 363)
To summarize, Molech and blood eating share in G-d’s “setting of His face against that person.” Molech is not considered classical idolatry, it is its own category. Maimonides mentions “spirit” numerous times when equating Molech with blood eating. Blood eating immediately follows the prohibitions of sacrificing to demons.
Two Crimes – One Flaw
I believe we already see the initial idea mentioned by Maimonides, that blood eating and Molech worship are uniquely different from other crimes. They alone deserve the response of “I will set My face against that man….” What is the crime they both share? I would formulate it as follows: “The assumption of forces other than G-d.” Here is where these two crimes set themselves apart from idolatry. In classical idolatry, the worshiper does not deny G-d, but rather, he claims a certain sub-deity or practice is a method for relating to G-d. In regards to the Jews who bowed to the calf, the commentators say that no one thought the calf took them out of Egypt. Also, a Rabbi pointed out that Pharaoh accepted one G-d, but the method of worship was through sub-deities. So too the Prophet states, “Who would not fear you, King of the nations.” (Jeremiah, 10:7) Idolatry does not include the denial of the One, true G-d. Rather, they deviate in their approach to Him. However, blood eating and Molech worship have a different deviation; both assume a new thing called “spirits”. These violators believe there may be G-d, but they definitely believe in other forces too.
We said that the Talmud teaches Molech to be any object one accepts to rule over himself. Meaning, it is not a physical object or statue, but a force, or spirit. Blood eating too was described by Maimonides as a wish that imagined spirits would be favorable to those worshipers who dined near the pot of blood. Here too, forces are imagined to exist in addition to G-d.
Now we understand G-d’s response, “I will set My face against that man….” The only proper response to one who imagines other forces, is that G-d take the most severe action. How does G-d do so? The worshiper feels that by eating blood, or worshiping Molech, that his fortune will improve. This is his very motivation. But when G-d actually destroys his fortune, the worshiper must say to himself, “The Torah’s words of destruction have come true, and my imagined forces are false, they have not saved me.” The wording is that G-d will “set His face against that man”. Meaning, there is only G-d, and no other. Nothing else can respond to his practices of blood eating or Molech worship, because there are no such things as spirits. The only Being Who can respond is G-d. The very misfortune teaches the violator that in fact, his actions are only witnessed by G-d, the only Witness to his actions. Nothing else is “out there”, so nothing else responds.
Denying the exclusive reign G-d retains over the entire universe violates the central focus of Judaism. Therefore, one who violates G-d’s unity deserves the most “focus” from G-d. G-d responds by saying, “I will turn aside from all My involvements, and I will concentrate on him.” (Rashi, Lev., 17:10) A deviation of such proportion requires G-d’s proportional “attention”.
The phrase of G-d, “(matters) that I have spoken not of, nor entered My mind” is used in connection with Molech. Perhaps with this phrase, G-d wishes to indicate that Molech worshipers assumed forces outside of what is “real”. Meaning, if this practice “did not enter G-d’s mind”, G-d means to teach that Molech is a practice unlike idolatry. It is a practice where one forges a false reality that G-d did no conceive of. Idolatry assumes the real G-d. Molech does not.
So Molech and blood eating are not idolatry. G-d plays no part in the goal of the violator. In idolatry, at least one is trying to approach the true G-d, but his methods are corrupt. But Molech and blood eating do not have G-d as their aim. They worship imagined “spirits”, as Maimonides states repeatedly. The verses support this idea fully; “And to the opening of the Tent of Meeting he did not bring to bring sacrifices to G-d, before the tabernacle of G-d, ….he will be cut off from the midst of his people. In order that the Children of Israel bring their sacrifices that they sacrifice in the fields, and they bring them to G-d,…” The Jews are warned to bring their sacrifices to G-d, because it is here that they attempt to communicate with something other than G-d. This approach also explains why Molech is followed immediately by prohibitions of divining spirits and enchanters.
One question remains: If blood eating and Molech are so similar, what in Molech alone is deserving of the statement, “you defiled My sanctuary and profaned My name”? (Lev. 20:3) Think about it. Write in with your answers.