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.

21 thoughts on “Mesha’s Sacrifice: Response to Richard Hess

  1. I feel compelled to say that for the sake of what is true within Christianity (whatever that may amount to), I feel you are doing good and important work. I thank you for the time and effort you put into your studies and the clarity with which you express your thoughts to what I can only imagine to be an enlarging audience. I look forward to your future books or articles or blog posts and comments.

  2. It occurs to me that Hays may be suggesting that because Randal Rauser said “some exegetes” argue that Yahweh accepted Mesha’s sacrifice, that constitutes the “one scholar” necessary for me to eat my shoe. Let’s get this straight. Hays cites two instances where Randal says this. The first is in the fourth installment of his critical review of Copan’s book (here: http://randalrauser.com/2011/04/is-god-a-moral-monster-a-review-part-4/). Hays cites this, but fails to mention that in the comment thread I correct Randal on this point, and he accepts the correction.

    The second is in an online essay of Randal’s, published on his own website. The statement appears in a footnote on p. 3:

    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.

    First, Randal is not arguing this position; he’s saying that “some exegetes” do. Second, he is mistaken here, and he conceded this when I mentioned the error on his blog. The scholars he had in mind (Niditch, Levenson, etc.) do not argue that Yahweh accepted Mesha’s sacrifice; they argue that Kemosh accepted Mesha’s sacrifice.

    Perhaps Copan’s source was Randal’s online essay, although I’m not sure how that would work with the timing, since Randal’s essay seems to have been posted in November 2010, and Copan’s book, if I’m not mistaken, was already at press by then. (I could be wrong.) Anyway, if Randal is Copan’s source, then all this shows is that Copan didn’t bother to find the exegetes who argue this to see whether their arguments had any validity. If he had, he would have discovered that there aren’t any exegetes who argue this. So either way . . .

  3. Dear apologists: the Hebrew histories are Iron Age stories written by people with a polytheistic/monolatrous worldview, and they reflect that culture in their recounting and interpretation of events. No amount of sophistry with the text is going to change that.

  4. I don’t know Thom, it seems like beginning by poisoning the well like this:

    “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.”

    is a pretty shaky foundation given the chasm that separates Dr. Hess’s qualifications from your own. Not only is he not an apologist (maybe you simply meant “he’s making an apologetic argument”?), he holds a professorship in Semitic languages and is writing a commentary on Kings. According to the Denver Seminary website, his educational accomplishments and extensive journal publications completely outclass yours in every way (have you even published a journal article yet?).

    Does Hess’s staggering resume make him right, and does the paucity of your own make your wrong? Of course not. But if you’re asking us to accept your scholarly judgment as being superior to Hess’s, I think you have a fair bit more groundwork to lay first. This, of course, assumes that truly seeking to establish a reputation as a credible and credentialed scholar, as opposed to a mere internet provocateur.

  5. Hess is an apologist; that doesn’t mean he’s not also other things. I’ve read Hess extensively and he consistently shows a predilection for defending the biblical material. That’s what an apologist does. He’s also contractually bound to the doctrine of inerrancy, a fact which cannot but affect his academic work.

    I’m not intimidated by his credentials; as you yourself said, they don’t guarantee his arguments will be quality arguments. My former professor from graduate school has had some engagements with Hess. His name is Christopher Rollston. You should look them up.

    I’ve read his books and many of his journal articles and published chapters. Let’s just say the fact that he’s published a lot doesn’t necessarily mean much. His work has been slammed by many a credentialed scholar. There’s useful material in his book Israelite Religions, but there’s also a lot of important data missing, a lot of data distorted, as well as a number of significant mistakes that affect his conclusions (in the conservative direction). For instance, regarding Deut 32:8-9, he says that scholars who argue that this is a polytheistic text base this on the LXX reading. Again, on William Lane Craig’s site, he says this again, and goes even further saying that “the Hebrew does not say” “sons of the gods.” Hess is totally wrong here. Scholars do not base their conclusion on the LXX, they base it on DSS 4QDeutq, which is a Hebrew text over a thousand years older than the MT he relies on. Hess seems to be totally oblivious to the 4QDeutq reading, but this is basic information I got in graduate school. Hess of course went to a conservative seminary and then did his doctoral work on personal names in the Amarna Letters. Here are some excerpts from Uriah Kim’s review of Hess’s Israelite Religions:

    He discusses opposing views judiciously in most cases, but there are a few places where I thought he treats other views unfairly and defends his stances too strongly. His use of BC rather than BCE and his vacillation between Hebrew Bible and Old Testament in the book seem to imply something, but I do not want to speculate. . . .

    Chapter 8 covers the period of early Israel and united monarchy and is perhaps the most important part of Hess’s work. This chapter is crucial to the four issues: first, for appreciating the emergence of Israel from the Late Bronze Age; second, for understanding the role that the period plays as a means of preparing for the rest of the Iron Age; third, for understanding the manner in which Israel worshiped Yahweh; and fourth, for appreciating how they preserved an understanding of the period as formative for their worship centers (p. 210). There is one section in this chapter, ‘Israel at the Beginning’, where I was disappointed in his unfair treatment of views that he did not favor and showed his bias too obviously. After discussing five theories on Israel’s emergence he concludes, ‘Despite various strengths and weaknesses, there is no reason at present to reject outright any of these models. Aspects of each of them may well have been true’ (p. 214). However, that is not the sense I got from his discussion. He notes the problem of the conquest theory with one general sentence and then questions those who abandoned this theory due to the absence of destruction layers: ‘This is true despite the explicit statement in Joshua 11:13 that Israel burnt none of the mounds on which cities stood except that of Hazor. Thus, one might not expect to find archaeological levels of burning and destruction elsewhere at this time’ (p. 211). He does not mention Jericho until several pages later, and only in passing. He makes clear where he stands. He defends the conquest model by not explaining adequately what the weaknesses and major problems are while highlighting its strengths and by discussing in far greater details the difficulties of other models without highlighting their merits, especially the model formulated in large part by the Copenhagen School. He devotes three pages criticizing the latter theory and lists four specific problems against it. At the end of this section he makes clear once again which model he is advocating by devoting another two pages to defend the conquest theory. After stating his belief that the Bible can be trusted to contain historical memory of the conquest, he states, ‘This is true despite the problems that remain, such as the absence of archaeological evidence at Jericho and other sites’ (p. 216). In the very next sentence Hess makes an interesting remark, ‘To raise these issues is not necessarily to question the reality of a conquest’ (p. 216). One has to wonder to whom he is addressing this statement of assurance.

    These criticisms are tame compared to others I’ve read from scholars just as credentialed and more credentialed than Hess.

    I’m still working on developing my credentials, but I’m not going to shut up in the meantime. I don’t play these sorts of games, and I offer respect according to the measure earned according to my judgment and the judgment of those in the field whom I trust. I respect some of Hess’s work, but a lot of it consists of arguments that display a predilection for data-twisting, as well as ignorance of basic materials covered in intro classes in graduate school. He did his doctoral work on personal names in the Amarna Letters, which is a good dissertation, but is the kind of work that conservatives tend to do when they want to avoid having to interact seriously with critical scholarship. (But I can’t speak to his motivations.)

    In many of my criticisms of Hess, I have consulted scholars whose credentials far outstrip Hess’s, but again, I don’t play the credentials game. I consult those who have expertise and show a pattern of sound judgment in their work. I learn from them how to approach the material, and check with them to see whether the conclusions I’ve come to are sound. If you’ll read my Copan review, you’ll see also that most of the time when I am critiquing Hess, I am quoting or referencing scholars whose credentials again outstrip Hess’s. Your comment seems to me to be a red herring.

    “But if you’re asking us to accept your scholarly judgment as being superior to Hess’s, I think you have a fair bit more groundwork to lay first.”

    I’m not asking you to accept anything; I’m making arguments and responding to Hess’s arguments. You and everybody else can make up your own minds about whose arguments are better. I think most people have the modicum of intelligence necessary to realize that I’m not inspired, and that I’m stating my opinions based on the data and my research.

    “This, of course, assumes that truly seeking to establish a reputation as a credible and credentialed scholar, as opposed to a mere internet provocateur.”

    This statement involves an elitist bias that I don’t share. I like internet provocateurs, and I don’t think they are “mere” when compared to others who have made different life choices. I don’t see why I can’t be both. In the meantime, I’ll be what I can be and you and other readers can focus on the arguments I make, or on my resume. That’s your choice, but it really has nothing to do with me. I’ll point you to scholars with the C.V.s (as I always do), and you can do your own research and make up your own mind, or not.

    For my part, I’ll respect Hess’s good arguments, and call his bad ones bad. It’s as simple as that.

  6. For the record, I just received an unsolicited personal message from a West Semitics expert, archaeologist, and Hebrew Bible professor whose C.V. dwarfs that of Hess. He said that my critique of Hess’s argument was a “good, intelligent response.” I mention this only because it seems that kind of thing is significant to you. Take that for what it’s worth, which isn’t much, publicly, as far as I’m concerned, although personally it’s meaningful. At any rate, the arguments themselves are what matter.

  7. I said above that I will respect Hess’s good arguments. Here’s one that’s decent. I agree with the main thrust of his argument, which is that the worship of Yahweh alone in Judea is not at all implausible as late as the seventh century BCE, contrary to the more radical position (which isn’t at all the consensus) that Josiah’s reforms were fictional, composed in the post-exilic period.

    But there are still some problems with Hess’s argument. Daniel McClellan spells them out quite nicely here. The two biggest problems are (1) the distinction between “official” and “popular” religion implicit in Hess’s closing paragraph (as discussed by McClellan) and (2) Hess’s choice to use the term “monotheism” rather than henotheism or monolatry. McClellan is correct to point out that Hess makes this move in order to push monotheism back as far as possible. Henotheism or monolatry are more appropriate terms than monotheism to capture what Hess is describing. Monolatry is the worship of one god only, while belief in other gods remains a feature of the people’s cosmology. Monotheism is the belief in one God only, ascribing to all other celestial beings significantly inferior status.

    The fact is that monolatry was the norm in Israel at least until just prior to the exile. Israelites boasted that their god Yahweh was stronger than other gods, but so did all of the other nations. This doesn’t mean that they are claiming that Yahweh was in an ontological class all of his own. Monolatry fits within this paradigm, and fits the pattern of religion of many ANE groups.

    But monotheism is different, and the Egyptian foray into monolatry in the fourteenth century is not an adequate precedent. Hess’s choice to use “monotheism” to describe not the belief in only one deity, but merely the worship of only one deity, serves in my estimation to confuse, rather than to clarify, the situation. McClellan in fact argues that “monotheism” proper didn’t come into being until about the time of the translation of the LXX, well after the exilic period.

  8. I was reading an article yesterday and I was struck by the author’s rhetorical power in pointing out, repeatedly, that even if his Objections X and Y could somehow be overturned, his interlocutors could still never dislodge Objection Z.

    That’s a point that would need to be reiterated here. Even if Hess and other inerrantists could make the case that the wrath is that of the revitalized Moab army, or that the son who was sacrificed was the prince of Edom, there’s still the fundamental matter of the portrait of YHWH in this story that is inescapably problematic, and in a twofold manner. First, if YHWH is identical with the compassionate, universal God of Christian belief, why would he support the use of violence, not even for a “just war,” but simply to keep Moab paying tribute to Israel (which is even supposed to be semi-apostate based on 2 Kings 3:1-3)? Second, as I recall you pointing out in the review of Copan, why would the all-powerful and truth-telling God (no author of confusion, he) NOT follow through on his promise?

    In other words, all this exegetical haggling is over a few cents here and there when the goods are already purchased at too high a (theological) price.

  9. “Hess is an apologist; that doesn’t mean he’s not also other things.”

    Come on, Thom. You’re twisting the conventional, if not the technical, meaning of this word to sustain this reading. If you say that you make no distinction between “he’s an apologist” and “he’s a credentialed scholar whose work shows a tendency towards defending the Biblical material” in your own mind, I will try to take you at your word, but the fact that you led off with this, and that you must know your audience would not take these as synonymous, is questionable.

    “I’m not intimidated by his credentials”

    Nor should you be; goodness knows you’ll never get anywhere as a scholar if you go all moon-eyed when your conclusions challenge someone with a better CV. My point was simply what I said — that poisoning the well as you have looks pretty silly given the limited scope of credentials that you have established for yourself thus far.

    “I’m not asking you to accept anything; I’m making arguments and responding to Hess’s arguments. You and everybody else can make up your own minds about whose arguments are better.”

    Here’s the thing; this approach sounds very noble and ennobling, but I don’t think it actually works for highly technical arguments like these. If I were to give you a blog-length post with no citations providing the arguments for and against whether multiple exciton generation in PbS quantum dots is actually observed, would you be able to “decide for yourself”? Credentials are an important ingredient in a non-expert’s ability to weigh the positions of two experts. Certainly they’re not determinative but I completely disagree with you that they should be ignored entirely.

  10. I am not twisting the conventional or technical meaning of apologist. Is Hess a full-time apologist? No. Is he an apologist? Yes. Throughout history most apologists weren’t professional, full-time apologists. That’s really only a modern phenomenon. Apologists have been scholars, philosophers, bishops, ministers, etc. Hess, as an academic who is also an inerrantist, cannot but be an apologist for the Bible. I doubt Hess would take exception to my identifying him as an apologist. I haven’t denied, in calling him an apologist, that he’s a credentialed scholar. I have simply stated the truth: Hess is one who consistently defends the Bible against its critics, and he does so because he is an inerrantist Evangelical. Every non-Evangelical scholar who reviewed Hess’s book Israelite Religions mentioned this. You say I poisoned the well; rather, I was stating a fact that is useful for readers to know. Hess is not an impartial academic; he is fully committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and his academic work is, for that reason, frequently apologetic in nature. So you may think it looks silly for me to poison the well, but I think your interpretation of my words says more about you than it does me.

    As to your second point, I grant that there are some discussions which require technical knowledge that only specialists have access to, but this particular argument isn’t one of them. All of the arguments I’ve made can be easily verified or disconfirmed by anyone with a web browser and a list with a few links.

    Anyone who goes to biblestudytools.com can go to 2 Kings 3:27 and look at the interlinear text, click on the word “wrath” (qetseph) and instantly see all of its uses in the Hebrew Bible. If they look at each of them, they will find the argument I’ve made verified. They will learn that the word is used the vast majority of the time to refer to the wrath of a deity upon a group of people or nation(s). They will also see that it is never used to refer to the wrath of an army, or the wrath of a nation. They will finally see that only very rarely is it used for the anger of an individual human being. It doesn’t take a specialist to see this. Then they can determine for themselves whether my argument that the wrath is Kemosh’s is more probable or not.

    An online interlinear Hebrew/English Bible will show anyone who looks up 2 Kings 3:27 that the king of Edom is not the antecedent to “firstborn son of him” as Hess claimed. It will show that Mesha, as the subject of the verb “to take,” is in fact the immediate antecedent to the pronominal suffix in the direct object of the clause. One does not need to know Hebrew to see this. (That doesn’t mean there aren’t some issues where a knowledge of Hebrew is necessary. There are plenty. But this isn’t one of them.)

    Anyone can read 2 Kings 3 and verify that nowhere does the text say that Mesha captured the son of the king of Edom. They can verify that the text plainly says that although Mesha attempted to break through the Edomite ranks, he failed to do so.

    Anyone can look up the story of Jephthah in Judges 11 and see that Hess’s claim that there is no evidence that the ancients believed that human sacrifice could procure divine aid in battle is patently false.

    Anyone can look up the word in 2 Kings 3:27 for “burnt sacrifice” and instantly see all of its uses in the Hebrew Bible. They can look at each of its 287 uses in which it refers to a burnt sacrifice to a deity, and they can look at the two instances where it means “ascent” up to the temple, and “go up.” They’ll thus find confirmed my rebuttal, that every time it is used to refer to a killing, it is within a cultic context and is a sacrifice to a deity, and in the two instances where it is not used in a cultic context, it does not at all refer to a killing, but to “going up” somewhere, geographically. Thus they will find that Hess is wrong to argue that the killing of the king’s son should not be understood as a “religious” killing.

    Finally, anyone can look up Amos 2:1 in an interlinear Bible online and find that the word for “burned” is not at all the same word as that found in 2 Kings 3:27. They can immediately find all of its definitions and look at its usage throughout the Hebrew Bible and discover that it does not carry any inherent connotations of a cultic sacrifice, but rather is just the generic word for “burning.”

    All of the “technical arguments” I made can be easily confirmed or disconfirmed by anybody with access to the internet.

    Not so with quantum physics. Again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t Hebrew arguments that involve more specialist knowledge. Again, there are plenty. But none of those are here.

    If your complaint is that I didn’t cite any sources in my blog post, then I refer you to my book where I cite several sources (all with better C.V.’s than Hess) who discuss this text in their scholarly volumes.

    I never said that credentials should be ignored entirely. I just said that I’m not going to play the credentials game. The reality is that those who share my position would win that game, but it can’t be about the credentials; it has to be about the arguments.
    Yet, I’ll concede that one thing non-academics don’t know how to do very well is interpret an academic’s credentials. One has to look at the publishers, the institutions, the subject matter of the dissertation, among other things, and know how to interpret them. Scholars can look at a C.V. and almost instantly know where a person stands ideologically, and make a good guess as to what kind of approach they’re going to take to various issues and texts. Of course, that’s a generalization, but one that is more true than not. Point is, what to the untrained eye looks like a long list of credentials, to those within the field could very well only include a very short list of accomplishments that are going to be taken at all seriously. Objections aside, that’s how it works.

    But if your concern was honestly only how to know whether you could trust me over Hess, then a simple request for a bibliography on the subject would have sufficed. I suspect, however, that there was more going on in your comment, given its actual content and tone. After all, if the problem is really that a non-specialist doesn’t know how to weigh arguments, then that’s a problem they’re going to have even when two scholars with “equal” credentials are in disagreement. It still, always, comes down to the individual using her or his best judgment, or choosing to suspend judgment in light of one’s limitations. It’s not really, therefore, about the fact that Hess has more credentials than I do. You’ll note that I am substantially less-credentialed than every single person I critiqued in my book, The Human Faces of God, and yet numerous highly credentialed scholars thought I did a fairly good job. It’s really up to each individual to decide whether they’re going to trust me, or Hess, or anybody else, and it really does have nothing to do with me, or Hess, or anybody else what each individual decides on that score. So, make your decision, or suspend your judgment. That’s really out of my purview. Meanwhile, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and you can read what I have to say, or ignore it. I’m really not concerned either way.

    All of that said, I’ll reiterate that I respect much of Hess’s work; he is a very intelligent person and he’s certainly a work horse. Credit where credit is due. I’m not saying he’s an idiot. And I’m not saying he doesn’t know a great deal more than I do about a number of issues. Obviously he does. But when it comes to texts or external evidences that are problematic for his faith commitments or questions that relate to the status of Israel vis-à-vis other nations, Hess starts distorting data, contradicting himself, and crossing his arms in denial. See Hess’s engagements with Rollston and Young, for instance, on literacy rates in ancient Israel. Hess contradicts himself and makes all sorts of tenuous claims, just because, for some reason, he thinks it’s important that Israel stands out as being a bastion of literacy in the ANE, which it wasn’t, as Rollston and Young, among others, have shown.

    Now unless you have anything substantive to add to the discussion of the text itself, I’ve said all I’m going to say in this digression.

  11. I’m going to renege on my last sentence for one final comment. It occurs to me that if a non-specialist such as yourself really wants to check my work, and if the fact that I am trained in ANE studies by one of the most highly qualified and respected scholars in the field trained at Johns Hopkins under Kyle McCarter and that I learned Hebrew from a Harvard trained scholar who studied under Frank Cross and Jon Levenson isn’t enough to give me the benefit of the doubt (and I’m perfectly fine if you don’t think it is), then the smartest thing to do would not be to email conservative, inerrantist scholars like Hess. It’s no surprise that an inerrantist like Hess is going to disagree with me when I argue that the Bible isn’t inerrant or theologically consistent. Steve Hays simply pulled a cheap stunt, and such a stunt will only appear like a victory to the myopic. The smartest thing to do would be to email a respected, credentialed scholar who you think probably agrees with me, and ask her or him if they think my arguments are sound. If they agree, again, that’s no surprise. But if they disagree, if they think I’ve been dishonest or stated too much, then there’s the makings of a real controversy. At least, in my estimation, that’s what an intelligent person would do. And once again, all this verification method requires is access to the internet.

    All the best.

  12. “I am not twisting the conventional or technical meaning of apologist.”

    Thom, if you’re truly unaware of the pejorative sense that “apologist” typically carries in the circles you run in, I suppose I can’t do much more than express my considerable surprise. “Conservative” or “maximalist” would have been the words that a scholar would have used.

    “All of the arguments I’ve made can be easily verified or disconfirmed by anyone with a web browser and a list with a few links.”

    I guess; it’s easy enough to find out what the Hebrew words in question are, that’s true. But I’d be quite surprised to learn that there are no ambiguities in translating from Hebrew to English, that, given words that can carry a range of meanings the meaning is always crystal clear, that the tense, “case” (or whatever its analogue is in Hebrew), etc. Maybe this is one of the cases where verification is truly at one’s fingertips. It’s a shame for Hess he didn’t avail himself of the internet!

    “An online interlinear Hebrew/English Bible will show anyone who looks up 2 Kings 3:27 that the king of Edom is not the antecedent to “firstborn son of him” as Hess claimed.”

    A very cursory spin around the commentaries today turned up a mention of this very reading as possible in the Geneva Bible Commentary, though it was also conceded that it was improbable. There wasn’t any provenance to go with the observation, so we can certainly assume it’s not well-attested, but on the other hand, if there’s some precedent for it, perhaps Hess didn’t make it up on the spot as you allege, either.

  13. I guess; it’s easy enough to find out what the Hebrew words in question are, that’s true. But I’d be quite surprised to learn that there are no ambiguities in translating from Hebrew to English, that, given words that can carry a range of meanings the meaning is always crystal clear, that the tense, “case” (or whatever its analogue is in Hebrew), etc. Maybe this is one of the cases where verification is truly at one’s fingertips. It’s a shame for Hess he didn’t avail himself of the internet!

    Hess has no need to avail himself of the internet, since he has the requisite library, as do I. But the fact is that in this case (and as I stated, not in all cases), my claims can be easily verified on the internet. We’re talking about word usage, which in this case can be easily established by looking at the words in their context. In this case, the definitions aren’t at all tricky.

    A very cursory spin around the commentaries today turned up a mention of this very reading as possible in the Geneva Bible Commentary, though it was also conceded that it was improbable. There wasn’t any provenance to go with the observation, so we can certainly assume it’s not well-attested, but on the other hand, if there’s some precedent for it, perhaps Hess didn’t make it up on the spot as you allege, either.

    I don’t allege that Hess invented this reading. As is clear from the penultimate paragraph of this post, the provenance of the reading is a centuries-old Jewish rabbi. Specific claims Hess makes, however, are not reflected in the text. For instance, Hess is engaging in eisegesis when he claims that the goal of Mesha was to “demoralize” the Edomites. The text in fact says no such thing.

  14. Thom, it shouldn’t even be necessary for you to go to such lengths to defend your reading of the text as a reference to Mesha sacrificing his son, given that this is the established reading of the text and is reflected in standard English Bible translations.

    2 Kings 3:
    26 When the king of Moab realized he was losing the battle, he and 700 swordsmen tried to break through and attack the king of Edom, but they failed.
    27 So he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up as a burnt sacrifice on the wall. There was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack and returned to their homeland.

    The burden is certainly on those who claim this reading is wrong.

  15. Hello, Thom.  A few folks have pointed out your comments about Mesha, and though I (like Rick Hess) am not interested in a lengthy exchange, just let me make a point of clarification perhaps.

    I never say that Mesha was sacrificing to Yahweh.  He would have been sacrificing to Kemosh/Chemosh.  I’m actually responding to philosopher Wes Morriston’s argument that (allegedly) God’s fury was against Israel as a response to Mesha’s sacrifice of his son (my book is something of a summary in response to Morriston’s critique in Philosophia Christi, the issue in which I offer a response directed to his arguments and intimations).  Apparently relying on other scholars, Morriston’s point seems to be that this event diminishes the horror of infant sacrifice (to Yahweh) in Israel and suggests, with passages like Gen. 22 at al., the possible acceptability of such practices early on in Israel’s history.I must say, Thom, that for a guy who’s not yet completed his M.A., you are able to get around in these areas of OT critical issues pretty readily!  Well enough said. I guess that, given this explanation, you’re not going to eat your shoe on Youtube in the nude! 

  16. Dear Paul,

    I’m sorry but your comment is misleading. You may be clarifying what you intended to write, but what you actually wrote in your book is a different story (unless my Kindle edition is deficient). You wrote:

    Some think this is God’s wrath and that God is showing his approval of Mesha’s sacrifice of his son by responding in wrath against Israel. (96)

    Obviously your position is not that Mesha sacrificed to Yahweh, but the way you worded that makes it seem like that is the position you are arguing against. You say that some think that “God is showing his approval of Mesha’s sacrifice.” If you don’t mean that God accepted Mesha’s sacrifice, then what you have written is very, very unclear! I’ll give that to you: you were unclear. But the fact that you go on in your book to argue against this position by arguing that other texts indicate that Yahweh doesn’t accept human sacrifices makes it even more clear that what you were arguing against was unclear even to you. 

    What I won’t give to you, however, is that this is what Wes Morriston argues in his essay. I’ve read Morriston’s essay. Your comment here makes several mistakes: 

    First, you say, “apparently relying on other scholars.” That’s a nice assumption, but unfortunately the article you cite in your book from Morriston does not cite any other scholars who argue this about Mesha.

    Second, you say, “Wes Morriston’s argument [was] that (allegedly) God’s fury was against Israel as a response to Mesha’s sacrifice of his son.” Well, there are two things to say about this claim. The first is that this is not what you say in your book. As I just pointed out, what you say in your book is that God “approved” of Mesha’s sacrifice. But this is not Morriston’s suggestion at all! 

    This is very unpleasant, because you’ve displayed that you don’t understand what Wes Morriston has said in his essay at all. Allow me to quote the relevant passage from Morriston’s essay:

    In a much later period of Israelite history, we encounter another off case of child sacrifice. The King of Moab actually succeeds in defeating the Israelites by sacrificing his own son and heir—presumably to Chemosh. 

    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. (2 Kings 3:26-7)

    Here the very practice inveighed against by the great Hebrew prophets appears to work. It seems that in an extreme situation, the sacrifice of one’s son and heir may turn the trick when nothing else will. It is, after all, the best thing you can offer your god. (Recall that it is partly for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac to Yahweh that Abraham is praised in Genesis 22:16!)

    Of course, we [emphasis Morriston’s] may speculate that the Israelite army was merely frightened by the spectacle of a human sacrifice—that they ran away because they were afraid that Yahweh (or Chemosh?) would give the battle to the Moabites. But that merely underscores the point that I am trying to make. If the Canaanites had been “driven out” partly because they practiced human sacrifice, and their land had been given to a people set apart for the service of a God who abhorred and forbade human sacrifice, it is odd that at this late date the Israelites themselves still did not know that such sacrifices could not possibly be efficacious. (p. 16)

    And there you have it. That’s his whole discussion. Not a single scholar cited. And you’ve clearly seriously misunderstood his argument. First, Morriston is not arguing that the text says that Yahweh’s wrath turned against Israel. Much less is he arguing that Yahweh’s wrath turned against Israel because Yahweh “approved” of Mesha’s sacrifice, as you articulated it in your book! Morriston clearly states that Mesha is offering his sacrifice to Kemosh (“It is, after all, the best thing you can offer your god.”) 

    What you seem to have missed is that the subsequent paragraph is not exegesis of the text but demythologization. He says that “we may speculate” (emphasizing we, over against the narrator in Kings) that something else than Kemosh’s aid in battle is behind the historical event. He speculates that perhaps Israel was afraid that Yahweh’s wrath (or Kemosh’s wrath) would now turn against them. But nowhere does he state that this fear of Yahweh’s wrath would have been due to Yahweh’s approval of Mesha’s sacrifice! On the contrary, what he is referring to is a common interpretation that Yahweh exploded because he abhorred Mesha’s sacrifice. Even still, this is not his interpretation of the text: it is his demythologization of the text in an attempt to get to the history behind it. So when you say above that Morriston’s “argument” was that Yahweh’s wrath was turned against Israel, you’re displaying you misunderstand him entirely. This is unfortunate. 

    Finally, you say that “Morriston’s point seems to be that this event diminishes the horror of infant sacrifice (to Yahweh) in Israel.” 

    No, that’s not his point. His point is that this text displays that child sacrifice was still believed to be efficacious during this period. He makes the point fairly clearly. I’m not sure how you missed it. 

    I’m not sure if your remark about my credentials is meant to be a complement or a veiled insult. Either way, it’s clear that I won’t be eating my shoe while doing a jig in the nude, especially in light of the “clarification” you’ve just brought to the table. What you’ve clarified is that you misrepresented Morriston’s argument (although, to your credit, you didn’t directly attribute it to him in your book). And what remains clear is that your treatment of the text was deficient, since you ignored the interpretation of 2 Kings 3:27 offered by the majority of critical Bible scholars (and at least one philosopher: Morriston), namely, that this texts indicates that at this time, Israelites believed (1) in the existence and power of Kemosh, and (2) in the efficacy of human sacrifice in general. Even if the composer of this limited narrative in Kings did not believe that Yahweh would accept human sacrifice, it is clear that he believed that Kemosh did accept human sacrifice. That’s the only point scholars like Niditch and Levenson make with this text.

    I hope your second edition corrects these errors (among others), and makes a stronger argument. 

    Best,

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