With his permission, I'm posting some correspondence I had with Dr. Richard Hess today.
Dear Dr. Hess,
How do you interpret 2 Kings 3:27? I ask because some reviewers of Paul Copan's Is God/Yahweh a Moral Monster have been critical of how he handled this passage. Here are some concrete examples:
Consider 2 Kings 3:27 in which Mesha, King of Moab, sacrifices his son. The text seems to imply that Yahweh accepted the sacrifice and as a result the battle turns against the Israelites.
Another example is found in 2 Kings 3:27 where the king of the Moabites sacrifices his son on the city wall. According to some exegetes, the fact that the fury against the Israelites immediately following this act was “great”, thereby forcing them to retreat, suggests that the sacrifice was accepted by Yahweh.
Copan next moves to salvage 2 Kgs 3:4-27, the story of King Mesha’s defeat of the allied forces of Israel, Judah, and Edom. Let me give you the whole story, before we examine the relevance of the human sacrifice here in this tale.
As we already noted when we looked at the Mesha Stele, Israel had subjugated Moab, oppressing them, and was in occupation of multiple Moabite territories. So the story begins, King Ahab of Israel died, and Mesha took that opportunity to mount a resistance and rebel against Moab’s oppressor, Israel. In response, Jehoram, king of Israel, makes an alliance with Judah and Edom and sets out to put Mesha back in his place of subjugation and compliance. But before they engage Mesha in combat, King Jehoram seeks a prophet to foretell whether Yahweh will fight for them or not. It just so happened that the famous prophet Elisha, successor to Elijah, was at hand. Elisha enquired of Yahweh, and gave the allied kings this message:
"This is only a trifle in the sight of Yahweh, for he will also hand Moab over to you. You shall conquer every fortified city and every choice city; every good tree you shall fell, all springs of water you shall stop up, and every good piece of land you shall ruin with stones" (2 Kgs 3:18-19).
Just to reiterate this point, Elisha, the famous prophet of Yahweh (a clear good guy, not a wicked prophet) enquires of Yahweh and Yahweh promises the allied forces a victory against Moab.
Let’s pause for a moment to discuss the significance of this. Apologists like Paul Copan and Richard Hess, when defending the morality of the Canaanite conquests narratives, often make the point (as we’ll see with Copan later on) that the conquest of Canaan was a limited conquest. Israel wasn’t permitted, they argue to go on beyond the Promised Land, taking territories from other nations. But that’s precisely what Israel had done. It had attacked Moab and taken control of Moabite territory. Now, an “is” isn’t an “ought,” right? Well, in this case, wrong. The whole premise of this account is that King Mesha of Moab is taking advantage of Ahab’s death and rebelling against Israel’s dominion. What form did this rebellion take? Well, according to this text, Mesha rebelled by refusing to continue to offer his required tribute of 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams (see 2 Kgs 3:4-7). If any other kind of rebellion is implied in the text, then it would have been Mesha attempting to regain Moabite territory from Israel (as seen in the Mesha Stele). So Israel moves to stamp out this rebellion in order to secure its dominion (illegal dominion, according to Copan and Hess) of Moabite territory. What does Yahweh say about all this? Does Yahweh say, “I will not help you, for your occupation of Moabite territory is contrary to what future apologists will claim!”
No, he doesn’t. Rather, Yahweh not only says he’ll help them stamp out the rebellion, Yahweh says he’ll help them conquer “every fortified city and every choice city” in the land of Moab. So much for a limited conquest. Anyway, back to it.
So, with the assurance of Elisha that Yahweh will certainly give them victory over Moab (“this is a trifle in the sight of Yahweh,” i.e., easy pickings), Israel, Judah and Edom engage Moab in battle.
And as the battle gets going, it’s clear that Yahweh is indeed fighting for them, employing a miraculous optical illusion to lead the Moabites into an ambush (3:22). So the allied forces are cleaning up, laying waste to Moabite territory, and the Moabites are running scared. Mesha is losing big time. He’s up against . . . a formidable foe. So you can guess what he does next, right?
"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.
Here it is again. As with Jephthah, as with the Israelites against the armies of Arad, Mesha is up against a formidable foe and needs a divine boost if he’s going to come out with a victory. So he does what any heroic Israelite would do: he offers a human sacrifice to his deity in exchange for support in battle. But not just any sacrifice. Mesha already knew what Jephthah learned the hard way: deities wanted a real sacrifice. So Mesha sacrificed his firstborn son, heir to the throne, to his god Kemosh.
But we know how the story’s going to end, right? After all, Yahweh had already promised Israel victory over Moab, boasting that it was a mere “trifle,” easy pickings. And Yahweh is the only real God anyway, right? Kemosh isn’t even real. Mesha’s wasting his time, sacrificed his son for nothing. That’s what happens next,
"And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from Mesha and returned to their own land."
Oops! Wait a minute. Israel gets a beatdown and retreats? Turns out it wasn’t “easy pickings” like Yahweh said it was going to be? Turns out Elisha the prophet prophesied falsely? Turns out Kemosh is a real god after all? Turns out the narrator of the Bible believes that human sacrifice really works?
The problem is, Copan doesn’t even argue against the reading of the text I’ve just offered. He totally misunderstands what biblical scholars even say this text means. He writes, “Some think this is God’s wrath [i.e., Yahweh’s wrath] and that God is showing his approval of Mesha’s sacrifice of his son by responding in wrath against Israel” (96).
Say what?! Nobody argues that. At least, in the scores of commentaries and monographs I’ve read that address this text, I’ve never encountered a single one that even acknowledges the existence of the view that Yahweh accepted Mesha’s sacrifice! Not a one. Unfortunately, Copan doesn’t cite anybody here who represents this ridiculous position; I really don’t believe anybody holds this position. I think that Copan heard this text was used in support of human sacrifice in the Bible and just assumed that’s what people were arguing. If he can show me a single scholar who argues that Yahweh accepted Mesha’s sacrifice, I’ll eat my shoe, and then I’ll bill that scholar for the ensuing visit to the emergency room, because they have no right to argue for anything so ridiculous.
Unfortunately, Copan proceeds to argue why that imaginary interpretation of the text is untenable. But he even screws that up! He argues that this couldn’t be the case because the idea that Yahweh would accept a human sacrifice is in direct contradiction to the straightforward condemnations of child sacrifice “earlier in the Pentateuch” (citing Deut 12:31 and 18:10), not to mention the rejection of human sacrifice in the book of Kings itself (citing 2 Kgs 16:3; 17:7; 21:6) (96). Of course, all of the texts he cites are in the Deuteronomistic corpus and were written at a time after the institution of human sacrifice had been condemned by Jeremiah in the seventh century! At the time this episode was written, Deut 12:31 and 18:10 didn’t even exist yet, and the references to child sacrifice in 2 Kings are editorial additions to older narratives by Dtr2 (an exilic writer from the same school as the seventh century Deuteronomistic historian) who was trying to explain why Israel was now in exile—due to the sins of Judah’s kings. If Copan had any familiarity whatsoever with source criticism, he’d know this won’t hold up among actual Bible scholars.
Fortunately, however, the rest of his arguments against his imaginary wrong reading of the passage are still relevant as objections to the reading I offered above. But they are all, with the exception of the last one, arguments I already refuted in chapter six of The Human Faces of God. I’ll revisit them briefly.
First, he argues that the word for “wrath” (qetseph, in Hebrew) is emphatically not divine wrath. He states that elsewhere in 2 Kings, a word derived from the same root as qetseph is used to refer to human fury (citing 2 Kgs 5:11; 13:19) (96). Note, however, that he has to resort to using a different form of qetseph to make his case. He says it is not divine wrath. Well, if he had done five minutes of homework, he’d know how ridiculous this claim is. As I show on pages 80 and 92 of The Human Faces of God, this form of qetseph occurs twenty-eight times in the Bible. Of those twenty-eight occurrences, only three do not refer to the wrath of a deity. It simply means “anger” (not “fury” as Copan would prefer) in Esth 1:18 and Eccl 5:17. In Hos 10:7 it is used metaphorically for the “froth” on the surface of the water. Of the remaining twenty-five occurrences of qetseph, all of which refer to the wrath of a deity, a total of eighteen refer to the wrath of a deity upon on army, nation, or congregation.
And the twenty-fifth is right here in 2 Kgs 3:27. The wrath of Kemosh (not of Yahweh!) “came upon Israel” and they retreated. It would make no sense if it were the wrath of Yahweh. Why would Yahweh punish Israel for Mesha’s sacrifice? The plain sense of the text just verifies the ideology we’ve already seen at work in Numbers 21 and Judges 11, except this time, the deity offering aid in battle in exchange for sacrifice is Kemosh, not Yahweh.
But Copan throws out some other (what he calls) “plausible” interpretations of the text—three, to be precise. First, the “wrath” was the wrath of the Moabite army, who were angry at Israel because they felt sorry for Mesha because in desperation he had to sacrifice his son. Well, it certainly is a creative suggestion! Problematic for this thesis is that of the twenty-eight occurrences of the word qetseph in the Hebrew Bible, not one refers to the wrath of an army. Not one! Compared to twenty-five of twenty-eight which refer to the wrath of a deity, and eighteen of which refer to the wrath of a deity “coming upon” an army, nation, or congregation! Interpreting the wrath here as the wrath of the Moabite army just doesn’t fit the linguistic usage at all.
Second, the Israelites were overcome with superstitious fear when they witnessed the human sacrifice, causing them to forsake their military campaign (96). Well, another creative suggestion, but one that just ignores what the text actually says. It doesn’t say that “fear” or “dread” came over them. It says that “great wrath” came upon them. Hebrew actually does have words for “dread,” “fear,” “horror,” all that. But they aren’t used. “Wrath” is, and 89 percent of the time, it refers to the wrath of a deity! So really, do either of these interpretations seem “plausible”?
Now for the third, and final, attempt to offer a “plausible” alternative to Copan’s imaginary “Yahweh accepted Mesha’s sacrifice” reading of the text. This is the most ridiculous of them all. Actually, this one is in another league altogether. Copan argues that despite Mesha’s inability to break through the allied siege, he somehow managed to capture the king of Edom’s son, and sacrificed the king of Edom’s son on the wall, which had the effect of demoralizing Edom’s forces. Copan claims that the “wrath” of Edom’s army brought an end to the war because they turned back, withdrawing from the allied campaign (96).
No, he actually wrote this. He’s actually suggesting that King Mesha, while being totally annihilated by the allied forces, managed to kidnap the firstborn son of the king of Edom (his enemy), and sacrificed him—the king of Edom’s son! He’s further actually suggesting that the “wrath” refers to a demoralized Edomite army, who in their “wrath” retreated. Never mind that the “wrath” is said to have come upon Israel (not Edom), and never mind that the text is perfectly clear that Mesha sacrificed his own son, not the son of the king of Edom (“then he [Mesha] took his firstborn son who would have reigned in his stead”).
Copan has attempted a shotgun strategy: pull the trigger, let the pellets scatter, and hope one hits a target somewhere. None of his suggestions are even remotely plausible, given the linguistic evidence and the ideological background of human sacrifice in the ancient Near East. The fact is, the text says that Yahweh promised Israel victory, but Mesha trumped them with a human sacrifice, and Kemosh beat Yahweh.
Dr. Hess replies
I would make the following observations:
In terms of vocabulary, qetsep and its verbal root, q-ts-p, do refer to anger in general; not just anger from God. The standard biblical Hebrew lexicon, Koehler-Baumgartner provides this interpretation (anger with reference to people, not God) as its first definition. Certainly there are more uses of the term with reference to God in the Bible. God is the chief subject of the Bible. However, that does not mean the vocable, either as a noun or a verb, cannot refer to human anger as it does in various biblical texts. By the way, the first attested extra-biblical usage of this West Semitic term seems to come from the Amarna letters c. 1350 B.C. In two letters sent from the king of Byblos to the pharaoh of Egypt this term glosses an Akkadian verb meaning “to be distressed.” In both appearances of the form (EA [El Amarna letter] 82 line 51 and EA 93 lines 4-5) its subjects and objects are very human – no deities involved. The relevant Akkadian dictionary and Sivan’s “Grammatical Analysis and Glossary” cite this form as West Semitic and translate it “to be angry.”
In terms of grammar, it is certainly possible and arguably preferable to see the “his” in “his firstborn son” of 2 Kgs 3:27 to refer to the first explicitly identified 3rd person masc. sing. antecedent who is the Edomite king in 3:26. Of course, by itself the “his” could refer to the Moabite king but linguistically that is not necessary. The question of reference is better explained in terms of the actual context.
The question to ask is why does v. 26 refer to an attempt by the Moabite king to break through the siege among the Edomite forces. We know that the king was besieged and losing the battle, as the previous verses indicate. He had gone against the Edomite forces to try to get at the king of Edom. Presumably, he believed that the king of Edom was most vulnerable. If he could kill this king, it would demoralize the Edomites and they would abandon the fight, breaking the coalition and likely turning the battle in Moab’s favor. He did not succeed, but I read the text as saying that he did achieve the next best thing. He captured the prince of Edom and sacrificed him on the wall in public view of the Edomites.
This makes more sense than the view that he would sacrifice his own son and successor in public view. Where is there an example of this in the West Semitic world? Clearly sons and sons of kings were sacrificed to gods; but we have no example that I know of where a king sacrifices his son in a besieged city so that the enemies see that sacrifice. Who would this demoralize? In this case it would demoralize the Moabites, not the Edomites. Furthermore, where is there any evidence in any other text to support the view that such an act would bring forth divine wrath – any divine wrath from any god or goddess – against the enemy? This is a reconstruction based on modern views of what the ancients believed child sacrifice could accomplish. It is certainly not apparent in this text or in any other.
So if the Moabite king killed the Edomite prince in public view of the Moabites, what did that mean? Yes, it is a burnt offering but there is no reference in the text to any god whatsoever. The term focuses, not on the religious nature of the sacrifice, but on the fact that the prince was put to death in a public spectacle where his body was burned. The fire and smoke could be seen (and smelled?) by the Edomites who were then demoralized. The wrath that emerged was indeed directed against Israel. It was the wrath of the Edomites against Israel for getting them involved in this battle that led to such a gruesome death for their next king (we can never be absolutely certain, but it may be reflected in the condemnation of Amos 2:1 against Moab “because he burned, as if to lime, the bones of Edom’s king”). The coalition was broken and there was nothing left to do but to abandon the siege and go home.
This interpretation is not original to me or Paul. I found it in Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge. Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem: Carta, 2006), p. 205. Rainey wrote the Old Testament section. He was a self-confessed atheist, a Jewish scholar (professor at Tel Aviv University), and a friend who passed away earlier this year. He was widely recognized as one of the greatest scholars of this generation in West Semitic languages and the Old Testament, as well as its history and archaeology. But the interpretation is not original with Anson. He cites Radak or Rav David Kimhi (pronounced Kimchi), a recognized Jewish scholar of the Bible from centuries past as being the first source where it appears. So this is not the concoction of some Christian apologists and the critic’s argument is with a significant Rabbinic scholar and the whole Jewish tradition that it represents.
I hope this helps.
Dr. Richard Hess, professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages, joined the faculty in 1997. He is the editor of the Denver Journal, Denver Seminary’s online theological review journal, and the Bulletin for Biblical Research. He is also the founder and editor of the Bulletin’s Supplement Series and is a member of a dozen scholarly societies.
Dr. Hess earned a PhD from Hebrew Union College, an MDiv and a ThM from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a BA from Wheaton College. He has done postdoctoral research at universities in Chicago, Jerusalem, Cambridge, Sheffield, and Münster, and has held National Endowment for the Humanities, Fulbright, and Tyndale House (Cambridge) postdoctoral fellowships and grants. He was lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at International Christian College, Scotland, and Reader in Old Testament at Roehampton University, London. Having lectured at more than one hundred scholarly societies, universities, and colleges, he has recently given invited lectures at SAIACS, Bangalore; Min Zu University, Beijing; Lancaster Bible College Graduate School; Faraday Institute, Cambridge University; New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati; and Whitely College, Melbourne.
Dr. Hess has worked for the New International Version, the New American Bible, the Holman Standard Christian Bible, the English Standard Version, and The Common Bible translations of the Old Testament. He is an editor of a series of commentaries on the Septuagint and has translated books of the Septuagint for Logos Bible Software.
Dr. Hess has authored 8 books, including volumes on religion (Israelite Religions: A Biblical and Archaeological Survey), ancient Near Eastern subjects (Amarna Personal Names and Names in the Study of Biblical History), Genesis (Studies in the Personal Names of Genesis 1-11), and commentaries on Leviticus, Joshua, and the Song of Songs. He has edited 13 books, most recently collections of studies on War in the Bible and Terrorism in the 21st Century, Issues in Bible Translation, and The Family in the Bible; and commentaries on the Septuagint texts of Genesis and Joshua. In addition to several hundred book reviews and dictionary articles, Dr. Hess has published more than 100 scholarly articles in collected essays and journals such as Biblica, Biblical Archaeologist, Bulletin for Biblical Research, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Themelios, Tyndale Bulletin, Vetus Testamentum, and Zeitschrift fuer die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft. Current research projects include commentaries on the books of Genesis and Kings, an Introduction to the Old Testament, Hebrew grammar, and the study of ancient Near Eastern texts related to the Old Testament.