This answer cites Mark S. Smith's "The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel" where the author states that Isaiah 30:27-33

appears as the best evidence for the early practice of child sacrifice in Israel.

Starting from verse 31 (ESV):

The Assyrians will be terror-stricken at the voice of the LORD, when he strikes with his rod. And every stroke of the appointed staff that the Lord lays on them will be to the sound of tambourines and lyres. Battling with brandished arm, he will fight with them. For a burning place has long been prepared; indeed, for the king it is made ready, its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of sulfur, kindles it.

This English doesn't obviously refer to child sacrifice. (I don't think I've missed it in vv. 27-30, but please check the linked text.) The Hebrew is fairly obscure to me, but I gather this interpretation rests on understanding a few words differently than here translated.

The "brandished arm" (tᵉnûpāh) and "burning place" (topteh) could both be interpreted as sacrificial language (the latter is alluded to in the ESV footnote). "For the king" then needs to turn into "for children", which it doesn't really. Although Smith doesn't explain here (I've only read a small portion available on the Google books preview; he may do so elsewhere), based on the context of mlk sacrifice, I suppose he's taking the preposition "for" (lᵉ) in a different sense and changing some vowels around: "to Molek".

Is this passage about child sacrifice?


2 Answers 2


The consensus view within critical biblical scholarship today seems to be that child sacrifice was practiced in Israelite religion no less than elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Smith summarizes that the idea of child sacrifice “exerted considerable symbolic power across the biblical legal corpus, prophecy and narrative” but was rarely practiced; it is perhaps best characterized as “the extreme measure long sanctioned by tradition” (pp.7-8).

In broad outline: Is.30 depicts YHWH telling Isaiah that if Judah looks to Egypt for protection, they will be shamed (v.1-14), but if they wait on YHWH, they will flourish (v.15-26). YHWH is already burning with anger against the other nations (v.27-28): as Judah goes up to Mount Zion to celebrate (v.29), they will see YHWH – in full ‘storm god’ fury – beating down on Assyria, consuming it like a tophet furnace (v.30-33). Here’s how the New JPS Tanach renders this last triumphant section:

    30 For the LORD will make His majestic voice heard
       And display the sweep of His arm
       In raging wrath,
       In a devouring blaze of fire,
       In tempest, and rainstorm, and hailstones.
    31 Truly, Assyria, who beats with the rod,
       Shall be cowed by the voice of the LORD;
    32 <And each time the appointed staff passes by,
       The LORD will bring down [His arm] upon him
       And will do battle with him as he waves it:>  (Meaning of Heb. uncertain.)
    33 The Topheth has long been ready for him;
       He too is destined for Melech – 
       His firepit has been made both wide and deep,
       With plenty of fire and firewood,
       And with the breath of the LORD
       Burning in it like a stream of sulfur.

Like many other scholars, Baruch Schwartz (writing for the Jewish Study Bible) lists Is.30:33 among the dozen or so Hebrew Bible passages that address child sacrifice in ancient Israel. Interestingly, the JPS does not translate the critical words of the first parallel line of v.33 but gives each a footnote: Topheth, “a site near Jerusalem at which human beings were sacrificed by fire in periods of paganizing; see 2 Kings 23.10,” and Melek, “cf. Molech, Lev.18.21; 20.2-5.” Though English texts usually render the מלך (mlk) word as ‘king’, many commentators similarly indicate it refers to Molech.

Indeed, much of the academic discussion about child sacrifice in the ancient Mediterranean centers around the meaning of mlk, with scholars divided on whether it is the name of an actual king-god to whom human sacrifices were offered (e.g. Molech, per Leviticus) or only a ‘kingly’ sacrifice. In his oft-referenced thesis on the subject, Paul Mosca surmised that the mlk-sacrifice may have been the ‘royal sacrifice’ par excellence – the offering of a royal heir, by royalty, to a ‘royal’ divinity.

Regardless, the direct pairing of mlk with tophet in v.33 makes the association with human sacrifice plain, and the JPS rendering ('Melek') makes that clearer than typical English translations ('king'). That is, the mlk here is not some as-yet unmentioned human ‘king’ for whom the tophet furnace is prepared, but rather, the mlk is the king-god ready to receive a victim, i.e. Assyria. This passage draws on the potent vocabulary of child sacrifice as a metaphor for YHWH’s burning anger and the destruction coming against Judah’s enemies.

Whether Isaiah’s uncritical employment of this metaphor signals, as Smith proposes, that “the Jerusalemite cult included child sacrifice under Yahwistic patronage” is uncertain, but it is suggestive.


The passage in full:

Isaiah 30:27-33 (KJV): 27-28 Behold, the name of the LORD cometh from far, burning with his anger, and the burden thereof is heavy: his lips are full of indignation, and his tongue as a devouring fire: And his breath, as an overflowing stream, shall reach to the midst of the neck, to sift the nations with the sieve of vanity: and there shall be a bridle in the jaws of the people, causing them to err.

29-32 Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the LORD, to the mighty One of Israel. And the LORD shall cause his glorious voice to be heard, and shall shew the lighting down of his arm, with the indignation of his anger, and with the flame of a devouring fire, with scattering, and tempest, and hailstones. For through the voice of the LORD shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod. And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the LORD shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it.

33 For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.

The Assyrians are attacking, and this passage is of 'a holy solemnity' (verse 29), clearly a ritual that will ensure victory for Judah. This would be a sacrificial ritual that would cause God to come to the aid of Judah and beat down the Assyrians. We know from numerous passages in the Old Testament (eg 2 Kings 17:17) that the Israelites and Judahites made their children 'pass through fire' as the ultimate sacrifice in times of great need. So, yes, this passage is about child sacrifice.

When (animal) sacrifices were performed, God was somehow in the fire consuming the offering. So we can visualise his tongue as the devouring fire (verse 27). The ancient Jews would have understood this as an allusion to child sacrifice, and God's fire "shall reach to the neck (verse 28)."

The ESV translation ("a burning place") is an equivocation. Tophet (verse 33) was the place outside Jerusalem in which child sacrifices were traditionally performed. We can see in Isaiah 30:33 that has been prepared for the king, with fire and much wood. The breath of God has kindled it. At times of national crisis, it was the duty of the king to sacrifice his eldest son by fire, so this reference to "for the king" is correct - once all is ready "for the king," he will bring his son for the sacrifice. In this case, the Assyrians, knowing that the sacrifice had been performed, would fear the might of the God, Yahweh, and he will defeat them.

In the Tophet citation, Wikipedia refers to Molech as a god, although nothing has come to light from the inscriptions and writings of other Near Eastern peoples to suggest there ever was a god by that name. 1 Kings 11:7 mentions Molech of Moab, but Moab's national god was Milcom and Molech is not known in inscriptions from Moab. Of course, Molech could be a god worshipped nowhere outside Israel and Judah, but another explanation is more likely. Leviticus 20:3, a likely post-Exilic polemic, talks of giving children to Molech as defiling Yahweh's sanctuary, so it appears that ‘Molech’ was not a god but rather a sacrificial term for the practice of offering children as sacrifices by fire.

As an aside, this passage (Isaiah 30:27-33) reads like a hymn to be sung by the Jews in preparation for the coming sacred event. My guess is that it was adapted from a traditional, generic version sung on all such occasions.

Alternative view

Although the references to child sacrifice are clear, the above is not the only analysis possible. Smith does not give his own view, simply regarding it as an obvious reference, but does mention the analysis of P. Mosca in 'Child Sacrifice'. Mosca believes the references to child sacrifice are intended symbolically, to describe Yahweh's coming destruction of Israel. In this view, Israel is the child victim.

Apart from the fact that I (humbly) consider my exegesis better, my objection to this is that in verse 19, Isaiah says he is addressing the people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, and the sacrificial images in verses 27-33 are those of which Judahites would have been familiar. The destruction of Israel, which did occur during the preparation of this book, does not fit well with this passage. When Isaiah predicts the defeat of Assyria, he is certainly not describing Yahweh's coming destruction of Israel.

  • Dick, I'm not sure Smith meant to say Mosca believes all references to child sacrifice are "intended symbolically". Smith's wording (p.172) is admittedly awkward, but Mosca is quoted elsewhere as saying child sacrifice was "part of the official YHWHistic cultus". I think he supports your non-alternative view. More here: tinyurl.com/jr7772w
    – Schuh
    Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 9:18
  • @Schuh Thank you for this very helpful link. It tells us that Mosca identified the practice of child sacrifice as real (which it must be, because symbolism does not work unless the intended audience - contemporary Jews - understood the reality on which symbolism was based). But do you believe that Mosca saw this particular passage as a literal sacrifice, in the same way as I do? Commented Jan 5, 2016 at 20:49
  • Sorry, I misspoke. I think Musca agrees with you that child sacrifice was really practiced in Israel/Judah and was not just a metaphor (as I thought you were suggesting). I don’t know what he thinks of Is.30 specifically, though like you, I don’t see how it applies to the northern kingdom of Israel (as Smith has it), which was already destroyed. For myself ... while I agree that this passage references human sacrifice, I disagree that it describes a specific ritual a king of Judah (Hezekiah?) was to perform. The 'victim' of YHWH's metaphoric 'tophet' here was Assyria, not Judah, ISTM.
    – Schuh
    Commented Jan 6, 2016 at 1:25

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