Hess’s Sacrifice: Once More on 2 Kings 3:27

Richard Hess responded again to an email asking him to respond to my arguments on Mesha’s sacrifice. Before I quote Hess’s responses and my rebuttals, I’d like to address something Steve said about my argument on Mesha’s sacrifice. He claimed that because Mesha’s sacrifice was not to Yahweh (on my reading), I am wrong to include this in a section arguing that Yahweh accepts human sacrifices. This is totally confused. First, in my review of Copan, I deal with this text for no other reason than that I’m responding to Copan’s attempt to deal with this text. I most certainly do not cite this text as evidence that Yahweh is a moral monster. Second, in my book I deal with this text not to argue that it provides proof that Yahweh accepted human sacrifices, but expressly to offer it as evidence that whoever the narrator of the story was seems to accept that human sacrifices to deities were efficacious. I am not claiming that the author of Kings believes that Yahweh accepts human sacrifices. I make that claim about other texts; not Kings. Steve needs to talk to Matt Flannagan, who will tell him how important it is to get an interlocutor’s position correct before one attempts to critique it. Matt has relayed this to me quite effectively.

One more thing. Steve critiques me for making convenient claims about redactions and different sources that just so happen to put the evidence where I need it to be to make my case. I am sorry if Steve does not understand how source and redaction criticism work, but I don’t happen to be the one who is identifying the various sources. I am following consensus views that were arrived at for reasons that have nothing to do with most of the arguments I’m making in these debates. Once again, let’s become familiar with what’s informing an interlocutor’s position before we critique it. If we’re not willing to put in the effort to understand source criticism and other historical-critical tools, then let’s refrain from making outlandish claims to the effect that I am conveniently moving textual evidence out of the way for my own purposes.

Now to Richard Hess’s response. Hess writes:

On what Mark S. Smith argues I have no problem.  I read him as indicating both that Deut 32 originally identified two different deities and as indicating that there was a myth tradition behind what Deut 32 purports to read.  Of course, I am not convinced of this but there are a good number of scholars who do follow it (as there are some who don’t).

First Hess says that I failed to note that he agreed with Smith’s interpretation, even though he stated no agreement. Now Hess says that “I have no problem with it,” but also that, “I am not convinced of this.” And of course, on Bill Craig’s website, Hess argues against this reading. One has to wonder who is really misrepresenting Hess.


I am glad to see that Mr. Stark is citing the correct Dead Sea Scroll fragment, 4QDeutj (not 4QDeutq which does not preserve this reading; he should not cite it at all as it does not demonstrate his point of plural gods).

The first point refers to a minor error that I originally had correct until a colleague told me to change it. I did so in trust. This last point is irrelevant: the beney ha el/ohim are the plural gods (that is, the sons are); it matters not whether the elohim should be singular or plural. The key point is the distinction between Elyon (the high god) and Yahweh (one of the sons).


Yes, it is possible to translate elohim as “gods,” but it is not the way it is usually translated nor is it to be preferred here.   The reason is because neither the Masoretic Hebrew text nor any of the Septuagint variants, nor any other ancient witness so translates it.  Of course the MT and most LXX manuscripts do read “sons of Israel.”  A few LXX witnesses read huion theou.  Since you have studied Greek, you will recognize that theou is the singular genitive.  So only one DSS fragment reads elohim and that does not require a plural interpretation.  It can be singular or plural.  Because of the common understanding of elohim as most frequently singular, and because the other ancient versions uniformly read a singular (“god” or “Israel”), Tov translates this phrase as “sons of God.”  Smith renders it “divine beings” in his Early History of God (2nd edition) p. 32.   And that is how I would translate it.

I’m fine with that translation. Again, the question of whether elohim is plural or singular is minor and is not the main point of contention here. But Hess’s citing the MT and the LXX and later traditions in support of a singular translation of elohim is very misleading, as Hess should know, since as he himself argues, these witnesses come from a time after the emergence of monotheism, prior to which elohim may well have been understood to be in the plural. But again, the real issue in the text is not the number of elohim; it’s the distinction between Elyon and Yahweh.


As to the antecedent in 2 Kings 3:26, I refer to the first explicitly identified 3rd person masc. sing. antecedent who is the Edomite king in 3:27.  That would be the first identified figure.  It is true that the “he” in “he took his first born son” refers to the king of Moab.  However, that is not the “first explicitly identified 3rd masc. sing. antecedent. [sic] This occurs at the end of v. 36 [sic] and is the king of Edom.   It is an important point because it certainly does allow for the “his” in “his firstborn son” to refer to the King of Edom.  Let’s see, we have at the end of v. 26 and beginning of v. 27 sequentially in the Hebrew references of 3 masc. sing. figures: (1) king of Edom – (2) king of Moab – (3) his son (which I contend refers to the king of Edom’s son).  Compare this with Gen 4:26 where an identical syntactical construction can be found: “To Seth was born a son and he called his name”:  (Seth –) (1) son – (2) Seth – (3) his name.  Syntactically you have the same construction where the last referent (the “his X”) refers back to the first referent (king of Edom or Seth’s son), not to the second referent (king of Moab or Seth).  This is not customary English syntax but it does occur in Hebrew.

Yes, but this is nevertheless highly improbable here, given the other relevant data. Mesha failed to break through Edom’s ranks; the 3ms verb still serves more than adequately as an antecedent; the term for the sacrifice is ‘olah and not one for a generic execution (i.e., nakah, muwth; cf. Josh 10:26); it is the same term as with Jephthah’s daughter, Abraham’s son Isaac, the sons sacrificed to Baal in Jer 19:5,  and all other whole burnt-sacrifices to deities in the Hebrew Bible: ‘olah.

But as I say it is the context that remains the crux of the argument.  As to the question of reconstruction.  Indeed, everyone must reconstruct.  Human sacrifice to a god is a reconstruction. Wrath coming from G/god is a reconstruction.  The question is not whether we need to reconstruct something, but what is most likely.


Mr. Stark writes:  “The answer to his question, “Where is there an example of this in the West Semitic world?” is, right here, 2 Kings 3”

I can think of no finer example of a circular argument.  He assumes what he sets out to prove and does so in a single sentence.

No. I wasn’t intending to make an argument here. I was simply refusing to accept the untenable premise of Hess’s question. Hess’s question was the loaded one. He asked this:

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 [sic] would this demoralize? In this case it would demoralize the Moabites, not the Edomites.

This paragraph is very confused. First, why wouldn’t he sacrifice his son in public view? Were sacrifices all done in private? No, the majority of them weren’t. Why on the wall? Any number of reasons: it was a high place; to get away from the battle on the ground so as to be able to perform the ritual; because that’s where his son happened to be during the battle; to show the Moabites that a sacrifice was being made; because they were backed up onto the wall’s rubble (if v.25 does indeed indicate that the wall was destroyed by the slingers)–any number of reasons are possible. There is nothing at all objectionable about this; Hess is stretching to find evidence against the obvious reading.

But note that he asks, “Who [sic] would this demoralize?” Hess accuses me of making a circular argument, but Hess is the one forcing the assumption that Mesha’s intent was to demoralize the enemy, and then trying to use his own assumption to discount the other reading. Hess is the one being circular, as I’ve already argued.

Thus, when I said, “Right here, 2 Kings 3,” I was not making a circular argument. I was refusing to grant legitimacy to Hess’s strange and strained question. There’s absolutely no reason we should find it implausible that Mesha would sacrifice his son in public view. Sacrifices were performed in public view all the time. So my statement wasn’t intended as an argument; it was a refusal to accept the premise of Hess’s challenge.

Finally, when Hess says that the sacrifice of Mesha’s son would demoralize the Moabites not the Edomites, again (1) he’s assuming Mesha’s intent is to demoralize the Edomites (something he hasn’t at all substantiated) and (2) he’s wrong. It would not demoralize the Moabites, if in fact they believed that human sacrifice was efficacious in securing their deity’s aid in battle. More on this in a moment.

Mr. Start [sic] writes:  “Let’s put that question back to Hess: Where is there an example of a king offering an enemy prince as a burnt sacrifice in the West Semitic world? The answer is nowhere.”

The question is a good one but the answer that Mr. Stark provides is not accurate.

Actually it is entirely accurate, and Hess’s subsequent attempt to prove me inaccurate displays again his own circular reasoning:

Scholars such as Fales and Liverani have written much on the use of terror as a propaganda mechanism in ancient warfare and especially in the Neo-Assyrian annals, which just around the time of the events described in 2 Kings 3.  There was no greater proponent of calculated terror than Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.) In the Habur and Middle Euphrates Valleys the leaders (kings and princes) of Beth-eden revolted while Ashurnasirpal was on campaign elsewhere.  He reversed his troops and marched on the rebels without warning.  He horribly mutilated the leaders before murdering them.  Hearing and seeing such atrocities, the Habur and Middle Euphrates never rebelled again during his reign.  You cannot read the Assyrian annals and especially those of Ashurnasirpal without noting the atrocities her perform, impaling enemies on stakes in front of their cities (e.g., ANET p. 276).  Nor was the ritual-like slaughter of leaders and military personnel (and others) limited to the events themselves.  They were recorded in written and pictorial form for others to read and fear.  From the time of Tiglath-pileser III (744-727 B.C.) plate 368 on pl28 of ANEP displays bodies of locals impaled on poles around the town of that the Assyrians were besieging.

All of this I’m well aware of. But this is Hess once again reading his own assumptions into the text. I did not say, “Where is there an example of a king mutilating and murdering an enemy prince in the West Semitic world?” What I asked was, “Where is there an example of a king offering an enemy prince as a burnt sacrifice in the West Semitic world?” Hess continues to ignore that the term used for the sacrifice is ‘olah, which whenever it refers to a killing always refers to a burnt-offering to a deity. However, as I’ve already pointed out, when it doesn’t refer to a burnt-offering to a deity, it doesn’t even mean “to burn,” or any such thing. It means “to go up,” or “ascent.” Hess wants this to be a non-religious act of terroristic murder, but the usage of ‘olah absolutely does not allow for that. But note what Hess does next:

While I can find no examples of such human sacrifice by a leader to turn divine wrath on the enemy, there are plenty of contemporary examples that fit the picture of a king brutally killing one of his opponents in order to discourage, dishearten, and strike fear into his enemy’s hearts.  The suggested scenario for 2 Kings 3 fits well into this overall picture.

Note first that Hess substantiates the claim he said I got wrong: there are no examples where one enemy sacrifices his enemy’s prince to their god (at least none that he can find). Obviously they brutally executed their enemies, but performed ‘olah with them? That was my question, and Hess’s claim that I got the answer wrong only serves to display his own mishandling of the data.

Second, we all know that in the ancient world figurehead enemies were brutally executed to strike terror in the hearts of the rest of the enemy. But there are words that are used for such public executions. For instance, the words used for the public executions of the five Canaanite kings in Josh 10:26 are nakah (to strike) and muwth (to have one executed). That’s not what is described in 2 Kings 3:27. It describes an ‘olah, which is a burnt-sacrifice to a deity. I’d ask Hess to show me one case where ‘olah is used for a public execution (and don’t say 2 Kings 3 now).


Like the Assyrian propaganda, such killing was intended to demoralize the Edomites.

No. Hess has not been able to substantiate this. See above.


The example from Jephthah is indeed one of promising a sacrifice – a human sacrifice as it turns out – in order to fulfill a vow after a military victory.

Note that Hess says “as it turns out.” Here he is probably referring to the fact that Jephthah’s vow literally said, “the first thing to come through my door to greet me.” So it’s possible Hess thinks Jephthah had been hoping for a non-human sacrifice to come through the door. But of course this is ruled out by “to greet me.” As Augustine pointed out long ago, it was not customary in their day or in ours for cows to come outside to greet their owners. But I could be wrong that this is what he intends to suggest; I just find his turn of phrase “as it turns out” to hint in that direction. Anyway, in the above quote Hess seems still to ignore the fact that the exchange made was a human sacrifice for a military victory.


God gives the victory and Jephthah follows through on his rash vow.  I am not sure what this is supposed to prove in regard to 2 Kings 3.  The point here is not a promise made in advance or even on the wall in the midst of the battle.  No such promise is mentioned. Nor in the Jephthah story does the death of a human being occasion the “wrath” and the subsequent departure of the enemy.  That there were vows, even rash vows that could involve the sacrifice of one’s own family members, I will readily concede.  But that is not the scene on the wall of the Moabite king. There is no mention of a vow.  There is no mention of a deity. There is no fulfillment of the promise after the victory.

It’s difficult to know how to respond to this string of unreasonable demands. What the Jephthah story shows is that the ancients believed that a human sacrifice could help secure a deity’s aid in battle. Hess requires an exact, point-by-point parallel before he’ll accept that the same paradigm is operative here. This is entirely unreasonable. It’s difficult to take him seriously, but no doubt the fundamentalists who are reading him will do so. Nevertheless, let’s break this down:

The point here is not a promise made in advance or even on the wall in the midst of the battle.  No such promise is mentioned.

No vow to later fulfill a sacrifice was necessary because the sacrifice was performed here, right then, in desperation. He didn’t have to make a promise, quite obviously, because he was performing the sacrifice then and there.


Nor in the Jephthah story does the death of a human being occasion the “wrath” and the subsequent departure of the enemy.

It occasions the divine empowerment of Jephthah and his army to defeat the enemy. The parallel is obvious, except to Hess. As Hess well knows, there are numerous examples in which human soldiers fight the battle but the victory is attributed to the deity. This was, as Rowlett, Kang, and others have shown, a feature of all ANE warfare. We could cite dozens of examples in which the victory is described as a divine onslaught against the enemy, but a very significant text in this regard is 1 Sam 7:7-11. Please read carefully:

When the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it they were afraid of the Philistines. The people of Israel said to Samuel, ‘Do not cease to cry out to Yahweh our God for us, and pray that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.’ So Samuel took a sucking lamb and offered it as a burnt-sacrifice [‘olah] to Yahweh; Samuel cried out to Yahweh for Israel, and Yahweh answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt-sacrifice [‘olah], the Philistines drew near to attack Israel; but Yahweh thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car.

Now this doesn’t involve a human sacrifice, but the parallel logic is abundantly clear (though perhaps not to Hess). The Israelites are up against the Philistines and are afraid. So in that moment, Samuel offers a burnt-sacrifice (‘olah) to Yahweh, and Yahweh responds with a divine onslaught against the enemy, sending them into retreat. In the same way, Mesha was up against a larger army, they were losing, he had attempted to break through the ranks of the Edomites and failed, so in his desperation, he offers the greatest sacrifice (no vow necessary obviously, just as with Samuel), and the result is the same–a divine onslaught against Mesha’s enemies sending them into retreat.


That there were vows, even rash vows that could involve the sacrifice of one’s own family members, I will readily concede.  But that is not the scene on the wall of the Moabite king. There is no mention of a vow.  There is no mention of a deity. There is no fulfillment of the promise after the victory.

Hess continues to think we need a point-by-point parallel in order for Jephthah to be relevant. We don’t. What Jephathah’s story shows is that the ancients believed that human sacrifice could secure a deity’s aid in battle. There was no vow made in 2 Kings 3 because the sacrifice was made on the spot. Why did Jephthah make the vow? Because he wasn’t at home at the time! Jephthah was going to sacrifice from his own household (he probably hoped it would be a servant who came out to greet him, or perhaps his mother-in-law), but at his time of need he was out away from home. That’s why he made the vow; no personal sacrifice was available. But Mesha had his son; a personal sacrifice was available to him.

Hess continues to think it relevant that there is no mention of a god. But once again I’ll state what I’ve already said: ‘olah was a cultic term for a burnt-sacrifice to a deity. It was not a general word used to refer to a generic terror-killing. The fact that ‘olah is used means the son was offered as a sacrifice to a deity. I’m not sure if Hess read my entire previous response or just certain sections that were emailed to him. In either case, Hess should certainly know this without my help.


About lines 11-12 of the Mesha stele.  I understand human sacrifice as a specific ritual to a specific deity for a specific purpose.  While exterminating a town might be later described as done to or for a deity, it would not normally be considered human sacrifice.  However, the point is moot because lines 11-12 should be translated (here following Ahituv, Echoes from the Past, Carta, 2008, p. 394):  “…I took it and slew all the people [and] the city became the property of Chemosh and Moab.”

And here I follow W. F. Albright, from Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 320: “but I fought against the town and took it and slew all the people of the town as satiation (intoxication) for Chemosh and Moab.”

Now, over the past several posts I’ve repeatedly stated my respect for a large body of Hess’s work. He is a very good scholar who is very highly esteemed by many. I’ve learned much from his books, and I am sure he is a very good person. But I’ve also stated that it is clear that in certain cases, when it comes to texts that are problematic for Hess’s doctrinal commitments, Hess starts to make very poor arguments, to ignore relevant data, and so on. Whereas when Hess has corrected me on a few points, I accepted the correction without complaint. (Note also that I corrected myself on Elisha’s prophecy in this post, at the EDIT toward the bottom.)

With all due respect, his arguments here are a case in point of what I’ve been talking about. But I suspect that Hess will not be moved in his position, although I hope he will. When the most reasonable accounting of the data conflicts with his doctrinal commitments, Hess has to make a sacrifice.

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