Mesha's Sacrifice: Response to Richard Hess
Over on Triablogue, Steve Hays posted an email exchange he had with Dr. Richard Hess on my critique of Copan's reading of 2 Kings 3. I'll quote Hess's response in its entirety before responding:
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 [sic] 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.
Best wishes,
Rick Hess

I didn't provide a full response to this reading in my review of Copan, because Copan didn't provide an argument for it. Let's make no bones about this: Dr. Hess is an apologist, and he is stretching to make this passage from Scripture comport with his own views.

First, yes, I never stated that qetsep refers only to divine anger. I pointed out that the vast majority of its uses in the Hebrew Bible are to divine anger, putting strong probability on the side of the reading that the wrath that came over Israel was from a deity. So Hess's response mischaracterizes my argument.

Second, contrary to his contention that the best reading of the Hebrew grammar makes the king of Edom's son the object of sacrifice, the antecedent to "firstborn son of him" is not the king of Edom, but Mesha. The word directly preceding "firstborn son of him" is a 3rd person singular verb ("to take") and the subject of this verb is undeniably Mesha, establishing Mesha as the direct antecedent. Moreover, the sentence reads thus: "And he took the firstborn son of him who was to reign in his stead, and he offered him up as a burnt sacrifice on the wall."

The third masculine singular forms of each verb, and all of the third masculine singular pronominal suffixes refer undeniably to Mesha, not to the king of Edom.

Third, Hess attempts to argue that although King Mesha attempted to break through Edom's ranks and failed, Mesha somehow managed to capture the king of Edom's son in this failed attempt. Hess is of course making this up. The text makes no mention of any such capture, and could have easily made this clear if that's what it wished to say. To say that this argument is tenuous would be to put it kindly.

Fourth, Hess writes that 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?"

Note how Hess is reading his own unsubstantiated assumptions into the data in order to disqualify the obvious reading. The text nowhere speaks of any attempt to "demoralize" the enemy; Hess made this up, and then tries to argue that the text can't be referring to the sacrifice of Mesha's son because that wouldn't have been demoralizing to Mesha's enemies. This is very lame. The answer to his question, "Where is there an example of this in the West Semitic world?" is, right here, 2 Kings 3. 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.

Yet Hess continues, "In this case it would demoralize the Moabites, not the Edomites." This is emphatically not true, since the ancients believed that human sacrifices secured the favor of their deity.

"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."

Now Hess is wandering even further from the data. The account of Jephthah provides a stupendously clear example of this. Jephthah is going to face a formidable foe in battle, so he makes a vow to Yahweh that if Yahweh will help him win, he will offer as a burnt sacrifice the first person to come through his door to greet him on his return home. This is in Judges 11. Even if we accept the unacceptable apologetic strategy for this text and say that Jephthah did not end up offering his daughter as a burnt sacrifice, the fact remains that Jephthah believed that the offering of a burnt-sacrificial victim to Yahweh was a trade that would secure Yahweh's help in battle. So when Hess claims that this idea that the ancients believed human sacrifices would help secure their deity's aid in battle is just a "modern reconstruction," he's ignoring the obvious.

Next Hess attempts to argue that because Mesha's god Kemosh isn't explicitly mentioned, that the sacrifice is not "religious" but was meant to be demoralizing. This is very irresponsible of Hess. The word used for the burnt sacrifice ('olah) does not refer to the mere burning of a body; it is a cultic term. It appears 289 times in the Hebrew Bible. 287 of those occurrences refer to a sacrifice to a deity. The remaining two mean "ascent" and "go up" respectively. So even when it doesn't refer to a sacrificial offering to a deity, its meaning is not "to burn," but "to ascend." Just because the text doesn't mention Mesha's god doesn't mean it isn't obvious what is taking place: Mesha offers his son as a burnt offering to his god. The meaning of 'olah is so secure that there is no need to expressly identify the fact that a god is part of this transaction too.

Now look at Hess's attempt to explain the "great wrath" that came upon Israel. This is some fancy footwork:

"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."

I hardly think this merits much comment. Hess wants us to believe that the "great wrath" that came upon Israel, forcing them to remove themselves from the battle, was the wrath of the Edomites, who, rather than being upset with Mesha who (according to Hess) sacrificed their prince, instead took their anger out on their ally Israel. Right! There is no end to Hess's apologetic imagination. Never mind that, until this point, the battle was going decidedly in Israel/Judea/Edom's favor against Moab. Hess expects us to believe that instead of finishing Mesha off as vengeance for his killing their prince, Edom got ticked at Israel for getting them into this predicament. Let's just say it's a good thing Hess isn't a military strategist.

Next, Hess says, "(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')."

Hess is certainly right that we can't be absolutely certain that this is a reference to the events in 2 Kings 3. However, we can be absolutely certain that it isn't! First, the word "burned" in Amos 2:1 is not 'olah ("burnt sacrifice") but saraph, a word for "burn" without cultic implications. Second, Amos doesn't say they burned the king of Edom alive; it says they burned his bones, so that he couldn't be buried, in other words. Third, it doesn't say they burned the king's son; it says they burned the king. That Hess is even willing to consider Amos 2:1 as a parallel to 2 Kings 3:27 displays well the agenda that's driving his misreadings of the text.

Finally, Hess says that his reading is "not the concoction of some Christian apologists." That's correct; it's the concoction of some Jewish apologists, now picked up uncritically by some Christian apologists, with the venerable yet eccentric late Anson Rainey as a mediator. However, I do wish Hess would defer to Rainey's judgment with more regularity (see p. 272 of my review of Copan).

The humor in all of this is that Steve Hays entitled his blog post, "the fine art of shoe-eating." This shows how careful a reader Steve Hays is. In my Copan review, I said I would eat my shoe if a single scholar who argued that Mesha offered his son to Yahweh (rather than to Kemosh) could be produced. I didn't say I'd eat my shoe if a scholar endorsed the position Hess is advocating. So I'll let you interpret the title of Hays's post however you will.