In my article “On Elkenah as Canaanite El” I made an argument for understanding the idolatrous god “Elkenah” from the Book of Abraham as the Canaanite deity El. Part of my argument was linguistic, suggesting that the -kenah element of the name could = Canaan. This looks counterintuitive at first, but the usage in cuneiform texts from Tell El Amarna and Bogazkoy demonstrates that the second n in Hebrew kena’an is an affixational morpheme, not part of the name itself. So while letters originating in Canaan itself (Tyre and Byblos) use the second n, those originating in Syria or Mesopotamia do not (resulting in the normalized form kinahh-). I also point to sources that report that Phoenicia was formerly called Chna (Greek chi-nu-alpha), which appears to represent a continuity with the earlier cuneiform form of the name.
My second argument had to do with child sacrifice. Since the attempt to sacrifice the young Abraham is a key point of the book, the setting would appear to be in a religious culture that maintained such a practice. To me the clearest possibility for such a setting would be a Canaanite one. As I wrote,
“It was El among the gods who sacrificed his own chldren, Yadid and Mot. Classical sources and archaeological discoveries attest to human sacrifice in the continuum form Canaanite to Phoenician to Punic religion, with the popularity of child sacrifice at Carthage being dependent on an El cult.”
 The Canaanites and the Phoenicians represent approximately the same culture. Scholars generally use the word Canaanite to refer to the period antedating roughly 1200 BC, and the word Phoenician to refer to the period thereafter. Punic derives from the Latin form of Phoenician and has special reference to Carthage, a Phoenician colony founded on the north coast of Africa in the ninth century BC.
So it was with particular interest that I opened up my latest copy of Biblical Archaeology Review to find Patricia Smith, “Infants Sacrificed? The Tale Teeth Tell” 40/4 (July-August 2014): 54-56, 68.
Smith describes a study that she and colleagues did at the Carthage tophet (a tophet is an infant burial site). We know from literary sources that child sacrifice was practiced at Carthage, but whether the archaeology supports that conclusion has been somewhat controversial. Smith’s team examined 342 tophet funerary urns dating from the eighth to the second centuries BCE. All contained incinerated remains. The majority were infants, the rest young animals, mainly sheep and goat. Typically an urn would contain the remains of one individual, but sometimes as many as three were in the same urn.
Studying the bones to estimate dates of death would be problematic, as they had cracked and warped due to incineration. But the teeth did enable the researchers to estimate age at death. As the teeth grow in length, the enamel and dentine increase in thickness, such that teeth at the same stage of development resemble one another in such measures.
First they had to determine the effect of incineration on the teeth, so they compared them with a control sample of non-incinerated teeth of the same type and length. Using a battery of methods, they found that the enamel and dentine in tophet teeth were consistently thicker for the same length compared to teeth in the control sample. Length meausurements in the tophet teeth consistently underestimated age by between four to six weeks, so they corrected age estimations accordingly.
Their findings? Most infant deaths at the Carthage tophet (67%) were of infants aged one to two months. This age distribution differs markedly from the characteristic of infant mortality profiles in past societies, or even present-day communities without access to modern medical care. That profile suggests 55% mortality by three months, with the death toll then constant thereafter over the following months. The Carthage results suggest infants selected for sacrifice in the one to two months range, with much less mortality coming from later months.
(Part of the article discusses a competing study that argued against child sacrifice, claiming most of these infancts died either prenatal or at birth, making them inappropriate objects of human sacrifice. This other team’s data were virtually identical to the Smith team’s, except that they had failed to take into account the incineration on the teeth and make the four to six week adjustment necessitated by that.)
There is a lot of human sacrifice that goes on in the Bible in a Canaanite context. (Indeed, I think the Akedah or binding of Isaac has a Canaanite background.) For us moderns it is simply inconceivable that we would allow our own children to be sacrificed as an offering to the god. But such practices were indeed a reality of the ancient world.