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Vayikra/Leviticus 20:3 For he has given from his seed to Molech in order to defile My sanctuary
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The Hebrew text of this verse contains some interesting words. , here "from his seed", uses the noun from the root . The root, similar to its cognate , has the basic meaning of spreading or scattering, but usually has the more focussed meaning "to sow" or "to plant"; that gives the noun "seed" or in human terms, "issue, progeny" and another noun as "arm", the limb that sows, or "strength, power", the force to sow. is used in a careful word-play in the story of the two older sons of Judah: "But Onan knew that the seed would not be his; so it was if he came to his [late] brother's wife, he would waste it on the ground lest he should give children to his brother" (B'resheet 38:9), to mean both semen, "human seed", and children or offspring. In this text, and confirmed by both tradition and archaeology, it is physical offspring - children - that are in view.
Levine points out that the verb , normally translated 'give', "more precisely connotes devotion to a god" in this context. This a giving-over, a complete devoting of a person, animal or object to a god or for a religious purpose. This idea can be seen in B'Midbar 3:9 where Moshe is told to devote the Levites exclusively to Aharon and his sons the priests in the service of the Tabernacle, also in B'Midbar 8:16 whereHaShem speaks of the Levites as devoted to Him in place of the first-born of the whole people of Israel. The word is also used in Micah - "shall I give my first-born" (Micah 6:7) - as one of the sacrifices that a man might consider (although forbidden and unwanted) offering to atone for his sin; like the ten thousand rivers of oil it is a rhetorical device to emphasise the futility of huge sacrifices compared to the simple obedience of walking humbly before G-d.
Lastly, , translated here as "My sanctuary" but also by others as "My holy things", comes from the root , "to be holy or separate", which also also generates the adjective "holy" and the abstract noun "holiness". The prefix letter is used to denote a place or location in which the action of a verb takes place, so the noun - a place to be holy - takes the meaning of "sanctuary" or "holy place". This provides one of the ideas behind the concept of "claiming sanctuary" because many actions, such as taking revenge, were not considered "holy" so were not allowed within the defined area of holiness.
Rashi makes the connection to another text: "one who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire" (D'varim 18:10) and explains that "seed" or "offspring" in this verse not only covers immediate children but grand-children as well. He then borrows the phrase "when he gives his offspring to Molech?" from the next verse (v. 4) and broadens the prohibition to "unfit offspring". While no explanation of that term is explicitly given, two options are implied: either children of a forbidden union, such as between a cohen and a divorcee, or children born of incestuous or adulterous unions; or perhaps children born with a disability or handicap. In all cases, Rashi says, no child whatsoever is to be used in this way!
TheSforno, assuming that child sacrifice is so obviously forbidden that it does not need comment, turns the focus to the issue of defilement. Those who deliberately become or, worse still, bring defilement into the sanctuary of G-d are to be punished in the most severe way possible: he shall be put to death. This penalty serves three purposes: the offender himself is punished; the offender and his offence is excised from among the people; a deterrent is established to discourage others from the same offence. Any worship that is not of the One True G-d defiles both the name and the sanctuary of G-d, particular when performed by one who is supposed to be part of G-d's chosen people and called to be separate from the other nations, set apart for G-d alone.
Hirsch takes the debate to a moral plane that connects startlingly with modern medical ethics. "[Child sacrifice] subscribes to the idea which believes that the family, and especially the children, are under a power which reigns over their fate (), a blind power which is inimical to the happiness of human well-being to which some of the children can be given over to save the rest of them." Although written in the 1860s and 1870s, it as if Hirsch can see medical science today preparing to allow genetic selection of embryos so as to permit parents to raise a child for the specific purposes of providing organs or other body-part donations for another older child. Apart from the devastating effect upon the donor child, who quickly realises that they have no value in themselves but only exist as bank of spare parts for their sibling, this practice steps over two red-line boundaries. Firstly, it denies G-d's sovereignty in the area of life and death, usurping the right to create, shape and ultimately dispose of life in an arbitrary way without reference to the Creator Himself; secondly, it devalues the sanctity of life itself, rendering it as a simple commodity to be manipulated or controlled in a de-humanised way.
How do we draw the lines and boundaries in our lives to preserve and protect the holy: to be aware of the effect that our actions and attitudes have on those around us. If defiling or desecrating G-d's name resulted in someone being cut off from the community - Sforno suggests that since they have already been cut off from this world by their physical death, the penalty of being cut off by G-d must apply to the world to come - what does that say to us about the importance of not doing that today? While the big issues need us to give a clear moral lead and position, the smaller items of our ever day speech and attitudes are just as important in portraying the character of G-d to our world.
Further Study: Jeremiah 32:26-35; 1 Corinthians 6:18-20
Application: Is it time to write some letters to your elected representatives to express your concern about the steady decline of medical ethics and the need to retake the high moral ground? Make sure that your own words and actions match that high moral position you are urging others to take so that you don't give your friends and family the wrong picture of G-d.
© Jonathan Allen, 2008
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