“Is man one of God’s blunders? Or is God one of man’s blunders?” – Friedrich Nietzsche
The last scholar who bothered to give a firsthand account of the Ammonites was theologian and Christian apologist Saint Justin the Martyr (100-165 A.D.) of Flavia Neapolis (just north of Jerusalem) in his Dialogues with Trypho, simply noting that they were still thick on the ground in southern Palestine during his lifetime. The relative absence of the Ammonites from the historical record has a lot to do with the fact that the heyday of the Kingdom of Ammon (in what is now modern day Jordan) occurred between the 10th-4th Century B.C., and by the time Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) ran roughshod over the Middle East and North Africa, the independent political entity that was Ammon went the way of Edom and Moab, rarely mentioned save biblically as antagonists, and then only with condescending disdain. It tends to suck when your only biography is written by someone who hates you. You rarely get fair treatment. And your gods really get the shaft. Such is the case with the much maligned Ammonite high god Moloch once thought to be popular throughout Phoenicia, Canaan, North Africa, and the Levant, subsequently relegated to mere demonhood as Judeo-Christian Yahweism embarked on its world tour. A good old fashion Semitic god just can’t catch a break.
The main, under-reported problem is that there is scanty evidence either written or archaeological that anybody ever worshiped a god named Moloch outside the Old Testament, and the biblical translations of the term are dubious and heavily disputed amongst modern scholars to say the least. Moloch has traditionally suffered from a public relations issue in that he was depicted as a bull-headed sun god with a predilection for child sacrifice. Keep in mind that early Judaism was founded on the notion that everybody else’s gods were insidious imposters, thus the Tanakh had uncharitable characterizations that run along the lines of “Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and “lmlk”, the abomination of the Sons of Ammon” (1 Kings 11:7). Unfortunately, Hebrew was pretty much a dead language by 400 A.D. (only revived as a spoken language in the 19th Century A.D.), so we’ve had almost two millennia to misinterpret it. The Hebrew letters מלך (mlk) have been variously translated as “Moloch”, “Milcom”, and in some forms, “their king”, handily obscuring what the hell those early Jewish scribes were talking about in the first place, not to mention that the whole history of biblical transcription, translation, and exegesis is rife with scribal errors of all sorts. Freaking monks are so easy to distract. Now the Old Testament plays up the child sacrifice angle, mostly in service of pointing out how barbaric and deserving of a good thrashing the Ammonites were. This is awfully problematic, as the vague references are generally of the form, “passing children through fire to Moloch”, especially in the Valley of Hinnom. Child sacrifice is not usually an optimum strategy to ensure the survival of your civilization, and some anthropologists have argued that this could just have easily referred to some sort of non-lethal initiation rite. I mean, we don’t usually drown babies when we baptize them, although if all we had to go on was a description of the ceremony in an ancient language, we might assume the ritual had more dire consequences. And no one ever thought to get independent verification from an Ammonite before they disappeared entirely.
Classical Greeks and Romans who were busy hating on anyone who didn’t wear a toga wrote extensively about the nasty habits of the former Phoenician colonies that became Carthage, emphasizing their propensity for child sacrifice, presumably related to their Moloch-like god Ba‘al Hammon, but since Rome and Carthage had a long history of antagonism, many interpret this as wartime propaganda meant to emphasize the awfulness of the Carthaginians. The inflation of the horrible crimes of the Carthaginians can easily be discerned in Greek Historian Plutarch’s (46-120 A.D.) essay On Superstition, where their depravity in worshiping their heathen god obviously knows no bounds. “Knowing and recognizing their own children, they used to sacrifice them—nay, the childless would buy children from poor parents and cut their throats as though they were lambs or chickens—and the mother would stand by dry-eyed and with never a groan. If she should groan or weep, she would have to lose the merit, and the child was sacrificed all the same, while the whole space in front of the shrine was filled with the rattle of drums and the din of fifes, in order that the sound of the wailing might be drowned (Plutarch, “On Superstition”, XIII).
Still other interpreters maintain that Moloch wasn’t even a god, rather an Ammonite king. Around the 7th Century A.D., a bunch of Hebrew scholars called Masoretes started copying the Hebrew text of the Old Testament with vowel pointing. Hebrew before and after the Masoretes doesn’t generally indicate vowels. You just sort of know which vowel goes with which consonant. The Masoretes wanted an authoritative text in Hebrew that could be pronounced “properly”, and like any good editor they saw fit to make a few changes. This is partly why the Greek and Syriac translations of the Old Testament can differ rather widely from the authoritative Masoretic Hebrew interpretation, but curiously many of the Greek and Syriac translations were actually older than the texts the Masoretes were working from. Those are the cliff notes. If you want to know more, go to a classical Hebrew school. Some of the editorial changes that wound up in the Bible were allegorical commentaries emphasizing one point or another. For instance, it is widely believed that the original Hebrew word melech (used in reference to a human king), when describing Ammonite rulership had its vowel points purposefully transposed with the vowels for bosheth (“a shameful thing”), rendering it as molech. There is plenty of precedent for this given instances like the replacement of the vowels for Yahweh with the vowels for Adonai (you’re not supposed to pronounce the name of God, so this prevents any absent-minded fellow from accidentally reading it out loud).
A human king could certainly demand child sacrifices just as easily as a god, so that’s not to say that some deranged Ammonite aristocrat wasn’t out there looking for first born sons, just that difficulties in translation, lack of solid archaeological evidence, a thousand years of biblical redaction, and a distinct need to declare all the other gods in the world as persona non grata obscure what Moloch might have been all about. By the time the Middle Ages rolled around, Moloch had been demoted to a nasty little demon, although he had a brief resurgence as the scrappiest bruiser of the Fallen Angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Now that we’ve largely certified demons as fairy tales, Moloch is just another in a long litany of dead gods who gets an occasional television cameo as the “big bad” on Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. That’s a hell of a long way to fall.
The Writings of Justin Martyr and Athenagoras. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1868.
Plutarch. Selected Essays of Plutarch. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.