Over the past few days, I have been engaging Dr. Richard Hess in a dispute over the interpretation of 2 Kings 3:27. This is now my fourth post on this subject. The first three may be found (1) here, (2) here, and (3) here.
Hess has contended that the verse refers to the capture of the king of Edom’s son by the Moabites. The king’s son was subsequently executed publicly by King Mesha, resulting in the demoralization of the Edomite army, who then got angry with their ally Israel, and headed for home with their heads hung low.
Conversely, I have contended that the verse refers to the burnt-sacrifice of Mesha’s son to the Moabite deity Kemosh, which secured for the Moabites the aid of their deity, resulting in an onslaught of divine wrath upon the Israelite army and their subsequent departure from the battle.
I have already shown that the word used for the sacrifice (‘olah) does not refer to a murder or execution. Its usage is strictly limited to ritual sacrifice to a deity, unless killing is not involved, in which case it simply means “to go up,” and only very rarely in this way. If an execution were in view in the text, we should expect to see the appropriate terminology, such as nakah or muwth (cf. Josh 10:26; 11:17; 2 Chr 22:9), or perhaps harag (cf. Judg 7:25), or even shachat (1 Kgs 18:40). Essentially any of these verbs could be used to denote a public slaying or execution without ritual implications, but not ‘olah. And since Hess has conceded that he is not able to find any example in the West Semitic world of an enemy prince being offered by his enemy as a burnt-sacrifice to a deity, this alone should be determinative.
But in my first post on this subject, one of my criticisms of Hess’s position involved the following statement: “The text makes no mention of any such capture, and could have easily made this clear if that’s what it wished to say.” In this post I will explain what I meant by that.
In v.27, the verb used is laqach (“to take”). The question is, can laqach refer to a “capture” or a “seizure”? Its usage will be determinative. While this is certainly not its most common meaning, at first glance, it would appear that laqach is on occasion used to refer to a “capture,” but, significantly, laqach is never used to refer to the capture of a human being. It is used to refer to the capture of the ark of the covenant (1 Sam 5:1), to the seizure of raw meat by force (1 Sam 2:16), of silver (Judg 5:19), of bronze (2 Sam 8:8), of territory (Gen 48:22; Deut 3:14), of cities (Num 21:25; Deut 3:14; Josh 11:19; 1 Sam 7:14; 2 Sam 8:1), and to the capture of a hippopotamus (Job 40:24).
There is one usage which seems like an exception to this rule. In Gen 14:12, Lot is “taken” (laqach) by an enemy army, after a battle had run its course. But this exception is explained by the fact that the verb in this case carries two direct objects: Lot, and his “goods.” Moreover in the verse just prior, laqach is used to refer to the seizure of “all the goods of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Thus, in this case, the use of laqach is justified by its second direct object, Lot’s “goods.” This verse does not provide an adequate exception to the rule.
There is one other usage of laqach which may at first glance appear to resemble the “capture” of a king. This is found in 2 Kgs 23:34, when the Judean king Jehoahaz is “taken away” to Egypt by Pharaoh Neco. But the context makes clear that this does not at all refer to a “capture,” much less a capture in battle. Rather, v. 33 indicates that Jehoahaz was already bound and confined by the pharaoh. Neco then installed Eliakim as vassal king of Judea, and “took away” (laqach) Jehoahaz to Egypt, where he would remain until he died. This does not refer to a capture, but to a forced deportation.
There is one example in the Amarna Letters (EA 287:56) where a different form of this verb is used in reference to the “taking” in the countryside of a group of prisoners and porters being sent to pharaoh from Canaan. What precisely this means, however, whether they were captured or subdued, is uncertain. Moreover, this is not a battle scenario, and constitutes a single use from a much earlier period.
If 2 Kings 3:27 refers to the “capture” of the king of Edom’s son during a battle, it would be the only instance where laqach is used in such a way. If a capture is what the narrator had in mind, we should rather expect him to have used one of two Hebrew verbs denoting the “capture” or “seizure” of a human being. The most obvious choice would have been lakad, “to capture, sieze.” This verb is used numerous times to refer to the capture of a soldier, captain, or king in battle, and often this capture is followed directly by an execution. The following are these usages:
They captured the two captains of Midian—Oreb and Zeeb; they killed Oreb at the rock of Oreb, and Zeeb they killed at the wine press of Zeeb, as they pursued the Midianites. They brought the heads of Oreb and Zeeb to Gideon beyond the Jordan. (Judg 7:25)
Zebah and Zalmunna fled; and he pursued them and captured the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and threw all the army into a panic. (Judg 8:12)
When Gideon son of Joash returned from the battle by the ascent of Heres, he captured a young man, one of the people of Succoth, and questioned him; and he listed for him the officials and elders of Succoth, seventy-seven people. (Judg 7:13-14)
He [Joshua] captured all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death. (Josh 11:17)
He searched for Ahaziah, who was captured while hiding in Samaria and was brought to Jehu, and put to death. [2 Chr 22:9]
Therefore Yahweh brought against them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who took captive [lakad] Manasseh in manacles, bound him with fetters, and brought him to Babylon. (2 Chr 33:11)
These usages involve exactly the kind of scenario Hess wishes to read into 2 Kings 3:27, yet the verb used is different altogether. Another possible alternative would have been the verb tapas. Its relevant usages are as follows:
But the king of Ai was captured alive and brought to Joshua. (Josh 8:23)
He captured Agag the king of the Amalekites alive, and utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. (1 Sam 15:8)
Saul went on one side of the mountain, and David and his men on the other side of the mountain; and David was hurrying to get away from Saul, for Saul and his men were surrounding David and his men to capture them. (1 Sam 23:26)
Then Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” So they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there. (1 Kgs 18:40)
When they come out of the city, we will capture them alive and get into the city. (2 Kgs 7:12)
Then they captured the king and brought him to the king of Babylon at Riblah, and he passed sentence on him. (2 Kgs 25:6; also Jer 52:9)
Then Joash king of Israel captured Amaziah king of Judah. (2 Chr 25:23; 2 Kgs 14:13)
God has forsaken him; Pursue and seize him, for there is no one to deliver. (Ps 71:11)
And when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that Yahweh had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people seized him, saying, ‘You shall die!’ (Jer 26:8)
And you yourself shall not escape from his hand, but shall surely be captured and handed over to him; you shall see the king of Babylon eye to eye and speak with him face to face; and you shall go to Babylon. (Jer 34:3)
All your wives and your children shall be led out to the Chaldeans, and you yourself shall not escape from their hand, but shall be captured by the king of Babylon; and this city shall be burned with fire. (Jer 38:23)
Thus it is clear that Hess’s reading of the text is still more untenable. While it is difficult to be certain about semantic domain in many cases, the usage of laqach, the verb employed in 2 Kgs 3:27, does not comport with Hess’s contention that it refers to the capture of the prince of Edom in battle. If this were the intent of the narrator, either lakad or tapas would much more likely have been employed.
The verb actually used in our text, however, is perfectly appropriate to denote Mesha’s act of “taking” (laqach) his son to offer him as a burnt-sacrifice (‘olah). A nice example of this usage is found in an obscure little passage from Genesis 22:
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take [laqach] your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-sacrifice [‘olah] on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”