Human Sacrifice in the Ancient World—Jeremiah 7:30, 31

The question of human sacrifice in the ancient world has long divided scholars. Traditional readings of classical accounts and biblical texts assumed that it was a not-uncommon, perhaps frequent, practice in the biblical world. More recent interpretations have dismissed the ancient accounts as propaganda by enemies or religious polemic. Interestingly, scholars have used archaeological data and textual sources to defend both views.

Biblical texts make clear that human sacrifice is not a legitimate form of worship (Exod. 13:11-13, Jer. 7:31). But their very existence also suggests that it was an issue that needed to be clarified for a reason: some regarded the practice as a valid religious expression. Some have argued that the archaeological evidence of excavated cemeteries with hundreds of urns containing burned or cremated baby bones offers strong evidence for the practice in antiquity. Called Tophets from the biblical name (cf. Jer. 7:31-34), the most famous of such cemeteries were unearthed at Carthage in North Africa. Archaeologists have found others at Phoenician settlements in Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, and Tyre in Lebanon.

Excavations at the Tophet at Carthage began in the 1920s with a renewed dig conducted by the American School at Carthage from 1976–1979. The number of babies and children interred in urns in the Carthaginian Tophet reached 20,000. Those who see them as indicative of a tradition of infant sacrifice believe they were dedicated and incinerated apparently as a votive (to fulfill a vow) to the deity. An alternative position regards them as unusual burials for neonates to place them in the loving care of the goddess, Tanit. But the weight of archaeological evidence does not support the latter view. In some cases, sacrificial animal bones replaced human infants in urns, seemingly as substitutes. The dedicatory stelae over the infant remains sometimes read, “That which was vowed.” One marker depicts a priest holding a live baby.

An objective evaluation of the evidence concludes that people did practice human sacrifice at some level in the ancient Mediterranean world. The rite received both internal and external criticism in the Greek and ancient Near Eastern cultures and was eventually abandoned. In ancient Israel, human sacrifice was not unknown, but how widely it was practiced is a matter of interpretation. While some think “made … to pass through the fire” (2 Kings 21:6; Jer. 32:35) indicates merely a non-fatal dedicatory ritual, it most likely does refer to child immolation. Scripture condemns human sacrifice in Israel as an abomination (Deut. 18:10-12), but it appears that, as with other explicit prohibitions, this was not always obeyed (Ezek. 20:25, 26; Mic. 6:6, 7).


Dewrell, Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel.

Hughes, Human Sacrifice in Ancient Greece.

Smith et al., “Cemetery or Sacrifice? Infant Burials at the Carthage Tophet,” 1191-1198.

Stager, “The Rite of Child Sacrifice at Carthage,” 1-11.

Tatlock, “Human Sacrifice, Ancient Near East,” The Encyclopedia of Ancient History, 3330-3333.

Xella et al., “Phoenician Bones of Contention,” 1199-1207.