Childhood Studies Child Sacrifice in the Ancient Near and Middle East
Jason Tatlock
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0272


Child sacrifice is a specific subset of the wider category of human sacrifice, which is a form of slaying that attempts to bring about a shift in the suprahuman realm. Child sacrifice is a subset because it points to the young age of victims or to the parent-child relationship. The practice is closely intertwined with the religious history of the ancient Near East and wider Mediterranean world. It is noticeable in artwork, textual traditions, and a variety of archaeological contexts. Because the practice goes back into prehistory, it is not always clear why certain child sacrifices were performed, such as sacrifices accomplished at the founding of buildings. Through artistic and textual representations, it is possible to gain a better understanding of the meanings attached to sacrificial rites. Nevertheless, there are still ambiguities that exist, and scholars must dig into ancient contexts to discovery how child sacrifices were perceived. This entails careful linguistic analysis, including of biblical texts. Child sacrifice is still a topic of interest to those adhering to the Abrahamic faith traditions that developed out of this area of the world. In this respect, the sacrifice, or almost sacrifice, of a firstborn son would be of greatest significance. Yet the early Israelite story about Abraham’s mountain-top binding of his son to the altar (called the Akedah in Judaism) has neither been viewed identically in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam nor meant the same thing to every generation. It could be said that child sacrifice more generally has experienced shifts within faith traditions, and practices accepted in one time period may not have been agreeable later. This is certainly the case with human sacrifice more broadly. Not only did ancient views on child sacrifice change, but so too have academic opinions varied. Indeed, scholars living in the same period even disagree on the existence or interpretation of particular practices. There are a variety of perspectives on diverse issues, and it is not always clear that child sacrifice actually transpired in some circumstances. Not only are textual sources difficult at times to interpret, but so too are archaeological remains. Some of the complexities of studying child sacrifice are outlined here. What follows is a brief overview of scholarship on child sacrifice organized into seven topics: Mesopotamia and Anatolia, North Africa and Punic Sites, Nonbiblical Levantine finds, Ancient Israelite Traditions, Postbiblical Jewish Views, Christian Perspectives, and Islamic Understandings.

Mesopotamia and Anatolia

To be fair, there is more evidence for adult human sacrifice in sources and finds coming out of the ancient Mesopotamian and Anatolian worlds than there is for child sacrifice in particular. Nevertheless, potential examples of sacrifice have been discovered in various archaeological contexts, as examined by Recht 2019, and in Akkadian inscriptions. Both textual traditions and material finds are subject to interpretation, however, and the finds discussed below can be viewed variously. Take, for instance, the building sacrifices from Hattusha discussed by Neve 1996, or the cases referenced in Moses 2012, Starr 1939, Tobler 1950, and Tsuneki 2022 at Çatalhöyük, Nuzi, Tepe Gawra, and Tell el-Kerkh, respectively. A sacrificial interpretation necessitates the fundamental supposition that individuals were purposefully killed with the aim of incorporating their remains into building projects. While this is a valid perspective, it is also possible (albeit less likely) that individuals died of nonsacrificial means and were then placed into structures. Sacrifice versus nonsacrifice is also at stake with contemporaneous burials of more than one being at Umm el-Marra, a site analyzed in Schwartz 2012. As for texts about burning children from the Neo-Assyrian period, the Akkadian passages describe the practice with the language of penalties. These penalties explain that children should be burned to various deities as punishment of the parents. The burning process is best understood in a sacrificial manner, which is how Smith 1975 reads the penalties, but it is not unanimously viewed as such. Instead of child sacrifice, an alternative perspective seen in Weinfeld 1972 is that children were to be dedicated to meet these penalties.

  • Moses, S. “Sociopolitical Implications of Neolithic Foundation Deposits and the Possibility of Child Sacrifice: A Case Study at Çatalhöyük, Turkey.” In Sacred Killing: The Archaeology of Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East. Edited by A. Porter, and G. M. Schwartz, 57–77. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012.

    Moses explores the issue of foundation sacrifice in the Neolithic age. Among the burials Moses identifies are those of two adults and six infants from three building contexts that can be considered the victims of sacrifice; Moses does not treat the adults as victims, however. In one of these contexts, a woman and infant were buried near a wall and three infants were interred within thresholds.

  • Neve, P. “Housing in Ḫattuša, the Capital of the Hittite Kingdom.” Translated by Z. Bekdik. In Housing and Settlement in Anatolia: A Historical Perspective. Edited by Y. Sey, 99–115. Istanbul: Türkiye Ekonomik ve Toplumsal Tarih Vakfi, 1996.

    Neve surveys the architecture of ancient Hattusha. In the midst of describing urban structures, discussion ensues about three buildings from pre-Hittite times that may have been sacred places of worship and not mere domestic dwellings. Neve raises the possibility that the remains of two children buried in the foundation level of one of these structures may have come from individuals sacrificed in an act of dedication.

  • Recht, L. Human Sacrifice: Archaeological Perspectives from around the World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    As the title indicates, the author is particularly interested in archaeological finds. Sites like Umm el-Marra, Tepe Gawra, Nuzi, and Tell el-Kerkh are among the places mentioned in the book, which has a global focus that goes outside the Mediterranean basin to cover Central America, China, and Northern Europe. Children are mentioned at several points in Recht’s treatment—that is, in addition to adults.

  • Schwartz, G. M. “Archaeology and Sacrifice.” In Sacred Killing: The Archaeology of Sacrifice in the Ancient Near East. Edited by A. Porter, and G. M. Schwartz, 1–32. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2012.

    DOI: 10.5325/j.ctv1bxgxm5.5

    Excavations at Umm el-Marra have found some intriguing finds that lend themselves to sacrificial interpretations, such as in reference to Tomb 1, which contained the multiple burials of two men plus an infant associated with two women with two infants. Who was potentially sacrificed for whom is discussed by Schwartz, but the sacrificial interpretation is uncertain. Additionally unclear is the status of the infants buried nearby together with equids.

  • Smith, M. “A Note on Burning Babies.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 95.3 (1975): 477–479.

    DOI: 10.2307/599358

    In response to Weinfeld 1972, Smith disagrees with the perspective that passing children through flames denotes dedication in the Bible, and regards Assyrian material in a literal light. Smith argues that the biblical and Assyrian texts are about child burnt-sacrifice. As Smith shows, some of the Assyrian passages mention dedication distinctly from sacrifice. In other words, both dedication and sacrifice are found in the passages, but as separate practices.

  • Starr, R. F. S. Nuzi: Report on the Excavations at Yorgan Tepa Near Kirkuk, Iraq. Conducted by Harvard University in Conjunction with the American Schools of Oriental Research and the University Museum of Philadelphia 1927–1931. Vol. 1, Text. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1939.

    Starr is prone to interpret child burials in ceramic jars as instances of human sacrifice, but sacrifice can be inferred more readily from instances where children were set inside building structures at Nuzi. For example, Starr discusses the incorporation of an infant into a wall, who had been set onto a vessel fragment. The burial was covered by plaster. Additional cases of the burial of infants during construction were discovered.

  • Tobler, A. Excavations at Tepe Gawra. Vol. 2, Levels IX-XX. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950.

    Tobler asserts that interring people inside temples constitutes human sacrifice. While this is possible, it is difficult to prove particularly because people were also buried in the floors of structures that were not regarded as sacred places. More indicative of sacrifice would be the remains of individuals incorporated into structures regardless of their function, such as the infant graves associated with the foundations for the Western and Eastern Temples.

  • Tsuneki, A. “The Tell el-Kerkh Site and Stratigraphy.” In The Neolithic Cemetery at Tell el-Kerkh. Edited by A. Tsuneki, N. Hironaga, and S. Jammo, 19–66. Summertown, UK: Archaeopress, 2022.

    Tsuneki’s chapter does the complex job of describing the stratigraphy at Tell el-Kerkh. It includes the description of a pit that held an infant skeleton, one of a young suid, and additional animal bones. For Tsuneki the finds suggest that a ritual was performed prior to erecting a residence. The term “sacrifice” does not appear in this treatment, but it would be fair to suggest that a foundation sacrifice occurred.

  • Weinfeld, M. “The Worship of Molech and of the Queen of Heaven and Its Background.” Ugarit-Forschungen 4 (1972): 133–154.

    The focus of the work is on Molech, who is known as a deity worshipped through child sacrifices by means of fire. In addition to biblical texts, Weinfeld examines rabbinical and Punic sources. The writer builds upon the perspective that Neo-Assyrian penalties involving burning children relate to devoting children to religious servitude, arguing that the Bible also points to dedicating children and not literally to setting them aflame as sacrifices.

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