Leviticus 20.2-3, the Septuagint and Patriotism as a capital offense

During my recent readings into Leviticus, I noticed a difference between the Masoritic Text and that of the Septuagint.

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “You shall also say to the sons of Israel: ‘Any man from the sons of Israel or from the aliens sojourning in Israel who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones.

(Lev 20:1-2 NASB)

And the Lord spoke to Moyses, saying: You shall also speak to the sons of Israel: If any of the sons of Israel or of the guests who have come in Israel – whoever gives any of his offspring to a ruler, by death let him be put to death; the nation in the land shall stone them with stones.

(Lev 20.1-2 New English Translation of the Septuagint)

The Greek reads,

καὶ τοῖς υἱοῖς Ισραηλ λαλήσεις ἐάν τις ἀπὸ τῶν υἱῶν Ισραηλ ἢ ἀπὸ τῶν προσγεγενημένων προσηλύτων ἐν Ισραηλ ὃς ἂν δῷ τοῦ σπέρματος αὐτοῦ ἄρχοντι θανάτῳ θανατούσθω τὸ ἔθνος τὸ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς λιθοβολήσουσιν αὐτὸν ἐν λίθοις

The bold word is ruler. The Orthodox Study Bible translates this passage as ‘to worship a ruler’, although I am not sure where they get ‘worship’ from.

I can understand the Molech bit, with its connotation of child sacrifice. But in my opinion, the passage in the Greek becomes more about idolatry, and more than that, nationalistic idolatry.  We read in Deuteronomy that a King would require the sons of the people in his army, but this is counseling against giving children to a ruler. Could this translation choice be directed towards Jews serving in either Ptolemy’s or the Roman armies of the time?

What do you think? How far off am I?

Post By Joel Watts (10,113 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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5 thoughts on “Leviticus 20.2-3, the Septuagint and Patriotism as a capital offense

  1. The LXX translation “ruler” probably comes from misunderstanding the Hebrew. The Hebrew word molech (“Molech”) looks exactly like the Hebrew for “ruler”: melech.

    In other places (Jeremiah, e.g.) the LXX correctly has moloch.

    This is typical of the sorts of translation mistakes we often find in the LXX.

    -Joel

    • Hi Joel,

      I posted after you did but think you’re correct to suggest the LXX translators created a problem with their Μολοχ in Amos 5:26 for one Hebrew word but the same Greek transliteration (Μολοχ) for the different Hebrew word in 2Kgs 23:10 and Jer 32:35. However, Robert Alter’s footnote on the latter Hebrew word, suggests it’s not a translational mistake of the LXX but rather a wordplay added by the Masoretes that contributes more to the problem of understanding here. What do you think?

      • I think the word moloch in Amos 5:26 represents a translation of a different textual variant. The Hebrew as we have it (which itself is not clear) seems to mention two gods, Sikut and Kiyun. The LXX has two different Gods, Moloch and Raifan. (I’m told that the Hebrew names match pretty well with derivations of the Babylonian names of the gods Jupiter and Saturn.)

        The connection between the god Molech (MOlech) and the verb “rule” (moLECH) is certainly unlikely to be a coincidence. And it seems to me that it’s similar to ba’al, variously “master,” “false god,” or the particular false god Baal.

        But I think there are lots of ways of explaining the various usages of the words, and so far I don’t find any of the explanations completely satisfactory.

  2. I can understand the Molech bit

    In the books of Kings and in Jeremiah, the LXX translators use βασιλεύς ["king"] instead of ἄρχοντι ["chief"]. Robert Alter and Everett Fox have footnotes in their respective English translations of Leviticus that may help here. Below, I’ve bolded their notes in places for emphases.

    Alter says:

    Molech is a Canaanite deity whose name suggests “king.” The authentic form of the name may have been Malik, revocalized by the Masoretes to make the word resemble boshet, “shame.” The most likely reference of the whole phrase is to child sacrifice, which in fact was widely practiced in the Syro-Palestinian sphere, as vividly attested by the vast number of children’s graves, uncovered at the site of Carthage, the Phoenecian colony in North Africa….

    Fox says:

    the Molekh: While there is disagreement on the meaning here, it can be shown that this probably does refer to child sacrifice to a deity (Levine). A crucial question is why it intrudes on the list of sexual prohibitions. The answer may lie in the observation that to the Israelite mind, paganism (of which Molekh-worship was likely seen as the most egregious kind) was synonymous with sexual immorality.

    Notice how Fox, like you, likes to translate the Hebrew word as an English proper noun but with the definite article to mark it: “the Molekh.” There’s something about this word that’s rather foreign (to the Hebrews). To the Hebrew translators into Hellene, there’s no MT vowels to take them in any direction other than the generic “kings” or “rulers” as an interpretive translation.

    In fact, maybe Alter’s right about it being closer in Hebrew transliteration to something like our English lettering: Malik. When the LXX translators do transliterate, it is Μολοχ, which is more like Malik and Molekh but much less like Boshet, which the MT translators seem to play on. The LXX has the transliterated version at 4Kgs 23:10, Am 5:26, and Jer 39:35; in each case, the Greek definite article marks it, to make clear it’s a proper noun. (Notice, in Amos 5:26, the LXX translators use the Greek letters “τοῦ Μολοχ” where there’s probably another, different king-like name: מלך . KJV has Moloch for the Amos verse; many English translators just have “king”; the ESV has “star god”; and the NLT has “king god.”)

    The five other times the Hebrewized word “the Molekh” appears in the Scriptures, the LXX has βασιλεύς or ἄρχοντι. So, indeed, “the passage in the Greek becomes more about idolatry, and more than that, nationalistic idolatry.” But maybe the passage in vocalized Hebrew (i.e., the later MT) is more emphasizing the shame in all of that.

  3. In Leviticus 18:20 God says “0καὶ πρὸς τὴν γυναῖκα τοῦ πλησίον σου οὐ δώσεις κοίτην σπέρματός σου ἐκμιανθῆναι πρὸς αὐτήν”, followed by Leviticus 18;21 “καὶ ἀπὸ τοῦ σπέρματός σου οὐ δώσεις λατρεύειν ἄρχοντι καὶ οὐ βεβηλώσεις τὸ ὄνομα τὸ ἅγιον ἐγὼ κύριος. Which I take to mean that if you sleep with your neighbors wife – the child that she has must not be sacrificed – i.e. aborted after birth. The words δώσεις λατρεύειν ἄρχοντι mean “sacrifice to the magistrate” which at the time was to burn the child alive before the priest. The word λατρεύειν also means to worship. The act of worshiping has no meaning without sacrificing something dear, i.e. the child. Such sacrifice was necessary given the vicissitude of the ancient agrarian economy. Thus the sacrifice served two purposes -appeasement of the gods for greater harvest and population control. God brought on the flood at the time of Noah to cleanse the earth of human sacrifice and cannibalism. These were the sins of man that God found so egregious. Thus God’s admonishment that the Hebrews have no other god than God as other gods sought human sacrifice. God’s covenant with Abraham at the time he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac was the replacement of the blood sacrifice with circumcision.

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