Traces of Polytheism in 2 Kings

Preparing for my bible study out at the prison I was reading through 2 Kings and came upon this really curious passage in 2 Kings 3. There seems to be the shadow of another god in the biblical text.

In the story the Israelites are attacking their perennial enemies, the Moabites. And the Israelites get the upper hand:
2 Kings 3.24-27 (NRSV)
But when they came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and attacked the Moabites, who fled before them; as they entered Moab they continued the attack. The cities they overturned, and on every good piece of land everyone threw a stone, until it was covered; every spring of water they stopped up, and every good tree they felled. Only at Kir-hareseth did the stone walls remain, until the slingers surrounded and attacked it.
Facing defeat the Moabite king does something desperate. He offers a child sacrifice--To whom?--and that sacrifice saves Moab. After the sacrifice the NRSV reads "and a great wrath came upon Israel" causing them to retreat:
When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.
Where did this wrath come from? The text doesn't really say. Some translations leave in the ambiguity while others tilt toward a human origin:
And there came great wrath against Israel

And there was great indignation against Israel

And there was great wrath against Israel

The fury against Israel was great
The ASV, NRSV, and the ESV keep the source of the wrath vague. The KJV and the NIV seem to suggest that the wrath comes from the onlooking Moabites. That is, seeing their king sacrifice his son fills the Moabites with "fury" and "indignation" which rekindles their fighting spirit to throw back the Israelite advance.

But the text doesn't actually say that. It doesn't say that the Moabites got angry or that they rose up against the Israelites in anger. It simply says that in response to the child sacrifice a "wrath came up against Israel" and that "Israel withdrew."

Basically, if you read between the lines the god of Moab--Chemosh (Num. 21.29; Jer. 48.7, 13, 46)--seems to be implicated. First, a child sacrifice is made by the king of Moab. This wouldn't have been to YHWH but to Chemosh. And after the sacrifice to Chemosh a "great wrath" comes upon the Israelites, causing them to withdraw. It seems reasonable to assume that Chemosh found the sacrifice acceptable and moved against Israel.

Of course, Chemosh isn't directly mentioned. One wonders if a direct mention of the Moabite god was removed from the original story in light of the developing monotheism of Israel.

If this story contains a trace of Chemosh it is one of the few stories, and the only one I'm aware of as I consult my memory, where a god other than YHWH has a causal impact on human events in the Old Testament.

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18 thoughts on “Traces of Polytheism in 2 Kings ”

  1. Are you familiar with Peter Hiett at the Sanctuary Downtown in Denver? I've heard him preach on this.

    Do you think it's simply a misunderstanding of what judgment was in the OT?

  2. Not familiar with Peter.

    I'm not sure what you mean by your question. Any judgment by YHWH should have been against the Moabites and the one sinning by offering a child sacrifice. But what happens instead is that Israel is throw back in defeat. The child sacrifice seems to "work." But it wouldn't have worked for YHWH. So then who'd it work for?

  3. Peter leans heavily toward UR. If I remember correctly he seemed to think it was YHWH showing the Moabites that he honored the idea of sacrifice even thought they didn't know Him.

    My question stemmed from the idea that I believe that many of the things attributed to God in the OT weren't God at all but simply the way they understood it to be at the time.

  4. Neither do I.
    They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom,
    to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command
    them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this
    abomination, to cause Judah to sin.

    I think Hiett was saying that he accepted the heart of the sacrificer not sacrifice.

  5. I'm sensing the /ketzef/ great indignation on the part of the humans - the Judeans that the king would do such a despicable thing, and the Moabites that the king felt driven to such an extreme measure by the siege by the Judeans. But I'm grasping at straws here. I need to look at the shoresh of ketzef.

  6. When things are unclear, I consult the LXX; often things get clearer, sometimes not.

    The New English Translation of the LXX says: "And great regret came upon Israel, and they withdrew from him and returned to their land." From this, it sounds like the Israel/Judah/Edom confederation was not defeated, but simply quit and went home because of the horror of the sacrifice.

    In the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, a passage is given from St Ephrem the Syrian (300s), who posits pretty much the same thing that Nimblewill quotes Peter Hiett as saying - that if God were involved in saving the Moabites, it was because the king knew, knowing something of the history of Abraham, sacrifice to YHWH was appropriate, even if offering the most completely abhorrent sacrifice (that Abraham was prevented from offering). St Ephrem says the Israelits didn't learn anything from this, but continued in their idolatrous ways, and that was what increased God's wrath on them, until they were finally overrun and exiled.


  7. I notice that this is a pretty powerful Israel, allied with Edom and Judah at the time, and that there is an implied disapproval of Israel over-reaching the terms of God's (ostensible) remit, pursuing Moab beyond their own borders. Israel has recently been described as having no God (by God through Elijah) and their new king Jehoram starts out by numbering his troops - associated elsewhere with disobedience and lack of trust in God. Could the indignation come from Israel's allies (including faithful Jehoshaphat) at this unsanctioned humilation of the rebel leader to the point where he sacrifices his own heir, perhaps?

  8. Hiett's sermon if anyone is interested. You can read it as well.

  9. Have you read History and the Gods by Bertil Albrektson? Older monograph, but still makes some startling points. James Barr also references Albrektson in discussing the way Hebrew-Israelite monotheism and how they understood the acts of YHWH was of a piece with the rest of the region. Larry Hurtado also discusses and points to other scholars that suggest what we understand to monotheism is a post-Enlightenment category.

  10. Here's an analogous situation from a time when the motivations leading to human sacrifice were known:

    "...Crowbone had a brief opportunity to establish himself before war broke out again. [He] began his campaign of Christianizing Norway, marching from the Vik up to the west and north, accompanied by his army. In each new township, he presented the case--accept the love of the Christian God, or die resisting. ... (Jonathan Clememnts, The Vikings, 131-2.)

    "Crowbone's attitude demonstrates how little had changed. He was happy, he claimed, to sacrifice to the old gods with the people of Trondheim, as Hakon the Good had done... But since Crowbone was a great king and this was an event of supreme importance, it would have to be the greatest sacrifice ever made in the region. The old gods...were no longer happy with a few chickens... ...the situation...required full-strength human sacrifice. But Crowbone wanted to take things even further, This time, he claimed, it would not be enough to bump off a couple of slaves... These sacrifices would require the noblest of blood...and he proceeded to list the names of twelve of the most powerful men in the region." (133-4)

    The point is that sacrifice seems to have been a transparent power play: fealty procures divine help--and with great fealty comes great help.

    From a Christian standpoint, things get absurdly humorous. From a bit later in the text (135):

    "[Thangbrand] into an argument with a devout heathen lady by the name of Steinunn, who asked him where Christ was when Thor was causing his ship to be gashed on the rocks. According to Steinunn, Thor had challenged Christ to a fight, but Christ had not shown up."

    So it appears to have been a game of chicken, with human sacrifice standing in for the gods when the stakes were high enough.

    Now, isn't it interesting that the gospel inverts every element in this dynamic?

  11. You guys may already be aware of the Moabite Stone, but, if not, it tells this story from the Moabite view point. Interesting how if the names were changed it would read like a passage out of the OT.

  12. This is a really interesting passage! I think 2 Kings 3 and its surprise ending raises four big questions:
    (1) Did Jehoram commit war crimes? (i.e., a scorched earth campaign contra Deut 20)
    (2) Did Elisha command war crimes?
    (3) Whose wrath?
    (4) Did Elisha's prophecy fail?
    There seems to be little consensus among commentators on the answers to these questions. BTW, I really enjoy your blog!

  13. Ben: I like these questions. Thanks for posting them.
    I am no scholar, but was intrigued by the post's questions and read some commentaries online. The post, discussion, my amateur's research, and some other reading I've been doing lately had me wondering:
    1) Do statements in the text such as: that Moab "had to pay the king of Israel a tribute of a hundred thousand lambs and the wool of a hundred thousand rams" (was this God's plan re the promised land or a man-made addiiton?); and Jehoram's view that "The king of Moab has rebelled against me" (i.e. Moab wasn't necessarily aggressing against Israel, it seems) mean that God was not "on Israel's side" in this campaign? (Or at least not as much as Israel might have assumed).
    2) Also, and maybe related, do Elisha's words and actions: "Elisha said to the king of Israel, 'Why do you want to involve me? Go to the prophets of your father and the prophets of your mother'.” and "Elisha said, 'As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not pay any attention to you'." indicate that one of the purposes in the story was to show disfavor toward Jehoram/Ahab/Israel's course in general?
    3) Can Elisha's prophetic utterance be understood as something along the lines of: "[God] will also deliver Moab into your hands (after he cares for the thirsty soldiers). [But] You will overthrow every fortified city and every major town. You will cut down every good tree, stop up all the springs, and ruin every good field
    with stones." i.e. were the words about what Jehoram and his men would do with the land a command or a (sad) prophecy - about, as you put it, war crimes.
    4) Since God would deliver Moab into Jehoram's hands (for the sake of Jehosaphat? to ease the burden on the conscripted soldiers?), should Jehoram and his men have waited at that last city to see what God would do instead of pressing so much themselves? (God had just given further testimony to his faithfulness by sending all that water).

    5) Whosever's wrath it was that broke out against Israel, I wonder if being forced to witness the king of Moab's sacrifice of his own son on the walls of the city didn't force all involved to face the true/inevitable reality of their own actions, i.e. the decision to wage the campaign was a decision to sacrifice someone's/many sons in battle: for what? (Reminds me of Satre's quote that evil is the product of humans' ability to make abstract ("war") that which is concrete (individual lives).

    In any case, I like that you framed your comment as questions. I hope you don't mind me imitating that approach in this reply: the new faith I am slowly gaining these days is happily characterized by questions. It is benefitting me much more than my previous approach in which I thought my faith was measured by all the answers I (thought I) had. I, in all my certainty back then, more closely resembled the Jehoram of this story than anyone else in it (I waged rather merciless war against questions, weaknesses, doubts, etc. - my own and others') and far more so than I like to admit. This story and the questions it prompt are good reminders to me.

  14. It seems that questions beget more questions! Love it. If you're interested, I wrote a research essay last year around my four questions which can be found here:
    As for your questions: (1) I think you are right to question the legitimacy of the campaign. However, there is evidence outside the text (Mesha inscription, etc) that Jehoram needed to put down Mesha's rebellion since Mesha was terrorizing Israelite Gadite villages. So his campaign may have been partly retributive and/or defensive (a war on terror perhaps?). The surprise ending should certainly compel us to reconsider the legitimacy of the campaign. I suspect it was semi-legit, as usual.
    (2) I think you're correct here.
    (3) Yes, I think Elisha delivers a promise--deliverance from their present predicament--and a prediction of the evil they will do once Mesha is in their grip. Otherwise he recommends violating Deut 20.
    (4) Not sure. I think Jehoram has violated Deut 20 by this point in the story and squandered any moral legitimacy that his campaign may have previously enjoyed. God, it would seem, sees fit to withdraw his protection. This leaves room for Mesha to curse Israel, as Balaam once sought to. Without divine protection, Israel is indeed cursed.
    (5) I don't think Israel quit because of the spectacle of human sacrifice. There is evidence, I think, that they would have been hardened to such practices. More likely, a plague broke out during the siege and there was confusion as to the source. Some blamed Chemosh, others Yahweh. In any case, their resolve was broken and they lifted the siege empty handed. Divine wrath is described elsewhere as a plague.
    Thanks for your reply. My answers are tentative, but I want to prioritize the moral character of God and Elisha in my interpretation.

  15. Ben: Thanks for your reply. Your research essay is excellent, thank you for providing the link to it. In addition to the rich and substantive consideration of various perspectives on the story, it provided me with personal instruction as well. As such, I found it doubly beneficial. Thank you.

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