Thursday, June 23, 2011


Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.

– George Santayana

Thom Stark does his level-best to emulate Santayana’s definition of a fanatic:

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.

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, right?

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? 

What makes Stark fanatical? Well, what's his aim?

His ostensible aim is to show that Yahweh is morally repugnant. And one way of showing that is to show that Yahweh condones human sacrifice. Indeed, that’s what the chapter (from which I quoted the above) is about.

Consistent with his ostensible aim, you’d expect Stark to cite 2 Kgs 3 to show that Yahweh condones human sacrifice. Yet Stark’s actual argument doesn’t show that.

After all, it doesn’t show the Israelites performing a human sacrifice to successfully elicit Yahweh’s support in their military campaign. Rather, on Stark’s own reading, it shows pagans performing a human sacrifice to successfully elicit the support of Kemosh.

Moreover, it doesn’t show the narrator condoning the action of Mesha. Indeed, the narrator elsewhere condemns human sacrifice (2 Kgs 16:3; 17:7; 21:6).

Mind you, Stark has a habit of explaining away counterevidence by relegating the counterevidence to hypothetical redactors. Classic special pleading.

Instead, Stark raises two tangential objections:

i) Elisha’s prophecy failed.

ii) Human sacrifice really works.

But even if (arguendo), we concede (i-ii), how is that relevant to Stark’s contention that Yahweh is morally repugnant? Suppose human sacrifice works? How does that prove Stark’s contention?

Let’s play along with his reading. It would mean that a pact with the devil sometimes works. That occult practices sometimes work because they do, indeed, get in touch with powerful, malevolent forces.

Even if that’s the case, how does that validate Stark’s indictment of Yahweh? What’s the connection?

Likewise, even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that Elisha was mistaken, how does that make Yahweh morally repugnant? After all, Stark doesn’t think Yahweh ever spoke to Elisha.

And assuming (arguendo) that Elisha was wrong, how does that condone human sacrifice, which is point of the chapter (in Stark’s rambling review)?

Mind you, Stark’s interpretation is dubious. On the face of it, the narrator regards v25 as a fulfillment of v19. So the narrator believes the terms of the oracle were fulfilled. 

Stark is like a rattlesnake that keeps snapping after it’s been decapitated. It doesn’t bite for a reason. That’s a purely reflexive action.


  1. You're right on about this one. I've read the passage through several times and I don't see how anyone could conclude that 1) Elisha's prophecy wasn't fulfilled or that 2) Yahweh condoned human sacrifice. The first is clearly wrong in light of verse 25, and there is nothing in the passage about Yahweh approving of the sacrifice, which wasn't made by an Israelite in the first place! It is a bit ambiguous, though. Whose wrath fell on Israel, and what brought it about? Gerald McDermott in his book on other religions takes the line that Chemosh was a real, demonic spirit who was invoked by the sacrifice and managed to do some damage, just as the Prince of Persia had successfully withstood Michael for a time in the book of Daniel.

  2. J.D.

    You'll be happy to learn that I address both of the points you raise here in my most recent post on Mesha's sacrifice. I corrected myself on Elisha's prophecy. And I corrected Steve on the Yahweh condoning human sacrifice issue. Steve was misunderstanding my position.

    All the best,