A Lenten Reflection: Moloch Has an ‘Off’ Switch

The ancient cult of Moloch has modern echoes.

‘The true and great Moloch within our homes’
‘The true and great Moloch within our homes’ (photo: Pixabay/CC0)

In February 2013, Pope Benedict called upon Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi to lead a Lenten retreat for the Roman Curia. On Feb. 20, Cardinal Ravasi’s meditation took an unexpected turn as he warned against society’s worship of the pagan god Moloch.

What was he talking about? Who is Moloch? It was the Canaanites, the Phoenicians and other cultures in north Africa who worshiped the god Moloch. In the Book of Leviticus, the sons of Israel are warned that anyone in Israel — either a native son of Israel, or a traveler who passes through their land — will be put to death by stoning if he sacrifices his children to Moloch. You see, the cult of Moloch requires that living children be thrown into a burning furnace:

“You shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Moloch, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the LORD.” —Leviticus 18:21

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 Moloch, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. I will also set My face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given some of his offspring to Moloch, so as to defile My sanctuary and to profane My holy name. If the people of the land, however, should ever disregard that man when he gives any of his offspring to Moloch, so as not to put him to death, then I Myself will set My face against that man and against his family, and I will cut off from among their people both him and all those who play the harlot after him, by playing the harlot after Moloch.’ —Leviticus 20:1-5

Since then, Moloch has stood as a symbol of a depraved culture. In Milton’s Paradise Lost (1.329-36), Moloch is named as the first god to join Satan’s war on humankind:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol.

Cardinal Ravasi, though, had a different monster in mind. He was talking about the television set.

Reflecting on Psalm 39, he shared with the Holy Father his concern about contemporary culture’s superficiality, worrying that people will be lulled to sleep, and will not bother to wonder about the meaning of life and the existence of God. This, he preached, is a “narcosis which eliminates the big questions.”

Citing the effect of this false god, Cardinal Ravasi said:

“Just think of the television, which is the true and great Moloch within our homes. We already know all about fashion, about what we should eat, how we should dress, choose, etc.; but we no longer have a voice that shows us the path and meaning of this life, especially when it is so fragile, so miserable. That is why it is important to come back again to the great themes. Have the courage to propose great thoughts; I think one of the great problems of today’s youth is that they are no longer able to find meaningful answers and so they allow themselves to drift and be swayed by contemporary society.”

According to a study released in 2011 by the Nielsen Company (State of the Media, Trends in TV Viewing–2011 TV Upfronts), the average American watched 34 hours, 39 minutes of television per week in the fourth quarter of 2010. That’s more than five hours per day — hours which could be spent instead on family activities, productive work, community service, prayer, exercise and fitness or recreation.

Lent is a good time to reflect on this, and to consider what other goals might be achieved during those lost hours on the sofa in the family room.

Remember: Moloch has an “OFF” switch.