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Ezekiel 20:31
For when ye offer your gifts, when ye make your sons to pass through the fire, ye pollute yourselves with all your idols, even unto this day: and shall I be enquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, saith the Lord God, I will not be enquired of by you.
וּבִשְׂאֵ֣ת מַתְּנֹֽתֵיכֶ֡ם בְּֽהַעֲבִיר֩ בְּנֵיכֶ֨ם בָּאֵ֜שׁ אַתֶּם֩ נִטְמְאִ֤֨ים לְכָל־גִּלּֽוּלֵיכֶם֙ עַד־הַיֹּ֔ום וַאֲנִ֛י אִדָּרֵ֥שׁ לָכֶ֖ם בֵּ֣ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל חַי־אָ֗נִי נְאֻם֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יְהוִ֔ה אִם־אִדָּרֵ֖שׁ לָכֶֽם׃

Some of the literary clues suggest that what Ezekiel may be referencing here is child sacrifice to Moloch or another Phoenician/Punic/foreign deity, namely the "pass through fire" ritual. Earlier in the chapter we also see the word "whore after", which is often associated with the worship of foreign deities.

Then from a narrative congruency standpoint, the cult of child sacrifice was thought to have only existed in parts of the early monarchistic period and was largely phased out by Josiah's reforms.

Question

Given that this part of the prophetic corpus would take place *after* Josiah's reform, then what are we to make of this polemic? Would it be appropriate to interpret this that there may have been "Moloch/sacrifice cults" holdouts well into Ezekiel's time?
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    I do not see a problem here. It is true that Josiah's reforms largely stamped out Molech cult but it persisted in Babylon and other places, sometimes in slightly different forms and by different names, but it persisted, especially in Babylon where Ezekiel was prophesying.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 6:38
  • @Dottard I think that could be the basis of an answer, thanks for the input. My only reservation would be that, although the setting of Ezekiel was in that region, wouldn't we still interpret his prophecies to pertain to Israel writ large? Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 8:29
  • Great question. I will answer formally.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jul 10, 2023 at 8:35

3 Answers 3

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Chronology

By my calculations we have the following dates:

  • 639 BC - 608 BC = reign of Josiah. Josiah's reforms following the discovery of the book of the law in his 18th year, 622 BC.
  • 605 BC - Nebuchadnezzar's first campaign against Jerusalem, Daniel taken captive to Babylon
  • 597 BC - Nebuchadnezzar's second campaign against Jerusalem, probably date of Ezekiel's capture and thus, his "1st year" thus dating the prophecies of Ezekiel
  • 586 BC - Nechadnezzar's third campaign against Jerusalem, Jerusalem destroyed, Zedekiah blinded and taken captive to Babylon

Thus, most of Ezekiel's prophecies were more than 50 years after Josiah's reforms as recorded in 2 Kings 23 where idolatry was removed from Judah.

So, why was Ezekiel still delivery prophecies about condemning the evil practices of children "passing through the fire" (a reference to the Molech cult)? The answer is rather simple.

Previous Experience

  • Example of Saul - King Saul (to his credit) had banished witchcraft from Israel (1 Sam 28:3) early in his reign. All this meant was that the incidence of witchcraft was reduced and had gone underground - Saul was still able to find a necromancer in Endor, 1 Sam 28:7.
  • Elijah killed the prophets of Baal and Jehu killed all the servants of Baal. In Judah, Joash instituted numerous reforms to eliminate idolatry from Judah. (2 Kings 10, 11 & 12). yet, Jehoahaz (Jehu's son) "did evil in the site of the LORD" as did Jehoash and effectively re-instituted idolatry.
  • King Jotham as a good king but his son Ahaz was a bad king.
  • Ahaz' son was Hezekiah who also instituted numerous reforms and banished idolatry (2 Kings 18). His own son Manasseh was an evil king and re-introduced idolatry.
  • As already noted, Josiah (Manasseh's son) eliminated idolatry in Judah but his reign was followed by a series of evil kings, Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, Zedekiah.

That is, reforms of a righteous king of Judah rarely lasted beyond their own lifetime and were often immediately reversed. Here is a perfect example from shortly after the death of Josiah:

Jer 32:35 - They have built the high places of Baal in the Valley of Hinnom to make their sons and daughters pass through the fire to Molech—something I never commanded them, nor had it ever entered My mind, that they should commit such an abomination and cause Judah to sin. See also Jer 49:1, 3

That is, Josiah's reforms did not last very long at all.

Lastly, Ezekiel was a prophet who ministered in, not Judah, but Babylon, a notoriously wicked, debauched and idolatrous center of the worship of numerous false gods.

Thus, it is entirely possible that the cult of Molech had survived in various forms and places, especially in Babylon, even among God's nominal Jews.

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The first line of your question takes it for granted that the reforms of Josiah were permanently effective. All the evidence of the complaints of Jeremiah and Ezekiel works against that assumption. As I read the history, it is much more likely that the battle of Megiddo and the death of Josiah had the effect, amongst others, of destroying the political power of the "reform" party in the Jerusalem establishment and therefore overturning the reforms.

In the interests of keeping this answer concise, the most obvious evidence of the change of attitude is the establishment's treatment of Jeremiah, and especially Jehoiakim's reaction to the prophecies which were shown to him in ch36.

In Jeremiah ch19, at the Potsherd Gate, Jeremiah complains very specifically about the continuing "Molech" sacrifices in the Hinnom valley, except that he uses the alternative title "Baal".

"Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place... and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal" (Jeremiah ch19 vv4-5, RSV).

For the resumption of condoned idolatry in Jereusalem, we may see the complaint about the "queen of heaven" festivities in Jeremiah ch7, and the observations in the vision of Ezekiel ch8, which include the weeping for Tammuz and the worshipping of the sun.

As for the "image of jealousy" in Ezekiel ch8 v5, I believe this to be Molech. The reasoning is indirect, so bear with me.

Firstly, it seems to have been the custom, when kings did their duty, for the king to give "judgments" to the people at the north or "Benjamin" gate of the city. This was being neglected in 2 Samuel ch15 v3 and being carried out in Jeremiah ch38 v7. In this duty, they were surely representing the Lord as the true king and judge.

Secondly, I see signs that the priests of Jeremiah's time were using the equivalent north gate of the temple court as their own "place of judgment", in imitation of what was happening at the north gate of the city. I believe that this is what was meant by the "Upper Benjamin gate" where Jeremiah was held in the stocks (Jeremiah ch20 v2) and the "New Gate" whwre he was placed "on trial" (Jeremiah ch26 v10).

On that basis, I suspect that the image planted "north of the altar gate" (that "north" again, Ezekiel ch8 v5), was intended to represent Molech as "a king sitting in judgment", in blasphemous imitation of what was happening at the north gate of the city.

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It is important to remember that Ezekiel wrote from Babylon after Judah had already been conquered and many people taken into exile. Judeans understandably felt that God had abandoned them. It is not always easy to tell the date of Ezekiel's prophecies but he certainly knew that the Temple would soon be destroyed (or possibly already had been). Either way, the temptation to use local high places or even turn to other gods must have been great. So he warns the people of Judah not to revert to past practices as some of them may have already done.

When I brought them to the land I had sworn to give them, and they saw all its high hills and leafy trees, there they offered sacrifices, there they made offerings to provoke me, there they sent up sweet-smelling oblations, there they poured out their libations. So I said to them, “What is this high place[d] to which you go?”... Say to the house of Israel: Thus says the Lord God: Will you defile yourselves in the way your ancestors did? (20:28-30)

This can be read to imply that, even if child sacrifice was not widespread, some of God's people had begun visiting the high places in question again to make their offerings there. Prior to Josiah, high places were often the sites where the God of Israel was worshiped, though other deities were also propitiated there. Possibly the reforms of Josiah had never fully taken hold but either way, they had been made unenforceable by Babylon's victory. With Jerusalem under foreign control, the temptation to use the high places as alternatives was great, especially after the Temple was destroyed. Some people may have even turned to other gods, feeling that Yahweh did not protect them.

Ezekiel deeply mourned Jerusalem's loss but he warned against using the high places as an alternative. In so doing, he strictly admonished the people against both past and present unlawful practices, including child sacrifice, as well as making normal offerings to God outside of the Temple in Jerusalem.

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