One More “Take”: Richard Hess and 2 Kings 3:27

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.”

5 thoughts on “One More “Take”: Richard Hess and 2 Kings 3:27

  1. In recent years, the general scholarly consensus has begun to favor the idea that the king of Moab actually sacrificed the son of the Edomite king. Leading scholars such William W. Hallo also believe that the text favors the view that it is the son of the Edomite that is being sacrificed. Contrary to what Thom Stark is saying, no, the scholarly consensus has changed (or, more accurately, is in the “process” of changing). This “new view” (which is now being propounded as the correct interpretation and reading of the Hebrew text) is most likely accurate, in my opinion. It is based on Amos 2:1, a passage that speaks volumes in favor of the alternative interpretation. Richard Hess is not alone in his views, neither is he operating under strict inerrantist control to simply support preconceived ideas, as Stark accuses. This is an emerging consensus held by scholars who espouse errantist views of Scripture.

    For a thorough assessment of the origins of the sacrificial cult see William W. Hallo, Origins: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1996), esp. pp. 212-222. For an alternative reading of 2 Kings 3:27 see Halo in Robert Chozan, William W. Halo and Lawrence H. Schiffman, eds., Ki Baruch Hu: Ancient Near Eastern, Biblical, and Judaic Studies in Honor of Baruch A. Levine (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999), p. 46ff.
    On the other hand, the latest scholar to mention, in passing, the view being espoused by Thom Stark is James L. Kugel, In the Valley of the Shadow: On the Foundations of Religious Belief (New York: Free Press, 2011), pp. 195-196. However, since he is not doing any exegesis here, his support of this view is weak at best.

    [I will not be responding to posts here, since Old Testament literature is not my field of study. This is merely food for thought thrown out to help support Hess in his argument, since Stark is using argumentum ad ignorantiam arguments to support his views. However, a closer look at the latest scholarly literature suggests a non liquet judgment as regards 2 Kings 3:27. To use such arguments—quoting Stark— as, “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 merely a red herring argument thrown out by Stark to viciously bad-mouth his opponent—however, such an argument contributes nothing to the ongoing debate.]

  2. Moses,

    It’s good to hear from you. I hope we get to talk again soon. I appreciate your comments and I’m going to respond to them.

    First, your claim that Hess’s view is the new “emerging consensus” is not at all accurate. You cite only one scholar here, a very good one, but only one. I’m not denying that other scholars also hold this view; but it most certainly is not a position that is dethroning the current consensus. The vast majority of scholars continue to believe that this text speaks of Mesha sacrificing his own son to his god. That’s the consensus. Where the consensus breaks down and flies off into dozens of different directions is how to interpret the “great wrath” that came upon Israel.

    I have already addressed the appeal to Amos 2:1 in an earlier post. It is at best an extremely tenuous candidate for a parallel. The word used in 2 Kings 3 is ‘olah, which is a cultic term. The word used in Amos is saraph, a non-cultic term. Moreover, 2 Kings 3 involves a killing, whereas Amos 2 only involves the burning of bones so that the bones could not be buried. There is no indication that the Moabites were responsible for the death of this king. Perhaps they were, or perhaps they dug up his bones to disgrace him or his kingdom, as some scholars have contended. Finally, Amos 2 speaks of the “king of Edom,” but 2 Kings 3 involves only a “king’s son.” A king’s son is not a king.

    I grant that some scholars, who perhaps are not religious conservatives, also espouse Hess’s position. But to argue that this means Hess is not committed to this position at least in part because of his theological commitments is a non sequitur. I don’t know of every other scholar, but Hess has, I believe displayed a pattern when it comes to these troubling texts, and I believe that has been well displayed in my past criticisms of him and in his attempts to handle the data here. His arguments are very poor, and if it’s not (at least in part) his theological commitments that are preventing him from either making better arguments or at least seeing the problems with the ones he’s currently making, then I don’t want to speculate about what else it might be. I’m not questioning his intelligence; I’m suggesting that something else, in this case, is creating a disconnect between the data and his obviously formidable intelligence. This is not an insult to him; this is a criticism of the deleterious effects of a particular doctrinal commitment. When I’m wrong now, I concede it. But when I was committed to inerrancy, I couldn’t bring myself to concede much if anything on certain issues, because my understanding of the text was integrally connected to my personal identity. I probably shouldn’t speculate as to what’s affecting Hess’s ability to reason clearly here, but I think I’ve offered a non-personal, and very plausible explanation. I could be wrong. We all make bad arguments from time to time; but the test is what we do when our arguments are exposed as such. I’ve conceded corrections, and will continue to do so (hopefully) until I’m dead. Hess recently came very close to conceding a correction, but instead (for whatever reason) responded with further obfuscation. I think something has to explain this, and I think the evidence is sufficient that it can’t be that Hess just doesn’t have the mental capacity. He clearly does. He’s a highly respected and very accomplished scholar, who is making some really bad arguments, and making worse ones when the poverty of his arguments are demonstrated, rather than changing his mind. The kindest and most plausible way I know how to explain that is by reference not to his intellect but to a faith commitment that is (likely unconsciously) affecting him.

    This is of course nothing particularly unique to Hess. I get irrational often and for various reasons. But when the irrationality doesn’t subside, something else is going on than just ordinary human error. And since I know Hess has more than the requisite mental capacity, I’m guessing it’s a faith commitment. I could be wrong, but that’s my guess.

    The rabbi who invented this reading certainly had an incentive to do so. I can’t speak for Hallo and others. Hallo is most certainly a top-notch scholar. But I’m not sure what sort of critical engagement Hallo got on this particular issue. I can’t imagine him maintaining this position if confronted seriously by its problems. But then again, I couldn’t imagine Hess doing so either, before now. Frankly I still can’t imagine it.

    James Kugel’s is the most recent because it was published this year. That means nothing. Hallo’s argument was published 12 years ago, and not many have followed him. I know of at least two volumes published last year that argue for the consensus position. The fact that Kugel isn’t doing much exegesis doesn’t make the position weak. Perhaps he didn’t do exegesis because it wasn’t within the purview of his central argument. Kugel is a monumental scholar who knows very well how to do exegesis.

    You claim that I am using “argumentum ad ignorantiam arguments” to support my views. No I am not.

    You further claim that my evaluation of Hess’s theological commitments is an argument against his position. No it is not. And neither is it a vicious personal attack. I have chosen the least offensive explanation for the quality of the arguments he’s offering here. When people offer stubbornly bad justifications for their point of view, even in the face of disconfirming evidence, there could be any number of explanations. It could be stupidity. (Not in Hess’s case.) It could be pride. (I’m positive Hess is a warm and humble person.) It could be money. (Again, not Hess.) It could be desire not to disappoint others. (I can’t speculate.) It could be coercion. (I’ve entertained that question.) It could be an ideological commitment that is integrated into the core of one’s identity, one that unconsciously limits us from making connections that threaten it. These last two possibilities are the only two I’ve offered here, and they are not attacks on him.

    The only arguments against Hess’s position I have made are the ones in which I critique his position by reference to the actual data. My statements about his theological commitments are not arguments against his position; they are my opinions on how to explain the fact that he is defending his position with the arguments he happens to be using.

    Since my first critique of Hess’s defense of his position on 2 Kings 3, he has not made one argument that brings any clarity to the data. As I’ve shown amply well, they have only become worse.

    I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. I don’t know everything and in certain areas, Hess knows a lot more than I do. But as I’ve said numerous times now, I’m not alone in this opinion of Hess, nor am I the only one to offer it as an explanation for his biased and tendentious presentation of the data in certain cases. Simply read the peer reviews. There is a chorus of them that says just what I’m saying here: Hess is a tremendous scholar, but sometimes his conservative bias prevents him from giving a reasonable or fair presentation of the data.

    I have no wish to malign him. I only wish he’d concede it whenever a position he holds has been shown to be wrong.

    But we can’t have everything, and I don’t lose any sleep over it. I suspect neither does he.

  3. Thom,
    James L. Kugel is an amazing scholar; I did not, in any way, mean to say that he isn’t good at exegesis – I simply pointed out the fact that, to my knowledge, the latest scholar to argue your point was Kugel. That was all I said. And he didn’t do much exegesis because his book was theological in nature and more devotional than his previous writings.

  4. Have you thought about the possible interpretation that the author was telling the story from another point of view (using literary analysis here)? For example, the people of Israel’s point of view, which was flawed at the time, in it’s belief concerning the power of other gods. And yes I do have presuppositions that Yahweh is the one true God.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *