Chapter 20 (Molech) pages 323-336
North here deals with Lev 20:2-5, the legislation which outlines how to deal with Molech worship. This has been repeated from 18:21 where it occurs as a one verse statement with no expansion as here.
North’s understanding of what it meant to pass a son through the fire to Molech is radically different to every commentary I have at my disposal and to what I originally understood the passage and practice to mean - so a few words of clarification are needed here before we go on to comment further on North’s points. On pages 327-8, North writes
‘Molech’s required ritual was a perverse imitation of Jehovah’s require [sic] rite of circumcision, Instead of physically marring the organ of generation as a symbol of physical death but also covenantal life, the child was actually passed through a literal fire. The child who survived this ordeal was therefore assumed to be blessed covenantally by Molech. He had passed the deadly initiation rite by means of supernatural intervention...Its mark of supernatural power was the survival of the child. If the child died, the parents had to regard this as the god’s required sacrifice...To remove the child from the covenantal authority of Molech-worshiping parents, the State was required by God to execute the parents. A child who survived this rite of fire would become an orphan when the mandatory civil sanction attached to this law was applied by the civil magistrate...God’s law made it clear: better to become an orphan and live under the authority of covenantally faithful foster parents than to live under the authority of Molech-worshipping parents’
North doesn’t see the death of the child as inevitable - far from it - he sees the ritual of passing the child through the fire as being a test as to whether the god Molech required the son as an acceptable sacrifice. If the child died, it was that Molech took him but if he survived then it was Molech’s will for it to be so and the child, presumably, became specially marked for Molech service in later life.
North even goes on to say that ‘God’s law made it clear’ that it was better that the surviving child had foster parents than its original Molech-worshippers. Of course, the Law says no such thing at this point and makes no provision as to what was to happen to the child even if survival was possible under the Molech sacrificial system.
But the founding teaching from which North derives this fostering is that there was a chance of survival of the offered infant. There’s nothing, as far as I can see, in the text that makes such a position possible (and the comparison of the two passages at II Kings 23:10 and Jer 7:31 indicate that sacrifice was at the heart of the practice not possible survival) and, according to the commentaries I have, the rite is attested in archaeological excavations throughout Canaanite cities.
It’s possible, however, that we only have recorded for us the end result of most of the infants who passed through the fire (that is, death) but, as the possibility of life is never mentioned, I can’t accept North’s exposition of the passage as it stands. Besides, if children could be so severely burnt as to die, how badly injured would the children have been who had managed to survive the flames? And, if demonic protection was needed for the child’s survival (as mentioned below) why isn’t that even hinted at here?
It seems to me, therefore, that offering a child to Molech was a rite from which there was no escape from death - that, when a family decided upon the sacrifice, it meant that their family was necessarily to decrease by one.
As a consequence of his teaching, North asserts (page 331)
‘To the extent that the initiatory practice relies on demonic intervention to protect the child, this ritual will kill off more and more children as the demonic realm becomes weaker’
Here, though, North has invented a scenario even if Molech worship did involve the possibility of child survival. Demons are never mentioned in the passage and this has nothing really to do with the offering of the child in any case – it’s about the offering of a sacrifice to a false god.
North comments (page 324 - my italics) that
‘Godly inheritance in history is always by fire. This fire is covenantal: placing God’s people in trials and tribulations - historical sanctions - in order to purge them of their sins...’
but the problem here is that this statement tends to demean and undermine the necessity of the work of God in Christ. In the New Covenant especially, the believer is cleansed from both sin and its effects upon his life and then walks with God in the light of a new life, sin-free (or so it’s meant to be). Tribulation and persecution subsequently experienced are on account of the Gospel not because sin must be burnt out of the believer’s life.
Besides, when a person comes to acknowledge and trust in the work of Christ, he’s washed clean not burnt clean. The Scripture that North quotes (Is 1:25-26) has, as its context, the disobedience of the children of Israel. Fire, then, is a picture of the refining power of God directed towards the purification of rebellious believers, of children who’ve wandered away from the path that God desires them to walk in order to restore them into His family and into blessing.
North’s statement that Inheritance is always by fire isn’t true.
North asserts (page 325) that
‘...it was this ritual abomination [Molech worship] that was identified by God through Jeremiah as the representative evil in the land’
(and on page 331
‘It was this crime that God specified through Jeremiah as the crime of Israel and Judah, leading to their captivity in Babylon’)
He quotes Jer 32:29,32,35 to prove his point but seems to be unaware of God’s words of v.34 where He says
‘They set up their abominations in the house which is called by My name, to defile it’
speaking of alternative god worship that appears to be unrelated to the worship of Molech. Even v.33 of the same chapter speaks of the Israelites turning their backs to God and His teaching that was frequently delivered to the nation.
North quotes many other passages in the subsequent paragraph to, apparently, prove his point, concluding with the sentence (page 326)
‘This was not an occasional practice in Israel; it became a way of life through death’
There were many ‘ways of life’ in Israel, Molech worship was but one of the deviations that Israel chose to go after in their rejection of YHWH.
The question still remains to be answered, though, as to how Molech worship could be said to be the ‘representative evil’ of the entire nation. How can one sin that appears at the end of a list of other sins in Jeremiah chapter 32, for instance, be taken as representative of the sum total of all Israel’s disobedience and rebellion when the text doesn’t allow any inference of this? Certainly, Molech was one sin amongst many but it wasn’t representative of the entire sin of the nation - but if North has a reason why this should be taken as so then there needs to be some coherent reasoning contained within the chapter rather than a statement that relies more upon the reader’s ignorance of the content of Jeremiah chapter 32 than upon sound exposition.
North notes (page 329) that
‘...God regarded household false worship by resident aliens as peripheral to the national covenant’
and (page 330)
‘The ideal of biblical pluralism extended to the resident alien the right to worship family gods in peace within the boundaries of their homes...’
He seems to be teaching here that the non-Israelite who resided within the land of Israel had the legal right to worship all manner of different gods within the confines of his own home but limited by the murder of their children through the act of Molech worship.
This is certainly an interesting theory and one that seems to be more an apologetic for a pluralistic society than based upon sound Biblical exposition. The Mosaic Law repeatedly states that the Law was to be equally applied to both resident stranger and Israelite (Lev 24:22, Num 15:16, 15:29-31 [this last one especially speaks of all high-handed sins which idolatry would be included in]) and nowhere can I find does it make any exception for the gods of the residents who were within their midst.
North goes further. He notes (page 330) that
‘The household in Israel was a limited sanctuary: a place set aside, protected judicially from outside interference from the State’
This holds, says North, except for the passing of a child through the fire to Molech for which, even if it occurred within a house, would be subject to the death sentence. But why don’t we read of this limitation on the extent of the Law within the Mosaic Law itself? And just how far are we to go with the Law and its commands? Should resident aliens be allowed to practice other rites associated with their culture such as cultic prostitution? Why should these be allowed and the murder of children be permitted?
North will also state (page 333) that
‘This [the annihilation of Canaan and their gods] was a prohibition against Canaanitic gods, not the gods of immigrants. Why the distinction? Because of pagan theology in the ancient world’
going on to assert that Immigrants were allowed to worship false gods within their own households because they were household gods and not ‘gods of the land [of Canaan]’. He further states (pages 333-4) that, so long as household gods didn’t take the place of being national gods, they would have been allowed within the nation of Israel so long as their worship was purely within the limits of a family’s household boundaries.
But unless the Law can be shown to provide an exemption from the precepts of even one rule, then the entire body must be accepted as being applicable to all residents within the land - Israelite or non-Israelite.
North actually goes on to use Deut 13:6-11 (pages 330-1) to try and prove his point saying that, because the transgressors specified are only fellow Israelites it proves that the resident alien wasn’t subject to the Law of false worship having not been mentioned. However, as we’ve seen above, the Law repeatedly states that all the Law is applicable to both the resident alien and the Israelite - there wasn’t to be any distinction made when it came to law enforcement.
Finally, North appears to be addressing the issue of pluralism within a nation (perhaps the USA is in mind?) but even so there needs to be a bit of reading between the lines. He’s laid a foundation for the worship of a multiplicity of gods within any christian nation so long as the worship of such gods is kept within the boundaries of a local household and that the gods aren’t installed as being the gods of the nation - murder contained within the religious rites of any of these religions is wrong (though North has yet to conclusively decide whether it’s murder or profanation).
However, residents within a nation who do this (page 335) are to be denied
‘judicial participation - citizenship - to those unwilling to affirm a Trinitarian covenant in both church and State’
North seems to envisage a society in which there are two classes of citizens - those who are accepted as members of the State and those who, though resident within the land, continue to be virtual exiles from the community that affirms the Trinitarian formula.
And all this from the Mosaic Law!
There needs to be some proof from Scripture before this can be accepted as being God’s will for Israel.
North needs to ask the question (page 331)
‘What principle of interpretation would lead us to conclude that this law is not still in force?’
because he’s previously stated (page 331)
‘The crime was not murder or attempted murder...’
That is, the sacrifice of a child is not seen as the taking of a life which would be a transgression of one of the ten commandments but (page 331)
‘...the profanation of God’s boundary: the altar of sacrifice’
Though it’s this that’s in view, it must be realised that the offering of a child in sacrifice is also murder - there really is no other way to look at it. That God’s sanctuary was defiled because of the alternative worship to a false god, the actual act of sacrificing a fellow human was still a transgression of the commandment
‘Thou shalt not kill’ no matter how well-dressed the sacrifice might be.
But then North goes on to assert that child-sacrifice is murder when he writes (page 331-2)
‘Also, the death of a child would subject the parent(s) and any cooperating priests to the civil law against murder’
and (page 335)
‘...because the child’s life was placed at risk, it was a law against attempted murder’
So is it murder or not? Or just attempted murder? North needs some consistency here.
North’s observations with regard to the method of execution specified by God is contained in note 12 on page 336 and is, initially, very perceptive. Though he’s dwelt much on the subject of Molech worship in this chapter, the death sentence does teach the Israelite (and us) about the moral responsibility of the accuser in condemning the victim not with words only but in deed.
‘God’s mandated method of execution – public stoning by the witnesses whose words condemned the criminal – is regarded as perverse even by those few Christians who still defend the legitimacy of the death penalty. They do not believe that God requires the trial’s hostile witnesses to cast the first stones. But He does: “The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put the evil away from among you” (Deut. 17:7). Like twentieth-century humanists, Christians today regard God’s mandated sanctions as barbaric; in this case, public execution by citizens...
‘This law, if enforced, would place enormous responsibility into citizens’ hands, both literally and figuratively. Christians today want to avoid such a fearful responsibility. They want the execution performed by some faceless bureaucrat behind closed doors, which is what God’s law prohibits. Christians do not want the witnesses - those whose public words condemned the person to death - to suffer the psychological pressure of having to enforce their own words of condemnation. The witnesses’ public judicial words are not to be enforced by their public judicial sanctions. Their words killed the person judicially but the work of their hands is not supposed to kill the person biologically. The witnesses must not be burdened by the enormous emotional pressure of having to act out in public the judicial implications of their words. Word and deed are to be kept radically separate. The dirty work is to be done by a hireling, a professional executioner paid by the State.
‘God’s law identifies the witnesses as God’s agents, as well as the victim’s agents. They are His agents both in their capacity as bringers of a lawsuit and as public executioners. They are to deliver the condemned person into God’s heavenly court’
The discussions concerning corporal punishment in the UK (as opposed to the US who already have the death penalty for certain offences in certain States) has centred around the horrors of finding an innocent person guilty but rarely (if ever) have I heard discussions about the witnesses’ responsibility even in the less serious cases that would never require such a sentence.
Witnesses turn up to legal hearings, present their evidence and rarely think about the consequences of what they’ve just done. Some may question the testimony of their own lips and struggle that what they saw and heard was, in fact, evidence for the prosecution - but the majority appear not to be touched by the least bit of remorse or uncertainty.
To make witnesses responsible for the death of a convicted murderer (for instance) would (or should) wake society up to the fact of moral responsibility and consequence. Instead of being able to push responsibility onto a judge and jury, men and women need to realise that their actions have the effect of influencing another’s life for the good or bad - therefore the witnesses should take part in the death of a transgressor.
Society has been lightly let off its responsibility to self-police, self-judge and self-enforce the legislation of its land. It needs to wake up and assume its God ordained role once more.
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